New York is changing at such an incredible pace it’s now sometimes difficult to find a true experience unique to the iconic city. These places – some old school, some new – have a flavour you definitely won’t find anywhere else.
With some of the world’s most top-rated restaurants all in one city, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with recommendations (you’ll no doubt have accumulated a list of must-try brunch spots, greasy diners and burger joints from everyone you know who’s been there). Look deeper for the hidden gems – local eateries with that distinctive no-bullshit New York charm.
Waverly Restaurant, 385 Sixth Ave (Greenwich Village)
Old school diners are dying in Manhattan, rising rents causing them to be replaced by boutiques selling imported European chocolates (this actually happened). This West Village hold-out (don’t confuse it with the upscale Waverly Inn) beats that trend serving breakfast staples and Greek standards (as well as democracy, the Greeks invented New York diners) 24 hours a day.
Junior’s, 386 Flatbush Ave Ext (Downtown Brooklyn) (below)
Do not cheat and visit the tourist outposts at Grand Central or Times Square. Have lunch at the original restaurant that opened in 1950 – when Brooklyn was a very different place. The food is not spectacular – it will cure a hangover – but the cheesecake and the local scene are worth the subway fare. The bar TVs show sports events – worth a Brooklyn Lager during college basketball or football games.
Second Avenue Deli, 162 East 33rd Street (Midtown)
Tourists go to Katz’s – where Harry Met Sally and… whatever. Everybody else goes to Second Avenue Deli that is neither on Second Avenue nor what you would know as a “deli”. The owner was murdered during a robbery in 1996 at its original East Village location and the restaurant relocated in 2007 after a rent dispute (the old spot is now a bank) but serves the same kosher classics: knishes, chopped liver, and a triple-decker tongue sandwich.
John’s of Bleecker Street, 278 Bleecker Street (Greenwich Village)
There are hundreds of pie joints claiming to be “New York’s First” or “New York’s Best” pizza. In Greenwich Village, John’s is neither (the best pizza in the city is probably found in deepest Brooklyn) but the total experience is among the best and justifies the occasional lines out the front door. Wood tables, no slices, cheap beer and wine. Keep the toppings simple. Sold.
Jing Fong, 20 Elizabeth St (Chinatown)
You could spend $8 on a ridiculous cupcake or even line up for a “cronut”, a croissant-donut hybrid popular with some tourists over the past few years. Alternatively, you could head to Chinatown for weekend dim sum at Jing Fong. Give your name to the women at the door, take the escalator to the second-floor banquet hall, and eat. Like much of New York, English is a second language. Smile and point at whatever comes by on the trolleys.
Grand Central Oyster Bar, Grand Central Station, 89 E 42nd St (Midtown) (below)
The service can sometimes be spotty but take a seat at the horseshoe counters or the bar (there’s also a section with tables) and order up clam chowder soup, a fish sandwich and, of course, oysters. Then think about the fact you’re eating in an iconic train station restaurant that got a second life in 1974 after sitting empty for several years. Then note the amazing ceiling, sip your drink, and say, “I’m in New York”.
Whether your definition of a good night out is rubbing shoulders with the locals at a tiny dive bar drinking cheap beer or taking in the views at sunset over fancy cocktails, the city has plenty to choose from that aren’t overrun with tourists.
Manitoba’s, 99 Avenue B (East Village)
“Handsome” Dick Manitoba was lead singer for New York pre-punk band The Dictators whose halcyon days were during the mid-70s. Fittingly, this tiny East Village bar is decorated with some of the best punk and new wave photography and memorabilia you will ever see, reminding drinkers of a time when the East Village was more of a cultural hub than playground for New York University students. Bonus: one of the best jukeboxes in the city.
The Roof at the Viceroy, 124 West 57th St (Central Park) (below)
In a vertical city, rooftop bars are the rage and during a New York summer they’re filled with tourists or after-work drinkers getting in a few before catching trains to New Jersey or Long Island. The Roof, 29 floors up in an elevator, opened in 2014 and is yet to be overrun by rowdy Midtown crowds. Wear your fancy pants – a cocktail will set you back about $18 – and enjoy the sunset view of Central Park.
A credit to its immigrant history, soak up the remnants of a messy night with options more varied and a step up from your typical fast food joint or street kebab (sorry, gyro) stand. Head to Harlem for some fried chicken or try traditional Ukrainian fare on the Lower East Side.
VESELKA, 144 2nd Ave, East Village
The burgers at this 24/7 restaurant are among some of NYC’s best but first-timers should save precious stomach space for the Ukrainian staples (once packed with Ukrainian eateries, Veselka is one of the remaining few in this area). Ask for the short rib pierogies (Ukrainian dumplings that are either served boiled or fried), borscht, veal goulash and stuffed cabbage.
RUSS AND DAUGHTER’S CAFÉ, 127 Orchard St, Lower East Side
A New York institution, Russ and Daughter’s (known for their extensive list of smoked/cured seafood best enjoyed on a fluffy New York bagel) opened this dine-in café just over a year ago for its 100th anniversary and serves Jewish comfort food (think potato latkes and matzo ball soup) along with platters of smoked and cured fish and caviar.
RED ROOSTER, 310 Lenox Ave, Harlem
Not to be confused with the Aussie fast food chain, this Harlem local serves classic soul food, including their famous fried chicken – the Fried Yardbird – served on a bed of mashed potatoes with bread and butter pickles. To finish, order the Red Rooster donuts with sweet potato filling or a slice of Black-Bottom Peanut Pie.
From ice-cream to rival Messina back home to melt-in-your-mouth pastries, impress your partner by making time to stop by these spots for a sweet fix. Some might be a bit of a wait but they’re nothing compared to the aforementioned cronut (according to their website, you have a “great chance” of getting one if you’re in line by 7:30am. We’ll choose the sleep-in, thanks).
MILK BAR, 15 w 56th St (between 5th and 6th avenues), Midtown
Here at Milk Bar (part of David Chang’s Momofuku brand), it’s the addictive treats with a creative nod to childhood favourites that pull the crowds. The clear winners are the crack pie (gooey buttery filling in an oat crust base), compost cookie (loaded with choc chips, potato chips and pretzels) and cereal milk soft serve (the name says it all).
AMPLE HILLS CREAMERY, 623 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn
Known for their inventive and occasional offbeat flavours (their apple beer-flavoured ice-cream with clusters of cheese puffs wasn’t exactly a hit), have your scoop – we recommend The Munchies (pretzel-infused ice-cream with clusters of pretzels, potato chips, Ritz crackers and M&Ms) or Snap, Mallow, Pop (a deconstructed Rice Krispies Treat) – in a cookie or pretzel cone.
BREADS BAKERY, 18 East 16th St, Union Square (below)
Chef and co-owner Uri Scheft hails from Israel where his bakeries in Tel Aviv, Lehamim Bakery (lehamim means ‘breads’ in Hebrew), made him a household name. The babka, a traditional Jewish dessert bread, is arguably the best in the city – all soft, buttery brioche braided with layers of chocolate and oozy Nutella. Don’t miss the cheese straws while you’re here: flaky pastry sticks covered in crispy, golden Gouda cheese.