I do my best in this guide to not mention the fast-food chain options in the city. They are here and, unfortunately, here to stay. But why eat the same fast food you can get anywhere else when you’re in the cuisine-enriched city of New York? Here are a few original options you should consider before parting the golden arches:
New York is a hot dog town. You can buy them from street vendors all over the city, and doing so is something everyone should experience. But once might be enough. If you want an original New York dog, Nathan’s Famous, established in 1916, is the best example. There are Nathan’s Famous hot dogs all over the city now, but though the hot dogs are the same, they just don’t taste as good as the ones served in its original location on the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn.
For the cheapest quick meal, nothing can match Gray’s Papaya. This 24-hour hot dog stand is a New York institution. The Recession Special, two hot dogs and a drink (overly sweetened papaya, piña colada, or orange juice), is a whopping $4.45 (up recently from $3.50). The hot dogs are delicious, though for your own good, don’t be tempted to eat more than two, despite the low prices. There are three Gray’s Papayas around the city, but the best is the original at the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway.
Like the hot dog, pizza is also a New York staple. For a quick slice, my personal favorite is Joe’s Pizza, at Bleecker Street. Joe’s offers the epitome of what a slice is supposed to taste like: thin-crusted with the proper balance of sauce, which actually has flavor, and cheese that doesn’t taste like something you could bounce off a wall. Be prepared to wait in line during busy evening hours and then take your slice outside and eat it like a real New Yorker—folded in half lengthwise, standing up.
In Philadelphia, arguments rage over who makes the best cheesesteak. But we are in New York, and of the Philly-style cheesesteak establishments, my pick is Shorty’s, formerly known as Tony Luke’s. On the edge of the Theater District, in the shadow of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Shorty’s location is about as gritty as it gets. But that just adds to the appeal of Shorty’s gargantuan sandwiches. The cheesesteak, with your choice of cheese—Provolone, American, or Whiz (go for the Whiz, of course)—melting into the fresh Italian roll, is hard to resist, but if you can, order the roast pork Italian: roast pork with peppers, onions, and broccoli rabe.
Chinatown offers a plethora of quick food options, but one of my new favorites in that neighborhood is the banh mi sandwich. A Vietnamese creation combining that country’s Asian and French influences between a freshly baked baguette. My personal favorite is a small take-out shop called Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich and I’m not alone. Lines form outside the shop just before lunch, so plan accordingly. At Saigon they make 12 different types of banh mi, including several vegetarian, but the house special with grilled pork, cilantro, pickled vegetables, and homemade pâté is the best place to start.
Hello, Old Friends!
New York has many restaurants that are institutions, places that have been around forever and are known all over. When you think of classic New York restaurants that have survived for decades, you might think of the Carnegie Deli, Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar, or the Peter Luger Steakhouse. But there are countless lesser-known restaurants that have a storied past and are well loved by their customers. The menus remain pretty much the same; not succumbing to the ever-changing food trends, the service is usually old school; turnover is low, and your waiter will probably recognize you from your last visit, which might have been a year or two earlier. At these places, it’s not about the quality of the food, which will likely not be four-star; it’s more about being part of the family.
I first experienced Chinatown’s Wo Hop, established in 1938, when I was in college. You couldn’t find a cheaper restaurant in New York. It was open 24 hours—I have fond memories of dining late at night and then ascending the stairs from the subterranean restaurant to a sunny dawn; portions were huge and the food was dense. Time has stood still at Wo Hop (pictured at right), and though the prices have gone up, it’s still one of the cheapest eateries in the city, and open from 10am to 7pm daily, and still dishing out huge portions of dense food. Here you’ll find those Chinese-American classics you might remember from your youth: egg drop soup, chow mein, egg foo young, and subgum vegetables.
