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Are you wondering what to eat in New York City during your first trip to the Big Apple? Read on to discover ten must-eat New York food favorites that you simply should not miss during your Gotham adventure.
Start spreading the word. The highlight of any trip to New York City is the food in one of the country’s best food cities.
Let’s face it, eating in New York is the best thing to do in the city that doesn’t sleep. This is a city where you can eat great food from the crack of dawn until … the crack of dawn.
Sure, the US megacity has fabulous museums and sights that all travelers should visit during their first visit. Travelers who buy a New York Pass never regret checking out the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and 9/11 Tribute Center too. As for art, we recommend the Met, MOMA and Neue Galerie.
What can we say? After living and working in Manhattan for a combined 17 years followed by too many visits to count on our fingers and toes, we now focus on finding the best food every time we return to New York.
New York Food Favorites
Food travelers can find New York food favorites throughout the city from the tip of the Bronx to the bottom of Staten Island. And the best part? Savvy diners don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well in New York.
In many ways, New York is a city of immigrants and millionaires. The immigrants, many who arrived over a century ago, brought all kinds of food traditions that continue to this day. As for the millionaires, let’s just say that they like to eat well. Accordingly, food in New York ranges from global cheap eats to the echelon of fine dining.
Feeling overwhelmed? We recommend that you take a deep breath and start your culinary exploration with the following iconic New York food favorites:
Bagels weren’t invented in New York but they’re better in the big apple than anywhere else in the world. Sorry, Montreal – we like New York’s jumbo, crunchy, dense bagels better than your smaller, sweeter version.
Eastern European Jews brought their bagel recipes to New York at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, bagels have become a worldwide phenomenon enjoyed by food lovers from Edinburgh to Shanghai.
In New York, bakers hand roll bagels using a special twisting and shaping method before boiling them in a mixture of water and malt syrup and then baking them to a dark, crusty brown. Many people incorrectly attribute the New York bagel’s magnificent qualities to local water, but we attribute the New York bagel’s excellence to bagel-making methods refined over a century or more.
A New York bagel is a wonderful vessel for cream cheese, lox and other fixings. Popular bagel flavors include sesame, salt, poppy, onion and garlic as well as everything bagels that have all of the above.
Most New Yorkers are loyal to their favorite neighborhood bagel shops. Visit a few so that you can find your personal favorite too.
Insider Tip: Order a Black & White Cookie as part of your bagel experience. The two-colored glazed cookie is available at most bagel shops.
With thousands of pizzerias in New York, pizza is the food that fuels America’s biggest city. From dollar slices to loaded pies, pizza is a common denominator among the classes that rarely disappoints.
New Yorkers now claim the ubiquitous food favorite as their own and for good reason – those thousands of pizza parlors make it difficult to find bad pizza in NYC. Although New York’s version is distinctly different from the kind served in Italy, the American city can take some credit for pizza’s global popularity.
Italian immigrants like Gennaro Lombardi imported the pizza tradition when they moved to NYC at the end of the 19th century. Lombardi opened the still operating Lombardi’s, a coal-oven pizzeria, in 1897. New York visitors can eat pizza at joints like Lombardi’s or sample several during a pizza tour.
Plan to eat New York pizza with your hands, carefully folding each slice before gleefully stuffing it into your mouth. First, though, sprinkle enough oregano, grated cheese and red chili flakes to achieve your own version of pizza perfection.
As a variation, you can also enjoy authentic Neapolitan style pies at restaurants like Keste as well as renditions inspired by other locales like Detroit at Emmy Squared, St. Louis at Speedy Romeo and Louisiana at Two Boots. Better yet, eat them all.
3. Hot Dogs
Though they’re as American as baseball and apple pie, hot dogs are another classic New York food brought over by immigrants – in this case, Germans and Austrians. One of those German immigrants, Charles Feltman, opened Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island back in 1915. Although his original pushcart business now has locations around the world, the best location remains in Brooklyn.
You won’t have to look hard for a New York hot dog. They’re all over the city in street carts, at Gray’s Payaya stands and at the aforementioned Nathan’s. There’s really no more authentic hot dog experience than enjoying it while watching baseball, America’s pastime, at a Yankees or Mets game.
Add plenty of mustard to your dog as well as relish and (untraditionally) ketchup if you must. You can even add sauerkraut if that’s how you roll.
4. Pastrami Sandwiches
Popular for over a century, pastrami sandwiches hit the worldwide zeitgeist in 1989 thanks to a memorable scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally. Today, passionate food travelers make a pilgrimage to the Lower East Side to “have what she’s having” a/k/a a hand-carved pastrami sandwich.
Eastern Europeans brought the Jewish deli concept from countries like Poland and Romania when they fled their homes in search of the American dream. Made with cured and smoked beef brisket, a pastrami sandwich is the classic deli item with its thin layers of pastrami piled high between two slices of seeded rye bread.
Plan to share your Pastrami Sandwich unless you’re starving. Good ones are both expensive and huge. Add brown mustard and dill pickles for optimal satisfaction.
