The neighborhood around Penn Station has never been considered a prime dining spot. The commuter hub and its traffic-choked corridors long held the label of culinarily deprived.
Sure there are exceptions. Tucked in the corner of the basement, Tracks Raw Bar & Grill has long satiated hungry commuters with fresh seafood towers, no-frills burgers and quality beers. Nearby Keen’s, the 132-year-old temple to beef, is still one of the city’s best steakhouses. And Koreatown, centered on 32nd Street, has always rewarded eaters willing to venture outside their comfort zone.
But the reputation has changed recently, a good omen for hungry LIRR riders. The station is now home to a Shake Shack, the underground food court is undergoing a makeover, and large-scale developments are luring top-notch dining options, some mere feet from the exit.
The Pennsy (2 Pennsylvania Plaza): Walk upstairs at The Pennsy and you’ll find a hip dining hall featuring five takeout restaurants from some of the city’s top chefs. The hall gets its name from the station’s old nickname, and the space has been repurposed with exposed ceilings and a large outdoor patio, complete with a La Colombe coffee truck. Stop at Pat LaFrieda for meat to go and hearty sandwiches that include tender, slow-roasted pork stuffed inside toasted ciabatta, topped with broccoli rabe and finished with bubbly provolone. Or go healthy with a poke bowl of raw salmon, avocado, slaw, watermelon radish and pickled ginger, all served atop brown sushi rice from Little Beet. Just don’t skip the full-service bar that features a rich tap-beer list and craft cocktails. Now the train home won’t seem so bad. More info: 917-475-1830, thepennsy.nyc
A steak sandwich is served at Pat La Frieda at The Pennsy.
L'Amico at the Eventi Hotel
L'Amico at the Eventi Hotel (849 Sixth Ave): Pizza-crafting theatrics are on display at this new-American restaurant with Italian influences. Situated in the swanky Eventi Hotel, the space features rustic wood tables, exposed lumber beams and a cool blue-tiled floor, but it’s the open kitchen that’s the center of the action. The pizza-making stage is a draw for passers-by: chefs in whites cooking wood-fired pies in glistening copper-clad pizza ovens. The well- charred pies include a tomato version with soppressata picante, mozzarella and Sicilian oregano, or a white one with charred kale, creamy Gorgonzola and caramelized onion drizzled with a fiery chili oil. House-made pastas include tortiglioni tossed with spicy sausage, bitter greens, crushed chilies and pine nuts. Just make sure to get a reservation. Wine and beer lists are as ambitious as the menu, and cocktails are heavy on amaro elixirs. More info: 212-201-4065, lamico.nyc
Mushroom pizza is served at L'Amico at the Eventi Hotel
Friedman’s & Brown’s Bagels
Friedman’s & Brown’s Bagels (132 W. 31st St.): This comfort-food spot is arguably the pioneer of the Penn Station-area transformation. Stop here for lunch and you’re likely to find there’s a wait for one of the closely packed tables. The menu is heavy on telling you where the ingredients come from for twists on classic fare like free-range fried chicken served over Cheddar cheese waffles, all with a side of honey-sweetened Tabasco sauce. A grilled salmon salad pairs tender grilled fish with a Mediterranean-style salad of romaine lettuce, gigante beans, olives, feta, red onion, cucumber and carrots, all tossed in a creamy dill dressing. Should you find yourself in the neighborhood at happy hour, you’re prize is a $19 burger-and-beer special. Recently, the owners added Brown’s to the arsenal, a Jewish-style deli where bagels, knishes and meats such as pastrami are made from scratch. A wall was torn down to connect the two restaurants. So, if there’s a wait, head next door. More info: 212-971-9400, friedmansrestaurant.com
A bagel with cream cheese and lox, garnished with onion and capers, is served at Friedman’s & Brown’s Bagels
The Breslin at the Ace Hotel
The Breslin at the Ace Hotel (16 W. 29th St.): Chef April Bloomfield and restaurateur Ken Friedman opened this two-floor gastro pub in the Ace Hotel seven years ago, turning the neighborhood into an instant draw. Make sure to reserve in advance. Why? This den to all things meat is often touted as one of the city’s most important restaurants, with dishes that are finding their way onto menus nationwide: Scotch egg, blood sausage and a well-charred lamb burger that rivals any beef version. The hefty patty comes on a toasted bun, dressed in crumbled feta cheese with a side of potato wedges cooked three times to ensure they are cracker crisp on the outside with a tender center. You’ll also need the chicken liver parfait that is essentially a meat butter, a seafood sausage that comes in a pool of velvety beurre blanc sauce, a Caesar salad layered with whole romaine leaves that is OK to eat with your hands, and a cask-conditioned beer made specially for the restaurant. Or grab a big group and make a reservation for a fried chicken feast, an entire prime rib dinner or the suckling pig. More info: 212-679-1939, thebreslin.com
Seafood sausage is served at The Breslin at The Ace Hotel.
