Where To Eat (And Tourist Traps To Avoid) In NYC's Theater District

Times Square at night
Times Square at night - Peeterv/Getty Images

Although New York City is chock full of amazing restaurants, certain areas are still bereft of them. Yet the theater district is a strange place for this phenomenon to occur. After all, it's home to the vast majority of theaters — hence the name — and people need to eat dinner before or after a show. So why the dearth of good restaurants (at least compared to other neighborhoods like the East Village or Williamsburg)? Perhaps because this area is also home to Times Square and only a hop and skip to the Empire State Building, two of New York's prime tourist destinations. The result is a plethora of tourist trap restaurants springing up to take advantage of the unsuspecting crowds visiting the Big Apple, or of those who want to see a show but don't have time to travel further afield for a meal.

Luckily, we have a solution for this food oversight. It turns out that the theater district is not a complete restaurant desert –- it is dotted with a few oases, places that are definitely worth a visit in their own right even if you're not in town for a show. In putting together this list, we also want to point out a few places you should steer clear of, as they fall firmly in the category of tourist trap.

Read more: Restaurant Foods That Always Taste Better Than What You Make At Home

Ootoya Times Square

Drink specials at Ootoya
Drink specials at Ootoya - Instagram

Although this is a chain restaurant, and chain restaurants should generally be avoided, especially in highly touristy areas, going to Ootoya is not like going to Olive Garden. While the latter is just about as Italian as Florida, Ootoya is a real-life Japanese chain where actual people eat. Not everything here is going to be amazing or even that good. A New Yorker review called the sushi and sashimi "lackluster," while Adam Platt of New York Magazine called the various iterations of the mackerel "bony, heavily salted."

But if you're looking for a quick meal before your show that won't set your wallet on fire and might actually taste good, this is the place to go. The menu boasts several top-notch grilled and fried dishes, including the grilled Japanese butterfish in Koji and the pork loin katsu. Not only that, but the service is fast and efficient, so you won't spend your meal worried about whether you're going to make the show.

The Modern

Dining room at the Modern
Dining room at the Modern - Instagram

The Modern is an ideal spot both for pre-theater dining and for all-evening affairs. If you're short on time and need something reasonably quick, you can find a great atmosphere and even better food at the bar at this restaurant inside the Museum of Modern Art. Start off with a martini or a Paper Plane, made with bourbon, blood orange, and rhubarb amari, and move on to the steak tartare or broccoli cappelletti. Just be sure to let your server know that you have a show to catch. They'll know what to do.

If you're choosing The Modern for a special occasion — because this is a two-starred Michelin restaurant after all — you're in for an even bigger treat. You can opt for the main tasting menu, which is changed regularly but may feature delights such as duck with quince and dark chocolate, or you can go all out and book a truly intimate food experience by dining at the kitchen table. This option offers an enhanced tasting menu with items selected by the chef and based on the freshest ingredients available. You can also watch the magic happen as the kitchen prepares your meal. Farm-to-table will seem so passe once you witness kitchen-to-table first hand. Plan to be there for the entire evening–-an event like this is much more than a dinner, and it's typical to spend a good three hours on it. But it'll fly by like pie.

Le Rock

Dessert at Le Rock
Dessert at Le Rock - Instagram

This brasserie has all the trappings of a good pre-theater dinner spot. Le Rock is less than a block from Radio City Music Hall and only a five-minute walk to Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Not that you have to go there just for that, but proximity helps. Another thing that helps is good food. No one wants a bad meal to spoil their night, at the theater or elsewhere.

So if you're worried about time, skip straight to the entrees, where you'll find a worthy bison au poivre or halibut au vin jaune — but it would be a shame to miss the appetizers, especially the boudin noir or the champignons mimolette. If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the French terms here, that's because this is a very French restaurant, brought to us by the award-winning team that opened Frenchette, one of the best French restaurants in NYC. But this isn't stuffy haute cuisine in the least. It's a fun and dynamic place that is more reminiscent of the Village dining scenes than of drab old Midtown, and we're lucky to have it.


