Eating out in New York: Experts share the best strategies to make the most of it
Few questions are more urgent than where to eat when you’re travelling to a place with more than two restaurants.
It’s certainly omnipresent for people who are visiting New York. (“Where should I eat?” is a question any local food critic hopes to never hear again.) The city has one of the best and deepest restaurant rosters in the world, and the amount is increasing: in 2017, there were 26,697 restaurants in the city, up from 26,110 in 2016 and roughly 1,500 more places than there were five years ago.
Of course you can make a list of must-try restaurants; that never hurts. But for a city as big and fast moving as New York, having a solid set of strategies to maximize your meals is the expert way to go.
Here’s how you’ve been messing it up.
1. You skip breakfast.
Unlike some breakfast-oriented cities like Atlanta and San Francisco, New York hasn’t always taken the first meal of the day seriously, beyond a bagel and schmear or slapped-together deli bacon-egg-cheese. Now the city has embraced it, and you’ll find stellar options from the maple-cinnamon crullers and smoked-gouda-and-sausage breakfast bagels at the compact Daily Provisions in Gramercy to the ranchero eggs at NoHo’s Atla. If a true New York bagel is on your bucket list, splash out with a spread at Russ & Daughters Café on the Lower East Side. For a statement breakfast in midtown, the Lobster Club highlights dishes from other Major Food Group restaurants including Sadelle’s sticky buns, as well as an over-the-top caviar breakfast egg toast.
2. You’re taking “No” for an answer.
If you really want to eat or drink at a restaurant or bar that accepts reservations and there aren’t any, stay strong, advises Jim Meehan, co-founder of cult cocktail bar PDT. “Ask to be put on the cancellations list and tell the contact that you will be standing by for their call—and then do. Most restaurants lose 10% of their reservations to no-shows or last minute cancellations. If they can rely on you to fill a slot, they’ll be more inclined to offer it to you, first.”
3. You’re blinded by stars.
Famed food writer and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl suggests you pay attention to the second, less-expensive and less-time-intensive restaurants from great chefs. One of the best examples is Enrique Olvera’s all-day Mexican cafe Atla instead of his high-end Cosme. Likewise the Bar Room at the Modern has a more modestly priced menu than the adjoining Modern dining room. There’s also Nomad instead of Eleven Madison Park, and JoJo instead of Jean-Georges.
4. You’re only sitting at a table.
The time-honored tradition of eating at the bar at great restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Le Bernardin, and Union Square Café also appeals to Reichl. It’s a more social experience than the dining room; you can often walk in and still enjoy the full menu; and it’s also a good place to get tips on where to eat from the staff and other diners if you’re visiting.
“And don’t forget the counter at the Oyster Bar,” advises Reichl, of the Grand Central Station icon. “It’s a quintessential New York experience. And you only need to have a few oysters to have the pleasure of watching those fantastic guys open the shells and concoct oyster stews.”
5. You’re only ordering cocktails.
We happen to be in the golden age of cocktail bars in New York, with destination versions of everything from speakeasies (Dear Irving) to tiki bars (the Polynesian) to rooftop hideaways (Broken Shaker). Many of these places also have very decent bar menus. Meehan, who put chef-made hotdogs on the map at PDT along with fully loaded tater tots, recommends eating while drinking around New York.
Among the top spots to do this are the Italian-styled Dante in the Village where the negronis (and ice) are an art form; the Office, where Michelin-starred chef Grant Achatz oversees dishes like prime ribeye tartare; the James Beard-winning, New Orleans-celebrating Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (it also has one of the city’s best $1 oyster happy hours); and Bar Goto, which serves exquisite okonomi-yaki, or Japanese omelet, to go with its meditative drinks.
6. You think Brooklyn is the only other borough.
Yes, yes, Brooklyn is fantastic when it comes to food. Don’t not eat in Williamsburg; Lilia continues to be one of the top five restaurants in New York, and it’s here you’ll find the city’s best pancakes. Robert Sietsema, senior critic at Eater.com (and my sometime dining companion), spends most of his time scouting out restaurants outside of Manhattan, and encourages even first-time visitors to not be shy about exploring the borough further. He recommends Di An Di, the new Houston-style Vietnamese spot in Greenpoint; the fresh pasta specialists Faro or its offshoot General Deb’s, in Bushwick; and the “wonderful” Pheasant under the BQE.
And then there’s Queens, one of the most diverse places on earth where up to 800 languages are spoken. “They have food from everywhere, it’s such a great place to eat,” says Sietsema, “with prices that are half of what you’d pay in Manhattan—if you could find that food in Manhattan.” He shouts out Taqueria El Sinaloense, which offers regional Mexican food; Mapo B.B.Q. with its stellar Korean menu; and the O.G. Xi’an Famous Foods in a Flushing mall that started a robust pulled-noodle empire. (Fun fact: Flushing is the largest Chinatown in New York.) For the Bronx, there’s the red-sauced Italian Mario’s Restaurant on Arthur Avenue, the borough’s trapped-in-time Litty Italy. And Lee’s Tavern on Staten Island is worth the trek for thin-crusted pizza, for those who want to name check all the outer boroughs—and wave “hi” to the Statue of Liberty on the way.
