Since 1995 I have been passing around a memo to friends about NY Food. It all started as a young lawyer in Atlanta after the fourth request for assistance from my new colleagues. Apparently, I was the only NYer they knew (other than John Gotti- who they were all afraid they might meet on the subway -as if he rode the subway). So, to save time in future interactions with my new found southern friends, I dictated a memo (a lost art by the way) and gave it to the very same word processor who was the fourth person to ask for help. Since then, the memo has been edited a bit every five to ten years. The very nature of the recommendations is that they should not require much updating because the places I recommend withstood the test of time -until a couple of them closed.
What follows is a slight update on that old memo. I fixed some typos, created some new ones, and added some pictures. My advice remains the same -find the food that defined growing up in New York. Every city has new American, fusion, sushi, etc. But few cities have the rich immigrant history that NY does, which means that the food of those immigrants is imbedded in NY culture. That food and that culture is worth finding. In fact, all you need to do is open your eyes and see it. It is quite literally in the store fronts in between the trendy restaurants and coffee shops (often down some scary stairs). Anyway, on to the original(ish) memo . . .
New York Restaurants Worth Your Time
If you are getting this then I trust you not to give me crap about typos, etc. This is an informal list put together over time to stop you hicks from calling all the time and asking me where to eat on your first trip to the “big city.”
Most of these are the real restaurants that my grandparents ate at when they arrived in NY and to which they brought me 40 years later. These are the places I skipped school to go eat at with my friends starting in middle school. I feel like I grew up at these places. The food was the cause of and often the goal of various mis-adventures. At some of these spots the wait staff know me on sight. I am greeted as family at several of these spots. [Blog Update- this is no longer true, but was in the 90s]
[Blog update- I spent so much time in little Italy and eating at Ferrara’s Bakery, that the staff knew me by name. In 1997 or so, I took my now wife Teresa to Ferrara’s and we could see the line to get in from a block away. She hesitated and said she really did not want to wait. I walked around the line to see if I could find a familiar face. At that point, Sergio, a waiter I had known for a long time, put his tray down on somebody’s table, rushed over, and hugged me. He and another waiter brought out a small round table from the back, put it right near the front of the line, and served us there. Despite the angry and wondering looks, we had a lovely dessert.]
Nothing trendy is on this list. I don’t do trendy and trendy does not much care for me, my casual sloppiness, or my grouchiness. I like restaurants where the wait staff are as rude to me as I am to them and we all enjoy the causal rude banter. I am stuck in a wonderful rut of nostalgic eating when in NY and do not want to change. I eat the stuff I ate as a child and as a teenager. I eat the things that comfort me and remind me of NY in the 80s and early 90s.
Keep in mind, the food in NY is important to understanding the ebb and flow of immigrants and the city’s history. Ethnic food from those who immigrated here took root in the areas where they congregated. If they stayed long enough, the food stayed and became part of the NY experience. Visit the Tenement Museum, it gives a great insight into the immigrant’s lives. There are also several very good food tours.
Do NOT, under any circumstances -even if experiencing chest pains and just looking for the defibrillator -go to Friday’s, Applebees or, God help me, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. If that is your plan, please save the money, watch an episode of Sex in the City, and eat whatever processed food is rotting in your trailer.
Places with ** indicate my must-go spots. Other than that, this list is in no particular order.
** Ferrara’s– 195 Grand Street– This now touristy bakery has been in the same location since the 1890s. The owner once told me it was the oldest bakery in the US still run by the same family that started it. Outstanding cannoli. Pignoli cookies are fantastic. DO NOT eat dessert if you are at a restaurant nearby. Walk or cab here. Maximize the amount of NY goodness you can squeeze into each meal. It is important that you yell to your friends “don’t forget the cannolis” at least once while in little Italy. If you don’t know the reference, I will mock you.
Patsy’s -56th near 8th– Great food and nice place. American Italian that is what your Olive Garden tries to copy. Fantastic lobster fra diavolo. I would mark this with an * except that it is too nice, and I like dives. Keep in mind -this is not Mario Battali genuine Italian from Italy. This is chicken parm, fettuccine alfredo and the other bits of artery-clogging goodness. Also, there is a lot of Frank Sinatra stuff littering the walls. This was one of his favorites.
Rao’s– 114th Street– I mention this only so you know it exists. Reservations are impossible to get. Literally- impossible. There are about 10 tables and they are “owned” by patrons. No joke, each patron has a life-long standing reservation for a table. There is one seating per night and that patron pays for it whether they show up or not. So, to get in, you need to know a patron as they can loan the table out. Rumor is the food is great. But, I have no idea.
NY Trivia— Wall Street is so named as it was the location of the actual sea wall. The land south of wall street is all built on the stones trader’s used as ballast on their way to NY. They dumped them in the water so often it formed an extension of the island.
