Biting the Big Apple: My Favorite NYC Food Haunts
As a food writer, I can count on one thing for sure–invariably, someone will call/e-mail/text/send a smoke signal for restaurant recommendations. It never fails–call it a casualty of my profession. Often it is a simple request: upscale Italian in Manhattan or kid-friendly dining in Philly but recent requests have become more and more specific (read: annoying). Try recommending a restaurant to someone looking to host a party of 10 with one vegan, a peanut-allergic cousin, two picky children, a toothless grandpa who can only eat soup and a pesky pescatarian. Oh yes, I forgot–entrees should be under $10! Obviously, folks haven’t heard of sites like Yelp or OpenTable that allow you set filters to search for exactly what you want.
I’ve been getting a lot of requests from friends looking to dine in NYC as of late–they want me to spill my culinary guts and nothing is off-limits. They’ve asked for everything from famed spots to hidden holes-in-the-wall. While I won’t give up all my favorite hidden spots (hey, a girl’s got to have her secrets), I have no problem sharing a few as well as some well-known eateries.
For a food enthusiast, dining in New York can be simultaneously exciting and overwhelming; the possibilities for the palate are endless. Touting a population of over 8 million people, the city is home to nearly 5,000 restaurants spread out among its five boroughs. New York City’s dining landscape is an eclectic mixture of both low- and high-end fare—it’s the place where residents and tourists alike nosh on street food like kebabs and hot dogs but also enjoy the experience of dining at trendy, haute cuisine establishments. There’s something intriguing about a city where you can score a $1 slice of pizza and enjoy a wallet-burdening multi-course feast at a celebrity chef-helmed hotspot.
It’s an impossible feat to sample all of the city’s gastronomic delights, so it’s best to make a plan and tackle the Big Apple borough by borough.
Easily the most popular of all the five boroughs, Manhattan is a foodie paradise. With nearly 4,000 eateries within its borders, there are restaurants representing every price point imaginable. When weighing dining options, embrace being a tourist and head to an iconic restaurant—after all, a restaurant becomes an icon for a reason so an awesome meal is pretty much a guarantee. The legendary Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston St.) is a Lower East Side institution known for its authentic Jewish deli menu of classics including their famous colossal sandwiches. A normal appetite may not be able to handle the huge proportions, so bringing along a friend or two to split the enormous platters is a wise choice. Speaking of dining partners, bring a friend to reenact the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally—the movie that made Katz’s a household name. If a burger is what you’re craving, there’s no better choice than the one crafted from a proprietary blend of 4 different prime cuts of meat at Minetta Tavern (113 Macdougal St.) in Greenwich Village. The Black Label Burger’s price tag is a tad steep at almost $30 but a burger made from premium ingredients from one of the city’s top purveyors and topped with sweet, caramelized onions is certainly worth it, but if your inner miser squirms at the thought of that kind of splurge, opt for the equally tasty (but less expensive) Minetta Burger with cheddar. Though Minetta offers a great burger, the rest of the menu isn’t typical pub grub—elevated eats like dressed prawns and veal carpaccio are a nice deviation from standard tavern fare. Manhattan is not exactly the borough known for its pizza (that honor goes to Brooklyn) but a pie at Grimaldi’s (656 Avenue of the Americas) dispels all those geographic pizza rumors. Admittedly, a visit to the popular institution is an exercise in ‘no’—as in no credit cards, no reservations, no slices, no delivery—but the saucy, cheesy, coal-fired pies are worth it. Satisfying international cravings, The Halal Guys (53rd & 6th Sts.) have spurred a cult following with its street cart food—namely its chicken and rice platter—which has been known to cause many traffic jams as eager patrons line up to get a taste of what some consider the best food in the city. Though they’ve been around for years, these guys still enjoy the adoration from their loyal customers who never forget to ask for a squeeze of the famous white sauce made from a delicious, highly guarded recipe. Don’t be shy—ask for an extra squeeze or two; it adds a little something special to an already great meal. At over 40 years old, Mamoun’s Falafel (119 MacDougal St.) is the oldest falafel restaurant in the city and is listed in the popular book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Traditional Middle Eastern hits like baba ghanoush, hummus, tabbouleh and, of course, falafel are authentically executed and the kebabs and shawarma are spot-on. Make sure to save room for one of the menu’s unique drinks (the spiced tea is not to be missed) and unforgettable desserts.
