Lunch at Barbetta on Restaurant Row

Barbetta on Restaurant Row

Barbetta on Restaurant Row is a classic Italian restaurant steeped in history.

Imagine relaxing in a quiet courtyard surrounded by fragrant trees without any street noise. Not too unusual a setting unless it also happens to be mid-day in the bustling Broadway theater district in Manhattan.

One Wednesday, matinee day in New York, we found ourselves sitting on heavy white wrought iron garden furniture enjoying a leisurely lunch beside a fountain circled with stone cherubs.

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for al fresco dining and we were filled with anticipation, looking forward to seeing a musical after our meal.

“Would you like to sit in the sun or shade?” asked the maitre d’ as we arrived. We opted for one of the tables covered with large white umbrellas.

The lovely courtyard
The lovely courtyard
Another view of the courtyard
Another view of the courtyard

Every time we go to Manhattan we discover something new—amazed to find places we later learn have been there forever. We hadn’t known much about Barbetta except that it was offering a NYC Restaurant week three-course fixed-price lunch; the food was Italian; and its was located only a few blocks away from the Stephen Sondheim theater.

A restaurant steeped in history

Founded in 1906 by Sebastiano Maioglio, Barbetta sits on Restaurant Row (46th St) along with a host of other restaurants but this one is truly one-of-a-kind.

More than 100 years old, it holds the distinction of being the oldest restaurant in the theater district, the oldest Italian restaurant in New York, and the oldest restaurant in the city owned by the same family that founded it.

Maioglio opened the restaurant and it is still owned by his daughter, Laura (who happens to be married to a man who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1999.)

It is housed in four fading but historic brownstones dating from 1874 and 1881 that once belonged to the Astor family. Glancing at the entryway from the street, you would never guess that an elegant dining room, garden and private function rooms were behind the doors.

The restaurant website notes:

“Barbetta was the first Italian restaurant to turn away from the rustic, red-and-white checkered tablecloth, Chianti fiasco stereotype and to embrace grand elegance in decor, menu, wine list and price structure.

Truly a revolutionary concept in 1962.”

Among a long list of other firsts, it claims to be the first restaurant with a garden outside of Central Park (1963), the first to serve risotto (1906) and polenta (also 1906), the first to have an espresso machine in a restaurant (1911), the first to serve white truffles (1962), and the first to serve decaffeinated espresso (1962).

Entertainment buffs will find it interesting that many movies were filmed here, including The FBI Story and Woody Allen’s Alice, as well as TV series like Mad Men (Season 4) and Sex & the City.

Lunch at Barbetta

What once was avant-garde no doubt now seems to be classic Northern Italian fare—although imbued with the DNA of Piedmont, in terms of both the food and family history. 

The foodie website Eater quotes Ruth Reichl from the New Yorker in 1994:

“The menu in this restaurant, open since 1906, is so old it seems new.”

After we ordered a glass of Villa Jolanda Prosecco, the simple menu offered three choices for each of three courses. For our first, we ordered a bowl of minestrone semifreddo (served at room temperature) and paccheri, handmade flat-tubed noodles in a fresh tomato and basil sauce.

Minestrone at Barbetta
Minestrone at Barbetta
Paccheri at Barbetta
Paccheri at Barbetta

For our main course, we ordered vegetarian crespelle “alla savoiarda” (cannelloni-like crepes filled with vegetables, smothered in a Béchamel sauce) and broiled Atlantic salmon with an herbed sauce with sliced cucumbers.

Vegetable crespelle at Barbetta
Vegetable crespelle at Barbetta
Broiled salmon at Barbetta
Broiled salmon at Barbetta

For dessert, we shared a mousse of orange bittersweet chocolate and a sliced pear baked in red wine and cinnamon “alla Piemontese.”

Chocolate mousse at Barbetta
Chocolate mousse at Barbetta
Poached Pear at Barbetta
Poached Pear at Barbetta

The food was authentic, fresh, simple and well prepared. Our waiter asked if we had theater tickets when we sat down and after that, he never missed a beat. But we never felt rushed.

On a street like this one, any rough spots in service can kill a business but Barbetta was flawless. It is hard to believe that his place has been around since even before the heyday of Broadway theater (which apparently began booming in the 20s and 30s.)

Although history, setting and ambience trumped the cooking, we weren’t disappointed. It was truly a unique New York experience, up there with visiting the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.

Of course, we would have been equally happy dining in the restaurant’s elegant high-ceilinged, chandeliered dining room where Don Draper was filmed awkwardly running into his ex-wife Betty. The romantic setting is filled with exquisite period furniture, sconces, antiques, rich drapery, greenery and fresh flowers.

The dining room
The dining room
The bar
The bar

Given this brief introduction we hope to return for a drink at the ornate bar followed by dinner so we can sample the full menu with many more choices.


IF YOU GO:

Barbetta

321 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036, 1-212-246-9171

  • Lunch, Saturday and Wednesday, Noon to 2:00pm
  • Pre-Theatre and Dinner: 4:30pm to 11:00pm; Closed Sunday and Monday
  • Reservations Recommended

READ MORE

  • Fascinating article in the NY Times explores the history of Barbetta:

The elegant relic of restaurant row

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33 Comments

    1. The three-course fixed price lunch was $25 per person; I believe that the fixed price pre-theater dinner menu is about $38. You could probably take a look at the menu online.

  1. Wow, what a great deal! Culinary history, location and amazing food — all for $25. It sounds as though Barbetta is the place to go in New York’s theatre district any time of year. I’ve added it to my must-try list – thanks!

  2. I grew up eating and the long-gone Nick ad Guido on what’s now called Restaurant Row. Then it was just 46th street. Barbetta looks wonderful. Would love to see the Carole King musical. I spent an entire year listening to Tapestry.

  3. What a gorgeous and elegant place to dine away from the crowds. My husband and I are thinking of visiting NYC after Thanks giving. I will definitely have to add Barbetta to my list of places to go as the food looks amazing too!

  4. I love the back story of the same family owning the business for so many generations – those are hard to come by anymore and it’s such a testament to the family and the business.

  5. We travel to NYC often and I am thrilled to have such a great recommendation. We tend to gravitate toward the new and trendy, but I love places like this! I hear Beautiful is FABULOUS! I need to go!

  6. I can’t believe I haven’t been there yet, especially all the times I have searched for good eateries near the theater district. Next time, for sure!

  7. This place sounds fantastic and thanks for sharing with us, Irene! I will take a bowl of the Minestrone soup followed by the broiled Salmon! 🙂

  8. Well, as the oldest Italian restaurant in New York, you’d certainly expect great Italian food! We’re pasta lovers, so those cannelloni-like crepes look enticing. As does the chocolate mousse…

  9. I think I should plan my next NYC trip around restaurant week and Barbetta will be on my list. The food looks great and nice to find a charming patio in the busy Theatre district. Love Carole King too!

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