Jan 3, 2020

A Beginners Guide to New York City: A Tried & True Crash Course

I grew up 50 miles outside of Manhattan in Northern New Jersey and am still lucky enough to visit New York City fairly frequently thanks to friends who live there/ get married there or just to make my mom eat at six restaurants in one day with me.

Because of this, and my affinity for food and restaurants, I frequently get asked for recommendations by friends visiting the city for the first time so I figured I would put together a list of some classics and “can’t miss spots”. Before anyone gets up-in-arms about anything I left out – remember I had to draw the line somewhere and also there are a lot of restaurants in NYC and I don’t live there so I haven’t been to them all.

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As a kid driving into the city meant going in to see the Thanksgiving Day parade, going ice-skating in Central Park for my dad’s work events, going to see concerts or sporting events at Madison Square Garden (my first concert ever was Dave Matthews Band) and visiting all of the major museums for educational experiences. I had many doctor appointments at Sloan Kettering on the Upper East Side which meant frequently missing school – luckily my mom made it much more enjoyable by giving me permission to invite friends for afternoons filled with Dylan’s Candy Bar and loading up on all the sugar we could manage while we waited for our reservation at Serendipity 3. And despite all these visits, I didn’t realize just how much good food I was around (though it was back in my picky eater days sadly) until I read Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic & Sapphires” detailing her time working as the NY Times food critic and realized I had been to many of the restaurants.

In high school heading into the city meant taking the train in with friends for days and nights inspired by “Gossip Girl”. We went on shopping sprees at Bloomingdales or tried on designer prom dresses we could never afford at Henri Bendel. It also meant taking in numerous Broadway shows – everything from “Les Misérables” and “Chicago” to “Legally Blonde” and multiple viewings of “Wicked”. We rarely went below 14th Street or above 80th, but during this period I fell in love with the magic of this city, trash-filled streets and all. 

Nowadays taking a trip to New York is filled with food, exploring the streets and navigating the subway system since, as it turns out taking cabs everywhere is expensive. While I love the nostalgia of revisiting so many places around Manhattan there are always new places to explore.

As it turns out, Brooklyn is awesome (growing up in the 90’s no one went to Brooklyn) and so many neighborhoods have completely changed. The turnover in restaurants is crazy and frequent but the restaurants I’ve included here are some that I can always rely on. Even if it’s your first time to New York you should still try to avoid Times Square (for eating!) at all costs.

Bagels

New York (and New Jersey) bagels are unparalleled. While I can find many foods around Los Angeles it is really tough to find a good bagel outside of the tri-state area. I’ve heard of LA restaurants importing water from New York City in order to imitate the coveted NY bagel. While I’ve heard there is some science to the low pH levels of the water (also known as soft water), LA bagels still can’t compete. Bagels first made their appearance in New York towards the end of the 19th century. Everyone has his or her go-to bagel spot. Sometimes it’s because it is conveniently located or because delivered right to their apartment door or because they have unique toppings and combinations. 

What do I consider to be a good bagel? It should be a hand rolled bagel with a soft and chewy center with an almost-glossy crunchy, bubbled exterior. What is it not? A cake-like bread with a hole in it. No matter where you get it, one thing is for certain, few things go together as well as bagels and schmear.

Russ & Daughters

Any trip I take to New York City includes at least one stop at Russ & Daughters. The shop on 179 E Houston St. has been open since 1914. You know how a store is good? It’s remained open for over 100 years. In more recent years they have opened a Café, a location at the Jewish museum and one at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. One of my idols, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, grew up going there. It is actually the first known business in the US to include “& daughters” in the name (rather than “& sons”) after the owner made his daughters equal partners in the business.

They offer a variety of bagel sandwiches and a deli counter filled with a variety of smoked/ cured fish as well as roe, knishes and chocolate babka. Without fail I always order the pastrami cured salmon. Cold-smoked salmon is covered in a mixture of 14 spices. This isn’t the kind of salmon you can grab pre-packaged at your local grocery store, and while it is a bit pricier per pound, the flavor and buttery texture is worth it. I have even ordered it delivered across the country through Goldbelly

Must-order: Pastrami smoked salmon

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Sadelle’s 

Sadelle’s, located in SoHo, serves traditional Jewish brunch (as well as Russian caviar and vodka service at night). The restaurant belongs to the Major Food Group which also operates another personal favorite, Carbone, as well as Dirty French among others. The restaurant space is split into a bakery with a take-out window and a large open-concept restaurant.