** Lombardi’s Pizza– 32 Spring Street – One of the better pizza places in NY and, most notably, the first. This was the first pizza place opened in the U.S. Before this place opened, a few local grocery stores sold pizza to factory workers who would fold the whole pie (yes, we NYers call it a pie) and store until lunch time. One Italian immigrant who worked at a grocery left to open the first actual pizza place in the US and this is it. He trained a guy to make pizza and that guy bought a defunct deli named Ray’s and turned it into a pizza place. That was the start of the “Ray’s” name in NY pizza. (If they seat you in the new nice area go check out the older section with the original oven. Super cool. Also, across the street from here is a place called Rice to Riches. It is a rice pudding shop that is absolutely worth the visit.
(Halfway decent pizzas can be had at Ray’s Original, Original Ray’s, and Ray Bari. But, since this might be your only time in NY -go big. If you must goo quick [note this typoe was in the original, but it is too funny to fix], try St. Mark’s Place pizza in the village. Really good and fast. (2011 note- heard this place closed). If ner Times Square, John’s of Times Square (next to the Broadway Museum) is good.
Arturro’s– On corner of West Houston and Thompson – if you want nice, skip it. If you want good service, skip it. if you want a clean and lovely decor, skip it. If you want some gritty NY that might remind you a bit of CBGBs, and to see and hear real NYers, try this place. It is a bar. It has fantastic pizza (try the pepperoni and garlic) and awesome people watching.
Vincent’s Clam Bar– corner of Mott and Hester- Odd little spot that is very touristy now. This place may suck. I honestly cannot tell whether it is fantastic or awful because it is iconic for me. I’ve been eating the fired calamari and shrimp on linguine with the spicy marinara for 30 or more years. The rest of the food is pretty good, but the wine and beer selection is awful.
** Il Cortile– 125 Mulberry St – Really outstanding old spot. Great for nice night out. This is not a tourist spot. The garden room is really nice and does actually have nice decor. The tourist thing may have changed since the cast of the Sopranos started having cast dinners here.
Little Italy Trivia – Little Italy is about 10% of the size it was in the 50s. Even that portion still existing is really there for tourists. Look up. The signs above the old italian eateries are chinese. The people living in the apartments above these spots are also chinese. Chinatown now covers most of what was Little Italy. Umberto’s on Mulberry was the scene of Crazy Joe Gallo”s assassination. [Blog Update- I am told that the new and improved Little Italy is in the Bronx and that the Bronx is now safe. I have no personal knowledge about the food or the safety.]
Peking Duck House– 28 Mott St – Recently (1999) relocated to an unfortunately modern location, but the food is the same. (2008 update- new menu. Crap, they got rid of the chopped duck in hoisin sauce. ) As of my last visit in 2009 the food is still pretty good. Peking Duck -despite the price- is well worth trying. Sizzling rice soup is also really good. [Blog Update– There are better and newer spots. Chinatown is booming. This and Wo Hops below are worth visiting for the totally Americanized chinese food of the 70s and 80s.]
** Wo Hop– 17 Mott Street– There are not enough asterisks. This is the only 24 hour chinese restaurant in NY. (health department now maes them close for one hour every day to clean) (Blog Update- they are now closed from 430 am to 1030 am) This is totally classic and very cheap. They have fantastic eggrolls (no, you have not had an eggroll unless you ate it here. Fantastic bit of NY junk food that is deep fried goodness dipped in duck sauce and chinese mustard. Oh my. Very good wonton soup. Do NOT eat at street level. It is a different restaurant. Go down the creepy stairs and eat below street level. Yes there will be a line. Yes, it is worth it. Yes, that is piss you smell. My favorite story about this place is from the early 80s. Apparently Wood Allen frequented the place in sunglasses and big hats to hide his identity. As he ordered the waiter dutifull wrote it down. When done, the waiter loudly proclaimed “So, Mr. Woody Allen will have . . . .”
Ms Tam’s Hong Kong Cake – on the corner of Mott and Mosco is an awesome little trailer from which Ms. Tam sells these awesome little cakes. 10 for $1. Awesome little nuggets of sweet warmth. She was so well known the NY Times reported on her. No idea if this is still opened, but if it is then go.
Delmonico’s – 50 Beaver Street in tribeca – Skip it. Purely living on a reputation. Opened in the 1830s, but not earthly idea why it still exists.
** Peter Luger’s Steakhouse -178 Broadway in Williamsburg Brooklyn — Not a good neighborhood, but safe within a couple of blocks of the restaurant (it is protected) . This is, hands down, the best steakhouse for purely good steak. No frills. Menu is tiny. Waiters are rude. They have “steak for one, steak for two, and steak for three.” You cannot get a filet mignon. You cannot order meat well done. Cash only. Reservations are made months in advance. Walk ins welcome, but expect a wait. [Blog update- A recent NY Times review gave zero stars. While some of what it said is true (lack of innovation, lack of change, lack of atmosphere, etc -it ignored the enduring quality of the meat. Peter Luger’s buy the entire side of cows, butchers its own meat and then dry ages it for a long long time.. They only keep the porterhouse and sell off the rest.)