Exterior of Lodi
Exterior of Lodi - Instagram

This Italian cafe is so good it's possibly too good for Midtown. It's located right by Rockefeller Center and, of course, a whole host of theaters, so it would still be doing just as swimmingly even without the good food to draw in crowds. Yet it persists in putting out delicious meals for lunch and dinner. Just be aware that if you're planning on eating here after a show, you may be out of luck, as the last seating is at 9:30 p.m. Opt for an earlier seating, which shouldn't be too hard, as the restaurant is open continuously from breakfast to dinner. The place is also designed for enjoying a quick, good meal, which is obvious when you arrive and see that there is mainly just bar and outdoor seating.

As for the menu itself, there is nothing that is not good. If you're lucky enough to pass by here in the morning, indulge in the limited selection of high-quality Italian pastries –- you may as well get one of each. And if you're here for lunch or dinner, try the vitello tonnato or risotto with radicchio. Together with the lively atmosphere and quick counter service at breakfast, it doesn't get much more Italian than this.


Dish at Naro
Dish at Naro - Instagram

Korean restaurants in New York are all the rage these days, as they should have been all along, but with the advent of Atomix and Atoboy in Koreatown, the scene has really exploded. Luckily, you don't have to go so far south of your theater to experience a top-notch Korean dining experience from the team behind those two award-winning restaurants. Naro is right there in Rockefeller Center, which after a long culinary dry spell seems to be suddenly exploding with flavor. And unlike Atomix and Atoboy, Naro also offers an a la carte menu in addition to a tasting menu, so that theatergoers can relax and enjoy their meal without rushing through it.

The menu here is a mixture of novelty items and Korean classics, all delivered expertly. The rice cream sundae introduces spicy gochujang to the realm of desserts, while the traditional bibimbap remains alive and well on this menu. Surprisingly for its location and loftiness, this place is also relatively affordable. Tasting menus are only $165 in a city where most such menus would reach far and beyond the $200 or even $300 mark (and might not even have something so good to show for it).


Dining room at Iris
Dining room at Iris - Instagram

Mediocre Italian and Mediterranean restaurants are everywhere in the theater district, but Iris, which combines Greek and Turkish influences, is not one of them. In fact, it's not even mundane. Although the strength of Greek foods tends to be in its simplicity, Iris manages to play around with that idea without creating anything too outlandish. The result is a classic tzatziki with fennel pollen, for example, where the typical recipe would have been happy to just include the usual cucumber.

This innovation is on display in the fish options as well, even where a typical Greek restaurant might be content to serve an excellent quality branzino with salt and good olive oil and call it a day. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but Iris takes it a step further by adding preserved Vesuvian tomatoes to its Dover sole, for one. While there is always a place in our hearts, and bellies, for simplicity, it's also fun to experience Mediterranean food with a twist, especially when it's done so well.

Gabriel Kreuther

Dessert at Gabriel Kreuther
Dessert at Gabriel Kreuther - Instagram

Chef Gabriel Kreuther opened his eponymous restaurant in 2015, after leaving The Modern the year before, without changing a whole lot aside from the address and the name. So if you can't get a seat at The Modern, try reserving at Gabriel Kreuther, or vice versa, because quite frankly, they're both high-end and popular, and playing it by ear with a walk-in might be a bit risky. And just like at The Modern, you can choose from a walk-in at the bar, a more lengthy tasting menu, or an all-out tasting menu at the kitchen table, depending on how much time you have.

Once you're settled in, expect a largely French menu with a focus on Alsatian dishes, ingredients, and wines. The sturgeon tart will come with sauerkraut, a staple in the French region of Alsace, where Kreuther was born, and which has been part of Germany at various times throughout history, while in a similar vein, the foie gras will come with a riesling gelee. Don't be surprised to find a slew of riesling wines on the drinks menu, too.

Los Tacos No. 1

Los Tacos No. 1
Los Tacos No. 1 - Instagram

One of the wonders of New York City is that you don't have to go to a super fancy place in order to get a good meal. You can find a stellar one even at the food truck on the corner or the taco restaurant down the street. Los Tacos No. 1 is that taco joint, and if you stop by before or after your show, you'll see why. Tortillas are hand-pressed and cooked on the spot, and the pork, or adobada, is as juicy as it is tender. In fact, this may be one of the only taco joints in town to offer up the delicacy the way nature intended, and even hardcore taco aficionados from the West Coast have been known to approve of it.

