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 restaurants—the 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 least—how 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 two—including 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, or—what the hell—you 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 waffles—a 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 room—particularly cozy in winter—and 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.
Named after a northern city famous for its cold and snowy winters, SAPPORO (152 West 49th Street, 212-869-8972) is the comfort food capital of Nipponese New York, a spot long favored by Japanese businesspeople and students for its steaming bowls of ramen noodles, or over-rice meals like katsudon—a perfectly fried pork cutlet enmeshed with caramelized onions in a rice-topping omelet. An order of the fried-on-one-side gyoza dumplings with a salad or bowl of miso soup makes a splendid cold-weather meal, too. The miracle is that Sapporo persists in a Times Square increasingly plagued by crappy fast-food chains.
At mealtime, the working-class patrons of TAD’S STEAKS (152 West 34th Street, 212-630-0318) line up to watch the forkmaster in the window flame-grill their steaks, which they relish every bit as much as the hoity-toity patrons of Peter Luger or the Palm. The cuts range from sirloin to filet mignon to the signature T-bone, and, though not made of the same marbled, dry-aged beef as the fancy places employ, the steaks taste damn good. And while the luxury steak houses charge $40 or so for the meat by itself, and gouge extra for sides, at Tad’s the under-$10 price tag includes baked potato, salad, and well-greased slice of Texas toast. You can linger in the dining room with its outrageous red-flocked wallpaper for as long as you like, since there are no waiters to give you the bum’s rush. Which also means—no tip. Warning: Tad’s trick is to charge you for onions on the steak and tomatoes in the salad by asking if you want them without saying they cost extra. Just say “No.”
Most of the city’s Palermo-style focaccerias date from the ’50s and preserve their original Formica and Naugahyde decor intact. The best is JOE’S OF AVENUE U (287 Avenue U, Brooklyn, 718-449-9285), located in the shadow of the F train in the mournfully named Gravesend, Brooklyn, where the food runs from the most familiar southern Italian pasta-sauce combos to Sicilian exotica, making it a perfect place for mixed groups of timid and adventuresome diners. Fitting into the exotic category is pasta con sarde, the island’s favorite supper of bucatini with a sauce of sardines and fennel. The vegetarian’s delight is panelle special, a sandwich of fresh local ricotta and chickpea fritters on a homemade roll.
When 116-year-old Germanic steak house PETER LUGER (178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-7400) first put a hamburger on its lunch menu a couple of years ago, it attracted so many critical plaudits that Saddam Hussein probably heard about it. The burger is made with the same well-aged beef as the porterhouse, but the half-pound behemoth only costs $6.95, qualifying it as one of the city’s most inspired loss leaders. Though large, this “hamburg”— in ancient New York parlance—is bare bones, delivered on a seeded bun garnished only with a single slice of raw onion. Arriving with a small pile of barely acceptable fries, the burger is stupendously juicy and beefy, and it will take several minutes to wipe your lips clean afterwards.
The world’s greatest deli is certainly KATZ’S (205 East Houston Street, 212-254-2246), which is one year older than Peter Luger. Engagingly decorated with celebrity photos and often jammed with a tumultuous crowd, Katz’s is an Ellis Island gateway to the kingdom of cured meats. Both the pastrami and corned beef vie for your attention, and I generally solve the dilemma by getting both on a club roll. Ostentatiously tip the carver $1 before he starts slicing, and you’ll get a sandwich large enough for two. If you happen to still be hungry, the extra stomach space can be filled with one of the excellent natural-skin franks.
Falafels descended on us like miniature spaceships in 1971 when a joint named MAMOUN’S FALAFEL (119 MacDougal Street, 212-674-8685) opened. The effect was immediate and lasting—and today there is still a line of cheap Middle Eastern places to prove it. Revisit Mamoun’s—where dim lighting and faded ethnographic geegaws evoke the souks of Beirut and Damascus—to savor an interior unchanged since Dylan sang “Positively 4th Street.” You and your date can enjoy a pair of falafel sandwiches slathered with tahini and washed down with steaming cups of cardamom tea for way less than $25, and have money left over for ice cream.