The Soup Nazi (aka Soup Kitchen International)– 55t street between Broadway and 8th Ave – This is the actual inspiration for the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld. It is great. It is not a store -just a window. This place is closed during the summer.
Carnegie Deli -7th Ave near 55th St -pretty good corned beef, sides are good, place is packed. Pickles- meh. (2016 update -Closed)
Stage Deli -7th Ave between 53rd and 54th – The service is fine -but rude. Corned beef is marginally better than Carnegie, but the knishes are worse. Sandwiches are HUGE. (2012 update -CLOSED)
** Katz’s Deli -205 Houston Street – Awesome and crazy touristy now. The scene of Meg Ryan’s orgasmic sandiwch in “When Harry Met Sally.” Get a corned beef or pastrami sandwich. Pro tip -when the line is nuts tell the doorman you want waiter service. That line is usually much shorter. Absolutely use waiter service anyway. They will hand you a ticket when you walk in -do NOT lose it. You cannot get out without the ticket. Bizarre system, but seems to work. Oh -and have an egg cream. This is a chocolate milks and seltzer concoction that has no egg in it. Very good and very New York.
H&H Bagel -831 3rd Ave – Fantastic NY Bagels. They also have a location on 46th near 6th Ave. Well worth the trip. Do NOT get bagels at a deli. Go to a real NY Bagel place. Have them fresh. Trust me -I was a bagel baker fro 1983-1986. (2012 update -CLOSED)
** Ess-A-Bagel – 831 3rd Ave – Really fantastic. One of the best bagels I’ve ever had. They are better bagel bakers than I ever was. There is a small hidden bagel counter in the back for ordering sandwiches (bagels with cream cheese count) only -no bulk bagel orders. This is a huge time saver. So, for your grit-eating edification -the round white bread you buy at the grocery store in Georgia is not a bagel. A bagel must be rolled a day in advance. It must spend a significant amount of time in the fridge so that the dough, after rising, is uniformly cold throughout. Then, it must be submerged quickly in boiling water until the outer dough resembles shark skin. From there, the bagels go quickly onto burlapped lined boards and into a hot oven with rotating shelves. After once around the bagel baker reaches into the hot oven and flips the bagels off the boards so that the top is now the bottom and sends them around the over for a few minutes. The goal -a hard crusted outside, a soft and chewy interior. The dough should have actual flavor -a hint of molasses mixed with your chosen topping. The experience should be visceral. Your jaw may cramp, your heart will race. Your taste buds will awaken and you will wonder how a bagel can be so very different than other loaves. If not, you are just eating bread.
Yonah Schimmel -137 Houston -a few stores down from Katz – Opened in 1890 -famous for its knishes. Great variety, great flavor. Best if you can get them fresh. You don’t want them to warm up the knishes since they discovered microwaves. Really ruins the texture.
Russ & Daughters -179 E Houston – Opened in 1920 this was the fancy lox, kippered salmon, and herring. When NY jews had something special to celebrate this was the source. (2015 update- they now also have a small cafe around the the block) They ship across the country too. Pastrami Lox is particularly great.
Delancey Street Market and Surrounding Area– This is the area made famous outside NY by the movie “Crossing Delancey.” It has been a bad neighborhood, a decent neighborhood, and back again to a shtty neighborhood. So, a very typical NY neighborhood. It was the center of immigrant life. This is the general area of the Tenement Museum as well. The Delancey Street Market is little more than an open air super market like Sweet Auburn in Atlanta, or Lexington Market in Baltimore. But, there are tours that will take you here and give you the history.
Walking NY as a Non-New Yorker– NY may now have a Disney Store and Toys R Us in Times Square, but it remains a densely populated city that can be dangerous. Always walk closer to the street than the alleys. Groups of kids “playing” in non-residential areas like Times Square are likely purse snatchers and pickpockets. (maybe less so since the 2014 open pedestrian area opened -but be watchful) . Kids chasing each other through crowds are often there to run interference for the sneaky little bastard about to steal your shit.
If bumped on a subway -check your stuff. Try not to carry shopping bags that are easily cut. Subway cars are safe. Subways restroom are not. Never take a “gypsy” cab. Stick with yellow medallion cabs (2017 update -Uber/Lyft are best).
New Yorkers are thought of as rude. This is not true. NY is densely packed, fast paced, and expensive. This is particularly true compared to spacious Atlanta. If you politely ask a NYer a questions odds are you will get a polite if somewhat brusque response. Don’t be afraid to ask folks.
If the weather is nice, go check out the Highline park -built on the old elevated train tracks. Central Park is nice too and big enough so that its various sections all feel like totally different experiences.
No, you do not need to go to Queens. No, you do not need to leave Manhattan. I grew up in Queens and rarely go myself. There is nothing there you need or even want to see. I promise.