The John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel
The John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel (1196 Broadway): What The Breslin is to meat, The John Dory is to sustainable seafood. The festive space pays reverence to the turn-of-the-century raw bar experience with a menu heavy on shareable dishes. You’ll find an open raw bar with a rotating cast of daily oysters and clams shucked to order — a select few are priced at $2 apiece during happy hour. Grab a stool at the bar or one of the high-topped tables and start with buttery Parker House rolls that are baked fresh. Be careful. They arrive piping hot. Whelks (sea snails) are a rare find on menus, and a meaty gift once you pull them from their tiny conch-like shells. Grilled squid here is stuffed with spicy chorizo sausage and finished with a smoked tomato vinaigrette, and the escarole salad comes complete with a gentle bath of anchovy dressing. The cocktail list leans toward gin, including an oyster shooter that is exactly what it sounds like, a shot glass filled with a raw oyster, gin (tequila is an option), celery and pickled pepper juice. Bottoms up. More info: 212-792-9000, thejohndory.com
Chorizo-stuffed squid is served at The John Dory Oyster Bar at the Ace Hotel.
Keen’s Steakhouse ( 72 W. 36th St.): While the neighborhood around it has been transformed a few times since 1885, Keen’s has stood its ground. The two-story, wood-paneled restaurant and bar has another-era feel, complete with roughly 90,000 smoking pipes that line the ceilings, remnants of a time when registered pipes were brought to members, including Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Babe Ruth. What’s not gone is the classic steakhouse experience: white tablecloths, a deep list of Scotches, and perfectly mixed Manhattans, old-fashioneds and martinis. The menu also knows its purpose, with gigantic dry-aged steaks, a no-frills steak tartare and the trademark mutton chop, a 2-inch cut of bone-in lamb best ordered medium-rare and paired with a simple sauteed escarole. To get into the restaurant, you’ll need a reservation, but if you’re just dropping in, the bar offers a more moderately priced menu, a less fussy atmosphere and the only place you can have a Keen’s burger. More info: 212-947-3636, keens.com
The trademark mutton chop is served at Keen’s Steakhouse.
NoMad at the NoMad Hotel
NoMad at the NoMad Hotel (1170 Broadway): From the chef who currently has claim to the best restaurant in the world and three Michelin stars at Eleven Madison Park a few blocks away, Nomad shows a somewhat more casual side to Daniel Humm in a buttoned-up hotel setting. The dining rooms — including the stately parlor room and a more casual tavern room with olive banquettes — surround the grand main atrium. The food changes based on what’s available. Start with the Broken Spanish, a floral concoction of meal-enhancing aperitifs including fino sherry, Cocchi Americana and the herbal liqueur becherovka. Fritters mean plump, head-on shrimp that are enveloped in scallop mousse, before all being wrapped in egg roll paper and fried. The decadent signature chicken for two is dressed with a mix of black truffles and foie gras that is placed just under the skin and roasted to a rich amber. It’s presented whole, tableside, adorned with a colorful bouquet of herbs. If you want less of a commitment, there are always food and cocktails at the mahogany bar, including a chicken burger that comes cradled inside a house-made brioche bun topped with foie gras, Gruyere, black truffle mayo and pickles. This is as easygoing as it gets in the city when Humm is involved. More info: 212-796-1500, thenomadhotel.com/dining
Scallop ceviche with pistachio, yuzu and jalapeño is served at NoMad at the NoMad Hotel.
Jongro (22 W. 32nd St.):Tucked away on bustling 32nd Street, Jongro has become the go-to spot for Korean barbecue in a neighborhood that is filled with such joints. It’s on the second floor of an office building, complete with a security guard. Find it among the Koreatown crunch, and you board an elevator that drops you straight into a go-go restaurant: faux white brick walls, wood tables under a gazebo and a butcher chop where slabs of meat are being sliced continuously to ensure they are moist. Come at a prime hour and you’ll likely have to wait. The menu is a fusion of executive chef Yurum Nam’s French training and South Korean upbringing. Once you’re seated, out come plates of kimchi and other fixings that you’ll need for your barbecue. If you’re here with a large group, set menus are best, heaping platters of marinated meat: rib eye, skirt steak and kalbi, thinly sliced short ribs that are cooked on the grill right in front of you until they are crisp on the outside and tender in the middle. Don’t be afraid to add a less familiar cut (pork jowl is fatty and tender) and order a kimchee pancake to hold you over until your meat is ready. Pair it all with large bottles OB Lager, the Budweiser of Korea, or really get into the spirit with Soju, a boozy distilled liquor, that comes in traditional grain flavors, less harsh fruity ones or ones blended with juice. More info: 212-473-2233, jongrobbqny.com
Grilled meat accompanied by ban chan is served at Jongro.