When you get the feeling that there is nowhere to eat in Midtown, The National comes through with simple, but solid American cooking.
Almost without fail, only 3 types of restaurants exist in Midtown. There is the 3-star restaurant where a jacket and corporate card are required; there is the themed, Times Square-adjacent, chain restaurant familiar only to Middle America; and, of course, there is the galaxy of fast-casual eateries that might as well close their doors on the weekends when every corporate employee tries to avoid the entire area for a few precious hours of freedom.
That being said, a few restaurants have started to squeeze their way into an otherwise sterile dining scene, offering a cozier cafe and brasserie style that stands out amongst the typical Midtown joints.
In the center of it all, just 3 short blocks from Rock Center and around the corner from the Waldorf, lies The National, Geoffrey Zakarian’s all-day American bistro in the ground floor of The Benjamin Hotel on East 51st Street.
Though it still bustles with weekday power lunches, The National cools off and relaxes during dinners and weekend brunches, allowing diners to appreciate the comfortable, leather banquettes and old-timey, D.C.-like atmosphere.
Staples like mussels, oysters, and the Steak Tartare with hand-cut sirloin, pickled mushrooms, cherry pepper, mustard, Indian sweet soy sauce, and a quail egg are always on the menu for every meal, but anything involving pork at The National is particularly worthwhile. The Pork Chop at dinner was recently served with red cabbage, black pepper spätzle, and baked apple for an exceptionally juicy and sweet bite, while the Pork Belly Benedict at brunch is a heartier, richer favorite, with its creamy béarnaise sauce and pickled fresno peppers.
The Egg White Frittata with quinoa, sharp cheddar, kale, and ricotta is also remarkably flavorful and well seasoned for what could have been a basic dish, with the creaminess of the cheeses balancing the lightness of the eggs, preventing any distasteful dryness. Prices here are reasonable, too, with most items on the lunch menu coming in below $20, and entrees on the dinner menu hovering at $30 or under, a rare moment where prices aren’t abused in Midtown.
For what could too easily become a heartless Midtown establishment, the service is also surprisingly excellent and will make every guest feel well cared for. At a recent brunch, my otherwise wonderfully chivalrous date (who is reading this right now - hello Fray) ordered every woman’s worst nightmare - something healthier than her - and opted for the House Made Granola with berries and about a tablespoon-sized portion of greek yogurt. He must have sensed my horror at having a dramatically larger appetite than him, or (more likely) was actually hungry and wanted a little more than a child's serving, because he then asked our waiter for more yogurt and warm milk, which they quickly brought without fuss. Dare I say it, with a smile.
Those few thoughtful moments prove that even in an anonymous neighborhood like Midtown Manhattan, The National can be a power lunch destination that doesn’t break the bank, or the spirit. And for the East 50s, that’s pretty remarkable.