This is also the perfect spot for a satisfying meal before or after the theater, as it remains open from 11 a.m. all the way to 10 p.m. With the appearance and speed of a fast-food joint but without the subpar, heart-attack-inducing ingredients, for the most part, this place will provide a quick and enjoyable meal while giving you enough time to get on with your evening.

Le Bernardin

Dining room at Le Bernardin
Dining room at Le Bernardin - Instagram

If you haven't heard of Le Bernardin yet, it's time to move out of the basement and step into the light. Among New York City's very best restaurants, with Tasting Table placing it first in the ranking of 40 Michelin star restaurants in the US, this dining spot is a destination in and of itself. In fact, it begins and ends with a journey from raw fish to cooked fish.

Indeed, the first course you get from the menu will be raw, such as an assortment of oysters or a thinly sliced taragai with saffron. Then comes the "barely touched" course, where you can indulge in delicacies like thinly pounded yellowfin tuna with foie gras. Next is the lightly cooked course with specimens like steamed halibut with clams and sugar snap peas or the baked striped bass with stuffed zucchini flowers. Finally, after the apotheosis of the journey, it's time for dessert, which doesn't include fish but is no less impressive than the rest of the dinner. The Peruvian dark chocolate tart is ideal for chocolate lovers, while the fig vacherin showcases some of the best sides of French pastry prowess.

Joe Allen

A table at Joe Allen's
A table at Joe Allen's - Instagram

Joe Allen, owner of Joe Allen restaurant in the theater district and a few others, may not be in the business for the food, but his staff sure is, as meals are consistently good and served in lively, comfortable surroundings. Although this is not necessarily the best meal you can get in Manhattan, there is something to be said for reliability, and Joe Allen is nothing if not reliable. You will find that each dish, though not ambitious, is prepared well on every visit, with the burgers being consistently juicy and paired with a perfectly sized bun, for example.

Coming here means you can even skip the Broadway show entirely if you so choose. The guest list is often star-studded, with many actors popping in and out in between performances, and people like Al Pacino and Elizabeth Taylor having counted as regulars over the years. With a cast like that, who needs The Lion King?

Aldo Sohm Wine Bar

Exterior of Aldo Sohm wine bar
Exterior of Aldo Sohm wine bar - Instagram

One of the strengths of Le Bernardin is its wine program. In fact, the selection is one of the reasons the restaurant has so frequently been named one of the best restaurants in New York and in the world by the likes of the New York Times, the 50 Best Restaurants, and La Liste, among others. And it just so happens that the wine list has been carefully curated by celebrated sommelier Aldo Sohm, who now has a wine bar on 51st Street, just around the corner from the mothership, allowing us to enjoy even more of his work.

As an added perk, this is also an ideal place to go if you have a show to get to. While Le Bernardin should be on anyone's list of restaurants to visit, it's not exactly the sort of place to go if you have somewhere else to be. The tasting menu is exquisite and should be enjoyed fully and slowly over the course of several hours. At Aldo Sohm Wine bar, by contrast, you can easily order a few bites of this and that, perhaps some black truffle arancini or a crispy duck leg, to accompany your stellar reserve chardonnay or Bordeaux blend.

All'Antico Vinaio

Sandwiches at All'Antico Vinaio
Sandwiches at All'Antico Vinaio - Facebook

This Italian chain with several spots in New York, Los Angeles, and all over Italy, makes some of the best sandwiches you'll ever have. La Paradiso, made with mortadella, stracciatella, pistachio cream, and chopped pistachios, might be the best use of the nut the world has ever seen. But if you're not into pistachios, there are many other options to choose from as you grab something quick and good to eat before your show or just because you happen to be in the area. The Dolcezze D'autunno is ideal for something hearty, with its gorgonzola, lard, and truffle honey, while something lighter but still satisfying is La Summer, with prosciutto, mozzarella, tomato, and basil.