At around the same time, I was introduced to Vincent’s Clam Bar, a few blocks up in Little Italy. At the time, there was still a remnant of what Little Italy used to be that is now gone. But Vincent’s has been around since 1904, and though, like the rest of Little Italy, there is a touristy, theme-restaurant atmosphere to it, where else can you actually still order that old Italian-American favorite, scungilli? Like the shrinking Italian presence in Little Italy, scungilli (sliced conch) has practically disappeared from the menus of Italian restaurants. Here they pile it high on top of your linguine. Vincent’s tomato sauce is unique and tastes exactly as I remember it from my first visit: rich and tomato-paste thickened. It comes in three flavors: sweet, medium, and hot. The hot is fiery, and the best way to experience it is with a semistale biscuit and as an accompaniment to fried seafood.
I admit, I’m a relative newcomer to El Faro, one of the oldest Spanish restaurants in New York, which celebrated its 84th birthday in 2011. But one visit and you will feel like you are a longtime friend of the Lurgis family, who have owned the place since 1959. Maybe you’ll get to sit in James Baldwin’s favorite corner table—the restaurant is mentioned in his biography—the table off the bar, where a resident ghost is rumored to occasionally sit. The menu features dishes from Spain that are now familiar, such as paella a la Valenciana, shrimp al ajillo, and mariscada (mixed seafood) with green sauce. All this is complemented with El Faro’s potent signature sangria, also known as “truth serum.”
We all know how hard it is to make it on Broadway, and to make it as a pre-theater restaurant and survive for almost 50 years is a feat. But that’s what Chez Napoleon has done. In the shadow of Worldwide Plaza, the Bruno family, led by matriarch “Grandmere” Marguerite, has run Chez Napoleon since 1960, serving traditional Gallic cuisine. The presentation and preparation of the restaurant’s coq au vin and the beef bourguignon remain today exactly as it was before Marguerite was a grandmere.
People ask me for recommendations for a “real deal” diner. My answer is always Eisenberg’s Coffee Shop. This luncheonette has been dishing up eggs/bacon/burgers/sandwiches since 1929, at pretty much the same prices—adjusted slightly for inflation, of course. The waiters and cooks have seemingly been working there since the Eisenhower era. More likely than not, you’ll be greeted with a growled “Hiya, sweetheart,” or a gravelly “What’ll it be, love?” If a tuna sandwich were on a “best of” list, Eisenberg’s version would win. Feel a little run down? A bowl of matzo-ball soup will perk you up. Or sit at the counter and order an egg cream with real, from-the-bottle seltzer.
The Hole Truth: N.Y.’s Best Bagels
Not many things are more “New York” than a bagel, and New Yorkers are loyal to their favorite bagel purveyors. In fact, discussions about who makes the best bagel can lead to heated arguments. Following are the top contenders:
- Absolute Bagels
- H&H Bagels
- Kossar’s Bialys
- Murray’s Bagels
The Pizza Capital of the United States
You just won’t find a city with better pizza than New York. And in recent years, with the emergence of many new, authentic Neopolitan places, it’s gotten even better. Here I’ve separated the old-school New York pizzerias from the new kids on the block. You won’t go wrong with any of the choices below.
- DiFara Pizza
- Grimaldi’s Pizzeria
- John’s Pizzeria
- Patsy’s Pizzeria
- Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitano
- Keste Pizzeria & Vino
- La Pizza Fresca Ristorante
- Naples 45
- Trattoria Zero Otto Nove
The New York Deli News
There’s nothing more Noo Yawk than hunkering down over a mammoth pastrami on rye at an authentic Jewish deli, where anything you order comes with a bowl of lip-smacking sour dills and a side of attitude. Here are some of the best:
- Artie’s New York Delicatessen
- Barney Greengrass, the Sturgeon King
- Carnegie Deli
- Katz’s Delicatessen
- 2nd Avenue Deli
- Stage Deli
Where to Find Your (Burger) Bliss in NYC
New York is hamburger happy. And that happiness has nothing to do with Mickey D’s or BK. It’s about real, solid, locally made burgers, and there are plenty of places to find them without resorting to supersizing yourself. Here are some:
- Bill’s Bar and Burger
- Burger Joint
- 5 Napkin Burger
- New York Burger Co.
- P.J. Clarke’s
- Rare Bar & Grill
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.