7. You’re not becoming a regular.
You can geek out on a place to go for the ultimate burger, the best fried chicken, a killer brunch. “Fine,” says New York magazine’s restaurant critic, Adam Platt. What’s better is to have a list hand of places that are solid all day long that work for multiple meals, palettes, and appetites.
First and foremost is Upland, from chef Justin Smilie which has a noteworthy burger, pizza, pasta, short ribs, lunch, and brunch. Similarly, Loring Place has a crowd-pleasing menu, day and night. Among other all-day destinations: Lafayette Grand Cafe in the Village, and the nearby Estela; Roberta’s in Bushwick; Frankie’s 457 Spuntino in Carroll Gardens; and Sunday in Brooklyn in good, old Williamsburg (although brunch is what you’ve seen the most social media for).
8. You’re not pounding the pavement.
Even with all our restaurants, make time to eat on the street. The midtown-based Halal Guys, with their chicken and gyro combo and incendiary hot sauce, have long since replaced a “dirty-water dog” as New York’s most iconic street food. Reichl has recommendations: “I just had the most delicious Taiwanese oyster omelet in TurnStyle at the Columbus Circle subway station. The guy at N.Y. Dosas at Washington Square Park, are another stop. Now that it’s summer, what could be better than eating outside?”
9. You’re not going big at lunch.
Fancy restaurants offer great deals at lunchtime. Le Coucou has a $48 lunch with many of the same sought-after dishes that are served at its impossible-to-get-into dinner. Marea’s lunch time meal is $58. And the $38 prix fixe at Nougatine and the Terrace at Jean-Georges is still a steal. Reichl also sees opportunity, and value, at many of the city’s top Japanese restaurants. “There’s a great omakase sushi deal at Sushi Ginza Onodera—if $130 can be called a deal,” she says. “Sakagura, too. Also Sushi Yasaka, probably the best cheap sushi in the city, is remarkable at lunch. I honestly don’t know how they do it.”
10. You’re only making reservations.
Dedicated restaurant reservationists may be practically extinct, and hotel concierges a dying breed, but for a seat at the city’s top spots, a handful of services are here to help. Resy is very good (and probably the only way to score a table at the outstanding Lucali pizza if your last name isn’t Beckham); so is Tock, which offers pre-paid, ticketed seats at Eleven Madison Park ( and their Summer House) among other high-end spots.
But if you’re only eating at restaurants you have a confirmed seat, stop! You’ll be missing out on some of the city’s most exciting spots to eat right now. There’s the new Una Pizza Napolatana; the creative small plates wine bar Wildair (which has some reservations via Reserve); the transportive Italian caffe Via Carota; and the bold-flavored Thai restaurant Ugly Baby in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
11. You’re afraid of a little line-up.
On the extreme end of the spectrum of the no-reservation spots are the ones with long lines—the places that don’t take your name and update you with wait time texts while you have a drink down the road. In fact, lines have become routine, notes New York’s Platt. “Diners are drawn to them; it’s part of the experience and an event you can record,” he says.
Among the places where there’s an often a line that’s worth standing on: Momofuku Noodle Bar; Dominique Ansel Bakery; Bubby’s for brunch; the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan for dim sum; and, of course, the original Shake Shack in Madison Park. Be warned, thought, that not all N.Y. lines are created equal. Exhibit A: Cookie DO NYC, which had bouncers for crowd control, and then a class action lawsuit that alleged the raw cookie dough was making people sick.
12. You’re only eating one dinner.
In spite of a proliferation of tasting menus, New York is still an ideal place to graze—especially when you factor in the FOMO of seeing dish after compelling dish on social media. “Forget destination restaurants,” says Platt, “every neighborhood is worth eating in now.” The best strategy is to stake one out, like this example itinerary in Manhattan’s ‘Middle Village: start with the fried cauliflower buns at Nix, then get the house burger at the bar at Gotham Bar and Grill, and finish with a cheese plate and a glass of white Burgundy at Corkbuzz, all within a 5-minute walk of each other.
Alternately, stay in Midtown after your meetings, and you can have martinis at the Grill and then walk a few blocks for tacos and crab nachos at Empellon Midtown. Or saunter to the border of SoHo and the West Village for crudo and Champagne at Charlie Bird before heading around the corner to Andrew Carmellini’s the Dutch for mains, and a sceney nightcap of Indian-spiced cocktails at Bombay Bread Bar after.
Keep it going as long as you can. Because if there’s one thing you’re definitely doing wrong when eating out in New York, it’s not doing enough of it.
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