If you land a brunch reservation you must order the bagel tower. The tower comes with unlimited bagels, always served hot and fresh, marinated tomato, cucumber, onion and capers. The fish is selected from a menu including house salmon, sable and whitefish salad among others. Waiters move through the restaurant with the bagels on a long pole, yelling “HOT BAGELS” anytime a fresh order appears, to which the floor staff shouts back “HOT BAGELS”. While the bagels are most well-known, the sticky buns really shine. Lacquered layers of pastry dough similar to a kouign-amann are baked into a crispy, sticky, glorious mess and are well-worth the days’ worth of calories they contain. 

Must-order: Bagel tower & sticky buns 

Black Seed Bagel

Black Seed Bagel may actually sell Montréal-style bagels (as opposed to NYC) but they have some of the best bagel sandwiches in the city and a big following on social media. Their combinations range from AB&J (house-made almond butter and jelly) for $4; to their salmon tobiko bagel sandwich with tobiko cream cheese, smoked salmon and butter lettuce; and they do monthly special collaborations with other restaurants around the city.

One of my favorite collaborations is a Sichuan peppercorn bagel with ghost pepper chicken salad with Little Tong Noodle Shop. They recently did another collaboration with Win Son in Brooklyn producing a red pepper and fried shallot bagel filled with doufu ru shrimp salad and sliced scallions. Black Seed has multiple locations across the city, making picking up bagels easy.  

Must-order: Monthly Special Bagel or the Salmon Tobiko Bagel

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Ess-a-Bagel

Ess-a-bagel is the more low-key, weekend bagel spot favored by many New Yorkers. Established in 1976, the shop is located on 3rd Avenue between 50th and 51st but ships nationwide through Goldbelly if you want a taste from afar.

They are famed for their hand-rolled bagels and variety of flavored cream cheese including cheddar jalapeño and the off- the- menu avocado-garlic spread. Ess-a-bagel goes beyond the ordinary “bagels with cream cheese and lox” and offers a long list of meats, fish and cheese for a reasonable price in comparison to many other places. Want a Rueben on a sandwich? You got it. Chicken cordon bleu? Sure. My personal favorite for Sunday mornings, bacon, egg and cheese? Done. 

Must-order: Classic bagel of choice with cream cheese

Pizza

From thin-crust by-the-slice pizza joints to sit-down and order-a-full-pie casual restaurants, New York City has no shortage of good pizza. Part of the thill about New York pizza is that you can get it just about anywhere you look and you can buy it by the slice on-the-go without committing to a whole pie. In LA there aren’t too many places where you can buy good pizza by the slice, especially late at night. How do I judge my pizza? Does it have structural integrity? When you hold it with one hand does the end flop? What is the sauce to cheese ratio? Is the dough airy yet chewy?

Joe’s Pizza

Joe’s is a no-frills stand with multiple locations around the city, though my favorite is the original location on Carmine street. This is the place to go for the so-called “quintessential New York slice”. Don’t look for anything fancy at Joe’s, it’s cash only, $3 a slice and the line is frequently out the door but with only a few options it moves fast. It’s my favorite place for a late-night slice after leaving bars with friends since it’s open until 5am on weekends. Don’t count on seating, you will most likely stand around on the street with your pizza. Each slice is reheated in the oven, thin and crisp on the bottom with a doughy crust, and good sauce to cheese ratio. I typically go for a slice of plain and a slice of pepperoni and load up on red pepper flakes and cheese from the little silver-topped shakers. 

Must-order: Slice (or 2) of Pepperoni Pizza

Prince St. Pizza

I think it’s an unwritten rule that every popular NYC pizza spot has to have a wall of framed photos of celebrities that have visited and Prince St. is no different. It’s popular for their pepperoni Sicilian-style square slice. Each piece has about ½ an inch of yeasty crust topped with sauce, cheese and crispy pepperoni cups filled with just enough grease. These “grandma-slices” are photogenic and most certainly recognizable on your Instagram feed. Heads up – there will be a line. They make a pizza, then sell off the slices and can’t keep up with the demand, but the good news is that your slice will always be fresh. 

