Dining out during the holidays isn’t the sugar-plummy sleigh ride it used to be. Not only because of the pandemic, but because so many of the city’s beloved venues for year-end celebration are gone. The Plaza Oak Room, Bull & Bear and the ‘21’ Club are among the many we’ve lost.
But the surviving choices are precious. Most of our picks evoke Yuletide nostalgia: They’re older and all-on cozy with lots of holly and poinsettias, plus warm lighting to hold back the crush of the year’s earliest sunsets. Such venues can be touristy, but they’re also a lot more atmospheric than newly minted dining spaces, however elegant they might be.
Note: The restaurants here might be fully or partly closed for private parties this time of year, so check before you go.
No restaurant is more inviting on dark December days than Keens, which is celebrated more for its slightly musky mutton chop ($65) than for its beef. Traditional starters, such as oysters Rockefeller ($24), and sides like creamed spinach ($15) round things out.
The history-haunted rooms feel like it’s 1885, the year the restaurant opened. Wreaths and red poinsettias adorn dark wooden booths. White tablecloths soften the murmur of happy carnivores.
The second-floor Bull Moose Room — named for Teddy Roosevelt’s political party — unabashedly celebrates the 26th president and his controversial legacy. A portrait of Roosevelt and a giant moose head mounted on the wall preside serenely over the festivities. A pipe Roosevelt smoked is among thousands hung from the ceiling on the ground floor.
For added merriment, Keens is serving mulled wine until the end of the year, although it doesn’t appear on menus. House-made eggnog will be available next week.
Russian Tea Room
Every day looks like Christmas at the old haunt of Rudolf Nureyev, thanks to gleaming red leather booths and deep green walls that former owner Warner LeRoy installed in 1995. The czarist-era fantasy most truly comes into its own during the holidays with a pretty tree at the foot of the dining room and carols seeping from out-of-sight speakers. (There are large upstairs party rooms but the ground floor, which powerfully evokes the 1927 original, is the place to be.)
The various menus — brunch, lunch, afternoon and dinner — boast extensive caviar, vodka and Champagne offerings. Be warned: classic dishes such as beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev and pastry crust-wrapped salmon are quite hearty.
There’s a special, four-course menu on Christmas Day for $145 per person. On New Year’s Eve, a four-course menu for $750 per person includes live musical performances by Broadway stars and a bottle of Moët Champagne for two people.
The River Cafe
The holiday spirit infuses every square foot, indoors and out, of Buzzy O’Keeffe’s Michelin-starred jewel box on the Brooklyn waterfront. Gaily lit shrubbery outside and a gorgeous tree and wooden toy soldiers in the lobby set the tone. The dining room is a fairyland of flickering lights.
If you enjoy dressing up for the holidays, River Cafe is for you. Men must wear suit jackets and women follow their sartorial cue. Lower Manhattan glows more seductively than ever through the windows, thanks to tall new towers and the color-shifting Seaport Pier.
Longtime chef Brad Steelman’s three-course, $170 per person American menu is more than up to the setting. The thinly sliced yellowtail appetizer, pan-roasted rack of lamb and venison loin that I had there recently rivaled any similar dishes across the river.
On Christmas Day, there will be a special three-course goose dinner for $195.
L’Avenue at Saks Fifth Avenue
Nothing says “holidays” more than consuming foie gras and wine in a department store dining room where customers cheerily tote their just-bought goodies. The best choice by far for such an experience is the two-story L’Avenue at Saks.
The vaguely Deco, Philippe Starck-designed ninth-floor main dining room has a sexy, curved bar. A circular staircase leads down to the more rustic Le Chalet bar and lounge, which has an apres-ski mood.
Neither level has much holiday decor, but both offer the best Christmas sight in the world without having to fight crowds — the Rockefeller Center Tree viewed through the windows.
My favorite dishes are the pricey morel morel rigatoni ($34) and Tom Yam Chilean sea bass ($42), but there are plenty of cheaper options including a $28 bacon cheeseburger with super-crisp fries.
8 E. 50th St.; 212-940-4099, FifthAvenue.NYC/lavenue-at-saks. Closed on Christmas Day.
More merry and bright
Here are a few other classic spots for celebrating the holidays.
- The Leopard at des Artistes
The Italian standout is festooned with beautifully restored Howard Chandler Christy murals from the 1920s. 1 W. 67th St.; 212-787-8767, TheLeopardNYC.com
- Gage & Tollner
The Kings County landmark has reclaimed its long-lost glory with a sparkling American menu. 372 Fulton St., Downtown Brooklyn; 347-689-3677, GageAndTollner.com
- Minetta Tavern
Keith McNally’s fine steakhouse has rich leather booths and evokes Old New York. 113 MacDougal St.; 212-475-3850, MinettaTavernNY.com
- Rolf’s German Restaurant
Enjoy schnitzel and sauerbraten amid more Christmas decor than any place needs. 281 Third Ave.; 212-477-4750, RolfsNYC.com
Sports world reacts to John Madden’s death
Legendary NFL coach and broadcaster John Madden died Tuesday morning at 85, the NFL announced. News of the football icon’s passing hit Twitter on Tuesday evening, and athletes, coaches and broadcasters from across the sports world reacted.