Mamoun’s may be cheap, but it’s nowhere near the cheapest place in town. That distinction goes to the northern Chinese dumpling stalls that have been popping up lately. Closer to the East Village than Mott Street, FRIED DUMPLING (99 Allen Street, 212-941-9975) encourages you to dine well for less than $5 per person. A quintet of savory pork dumplings fried on one side and steamed on the other costs a mere $1, and a cup of sweet-and-sour soup, rife with cloud ear mushrooms and lily bulbs, is an additional $1.50. Still hungry? Tuck into one of the sandwiches of aromatic dried beef with pickled vegetables on homemade sesame bread ($2).
This list of inexpensive and excellent eats would be incomplete without including one of the city’s venerable pizza parlors, which collectively count as one of our greatest culinary treasures. Besides his own restaurant on Spring Street, founded in 1905, Lombardi’s immediate dynasty includes Totonno in Coney Island, John’s on Bleecker Street, and Patsy’s in East Harlem. Nephew and Patsy’s veteran Patsy Grimaldi started his own parlor only a decade ago in Fulton Ferry, Brooklyn, and it rapidly rose to be one of New York’s best pizza joints. The toppings are perhaps a bit more lush, the crust a little more thick and flavorful than the austere Lombardi’s style, but that’s just fine with the patrons who throng GRIMALDI’S (19 Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 718-858-4300) every weekend and evening. Go at weekday lunch if you want to relax.
The East Village plays host to more types of ethnic food than one can easily enumerate, and the selection runs from Indonesian to Israeli to Greek to Australian. Now we even have an Australian ice cream parlor. But closest to the food of Middle America, and bedrock of cheap dining in the neighborhood, are the sainted Polish and Ukrainian places, which were here before piercings became de rigueur and every third person carried a guitar case. Even though TERESA’S (103 First Avenue, 212-228-0604) is slightly upscale as far as this cuisine goes, a pair of veal cutlets sided with potatoes and green beans, or a plate of butter-soaked pierogi for two, will set you back less than $25.
Like a Brooklyn Italian hero shop on steroids, MANGANARO’S HEROBOY (494 Ninth Avenue, 212-947-7325) which made its reputation peddling six-foot heroes to midtown office parties—has swollen to include a mile-long serving line and a pair of spacious dining rooms. The heart of the menu remains the massive hot and cold heroes, rather than the pastas and single-plate meals that have been added to the menu as an afterthought. Dig the chewy veal parmesan hero, the breaded cutlets nearly eclipsed by their mantle of cheese, or the off-the-menu “Mile High Special,” which heaps on the cheese and cold cuts, then knocks the flavor into orbit with pickled red peppers.
For some real heirloom eating (the conscious consumption of ancient, now dwindling cuisines), check out DIAMOND DAIRY RESTAURANT (4 West 47th Street, 212-719-2694), located on a balcony overlooking the trading floor of the National Jewelry Exchange, a rabbit warren of independent jewelry jobbers. The blintzes are some of the best in town, thin tubular pancakes stuffed with sweetened pot cheese, while the egg salad sandwich beats any other—including ones you make yourself. The egg is finely chopped, then flavored with raw onion and lots of salt and black pepper. Open only for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.
Sometimes you need a belt-busting feed. No better place than the Indian steam tables of Jackson Heights, a series of off-price eateries that feature tandooris, curries, breads, and parti-colored basmati rice in all-you-can-eat buffets displayed right in the windows. The price varies by a dollar or two between lunch and dinner, but either way, you’ll pay no more than $7.95. Most expensive is the venerable Jackson Diner, but the better value, and invariably featuring a dish that contains lamb or goat in addition to the blizzard of chicken selections, is ASHOKA (74-14 37th Avenue, Queens, 718-898-5088). Laudably, half the offerings are Mughal vegetarian dishes, and dessert is included.
