Sometimes a little bit of research pays off, and other times a spontaneous choice will yield great results when looking for a place to eat. I spent the weekend in New York City and had time for one good dinner, so I did a little research ahead of time to find somewhere relatively inexpensive but still nice. It can be hard to find those mid-range restaurants in NYC; it seems like the majority of places are either super-cheap (pizza, subs, etc.) or extremely expensive, but not too many are casual and reasonably priced. When it comes to the city, I'm less than a native but more than a tourist. I've gone there at least a couple times a year but usually more throughout my life, so I'm pretty familiar with the layout and try to avoid the extremely touristy areas. My boyfriend, who is a Manhattan native, wanted to bring me to some areas I hadn't really explored before, so we planned on walking around the Lower East Side and Little Italy, and then we planned on having Italian food for dinner. A quick bit of research online reminded us that Little Italy is really aimed at feeding tourists overpriced poor excuses for Italian meals, so I checked out the lively Chowhound forums for advice on good Italian near, but not within, Little Italy.
A restaurant named Bianca kept popping up in the discussions, and it was just a short walk from Little Italy. Perfect! I glanced at some reviews and found the menu on Menu Pages, and everything looked promising. Nestled on a quiet bit of Bleecker St. between Bowery and Elizabeth, Bianca serves simple, inexpensive Italian in a comfortable, nicer-than-casual setting. We arrived at around 5:30 on Saturday night and had no trouble getting in. In fact, the place was almost empty. I was shocked to find that everything on the menu was $15 or less. I settled on the traditional spaghettini al pomodoro with a mesclun salad; my friend Kim got a spinach salad with apples, walnuts, and pecorino cheese; and Ben got the special, a Mediterranean fish similar to sea bass that came with spinach and fried potatoes. We also got a bottle of champagne to celebrate my impending birthday. The food was simple but delicious, and the place has a lot of charm. It's definitely a hidden gem. The bill came to less than $80 for the three of us, including the $30 bottle of champagne. Not bad for NYC!
We left the city around 5pm on Sunday night for the drive back to Rochester and got hungry for dinner around 8:30 as we passed through a small town named Hancock, located on the Delaware River. A restaurant search on the GPS led us to what appeared to be the center of Hancock, home to a couple Chinese take-out places and a diner. Not in the mood for either, we took a couple random turns. Suddenly, I spotted a brightly painted house with a sign out front that said, "Bluestone Grill: Eat, Drink, Laugh." Well, that sounds fun, doesn't it? Best of all, it was open late on a Sunday night, eventhough the rest of the town seemed pretty dead at the time. We stepped inside, weary from the first part of the drive, and we were greeted cheerfully as we walked in. We wound through a series of rooms and were seated by a window in a pleasant, dimly lit dining room. You can get an idea of the ambiance by checking out the photo gallery on the restaurant's website. (Warning: Music autoplays when you open the gallery.) It really felt like an unexpected oasis in the middle of the small, quiet town.
The menu had everything from a "five buck chuck" (a simple hamburger with a choice of sides) to fancier entrees in the $15-$25 range. I opted for a house salad and the five buck chuck with shoestring fries, and Ben chose a pan-fried skate wing with a side of cornbread. The cornbread was described as "insanely good" on the menu, and it lived up to its description. The presentation was lively and appetizing, and everything tasted excellent. The service was very friendly. If you're ever passing through Hancock for whatever reason, definitely check this place out. It was really a lucky find, and it energized us for the rest of the drive home.
Spontaneity can definitely be rewarding while restaurant-hunting. Not only do you get a great meal, but you also get a little jolt of excitement that you took a chance on a random place and everything worked out. If you prefer to do research ahead of time, some helpful sites are Chowhound, Yelp, and RocWiki (for Rochester). We used both methods this weekend and ended up with two really great meals.