Scott and I have called various parts of NYC home for 14-plus years now, which, besides dating us considerably, means we've eaten quite a lot in this fair town of ours. It was here, after all, where my own love for food, and for experiencing foods from far-flung cultures, blossomed to the point of obsession, and where we've moved whole neighborhoods, boroughs even, largely to surround ourselves with more interesting, authentic global eats. Within this article, I’ve detailed much of what I’d send to any friend/acquaintance/reader who writes me asking what and where to eat while in New York (of course, I always send along EYW’s NYC regional-food guide, too). Happy eating!
Smoked fish at Russ & Daughters, a must for NYC visitors
Back when Manhattan was still ridden with crime and undesirables, 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, and 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.
New York's coal-fired brick-oven pizza
Know your options in Midtown
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 lies the greatest concentration of overpriced mediocre food in the city. Generally speaking, the avenues east and west of Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth 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, the latter of which serves classic coal-fired brick-oven pies. Short on time? Hit up 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. Got 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…
Filipino tocilog from Maharlika in the East Village
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 waterfront Hudson River Greenway to a myriad of delicious spots, from the quick eats inside Chelsea Market to Basque tapas at Txikito or high-end Italian restaurants Del Posto and Scarpetta. South and east of Midtown is lively Union Square, and just below that the East Village, a fantastic neighborhood to get lost in, wandering among its unique mix of cheap-ethnic (Zabb Elee, Maharlika, Caracas), famous-chef (Momofuku, Alder, Prune), and stellar New American (Hearth, Goat Town, Back Forty) restaurants, plus countless bars. The West Village, Tribeca, and SoHo; the Lower East Side for Jewish classics (see below) and Chinatown for soup dumplings (a.k.a. xiao long bao, a New York favorite by way of Shanghai); Harlem for great African food, both modern and traditional—pick a few neighborhoods to explore each day and you won’t be disappointed. But once you’ve gotten familiar with Manhattan…
Fried Tibetan momos from Jackson Heights
Get out of 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 see and places to eat. Not all are created equal on the food front, though—while Brooklyn Heights is spectacular to stroll around (do walk over the bridge and explore the new, ever-expanding Brooklyn Bridge waterfront park), you’re better off eating in nearby Carroll Gardens or 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 super diverse and delicious neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Flushing (home of 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. (Need a guide? EYW is now offering food tours of Jackson Heights, where we've been based for the past six years.)
Take a splurge
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, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. If those are out of financial reach, consider visiting 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.
Pastrami at Katz's, a perennial favorite
Heed the classics
Trends come and go, but the city's classic foods have stuck around for a century-plus for good reason. Bagels, a good New York slice, and hot dogs 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' new cafe 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; a block east of Central Park, on the Upper East Side, 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 storied bar, like Midtown’s iconic 21 Club, to raise a toast to yourself with a well-crafted Manhattan: You’re part New Yorker now.
A version of this article originally appeared on U.S. News & World Report’s Travel blog.