Maybe you first became familiar with the OLD TOWN BAR (45 East 18th Street, 212-529-6732)—founded in 1892 as a German bar and assuming its current identity in 1933—while watching the introduction to Late Night With David Letterman, in which a drunken camera careens past dark wooden booths and a marble-topped bar. Besides the fixtures, the walk-in porcelain urinals are another “must see,” especially if you “must pee.” The lush burgers and the tuna melt are justifiably celebrated, but my favorite thing on the menu is the Buffalo wings, served with enough celery to erase the resultant cholesterol from your veins. A big plate of wings and a beer makes a sublime dinner.
Saint Cono looks down from the china cabinet at VALDIANO (659 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-383-1707), identifying the restaurant as hailing from the hilltop town of Teggiano. And while many of the old southern Italian joints of Brooklyn, such as Frost and Bamonte’s, are too expensive to be mentioned here, five-year-old Valdiano easily fits within our price constraints and serves food in a similar vein. The pasta fagioli soup is exceptional, as is the penne arrabiata, made with an unusual sauce rife with the fresh green chiles favored in Campania. The vegetarian selections are especially noteworthy, including the deep-fried cheese sandwich called mozzarella in carozza (“in a carriage”) and involtini di melanzana, a roll-up of eggplant and ricotta.
Midtown and neighborhoods to the north have long had their off-price pasta mills, where you can get a big plate of, say, rigatoni sluiced with a variety of sauces for around $10. Unfortunately, these places are generally awful. Also concentrating on pastas, PEPE VERDE (559 Hudson Street, 212-255-2221) performs the same feat, only the product is scrumptious, and the modest surroundings make you feel like you’re sitting in the living room of your rent-stabilized apartment. As I’m writing this, I’m poking around in the generous servings of two of my favorites—fettuccine with a pink porcini sauce and papardelle with spicy sausage—and wishing someone were here to share it with me . . .
Tiny ‘INO (21 Bedford Street, 212-989-5769) took its cue from Milanese panini shops, creating delicate and deeply delicious Italian sandwiches and plates of charcuterie and cheese using only a sandwich press, toaster oven, and deli slicer. Look ma, no kitchen! The panini and tramezzini remain the best in town in spite of all the higher priced imitators. My favorites include the crustless tramezzini called the Italian BLT, with cubed pancetta standing in for bacon, and the mozzarella and pesto panini, annealed in the warm embrace of the sandwich press. Most devastating of all is the truffled egg toast, which features a runny egg yolk in a hollowed-out toast topped with oozing fontina cheese and truffle oil—Italian toad-in-the-hole.
Now that the city has been flooded with Sichuan, Shanghai, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and even Uighur Chinese restaurants, plain old Cantonese—in comparatively short supply—has become exotic. EXCELLENT DUMPLING HOUSE (111 Lafayette Street, 212-219-0212) has been slinging the stuff for two decades on the western frontier of Chinatown. The scallion pancakes are miraculously ungreasy, and the tasty fried rice is impressively diverse, ingredient-wise. Don’t, whatever you do, miss the dish discouragingly called “sliced fish and sour cabbage,” but avoid the dodgy “sizzling” dishes, which are mediocre and beyond our budget anyway.
Ever since the gleaming streamlined diner that housed Sam Chinita was demolished a couple of years ago, with no interference from the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the cutest cheap restaurant on the Chelsea strip has been HAVANA CHELSEA LUNCHEONETTE (190 Eighth Avenue, 212-243-9421), where a glass case thrust out into the sidewalk displays the fixings for its trademark Cuban sandwich—available in sizes big and bigger—and the puckeringly good salt cod salad and wonderful wobbly flan. The faded dining room dates from the day in the ’60s when Cuban refugees flooded the city, and you’d do well to examine the specials menu before placing your order, especially if the beef short ribs are available.