When fall rolls around, the song “Autumn in New York” gets stuck in my head like a movie soundtrack. Sentimental, yes, but it perfectly evokes the reason we love our city, with its mixture of joy and pain, hope and despair, beauty and ugliness. Like the song says, “Greet autumn in New York/It’s good to live again.”
Whether you dig the plodding, self-reflective version by Frank Sinatra (with the lines “Jaded roués and gay divorcées/Who lunch at the Ritz” removed), or the more lilting interpretation by Billie Holiday, the song makes you want to travel back to their era, when development moved at a slower pace, tourism was not the master plan for the economy, and we had a better sense, as New Yorkers, of who we were—and what we wanted to eat.
So, let’s pause for a moment in our pell-mell pursuit of food fads, and look at New York dining as it once was, via 10 places that have persisted—somewhat miraculously—among the ceviches, tiny Neapolitan pizzas, and banh mis.
Put your butt down where tens of thousands have sat before you at the Oyster Bar (89 East 42nd Street, 212-490-6650), on the lower level of Grand Central Station. We’re not talking about the glitzy restaurant on the other side of the greeter’s podium, but the snaking lunch counter, where no one minds whether you order a $100 dinner or not. From a menu centered on the Yankee cooking that was once standard midtown fare, order the New England clam chowder and a half-dozen raw oysters, while admiring Guastavino’s vaulted ceiling.
Right off the bustling commercial strip of 86th Street in Bay Ridge, find Hinsch’s Confectionery (8518 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-748-2854), an ancient soda fountain that will transport you to the 1950s, with its Formica counters and Naugahyde booths. The hamburgers and fries are good in a modest sort of way, and you can get a sandwich the way it used to be—thin, cheap, and made with Wonder Bread. But the old-fashioned sodas and sundaes are the biggest draw.
In the days following the Spanish Civil War, refugees flooded Greenwich Village, and they brought their cuisine with them. Of the paella palaces that once defined the neighborhood, only a few remain. While James Baldwin hung out at El Faro, we prefer Sevilla (62 Charles Street, 212-243-9513), where the paella Valenciana can be shared by two, or even three, and the smell of fresh garlic wafts out the door like a stiff breeze scattering dried leaves. As the song has it, “You’ll need no castle in Spain.”
Once upon a time, the city was filled with Jewish dairy restaurants slinging fish, vegetarian soups, and blintzes. I remember watching in awe, when I first arrived in the city, as a couple of old codgers knocked back bowls of pure sour cream at Dubrow’s in the Garment Center, now long gone. Revisit that world at B & H Dairy (127 Second Avenue, 212-505-8065), which dates from the days when the East Village’s Second Avenue was called the Yiddish Broadway.
Imagine a steakhouse not having a choice of steaks—that is still the case at Williamsburg’s Peter Luger (178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-0500), located in a neighborhood that was thought dicey a decade ago. Festooned with beer steins that reflect its German heritage, the restaurant offers only a plate-breaking porterhouse dripping with juices, which the waiter transfers to your dish with a strange configuration of two soup spoons. The place is half-empty in the late afternoon—which is when you should plan your assault.
In Harlem’s pre-gentrification days, a cadre of stalwart women, mainly from Georgia and the Carolinas, cooked up soul-food classics in dozens of tiny restaurants. The best of those that remain is Margie’s Red Rose (275 West 144th Street, 212-491-3665), where a jukebox is filled with rhythm-and-blues 45s. A fresh batch of fried chicken will emerge in a cloud of steam and grease, and that chicken will be the best you’ve ever tasted. Everything else you expect—collards, ‘nilla-wafer pudding, smothered pork chops, and mac-and-cheese—will be there, too, with bells on.
Eddie’s Sweet Shop (105-29 Metropolitan Avenue, Queens, 718-520-8514), in Forest Hills, is over a century old—and looks it. The dark, mahogany booths and marble counter—lined with uncomfy stools that have forgotten how to swivel—somehow make the old-fashioned thick milkshakes and sundaes taste better. The ice cream is made in-house, and it’s not uncommon to see three, or even four, generations of Queens residents perching at a table, introducing the youngest member of the clan to some mountainous ice cream treat.
In the most remote corner of Staten Island lingers a Bavarian beer hall so authentic that you could drop a Kraut into the middle of it, and she’d think she was in Düsseldorf. The bar at Killmeyer’s (4256 Arthur Kill Road, Staten Island, 718-984-1202) boasts carvings more than 150 years old, and there’s a beer garden out back, where, weather permitting, you can wash down schnitzels and sausages with such arcane German taps as Köstritzer Black Lager.
Long before we fetishized paninis, porchetta, and prosciutto, we were fond of Italian-American food, with its unfettered use of tomato sauce and ground beef. Return to those days at Bamonte’s (32 Withers Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-8831), an old frame house that shakes every time a truck goes by overhead on the BQE. The eggplant rollatini and baked clams are to die for, and, as you dine, a quartet of priests may be enjoying their meal at the next table.
When Delmonico’s (56 Beaver Street, 212-509-1144) debuted in 1837, it was the city’s first restaurant. Its current location is actually the third incarnation, but it still dates to a century and a half ago. Go to enjoy some antique restaurant architecture and the 19th-century feel of the surrounding streets. This is the place where restaurant classics like lobster Newburg and the Delmonico steak were first invented—even though the contemporary menu no longer contains original bestsellers like turtle soup, bear steak . . . or beaver tail.