Must-order: Square slice of Pepperoni Pizza

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Artichoke Basille’s Pizza 

This spot became a quick fan favorite after it was opened by two local cousins in 2008. Referred to usually as “Artichoke Pizza” there are many locations around the city with the original in the East Village. While they have some great options, they are most famous for their artichoke pizza topped with artichoke hearts, spinach, cream sauce, mozzarella and Pecorino Romano cheese. It’s like eating a slice of pizza with a thin, crisp crust topped with creamy spinach artichoke dip. Back in 2015 I was watching the US Women’s soccer team play Japan in the World Cup finals at a bar in the East Village with some friends and we decided to ordered a whole artichoke pizza delivered. That night the US won and so did we. 

Must-order: spinach artichoke pizza

Mama’s Too

Mama’s Too, like Prince Street serves Sicilian style pizza and while it doesn’t have quite the same cult following, it may be even better. Unfortunately, it’s generally out of the way, located on the Upper West Side on 105th St. and Broadway. The small shop with counter seating has a garage door that opens for summer and closes for cold winter days. I ordered a slice of the vodka square and the pepperoni topped with crispy cups of pepperoni filled with pools of grease which, to clarify is a good thing. You shouldn’t blot your pizza with napkins like a savage.

Must-order: Sicilian slice of pepperoni or vodka

Rubirosa 

Enjoy a small or large pie in a dark bar-like setting in the heart of Nolita just steps from the “six train”. There are no reservations, so opt to only go there with two to three other people for fast seating. Rubirosa is a family-run restaurant, opened by the son of the owner of the Staten Island favorite Joe & Pat’s, mixing old-school recipes with new twists. I ordered a large pizza (8 slices vs. 6 on the pie) that was half vodka (vodka sauce and fresh mozzarella) and half tye-die (vodka sauce, tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella topped with a swirl of pesto). My husband, Aaron, was so jealous I saved two slices and flew them back to LA with me so he could get a taste. 

Must-order: Tye-dye pizza pie

Roberta’s 

This Brooklyn restaurant is famous for its trendy wood-fired pizzas but also has some other incredible food on their menu. I first tried Roberta’s when it came to LA as a month-long popup prior to opening a location in Culver City (the Brooklyn one is still better and they also have two other Manhattan locations). They serve specialty 12-inch thin-crust pizza pies with a chewy yet crisp crust with charred spots or “leoparding” from their incredibly high-temperature wood-fired oven. 

There are three pizzas that top the list at Roberta’s – the “Millennium Falco”, the “Speckenwolf” and the “Bee Sting”. The first gets its name from Anthony Falco who helped to make Roberta’s what it is today and comes topped with sauce, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, olive oil, chili flake, garlic, basil, red onion, and pork sausage (all topped in that order).

The second comes topped with mozzarella, Speck (charcuterie made from pork fatback or belly, salt cured and smoked and is in the same family as prosciutto), mushroom, onion, oregano and black pepper. The third is simple but has been copied by restaurants/ pizza places everywhere – tomato sauce, mozzarella, sopressata, chili, and a touch of honey for the perfect contrast of spicy and sweet. 

Must order: The bee sting

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Italian 

I wish I had more photos of these Italian restaurants but I tend to go for dinner when the light isn’t good for photography. Bar Pitti and Lil Frankies are both more old-school places – both are cash only while Vic’s and Carbone are newer. Valbella is another Italian Restaurant  I’ve gone to for years with my family but their Meatpacking location recently closed due to a rent increase, and while they still have a midtown location it’s just not the same. 

Bar Pitti

This “cash only” Greenwich Village Tuscan trattoria can be difficult to get into, but it’s worth it. It’s busy, but they do things quickly, and in the summer months they open up the doors to a sidewalk patio, perfect for “people watching”, while in the winter the tables are tightly packed but it’s cozy. Order the Pappardelle alla Fiesolana – flat, large, homemade pasta which is tossed in a rich tomato cream sauce with smoked bacon and a generous pile of parmesan cheese. The spaghetti with lobster is a chalkboard special (but it’s always there) and you can’t go wrong. 