Some of the culinary world’s biggest trends begin in New York City with progressive, forward-thinking chefs so it’s no wonder that trendy restaurants are plentiful. Those looking for a bit of a relaxed, cool vibe should head to Harlem to renowned celebrity chef (and James Beard Award winner) Marcus Samuelsson’s soul food sanctuary Red Rooster (310 Lenox Ave.). The hip eatery’s menu is an ode to American cuisine and the diverse culinary traditions and influences of the neighborhood. Classic comfort food like fish and grits and oxtail speaks to their traditional roots but get a twist with the addition of chorizo aioli and pappardelle respectively.
Ever dreamed of eating an Iron Chef’s food? Dining at Morimoto (88 10th Ave.) puts diners face to face with the knife-handling skills of some of the city’s finest sushi chefs. While chances of running into Chef Morimoto himself are slim, amazing dishes like the chef’s omakase or sashimi more than make up for his absence. Sidle up to the raw bar for the freshest seafood and save room for wildly creative desserts like the green tea matcha and white chocolate-covered strawberries.
The über-cool and trendy ABC Kitchen (35 E 18th St.) caters to a younger crowd and, despite its unusual department store location (yes, it’s inside ABC Carpet & Home), it has garnered a loyal following of farm-to-table devotees. The restaurant is an ardent proponent of sustainability and is staunchly eco-friendly—even the placemats are compostable. There are truly no misses on the imaginative, seasonally-focused menu.
Brooklyn has deservedly earned a reputation for having a chill, hipster vibe and, though the borough owes much of its newfound acclaim to gentrification, it has become a food lover’s paradise. Over the years, the area has become so much more than a pizza haven but one thing remains the same. Brooklyn is a great place to find delicious, inexpensive food. In the neighborhood of Williamsburg, House of Small Wonder (77 N 6th St.) offers a varied menu of sandwiches and small bites. Brooklynites love brunch and this rustic chic eatery offers it all day long and all of the sandwiches clock in at less than $5.
Kimchi Grill’s name may imply that it only serves one kind of food, but nothing could be further from the truth. The menu here is a mash-up of Korean, Mexican, and traditional barbecue which fuses the best of those cuisines in dishes like rice gnocchi, falafel tacos, and barbecue nachos. Great service, stellar food and cheap prices keep this place on serious foodies’ radars.
What makes Sam’s (238 Court St.) in Cobble Hill such a great place is the fact that it’s unabashedly old school. Seriously, this authentic red gravy Italian joint has been cranking out familiar comfort food and pizza for decades. Don’t come here expecting a hipster chic new age restaurant; classic eats, checkered tablecloths and brusque service are the hallmarks of Sam’s. Perfectly blistered pizzas, hot antipasto, and old fashioned spaghetti and meatballs are sure bets but, then again, so is just about everything else.
The remaining boroughs aren’t typically known for their collective dining options but there are some hidden gems to be discovered. Residents are probably more than content to allow these local finds to remain unknown but it’s too late—true gastronomes will travel to the most far-flung locations for a good meal.
Ethnic eats abound all over New York City but Queens offers a great primer on global cuisine. It’s possible to take to your palate on an international tour while never leaving borough limits. At Taste Good Malaysian Cuisine (8218 45th Ave.), the cuisine is considered ‘hawker food’—a nod to the open-air markets commonly found in Asia—and is insanely inexpensive and unpretentious. The roti canai (a type of Indian-inspired flatbread) and beef rendang (best described as a caramelized beef curry) are popular among those in the know.
On Staten Island, cozy hideaway Bin 5 (1233 Bay St.) may be tucked away but its mixed menu of classic and innovative Italian food warrants a trek to the island. It’s hard to imagine espresso and squid in the same dish but the fried calamari with pine nuts and soy espresso reduction will forever change your mind about odd pairings. Fresh pasta and hearty entrees round out the offerings.
Head out to the Bronx’s City Island to dine at Bistro SK (273 City Island Ave.)—a bona-fide French bistro that is so well hidden that even the keenest food lovers may miss it. Steak frites, beef Burgundy and a host of other bistro standards are so authentic that it’s hard to believe you’re not dining at a sidewalk café in Paris’ sixteenth arrondissement.