Whichever option you go for, you'll be treated to a large, satisfying meal, so make sure you bring an empty stomach to this one. You also may need both hands to consume it, just so you know what we're dealing with. Even so, you won't want the experience to end. These sandwiches are truly so good that you'll find yourself eating far beyond what your breeches will allow.


Margon restaurant exterior
Margon restaurant exterior - Facebook

When you're dealing with a good restaurant that is located smack in the middle of one of the most heavily trafficked spots in the world — Times Square, in this case — it helps that the entrance is practically impossible to find. This probably explains why a lunch at Margon, which serves Latin American cuisine such as Cuban foods like Palomilla steak, is blissfully bereft of tourists and patronized instead by local actors, office workers, and human Statues of Liberty working the crowds in Times Square. And the prices reflect the clientele. A hearty pork chop with two side orders of your choice is only $14, while the dessert flan is a mere $3, proving that it is still possible to dine well in New York City for under $20.

So whether you work in the area or need a cheap meal before the theater because you spent all your money on Hamilton matinee tickets, this is the place to go. Just don't plan your evening shows around this spot –- it's only open from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Monday to Saturday, so dinner is off the table.

Avoid Chain Restaurants

Olive Garden sign
Olive Garden sign - Bloomberg/Getty Images

Chain restaurants may be an American inevitability, but that doesn't mean you have to put yourself through that just to live another day. While it's true that humans must eat to survive, we haven't yet reached the post-apocalyptic days where the only things left in this world are cockroaches and Olive Gardens. All jokes aside, as we've seen, there are so many amazing restaurants in New York's theater district that it would be a crying shame to stop at the same Olive Garden because they are all fundamentally the same, which is the point of a chain you go to every Friday night back home.

And besides, when in New York, these chain restaurants have to deal with heightened rents, which means heightened prices for the same quality food, which is the quintessential proof that a restaurant is a tourist trap. For example, the chicken Parmigiana at a Lincoln, Nebraska Olive Garden location costs $19.49; in Times Square, the same exact dish costs $25.79. While $6 may seem like a small thing, it can add up if you're ordering more than one dish. The only redeeming quality these chain restaurants may have is that many of them are open late, so if you're still hungry after your show, you'll find them open for snacks or dessert until midnight or thereabouts.

Avoid Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips

Gordon Ramsay in Times Square
Gordon Ramsay in Times Square - Instagram

As much as we love Gordon Ramsay and can't get enough of extolling his culinary virtue — including Ramsay's best cooking tips for home chefs and his seasoning tips for tastier pasta — he's not perfect. Even someone as talented as he can't succeed at everything, and an example of this is Gordon Ramsay's Fish & Chips restaurant in Times Square. The fish and chips, for one, don't have much flavor to speak of, which is a bad sign when the restaurant is the dish's namesake. That is not to say that this is a particularly bad eatery. According to our critic friends at Mashed, it serves up some respectable fish or chicken sandwiches served on naan bread with cabbage slaw and Old Bay dressing.

But really, Gordon Ramsay can and has done better than this, as have many other restaurants nearby that are much more worthy of a visit than this one. We're not in the business of wasting time dining at subpar restaurants, so we think it's fine to steer clear of this one given the glut of better options just a few steps away.

Avoid Nusr-Et Steakhouse

Steaks at Nusr-Et Steakhouse
Steaks at Nusr-Et Steakhouse - Facebook

Another not-so-bad restaurant that really could do better is Nusr-Et Steakhouse, opened by the Instagram sensation Salt Bae, a Turkish steakhouse maven. Although dining here can be fun if Salt Bae himself is around to give you a proper show when it's time to pour salt on your steak, this is not often the case, as he has many restaurants to attend to. Moreover, the last thing you want to do is drop a small fortune on a mediocre meal. In general, Salt Bae's restaurants can be very expensive, and here a round of drinks for two might easily set you back almost $100, and that's before you even get to the food, which is sometimes good, like the meat patty with cheese, sometimes bad, like the salads, and sometimes just okay, like most of the other dishes.

Of course, if you're here to catch a glimpse of Salt Bae or take a selfie for your Instagram –- the stuff tourist traps are made of –- then you won't be disappointed. If you're here for the food, though, you will be.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.