Must-order: Pappardelle alla Fiesolana

Lil Frankie’s 

Lil Frankie’s is another “cash-only” spot in the East Village (not too far from both Russ & Daughters and Katz’s). It’s cozy and intimate setting is good for both groups or and date nights alike and has an exposed brick and old-school feel. The burrata is flown in from Italy, and the whole roasted eggplant is tender on the inside and drizzled with oil, then seasoned with salt and pepper tableside. Their spaghetti limone is a simple dish with lemon, butter and cheese but they execute it well, and it’s a favorite among diners. Their gnocchi is handmade daily and the serving style changes frequently. 

Must-order: Spaghetti Limone

Vic’s

This NoHo Italian-Mediterranean bistro opened in 2014 with a menu filled with bold flavors thanks to Chef Vicki Freeman. I came for the light and airy whipped pecorino dip served with pizza bianca and stayed for the pasta.

Absolutely order the Borsa which means “little purse” an comes filled with ricotta, hazelnut & lemon. They explode with creamy sheep’s milk ricotta and are tossed in a light lemon butter sauce. My friend disciplined me for trying to cut them into as many bites as possible to savor them for as long as possible. If you are a fan of simpler more classic pasta you can’t go wrong with the cacio e pepe. 

Must-order: Whipped Pecorino dip & Borsa

Carbone  

This one you have definitely seen scrolling though Instagram and believe me, it is worth the hype. The Italian-American high-end red sauce restaurant was favored for date nights by the Obamas and is famous for their spicy rigatoni vodka (find a similar recipe for the dish here).

The dish draws endless “East Coast vs. West Coast” comparisons with the beloved Hollywood spot, Jon & Vinny’s spicy rigatoni. Carbone’s unique u-shaped rigatoni is served al dente and perfectly holds the creamy vodka sauce studded with Calabrian chilies, Parmesan and onion soubise, slowly buttery simmered onions that are not quite caramelized but richer in flavor. I’d recommend under-ordering since they provide pickled vegetables, Parmesan and charcuterie complementary to start. 

Must-order: Spicy Rigatoni Vodka

Other Classics 

Serendipity 

Serendipity is one of my favorite words, it means a happy accident. I’ve been coming to this Upper East Side staple synonymous with the 90’s movie of the same name since I was a kid. Year after year it became routine to stop here after my doctors’ appointments at Sloan Kettering nearby. It started as a treat and became a tradition that makes me think, not of the doctors’ appointments that took up a majority of the day, but of days spent with my mom and my best friends enjoying a frozen hot chocolate and burger. There’s something about this kitschy restaurant filled with little knick-knack gifts, stained-glass window-panes hanging from the ceiling, vintage lamps and old posters that makes it feel cozy and fun. 

Their “golden opulence sundae”, has ranked in the Guinness book of world records for the most expensive sundae in the world – it’s a mere $1000 for one order. With 48-hours notice Serendipity creates a luxurious sundae with three scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream covered with 23-karat gold leaf, almonds, caviar and an orchid made from sugar, all served in a Baccarat crystal goblet and eaten with an 18-karat gold spoon. I’m unsure if you get to keep the goblet and spoon for that price. If you aren’t prepared to throw around a grand for a dessert then go for the Frozen Hot Chocolate. This drink comes in a large glass goblet filled with an icy blended chocolate (not quite a milkshake, more the consistency of a chocolate smoothie). It’s heaped with rich homemade whipped cream, chocolate shavings and two straws for sharing. 

Must-order: Frozen hot chocolate

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Katz’s Deli

Katz’s deli is possibly the most famous from “that scene” in When Harry Met Sally. You know – “I’ll have what she’s having”. There’s even a sign hanging overhead pointing to where Meg Ryan sat. It’s been open on the Lower East Side (just down Houston from Russ & Daughters) since 1888 and it stays open a remarkable 24 hours a day on weekends. Bon Appétit even did a piece showcasing what it’s like to work there for 24 hours straight. This is one of those places that can be intimidating, you have to know what you’re in for. It’s cafeteria-style so when you enter you grab a ticket and then you order from a designated area at the counter. Take your food, sit down, enjoy, and then pay on your way out. Bring cash and don’t lose your ticket or you won’t make it through the turn-style as you leave!

