How to Eat Like a Local… in NYC
Back when Manhattan was still ridden with crime, New York City was easier for tourists to manage. A Broadway show, a nice French or Italian meal, Central Park, the Met, maybe a Yankees game — there were things you did and places you just didn't go. Nowadays, though, the safer, cleaner, friendlier New York covers a lot more ground: Destination restaurants (and parks and museums) are scattered throughout most of the five boroughs. Brooklyn is practically a requirement. Cool new places open daily in hot new neighborhoods, and there are bike shares to help you get between them. Delineations exist for what's old school and hipster and authentic and a rip-off, but how on earth is a visitor supposed to navigate the difference?
Fortunately, you don't have to do it all. But there's no excuse for poor or overpriced eating in New York City. To eat like a local, follow these guidelines.
It's hard to tell a tourist to stay out of Times Square — it's a spectacle worth seeing; there's great theater to be seen and (comparatively) cheap hotels to stay in. But do some homework when it comes to eating in this area, because here lays the greatest concentration of overpriced, mediocre food in the city. Generally speaking, the avenues east and west of Sixth, Seventh and Eighth avenues have the best food options. On the east side, near Fifth Avenue, there are some very good (and spicy) Szechuan restaurants, like Szechuan Gourmet and Café China. Looking west, there's Danji for modern Korean food, the always-packed Totto Ramen shop and Esca for Southern Italian. Exceptions to the middle-avenues rule include Toloache for excellent Mexican food and pizza restaurants Don Antonio by Starita and John's Pizzeria. Short on time? Swing by the biryani cart on 46th Street or The Halal Guys on 53rd for a taste of New York's ultimate street food, chicken and lamb over rice. If you're traveling with kids, consider Shake Shack or Virgil's BBQ. Thirsty? For craft beer, try the sprawling Beer Authority near Port Authority; for dirt-cheap cocktails in a local legend, look no further than divey Jimmy's Corner. Now that you know what to do in Midtown…
Go just a few blocks south and west to Chelsea, where you can follow the High Line — a gorgeous elevated park space. Or, pick up a Citi Bike and take the Hudson River Greenway to a myriad of delicious spots, from the quick eats inside Chelsea Market to the high-end Italian restaurants Del Posto and Scarpetta. To the south and east of Midtown you'll find lively Union Square. Just below Union Square, you'll stumble upon the East Village, which houses a unique mix of cheap-ethnic (Zabb Elee, Maharlika, Caracas), famous-chef (Momofuku, Alder, Prune) and stellar New American (Hearth, Goat Town, Back Forty) restaurants. Pick a few neighborhoods to explore each day and you won't be disappointed. Try the Lower East Side for Jewish classics (see below), Chinatown for soup dumplings (a.k.a. xiao long bao, a New York favorite by way of Shanghai) and Harlem for great African food (both modern and traditional). And once you're familiar with Manhattan…
There are other boroughs to see! Brooklyn should be at the top of your list — it's a destination in its own right, with incredibly varied neighborhoods to tour and places to eat. Not all are created equal on the food front, though — while Brooklyn Heights is spectacular to walk around (do not miss the new waterfront park there), you're better off eating in nearby Carroll Gardens or the Columbia Waterfront District (see: Frankies Sputino, Lucali, Battersby, Pok Pok). Dedicate another day to the restaurant-filled hipster enclaves of Williamsburg and Greenpoint — preferably a Saturday, when you might start with a healthy amount of grazing at Smorgasburg, a warm-weather outdoor food market, and end with a farm-fresh dinner at Marlow & Sons. In the Bronx, you can pair a trip to the Bronx Zoo with a great meal on Arthur Avenue, the city's real-deal Little Italy. Queens is another must, where diverse and delicious neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Flushing (home to the borough's Chinatown) beckon with authentic, dirt-cheap food from all over the globe. Want to impress a New Yorker? Tell them you're just back from sampling Himalayan momos and Colombian arepas in Jackson Heights.
New Yorkers know that eating out doesn't have to break the bank (that's what paying rent is for), which is one reason why neighborhoods big on cheap eats, like the East Village and Chinatown, are so popular. But visitors here owe it to themselves to have at least one delicious, high-end, multicourse, reserve-far-in-advance meal at one of the city's upper-echelon restaurants (think Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, Daniel, Blue Hill, Per Se or Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare). If those are too pricey, visit a top restaurant at a less expensive time of day, like Maialino for breakfast, Red Rooster Harlem for brunch (or midnight brunch) or The NoMad for lunch.
Trends come and go, but the city's classic foods have stuck around for more than a century for good reason. Bagels, hot dogs and a good New York slice are all required eating, but the list extends far beyond those. On the Lower East Side — once the heart of Jewish New York — stop by neighborhood stalwarts Russ & Daughters for excellent smoked fish, sample the namesake kosher specialty at The Pickle Guys, try a steaming-hot knish (and some delicious borscht) at Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery and save room for the legendary pastrami on rye at Katz's Delicatessen. (For bonus points, pair your sandwich with a chocolate egg cream, a classic drink that contains neither egg nor cream — or try it at another vintage lunch counter, like Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop in the Flatiron District.) Got a sweet tooth? In the East Village, try the creamy New York cheesecake at Veniero's Pastry. Head a block east of Central Park on the Upper East Side to pick up some black-and-white cookies from William Greenberg Desserts — they make excellent souvenirs and travel well. Before you leave town, swing by a sophisticated cocktail bar, like Midtown's iconic 21 Club, and raise a toast to yourself with a well-crafted Manhattan: You're part New Yorker now.
Laura Siciliano-Rosen is the co-founder of food-travel website Eat Your World, a guide to regional foods and drinks in destinations around the globe, and a proud New Yorker going on 14 years. You can follow Eat Your World on Twitter @eat_your_world, like on Facebook or circle on Google+.
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