Fellow broadcasting legend Dick Vitale, who is currently battling cancer, called Madden “the greatest analyst of all time of any sport” in his Twitter tribute.
Former Yankees pitcher and notable Raiders fan CC Sabathia said “your legacy will live forever.” Madden coached the then-Oakland Raiders from 1969-78, a couple of years before Sabathia, a Vallejo, California native, was born. Lakers star LeBron James had similar words about Madden’s lasting legacy, adding an infinity emoji.
Former tennis star and social justice activist Billie Jean King recalled meeting Madden as a “privilege.”
Radio voice of the Rangers Kenny Albert, a five-sport broadcaster who’s been with FOX Sports since its inception in 1994, shared a photo circa 26 years ago to remember Madden.
ESPN’s Bomani Jones took a bit of a shot at current color commentators, noting that Madden “set an unreachable standard.”
Frank Caliendo, who’s made a career out of impersonations, including one for Madden, said he was surprised how emotional he felt.
Several football players, and others, including Saints running back Mark Ingram II and former Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant, credited Madden with being part of the reason why they love football.
Rams wide receiver and NFL MVP contender Cooper Kupp quote the late coach in his tribute: “The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer.”
Miles McBride’s Knicks role will lessen with Kemba Walker’s resurgence
MINNEAPOLIS — The Knicks got back another body in rookie point guard Miles McBride, who was cleared from protocols Tuesday and rejoined the team in Minnesota.
But there is no longer any hype for the rookie’s return. Kemba Walker is back as the starting point guard and coming off winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors with four standout games, including his Christmas Day spectacular. The Knicks have gone 2-2 since Walker regained the starting job.
“It’s great,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He had a great week. He’s playing great basketball. The team winning helps him get recognized and he was a big part of driving that winning. It’s great for the team.’’
McBride was also spectacular in his last outing before getting COVID-19, when he played the entire second half Dec. 16 in Houston and seemingly earned a spot in the rotation. In fact, McBride had strung together two decent outings before he was ruled out. But things have changed since his emergence and McBride is likely back to being a bit player.
Without a practice, McBride wasn’t even expected to see time when the Knicks faced the Timberwolves to kick off a four-game road trip.
Of course, with Walker’s arthritic knee, anything is possible. The Knicks play Detroit on Wednesday in a back-to-back, so it’s uncertain whether Walker will complete both contests. In addition, Immanuel Quickley is out of COVID-19 protocols but Thibodeau wasn’t sure he was ready for meaningful minutes.
That left Walker against the depleted Timberwolves, who were missing their three top players (Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell), all because of COVID-19 .
When McBride got sidelined by the virus and Derrick Rose needed ankle surgery, Walker was resurrected by Thibodeau and it’s been a stunning comeback story.
Though Thibodeau has clear reservations about Walker based on his nine-game banishment due to his defensive malaise as an undersized point guard, he admitted after the Christmas Day triple-double against Atlanta that Walker is playing “much more aggressive.”
Walker’s triple-double that featured 10 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds was a lot different than his prior outing, when he scored 44 points against Washington.
“I thought his passing was terrific,’’ Thibodeau said before the Knicks resumed their schedule.
“Kemba had control of the game. The game tells you what to do. That’s what I loved about the way he played. I don’t think he forced anything. They puts size on him and were aggressive in their pick-and-roll coverage. He didn’t fight it. He attacked pressure the way you like to attack pressure. You don’t fight pressure with pressure. Don’t try to split it. Get rid of it, go to the backside. Let the game tell you what to do.’’
The Knicks coach is finally seeing all the elements of what Walker can do. Before his demotion, Walker was nothing more than a no-defense, 3-point shooter whose plus-minus was an abysmal minus-122.
Thibodeau was also concerned about his durability in sitting out two of the three back-to-back sets. The last load management game in Atlanta in late November triggered Thibodeau’s decision.
But now it’s only superlatives from Thibodeau in judging the last four games.
“Sometimes it’s going to be his shooting, sometimes it’s his penetration and getting in the paint to force a collapse and sometimes they’re being aggressive with their traps get rid of the ball quickly,’’ Thibodeau said. “The overall play, his rebounding. When your guards rebound, those are key to fast breaks. The more guard rebounding we get the better we can be. ‘’
The Knicks still have three players in protocols — centers Nerlens Noel and Jericho Sims and the newly infected Wayne Selden. Quickley and Kevin Knox were cleared on Christmas but were held out for conditioning.
