If your only idea of a restaurant is as somewhere you enter, eat some food, and leave full, you’re missing the point. Sure, those exist—slice shops, Vegas buffets, and the reliable dumpling spot around the corner—but a good restaurant is a meeting place, and a place to go to be part of something. The great ones double as performance spaces that at a certain hour on a Saturday night can even rival the action of a Broadway production.
These days diners want both drama and comfort. Many, whom only five years ago would’ve been eagerly vying for reservations at a chef’s counter or lining up to try the newest menu from the city’s hottest kitchen, are now clamoring for simple caesar salad or a great hamburger. They want to be somewhere where the food is good if not great, but less Noma and more Hillstone. Less concerned with the plate in front of them, they want to feel like they are a part of the action, even—or perhaps especially—if they are not.
What gives a restaurant a vibe, as the young kids say? Owner of downtown Manhattan hotspots like Casino, Casetta, and Primo’s Aisa Shelley describes it as a place that is chic yet comfortable. “It’s consistent, but a little surprising,” he tells me, “a buzzy place where patrons from all walks of life rub elbows.” Mood is a key component of vibe—fine-turned lighting, a familiar, yet eclectic playlist, and artfully designed booths play their part—but most important is the crowd. The hotter, the better-dressed, and the more famous they are, the more impressive the vibe is, so goes the rule.
This can be most acutely felt in New York at Shelley’s spots, but there are many recent successful additions to the vibe canon. In the West Village, Matt Abramcyk—the one-time owner of the infamous Beatrice Inn— flipped a beautiful, but cursed corner on West 11th street into a quintessential downtown celebratory spot with The Golden Swan. The food and cocktails are immaculate executions of elevated standards, like Dover sole and mezcal-based martinis, but it’s the space and the crowd that make it shine. A few blocks away in Greenwich Village, legendary maitre d’ Michael Cecchi transformed and preserved the ethos of famed literary haunt Cafe Loup. It’s now Cecchi’s, a spot that still favors vibes over food, but one that you can now order more than just fries. (Don’t worry they’re still good.) Kyle Hotchkiss Carone seems to have been born with an innate understanding of this, first with the defunct Cafe Clover, and now with American Bar, Saint Theo’s, and most recently Holiday Bar. Their menus are designed without anything “interesting” in mind, but pigs in a blanket, chopped salad, and luxurious lobster pasta are crowd pleasers for a reason. Hotchkiss Carone’s rooms hum with energy likely because their owner takes the time to personally build out the floor every night. He knows or learns who his diners are, and curates accordingly. You’ll also find the same energy at Jean’s, Corner Bar, and Cafe Chelsea, among others.
But this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to New York, it can be found in Los Angeles with places like Gigi’s, La Dolce Vita, and the forever tainted Horses. In London, it’s at Cafe Cecilia, Sessions Arts Club, and Luca. It’s even trickled to Toronto, where one of the hottest restaurants in town is Matty Matheson’s modern steakhouse Prime Seafood Palace.
The concept of a vibe restaurant has long been among us—see Mr. Chow, Dan Tana’s, Musso and Frank, Indochine, The Odeon, Raoul’s, and Brasserie Lipp—but the difference is really a matter of food. Today’s crop of restaurants are serving the best versions of grown-up comfort food, much of which we’re still craving post-pandemic. It might not be “chef driven” or “authentic” or even “farm to table,” but a deceptively simple sounding sorbet coming out of Corner Bar or the pickled green tomato hamburger at Cecchi’s are revelatory. It’s telling that places like Gem and Contra are being reconfigured into more casual concepts, while others like Ko are closing all together. Many diners seem to want something a little easier, predictable, and reliable.
As to why such a shift, my hypothesis is economics. The pandemic and ongoing crises around the world have left both the restaurateur and the diner risk averse. Running a more chef-driven concept or tasting-formatted restaurant means higher costs of materials and equipment. It often also requires special kitchens and different staff with even more razor thin than the average bistro. As a diner, this type of food can be hit or miss, and sitting down for a 10-course tasting menu for $295 is a lot more of an investment than that $28 pomodoro and $17 glass of pinot noir. Food in this way becomes a type of cultural comfort—and a pretty southern one at that—not an intellectual or exploratory exercise. Being a curious foodie is a little less mainstream than it was a decade ago.
What’s next? In five years from now will we be more or less adventurous? Be craving innovation in an aerated mousse of some sorts or the warm hug of a hot fudge sundae? Will we have more money or less? The tasting menu will never go extinct; it might primarily exist further uptown at Daniel and Le Bernardin, though. As an avowed fan of vegetables, I’m advocating for them. The vibe-forward restaurant doesn’t tend to excel at those aside from in french fry form. How about somewhere with the food of abcV, Dimes, or Superiority Burger but with the feel of Keen’s or Grand Central Oyster Bar? A girl can dream, but for now I’m happy to see places like Pietramala exist.
Kyle Beechey is a New York-based writer of many things. You can find her work in Bon Appétit, Departures, Condé Nast Traveler, and many others.