Increasingly, when I am asked this question, I find it hard to give a direct answer. Of course, there are still traditional Italian, Chinese, Japanese and French restaurants; but even in these arenas, the food is changing. It is not as it was forty years ago. Frequently, I have had the experience of recomending a wonderful Austrian based restaurant such as Wallse (344 West 11th Street; corner of Washington; 212 352 2300) or one of my favorites, Anthos--Greek based--with a fabulous chef-owner, Michael Psilakis (36 West 52 St.--between 5th & 6th; 212 582 6900) only to be told that they weren't really Austrian or really Greek. True; but the best restaurants in their respective countries wouldn't be recognized by the die hards either.
Even more recognizably Italian restaurants such as Sistina (155 Second Ave. 88 Z& 89th Streets; 212 861 7660) are very inventive.
The most traditional thing in such restaurants is often the wine list. As the wines of the world have improved, it is possible to find great wines from each country. Austria now has terific red wines that mix native grapes with international ones. Greece has some marvellous wines. One of my favorites is the reserve from Averoff. Italian wines have, of course, been improving for more than thirty years. Sistina has a Capo de Stato from Viscount Loredan that knocked my socks off.
By now, we have all taken in the nouvelle cuisine and are on the way to a higher level. I still love bistro food and am delighted to note that Alain Ducasse in his ever expanding empire--what energy--has taken to preserving classic bistros in Paris such as Chez Benoit and Pierre le Lyonais. I hear that he is bringing a version of Benoit to New York and I will certainly go. However, this very high level comfort food and much that is going on France and America could not be recognized by old timers.
Certainly, Japanese restaurants have also liberated their creations. Tojo in Vancouver and Bar Masa (10 Columbus Circle, 4th floor--60th and Broadway; 212 823 9800) are extraordinary examples.
I suggest that we try the new food and applaud it on its own merits if we like it. In the mean time, I will keep on struggling with definitions