Not so long ago, the dining scene in Queens was ignored by all but local residents and the most adventurous eaters, who ventured forth from other boroughs to explore little-known ethnic eateries in far-flung neighborhoods.
But a few years back, low-key but critically acclaimed eateries, like M. Wells Diner, Queens Comfort, LINN, El Ay Si and the restaurants, cafés and bakeries featured below, began popping up in western Queens neighborhoods like Sunnyside, Long Island City and Astoria.
“What was happening in Brooklyn is happening in Astoria now,” says Youssef Echaybi, owner of L’Artiste, a modern French restaurant that opened in Astoria last year. “We thought it’s a good time to be a part of a new generation of restaurants that are opening up here.”
City Spoonful spoke with a few of the many food artisans and entrepreneurs behind western Queens’ culinary renaissance to get the lowdown on the area’s buzz-worthy new dining scene.
Astor Bake Shop, Astoria
Veteran pastry chef George McKirdy opened Astor Bake Shop in July 2010 on a quiet stretch of Astoria Blvd. after a friend, the owner of nearby bar Hell Gate Social, introduced him to the neighborhood.
“I loved the feel of the neighborhood,” McKirdy said in an email. “It reminded me of Carroll Gardens [Brooklyn] when I lived there 22 years ago, when it was going through a change to make it the great area it is today.”
Astor Bake Shop specializes in cakes, pies, cookies and other baked goods made from scratch, and it also serves a small weekend brunch menu.
“My approach to cooking is simple. Keep it fresh, seasonal and as local as possible,” McKirdy said. “Start with good raw ingredients and treat them with respect.”
Astor Bake Shop, 12-23 Astoria Blvd., Astoria, Queens, 718-606-8439, astor-bakeshop.com
Youssef Echaybi opened L’Artiste in August 2010, just off Steinway St. in the heart of Astoria. The restaurant serves French classics with a modern, Italian touch.
Echaybi, who lives in Astoria and has worked in restaurants throughout New York for the last dozen years, chose the neighborhood for its comparatively low rents.
“I wanted Astoria to finally have a decent dining experience,” Echaybi says. “If you go around Astoria, you will see café, café, café. Very few restaurants take it upon themselves to create a dish or to go the extra mile to give you the presentation that you would like.”
L’Artiste, 42-20 31st Ave., Astoria, Queens, 646-309-7504, lartisterestaurant.com
Little Oven, Long Island City
Just around the corner from acclaimed Quebecois-American diner M. Wells is another Long Island City foodie hot spot: Little Oven’s new brick-and-mortar shop, which opened earlier this spring.
Little Oven, a boutique patisserie specializing in macaroons and cakes, started as a mail-order business in 2009 and still ships macaroons nationwide. When owner and baker Anna-Marie Farrier, who lives in Long Island City, decided to open a retail shop, she picked Long Island City because she thought her neighborhood needed artisanal pastries and cakes.
Little Oven, 12-07 Jackson Ave., Long Island City, Queens, 718-440-9438, littleoven.com
Ornella Trattoria Italiana, Astoria
Giuseppe Viterale and his wife, Ornella, opened Ornella Trattoria near Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria in late 2009—almost by accident.
“I thought I wanted to do a churrascaria [a Brazilian steak house],” Giuseppe Viterale explains. “But it didn’t work out, so I kept the lease here and did my food my way instead.”
It turns out the Viterales’ traditional Italian cooking, which focuses on dishes from the mountainous Cilento region that are rarely found in New York’s Italian-American restaurants, is just what diners were looking for.
“In the evenings on the weekend, I have to refuse customers,” Giuseppe Viterale says. “If you deliver good service and good food, people don’t mind walking a few blocks…but you have to focus on food and do something in order to earn the trip.”
Ornella Trattoria Italiana, 29-17 23rd Ave., Astoria, Queens, 718-777-9477, ornellatrattoria.com
Pachanga Patterson, Astoria
After the success of their first restaurant, Vesta (also featured in this story), chef Michelle Vido and co-owners Giuseppe Falco and Leo Sacco are trying their hand at another Astoria eatery with a focus on seasonal, local ingredients.
But Pachanga Patterson, which opened in early March, takes its inspiration from a very different source: the Mexican-influenced “staff meals” served to restaurant workers after hours in the city’s commercial kitchens.
Vido, Falco and Sacco—all Queens natives and current residents—chose Astoria for their new restaurant venture because of its strong neighborhood feel.
“We wanted to open in a place that feels like a real neighborhood—a place where we’d see the same faces several times a week,” Falco said in an email.