While in New York, you can also enjoy Pastrami’s cousin – the Corned Beef Sandwich on rye. You can simply add Russian dressing or opt for a Reuben, the semi-Jewish, non-kosher classic sandwich loaded with Swiss cheese (the unkosher part), sauerkraut, and Russian dressing.
Insider Tip: Wash your Pastrami Sandwich down with a fizzy Egg Cream or Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry, Cream or (if you’re really hardcore) Celery soda for the full New York deli experience.
Although the hamburger’s roots may loosely trace back to Hamburg, New Yorkers have fully embraced the meaty sandwich and made it their own. Teenagers, businessmen and ‘ladies who lunch’ eat juicy burgers all over the city from fast-casual eateries to some of the finest New York restaurants.
In New York, no two hamburgers are identical, with each chef adding his own twist. In just a day, hamburger fans can have two totally different experiences by eating a juicy smashed patty burger at Shake Shack or a beefy, thick Black Label Burger at Keith McNally’s Minetta Tavern.
Most of the city’s best gastropubs source their meat from legendary New Jersey butcher Pat LaFrieda who creates a special blend ground beef and fat. Get a burger made to order, preferably medium-rare, and enjoy every juicy bite.
The origins of brunch are a mystery. The mid-day meal may have originated with English hunters, churchgoing Catholics or Jews just looking for a good ‘nosh.’ It hit our personal radar in the 1990s when Sarabeth’s was all the rage on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Today, brunchers don’t have to look hard for a spot to eat the best meal of the day on a leisurely Saturday or Sunday. And the choices run the gamut with the likes of dim sum in Chinatown, soul food in Harlem, hipster grub in Greenpoint and ‘cheffy’ food in Gramercy Park.
Despite all the brunch choices, there’s one particular brunch that’s unique to NYC – bagels and lox. Though you can buy all the ingredients to make a brunch feast in your hotel room, we recommend Russ & Daughters Cafe located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Order a fish board to share and savor a quintessential New York food experience.
Insider Tip: Start your Russ & Daughters brunch with a Super Heebster Bagel Toast topped with whitefish & baked salmon salad, wasabi-infused fish roe and horseradish dill cream cheese.
7. Chinese Food
Chinese food is yet another popular cuisine that’s not indigenous to NYC. Chinese restaurants first popped up in the 1870s when Chinese immigrants started moving from the West Coast after the Gold Rush ended.
Some of the city’s best Chinese restaurants are still located in the city’s original Chinatown in lower Manhattan; however, the more exciting Chinese food hub is now in Flushing. Intrepid food travelers will want to hop on the subway for a culinary trip to China via Queens.
A visit to NYC is the time to expand your Chinese food horizons. Start by slurping soup juicy dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai and devouring hand-pulled noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods.
Consider a Chinatown tour if you want to taste a lot of different Chinese food specialties. Using chopsticks is recommended but not required.
8. Fine Dining
With more than fifty Michelin-starred restaurants, New York has enough upscale restaurants to satisfy both lords of industry and wandering gourmands. When it comes to eating well in New York, the options are practically endless so long as your credit limit can handle it.
Top establishments like Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin have set the culinary bar not just in NYC but in kitchens around the globe. However, don’t discount more innovative establishments like Momofuku Ko and high-end sushi bars like Sushi Nakazawa.
Fine dining isn’t for everybody, but if you’re going to splurge on a meal, it might as well be in New York. Do your research, make an advance reservation and enjoy the experience.
9. Cronuts and Other Fun Pastries
Pairing donuts with coffee has been a thing in New York for decades. In recent years, artisan bakers have pushed the envelope with exciting pastry creations, none more notable than the cronut.
Invented in NYC by French baker Dominique Ansel and sold in his self-named bakery, cronuts stormed the city when they debuted in 2013. Crowds still queue each morning for their chance to buy the croissant-donut hybrid.
Just to be clear, cronuts are not the only dessert game in town. The city is filled with bakeries selling cupcakes, cookie dough and crack pie. However, if you want a simple donut, you can easily find that too. You can even take a donut tour and try several.
Insider Tip: NYC has a number of specialty coffee shops serving third wave coffee. You’re never far from good coffee in New York if that’s your thing too.
As much fun as it is to eat creative pastries, there’s something about digging into an old-school slice of New York cheesecake. Although the diner staple is available all over the city, nobody does it better than Junior’s at the original Brooklyn location.
A good New York cheesecake is filled with ingredients like eggs, heavy cream, sugar and the most important ingredient – cream cheese.
Although Kraft’s Philadelphia Brand is famous around the world for cream cheese, cheesecake’s key ingredient was actually invented in Chester, NY – just 60 miles from New York City. (Apparently, in the late 1800s, Philadelphia was known for luxury. Something we, as former Philadelphians, find laughable today.)
Don’t despair if you don’t have time to take a quick trip to Brooklyn. You can eat cheesecake at Junior’s in the heart of the action on Times Square.
New York Quick Facts
Plan Your New York Stay
Some businesses may revise their hours and menus due to COVID-19. Others may close, either temporarily or permanently, without notice. Be sure to check websites for updated information and make advance reservations where possible.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.