By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Now that you've had your chestnuts roasted by an open fire, it's time to savor a different kind of chestnut. I'm talking about our most durable and inexpensive restaurantsthe old chestnuts of the city's dining scene. Most of those mentioned here have delivered excellent meals day in day out for decades with little fanfare. A few are justifiably celebrated for their historic significance, while others languish in the gloom of perpetual obscurity. Some of more recent vintage are merely wonderful, and wonderfully cheap. All allow you to dine in surroundings that are at leasthow shall we say it?interesting, with minimal expenditure of the green stuff, which may be in short supply if you've recently emptied your wallet in pursuit of certain quasi-religious holidays. My benchmark is the mythic $25 meal for twoincluding beverage, tax, and tip. Sometimes we go over by a dollar or two, sometimes we stay way under. This tandem meal could be you and a friend, you and a date, orwhat the hellyou and a stranger picked up on the subway.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, one of the most common smells wafting down the sidewalks of New York was boiled cabbage, issuing from bars with names like Blarney Rock, Blarney Castle, and Blarney Cove. Responding to an almost medieval compulsion to provide rib-sticking fare to lunching workers and barflies alike, these Hibernian taverns could always be counted on for a cheap, tasty, instantaneous meal. Revisit the past in the corned beef and cabbage at BLARNEY STONE (11 Trinity Place, 212-269-4988), a pink, well-fatted heap propped up by an anemic potato and quarter-head of cabbage swimming in broth. The cashier speaks with a thick brogue as she hails a bartender named Mickey.
Though Marseilles native Brigitte Catapano died in 1994, her tiny Village lunch counter, CHEZ BRIGITTE (77 Greenwich Avenue, 212-929-6736), lives on, making the same facsimile French fare she pioneered in 1958. The signature is beef bourguignon, a massive platter of tender gravied meat with a touch of red wine (that's the French part), with petits pois and a couple of starchy sides; or check out the poulet roti, a tender breast painted with a dark sophisticated demi-glace. The entire meal, including salad and bread, is $9 or less. Dine at the counter as you keep an eye on the busy St. Vincent's emergency room across the intersection.
Clamber up the stairway to the third floor, past barred stalls where near-sighted jewelers toss diamonds around like pallid jelly beans, to GAN EDEN, which means"Garden of Eden" (74 West 47th Street, 212-869-3596), a kosher Uzbek loft in which kebabs of chicken leg, gorgeously toothsome lamb, and ground-meat lula are grilled over real charcoal. The $7.50 lunch special is an especially good deal, siding a pair of lula kebabs with soup, soda, and a seeded, turban-shaped loaf, though you can easily eat well for $10 or less any other time, too. Central Asian favorite plov is the bomb, a plate of dirty rice shot with carrots and topped with an arsenal of lamb.
The undulating and stooled Formica counter is left over from a Schrafft's, but PAN PAN(500 Lenox Avenue, 212-926-4900) has been installed at this busy Harlem intersection for over a decade, a soul food spot whose specialty is hinted at by the quartet of fuming waffle irons standing right outside the clamorous open kitchen. Order chicken and wafflesa well-fried quarter bird and crisp waffle that hints of malt and maple. This heavenly combo was allegedly invented in the '40s at Well's, a few blocks away. Still hungry? One of the hot beef sausages, imported from Tipton, Georgia, will further assuage your appetite. A sign proudly proclaims: "We serve Oleo."
Tables of hipsters have become a common sight in this broken-down diner in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, once the exclusive province of taxi drivers exhausted from their late-night shifts. The food at 5 STARS PUNJABI INDIAN CUISINE (13-15 43rd Avenue, Queens, 718-784-7444) is north Indian, and the glory of the cuisine is the meaty goat biryani, though many opt for such Mughal vegetarian dishes as saag paneer and aloo gobi: mustard greens with a ricotta-like homemade cheese, and cauliflower dry-cooked with potatoes, respectively. Breads are a strong point, and you'll be tempted to linger for hours in the comfortable battered booths.
Though you may think of it as shawarma or gyros, the rotating cylinder of meat is really called doner, because the narrow stall is Turkish. The friendly counter-guy at YATAGAN (104 MacDougal Street, 212-677-0952) slashes the flesh like a hussar into a shovel-shaped contraption, then empties it into a rolled-up pita, adding greenery along the way. Of the available sauces, I recommend a combo of the brick-red hot sauce harissa and the homemade yogurt. Sit in the intimate dining roomparticularly cozy in winterand watch the Village go by, the smell of roasting meat in your nostrils.
The best meal deal in the universe remains the generous $4.75 bowl of New England-style chowder at Grand Central's OYSTER BAR (Grand Central Station lower level, 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, 212-490-6650), extravagantly clammy and thick with cream. You'll be made to feel no compunction about ordering it with nothing else at the snaking counter or the oyster bar itself, sided with just a glass of ice water and a packet of oyster crackers. If you're particularly hungry, a bowl of cole slaw or plate of fries goes well with this feast, or, if you're so inclined, a few raw oysters from a list that runs to a score of varieties, sucked down with cocktail sauce or lemon as you admire Guastavino's miraculous vaulted ceiling, installed in 1913.