The most famous item on the menu is the pastrami sandwich. The meat can take up to 30 days to cure before it’s smoked. A row of designated slicers hand-carve the pastrami into thick slices piled high on rye bread and served with mustard. 

Must-order: Pastrami sandwich

Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Nom Wah Tea Parlor is New York City’s first dim sum restaurant, serving dumplings and more in Chinatown since 1920. Unlike most dim sum restaurants, the food does not come around on a pushcart as it’s all made to order and delivered to your table. You write your order on a checklist menu and turn it in to the waiter to order. One of the most popular items on the menu is the rice roll – sheets of steamed rice flour noodles rolled and topped with sweet soy sauce. Be sure to get both the house special roast pork bun (a fluffy bao bun stuffed with sticky sweet roast pork) and their shumai (pork and shrimp dumplings). 

Must-order: rice roll and roast pork bun

Deluxe Green Bo

Deluxe Green Bo is one of my favorite spots in Chinatown. It’s one of those places that I always take people visiting New York. My friend Emily of @foodloversdiary introduced me to their crispy, doughy scallion pancakes, wontons tossed in peanut butter sauce and chili oil and pork and crab XLB (xiao long bao).

Their fried tiny buns with pork are like a cross between Sheng Jian Bao and BBQ pork buns – they’re fried on the bottom and fluffy with juicy pork in the middle. I go through orders of the hot and spicy wontons myself – boiled dumplings are tossed in a savory peanut sauce and spicy chili oil. The peanut sauce cools down the chili oil for a delicious bowl of dumplings.

Must-order: scallion pancakes and hot and spicy wontons

Newer Favorites

Emily/ Emmy Squared 

Why is Emily included here and not in the pizza section? Because they are arguably more well known for their burgers and their Detroit-style pizza. The original restaurant group location, Emily, opened in Brooklyn in 2016 but the company has quickly opened another Emily in the West Village and Emmy Squared in multiple locations around Manhattan as well as expanding to Nashville, Philly & DC. Reservations can be made on Resy in advance and while there are slow times I always opt to make reservations wherever possible. 

I’d recommend going with at least one other person because there are a few must order items on the menu. The first is the “Emmy burger”; served at all locations, it comes with a LaFrieda dry-aged beef patty, caramelized onion, American cheese, pickles and “Emmy sauce” on a pretzel bun. The “Emmy sauce” is what makes it so unique. It’s a mayo-based sauce combined with melted butter, garlic and my favorite fermented Korean chili paste, gochujang. It’s sweet, spicy and oh so delicious. The pizzas are made Detroit style – made in quarter-sheet pans with a crisp, thick-crust with cheese that caramelizes on the edges, almost Sicilian style, served with a variety of unique toppings. My favorite is the “pig freaker” with bacon, kimchi, sesame and miso queso. 

Must-order: Emmy Burger & A Detroit-style pizza

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The Smith 

The Smith is a crowd-pleaser. It’s affordable and casual, can handle larger groups, takes reservations and there are multiple locations around the city. Can’t decide what you are in the mood for? The Smith is usually the answer. The eclectic menu has something for every person no matter how picky. Get an order of the potato chips topped with blue cheese fondue (or make my similar version from this recipe here). The mac & cheese is extra cheesy and served in a skillet made for sharing while the burger comes topped with special sauce, cheese, bacon marmalade and a heaping side of fries.  

Must-order: blue cheese potato chips or mac and cheese

The Meatball Shop

Like The Smith, The Meatball Shop is another affordable crowd pleaser. While you can’t make reservations, the wait typically isn’t too bad, and there are locations all around the city. With a “build-your-own” mix and match checklist menu, the Meatball Shop is reliable with consistently good food. I always end up building the same bowl of pasta but the Meatball shop has endless options from spicy pork meatballs to lobster balls over anything from spaghetti, mixed greens or polenta and topped with my personal favorite the Parmesan cream sauce, though the spicy meat is also very good.  

Must-order: Spicy pork meatballs with parmesan cream sauce over spaghetti

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