Pachanga Patterson, 33-17 31st Ave., Astoria, Queens, 718-554-0525, pachangapatterson.com
Quaint, a low-key eatery specializing in seasonal American comfort food, opened in Sunnyside five years ago—long before most restaurant critics cared to venture across the East River for reviews.
Quaint’s owner, a Sunnyside resident—who asked that his name not be used in this story, admits that business has been spotty at times—especially when the economy takes a plunge. But while his Sunnyside neighbor, Bliss Bistro, was forced to close in mid-April reportedly due to financial troubles, Quaint has endured.
“The key to our success is the large base of regulars who support our business,” Quaint’s owner said in an email. “We keep a low profile, and people are excited when they discover us.”
Quaint, 46-10 Skillman Ave., Sunnyside, Queens, 917-779-9220, quaintnyc.com
The Queens Kickshaw, Astoria
The Queens Kickshaw, which opened quietly in late March at the buzzing nexus of Broadway and Steinway Street in Astoria, serves specialty coffee and a small menu of grilled cheese sandwiches that pay homage to Queens’ cultural diversity. (Craft beers are coming later this summer.)
“[Grilled cheese is] a simple, democratic food that many Americans are familiar with, and it lends itself to experimentation,” co-owner Jennifer Lim said in an email. “We wanted to take this basic dish and give it a grown-up, culturally diverse twist.”
Lim and her husband and co-owner Ben Sandler live in Astoria and wanted to open a fun neighborhood restaurant with a focus on high-quality, locally sourced ingredients.
The Queens Kickshaw, 40-17 Broadway, Astoria, Queens, 718-777-0913, thequeenskickshaw.com
Salt & Fat, Sunnyside
When Sunnyside native Daniel Yi opened Salt & Fat in his lifelong neighborhood in late March, he didn’t expect his new restaurant to get much attention.
“My vision for Salt & Fat was for it to be a casual restaurant for the neighborhood,” Yi said in an email. “I wanted to open up a neighborhood restaurant where I grew up.”
But his New American menu with its innovative, globally influenced selection of small plates reveals Yi’s fine culinary pedigree (he trained in the kitchens at Sapa, now closed, and Monkey Bar).
Salt & Fat is already drawing citywide attention, but Yi isn’t buying into the early hype.
“Sticking around for the long run and being a great addition for years to come is our biggest priority—oh, and providing delicious meals to the residents of Sunnyside.”
Salt & Fat, 41-16 Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, Queens, 718-433-3702, saltandfatny.com
Sweet Afton, Astoria
Though it’s more a pub than a restaurant, Sweet Afton, which opened in Astoria in August 2009, stands out for serving local brews and some of the city’s best bar food. (It was New York magazine’s pick for “best gastropub of NYC” last year.)
Co-owners Ruairi Curtin and Michael Krawiec, both longtime Astoria residents, opened Sweet Afton because they thought their neighborhood needed a bar where young locals could gather.
“I never felt like I had a nice, regular bar to frequent to meet like-minded people and have a good cold beer and solid bar food,” Curtin said in an email. “We just felt like Astoria needed a great local bar.”
Sweet Afton, 30-09 34th St., Astoria, Queens, 718-777-2570, sweetaftonbar.com
Sweetleaf, Long Island City
When Sweetleaf put Stumptown Coffee on the menu soon after opening in early 2008, the Portland-based coffee company only had one other account in New York City, and co-owner Rich Nieto was working another job to make ends meet.
Now Stumptown is widely revered by the city’s coffee connoisseurs, and Sweetleaf, a tiny coffee bar in Long Island City that has earned a reputation for serving some of New York’s best specialty coffee, attracts customers—and critics—from throughout the city.
“When we opened we wanted to be the absolute best option for coffee and espresso in Queens,” says Nieto, a Flushing native who now lives in Long Island City. “There wasn’t much competition, so now we need to be a unique coffee experience throughout New York City.”
Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar, Astoria
Located on a quiet, far-flung corner of 30th Avenue in Astoria, Vesta looks ordinary from the outside. But when it opened in 2008, it was one of the first restaurants in Astoria to offer a seasonally changing menu featuring organic produce and locally sourced ingredients.
Vesta’s executive chef Michelle Vido, who formerly served as sous chef at Sapa (closed) and chef de cuisine at Monkey Bar, and co-owners Giuseppe Falco and Leo Sacco are all Queens natives who still call the borough home.
The trio’s second Astoria restaurant, Pachanga Patterson (also featured in this story), opened in early March.
Vesta, 21-02 30th Ave., Astoria, Queens, 718-545-5550, vestavino.com