As a local, I ought to hate anything in New York that draws a crowd. In theory, this includes the tree at Rockefeller Center. Once the tree’s lights are switched on — this year, that first happens Wednesday night, just before 10 p.m. — the plaza becomes an unholy gridlocked mob of sightseers, shoppers and commuters. It stays that way until Christmas.
I don’t hate the tree, though. I love the tree.
The secret to surviving in crowded spaces is to know where you are going. This gives you a huge advantage over those around you, most of whom are helplessly drifting in the tide, like jellyfish.
Many restaurants have opened at Rockefeller Center over the past year or so. Some are more steady on their skates than others.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
So you don’t become one of them, it helps to know where you can get closest to the tree without being knocked over (in the small, sunken areas just above the rink on either side). I’d also recommend studying up on the fresh crop of places to eat that Rockefeller Center’s landlord brought in recently. The two most successful restaurants, the Italian cafe Lodi and the idiosyncratic French brasserie Le Rock, are both above ground, to the right and left of the rink. Directly below them are the impressive Korean restaurant Naro and the pasta-centric Italian restaurant Jupiter. All are worth considering for a full, sit-down meal.
In other ways, the new lineup hasn’t turned out to be quite as impressive as I had hoped a year ago. The bakery at Lodi, which made exquisite Italian pastries and breads, was recently dismantled to make room for more tables — a real loss. Down in the concourse, too many of the casual, inexpensive places are peddling Sad Desk Lunches. Few spots stay open for dinner, and there’s an annoying, easily fixed shortage of seating.
Nevertheless, you can still have a satisfying quick lunch or snack below Rockefeller Center.
Pizza from Detroit, capocollo from Italy, bagels from Montreal
If you wanted only one recommendation, I would tell you to eat at Ace’s Pizza. A standing-room-only pizzeria with retro wood paneling, Ace’s is a prime example of the slice shop revival, a movement that is re-examining and reworking everyday American street-corner pizza styles. Ace’s specialty is pizza à la mode de Detroit, a Sicilian variant with a protective layer of crisp cheese around the edges. Ace’s crusts are airy and tender inside, like an old-fashioned Pullman loaf. The same dough is used for the excellent garlic-cheese bread.
The Italian sandwich virtuoso Alidoro is another buried treasure — not just buried underground but hard to find. Look around the back of Naro, and persevere. Alidoro’s sandwich methods are simple but effective: fresh bread, imported cold cuts, local mozzarella, crisp arugula and lettuce, and a sense of restraint. The Alidoro, filled with prosciutto, peppers and mushroom spread, has a cult of its own.
There are always lines at Black Seed Bagels. The wait is longer if you want your bagels toasted. It’s worth it, I think. The toaster gives the exterior a darker, crunchier finish that is closer to that of the wood-fired Montreal bagels they are modeled on.
So this is happy hour
A few of the shops that stay open later are worth knowing about. The Tipsy Baker has worthwhile viennoiseries in the morning, including a fine cinnamon kouign-amann. At night, when it becomes a candlelit wine bar, it’s one of the few spots in the concourse where you can stay a while, or might want to. The concourse location of Blue Ribbon Sushi does a steady trade in ready-made sushi boxes and poke bowls. They’re all right, but during happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m., freshly wrapped hand rolls at the sushi counter are just $8. There’s a two-for-one special on cans of beer and sake, too.
At 21 Greenpoint, a branch of a Brooklyn hangout known for its cheeseburgers, happy hour brings half a dozen oysters with a glass of wine for $21. And if the holiday crowds have you down and you’re looking for immediate relief, $12 buys you a shot and a beer.
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