When I visit a new city, I always want to know two things: where I should eat, and what I should eat there. I want to know about the classic places to eat, the local legends that have withstood the test of time. I want to know where to go, but also why I should go there.
Recently, one of my friends mentioned that he was visiting the Big Apple for the first time, and asked for recommendations as to where to eat in New York their way through the classic establishments that are the soul and belly of a great, storied city. My only rules in choosing this list is that the eateries must have a fixed place in local lore (which, for New York, often means that it appeared in a Woody Allen movie), and must be more than twenty years old, a sign that it is firmly entrenched and not going anywhere.
What follows is a highly-subjective list of where to eat in New York, but one of which just about any local would approve.
Best breakfast in New York
You can get anything, and I mean, anything to eat in New York, so my focus is on things that have a certain New York-iness to them, that seem quintessentially of the city. Without doubt, the cuisine of New York is best represented in Jewish deli food. This can be found in other cities, but always in imitation of what you’d find here.
Two stalwarts of Jewish deli appear in our lunch section, but breakfast is also home to bagels and their cousins, the bialy, and you can find none better than at Russ & Daughters, where I recommend their simple bagel with lox and cream cheese, finished with chocolate babka and with a pot of rugelach for the road. I’m not much for herring, but if you like it, I’m told that it’s ace here.
But that’s downtown in Soho, and if you find yourself on the Upper West Side, then the reigning king is Barney Greengrass, which features similar fare to Russ & Daughters, but in a sit-down environment (Russ & Daughters is standing-room only). I long for the bialy with cream cheese and smoked sable, a glass of borscht, and a plate of scrambled eggs with lox.
Russ & Daughters
179 E Houston St, New York
Tel. +1 212-475-4880, Website
541 Amsterdam Ave, New York
Tel. +1 212-724-4707, Website
Lunch in New York
The lunch and dinner recommendations here are, of course, interchangeable, but I associate oversized deli sandwiches with lunch, and more refined fare (and pizza and Chinese) with dinner. If I were to choose but one eatery to represent New York, it would be the fabled Carnegie Deli. A regular set in films, a glance along its walls shows that everyone who’s anyone in the world of celebrity has eaten here, and left a signed photo to prove it. They are famous for teetering, towering sandwiches of cured meat. I like the pastrami on rye, which you will only be able to finish half of (so take the other half home). Pickles are on the table for grabbing, and you finish with a slab of cheesecake the size of a football.
That’s in Midtown, but downtown in Soho (a few doors down from Russ & Daughters and Yonah Schimmel), is Katz’s Deli. Made famous by When Harry Met Sally, I go for corned beef on rye. A tipping tip: if you tip the sandwich guy behind the counter a dollar or two, he’ll throw more meat into your already-enormous sandwich.
If we’re getting a bit fancier, right in the hallowed Grand Central Station is Grand Central Oyster Bar, a great place to kill time before your train with some cocktails or their famous oyster pan roast, a kind of gooey oyster stew that you won’t be able to stop eating. And the patrician symbol of fine New York dining is the Union Square Café, the flagship of New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. It’s famed for impeccable service—they pioneered a reservation system which reminds them of your past visits and preferences, so everyone feels like a beloved regular guest. The thing to get is the tuna burger, made with shavings leftover from the much more expensive tuna steak, but a better deal and more unusual bite.
854 7th Ave, New York
Tel. +1 212-757-2245, Website
205 E Houston St, New York
Tel. +1 212-254-2246, Website
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Grand Central Terminal, 89 E 42nd St, New York
Tel. +1 212-490-6650, Website
Union Square Cafe
21 E 16th St, New York
Tel. +1 212-243-4020, Website
A quick Snack in the Big Apple
Peckish for something between meals? There are a number of establishments that specialize in a single thing, which could of course serve for a light meal, or a heavy snack, it’s up to you. At Yonah Schimmel Knishery, indulge in the one thing they do (you guessed it—the knish), which is heavy, filling, cheap and amazing. The classic knish is essentially fried mashed potatoes, and it’s the heartiest thing you can eat for $3.