No matter. The Knicks go as Kemba goes.
“He’s much more aggressive,’’ Thibodeau said. “That was the challenge. At the beginning of the year he and Evan were two new starters. Sometimes guys are trying to fit in. he’s being very aggressive which is the way we want him to play. Not deferring at all. When he and Julius [Randle] are aggressive like that our team is different.’’
Bar raises dramatically for Zach Wilson in matchup with Tom Brady, Buccaneers
When Zach Wilson stares across the MetLife Stadium field at the opposite sideline this Sunday, it won’t be Trevor Lawrence he’ll be looking at as his game-day counterpart.
Lawrence, drafted by Jacksonville one spot before the Jets selected Wilson at No. 2 overall last April, is a contemporary.
This Sunday at MetLife, the Jets rookie quarterback won’t be staring at a contemporary on the other sideline. He’ll be staring at the GOAT.
The bar raises dramatically for Wilson and the Jets, who are coming off of their feel-good, get-well win over the woeful Jaguars and Lawrence this past Sunday.
Brady and Buccaneers, who are 11-4, NFC South division champions and seeking to repeat as Super Bowl champions, play the Jets, who are 4-11 and seeking more signs of development from their rookie quarterback.
To say this is a step up in competition for Wilson and the Jets going from Lawrence and the Jags to Brady and the Bucs is as obvious as pointing out that Tampa Bay receiver Antonio Brown has had a few off-the-field incidents during his otherwise stellar NFL career.
There hasn’t been a lot to keep the interest of the Jets fan this season — other than watching Wilson’s development. That took an unfortunate pause for the four games Wilson missed with a knee injury, but he’s been back for five games and has looked like a better quarterback, throwing only two interceptions in those games (none in the last three) since returning from his injury.
The problem, though, is that Wilson hasn’t been producing enough touchdowns, throwing for three of them and rushing for four others in the past five games.
Baby steps, though.
Wilson was the better quarterback this past Sunday when matched up with Lawrence, who threw for more yards than Wilson did, but Wilson ran for 91 yards, including his electric 52-yard scoring jaunt, and made key throws when he needed them.
Wilson will not win Sunday’s game against Brady and the Bucs throwing for the 102 yards he had against the Jaguars. He and the Jets will need more.
Consider this: Brady enters the game having thrown 37 TD passes and for 4,580 yards this season and averages a league-high 305.2 passing yards per game.
Then this: The Buccaneers average 29.5 points per game this season, second most in the NFL.
And this: Wilson doesn’t have a single 300-yard passing game, averages 183 passing yards per game and has thrown seven TD passes in 11 games.
Seven TD passes is a pedestrian two-game total for Brady.
Wilson and the Jets are playing with house money anyway in what always has been a developmental season, so Sunday against Brady should, at its very least, be a great measuring-stick learning experience for Wilson, who’s studied Brady on tape.
Wilson revealed this month that he watched film of Brady before the Jets played the Eagles on Dec. 5 in an effort to pick up tips on how Brady worked against the Eagles defense when he played them earlier in the season.
“I thought it was really cool to see kind of how he went through his whole process, how he navigated the pocket, different things like that,” Wilson said at the time.
On Sunday, Wilson gets to see that process up close as Brady tries to dissect a Jets defense that has yielded 29.9 points per game this season, the most in the NFL.
That puts an added onus on Wilson to produce on the other side of the ball, because he knows Brady is going to get his. Wilson will likely need to produce four TDs — any way he can — for the Jets to simply remain competitive with the Super Bowl champs.
That’s a lot to ask of a 22-year-old kid who’s produced just 11 TDs in his 11 starts, up against Brady, who’s thrown 618 TD passes and for 83,784 yards in his remarkable career.
It, too, is a lot to ask playing against an aggressive Tampa Bay defense that’s ranked No. 9 in the NFL in points allowed (20.8 per game) and is led by former Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who’d surely like to send a holiday message to his former employer.
If you don’t think Bowles will be blitzing the bejesus out of Wilson, then you probably think Antonio Brown is a living saint.
The good news for the Jets is that Wilson has shown incremental improvements, particularly when it comes to his decision-making and quicker releases on his throws.
“He’s coming along, he’s getting more comfortable, he’s calmer back there,’’ Jets coach Robert Saleh said Monday. “He’s in a great headspace and it’s going to be fun to watch him grow, continue to grow.’’
A big part of that growth will take place this Sunday as he watches the GOAT operate from the opposite sideline at MetLife.
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