Two hot dog joints are quintessential New York. Papaya King offers the slightly weird combo of papaya juice with a pair of hot dogs (their standard meal), but the hot dogs are great, with crisp exteriors (not like the boiled-to-death dogs you get from street vendors), and the sweetness of the papaya juice compliments the dogs perfectly. If you make it out to Coney Island, you can taste Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, probably the most famous hot dogs in America.
And while on the subject of fame, there are a number of pizzerias all called variations on “Ray’s,” and all arguing that they are the “original famous” Ray’s Pizza, a place of legend (or mythical history) in New York for delicious by-the-slice. What’s so odd is that no one seems to actually know which was the first. There’s Famous Original Ray’s, Original Famous Ray’s, Famous Ray’s and Real Ray’s. But the consensus is that the original original is just called Ray’s, on 27 Prince Street. If you’re feeling saucy, try getting a slice at each for a taste test.
Dessert? Why yes, please. The Doughnut Plant has crazy flavors, like Tres Leches and “Blackout,” a chocolate extravaganza. And the colossal food market, Zabar’s, is worth a wander for the spectacle, takeout prepared foods or exotic ingredients—a New York institution.
Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery
137 E Houston St, New York
Tel. +1 212-477-2858, Website
179 East 86th Street and 3 St. Marks Place, New York
Tel, +1 (212) 369-0648 - +1 (646) 692-8482, Website
New York can be expensive, but there’s a place with the cheapest great meal that can accompany your beer: McSorley’s Old Ale House. Over a century old, this classic bar, which serves only their own beer on tap, feels like a time warp to another era. As does the price of a really good $6 hamburger, as well as the surprisingly good and satisfying cheese and crackers plate.
For great Chinese, head to ShunLee West, near Lincoln Center, the place for high-end Chinese. As a kid, my parents would bring me to see a show on Broadway, then here for dinner. I remember the spare ribs, and the giant white dragon that snakes across the soft, dark dining room. But if you want a place where actual Chinese people eat Chinese food, head to Szechuan Gourmet in Midtown. You can get a plate of duck tongues, and I’m sure it’s delicious, though I usually opt for safer cuts. Seriously spicy, inexpensive, awesome. For spectacle, you can’t beat Ruby Foo’s near Times Square, a hub for tourists and locals alike. A cinematic grand dining room with Asian fusion food that is dynamite (try the lettuce wraps).
In Brooklyn, you can get some crazy good (but crazy overpriced) steak at Peter Luger’s—you want to porterhouse with their house sauce. Roberta’s pizza is the cult place for a pie, like the Beastmaster, with gorgonzola, pork sausage and jalapeno. PJ Clarke’s is now a chain (as are a few of these legendary places), but it’s still good. Called “the Vatican of saloons” by the New York Times, it’s a simple but excellent diner. Try their bacon cheeseburger, called the Cadillac, since Nat King Cole referred to it as “the Cadillac of burgers.”
A list like this would be incomplete without a “red sauce joint,” an old school eatery featuring Italian-American food, which no Italian would recognize, but which is hugely satisfying. Bamonte’s is one such establishment, and you can actually get into it, as opposed to the more famous Rao’s, which has only around 10 tables which are always “full” unless you are a celebrity or friend of former regular Frank Sinatra. And we’ll finish with one fancy place (for ties are not required anywhere else on this list): the Gotham Bar & Grill. Hot since it started in the 1980s, it pioneered the craze for tall plates, as in dishes with the food stacked like Jenga tiles towards the sky. Come for the yellowfin tuna tartare, stay for everything else.
McSorley's Old Ale House
15 E 7th St, New York
21 W 39th St, New York
Tel. +1 212-921-0233, Website
Gotham Bar & Grill
12 E 12th St, New York
Tel. +1 212-620-4020, Website
Happy travels to the Big Apple, and happier eating still!