With tens of thousands of brick-and-mortar restaurants and even more kiosks, delis, and roadside stands where you can grab a bite to eat, there’s no place in the world like New York City when it comes to food and drink–you could spend your entire life eating and drinking here without conquering all of it. But sheer quantity is not the reason that the culinary culture here is so rich–our gastronomic prowess also runs deep, and there are many, many things that this city does better than anywhere else. We’ve rounded up the top 10.
10. 24/7/365 food options
Here in New York City, we’re used to getting what we want when we want it, and that especially pertains to food and drink. We can’t help it. We’ve been conditioned to behave that way. Not only do most restaurants stay open until 11 p.m. or midnight, there’s a bevy of late-night eateries and 24-hour joints, happy to feed and water the masses from sunup to sundown to sunup again. Best around-the-clock bets include Ukrainian East Village joint Veselka and Cuban diner Coppelia, but you can get everything from taquitos (Taquitoria) to fries (Pomme Frites) to gastropub fare (Spotted Pig) until the wee hours of the morning. And don’t forget your slice joints, halal carts, and taco trucks.
The origins of the hamburger are murky at best, but at least one story purports that the American icon first appeared on a menu at Delmonico’s in the 1820s (it’s a claim that’s easy to refute, though, because the supposed printer of said menu didn’t exist in those years). Whatever the case, the cheap, filling food took hold here sometime during the 19th century and stuck around, and today, we have myriad versions of the staple to prove our supremacy. Look for classics like the versions at Peter Luger and JG Melon, new meditations on the old formula at Fritzl’s Lunch Box and Northeast Kingdom, fast food upgrades like Shake Shack, and wacky reimaginations like the curry paste-imbued and papaya slaw-topped Thai burger at Ngam.
The modern cocktail movement spawned mixology lairs across the country, and the catalyst for that growth came from here. And that’s because the revolution’s forebears were people like Dale DeGroff, who was reacquainting himself with the art of drinks at the Rainbow Room back in the ’80s, when most people were still drinking vodka and bottled mixers–if they were drinking spirits at all. Things really got moving in the early and middle years of the last decade with bars like Angel’s Share, Milk & Honey, Pegu Club, Employees Only, and PDT, all spots steeped in cocktail tradition and bent on expanding our imbibing palates. Cocktails went to restaurants next, and they appeared on menus at neighborhood bars as drinking dens continued to root in every neighborhood in the city. But even as we reach a point where we think our thirst for cocktails must finally be sated, this city continues to turn out new and impressive variations on the theme, from the pub and parlor at the Dead Rabbit to chartreuse- and hospitality-focused Pouring Ribbons to the continuous exploration of modernist techniques by Dave Arnold at Booker & Dax. Curious where cocktails are going next? We’re certain the answer lies in NYC.
Despite the flak the breakfast-lunch combo gets, New York does a hell of a job at putting together brunch, and the permutations of that midday meal are almost as numerous as Big Apple restaurants. There are iconic spots like Balthazar, where you can read the Sunday Times over your basket of croissants. There are cheap hipster dens like Harefield Road, where you can pay $12 cash for huevos rancheros and an alcoholic beverage. And then there are the bottomless booze-soaked places, the parent-friendly eggs benedict-mongers, thoughtful breakfast menu-offerers like Westville or Williamsburg’s Egg that command hours-long lines, movable brunchtime feasts like Smorgasburg, and dim sum parlors packed with dumpling lovers on Saturday and Sunday mornings early afternoons. Each of these spots has one thing in common: They cater to the hungry, hungover masses on weekend days with one long meal that’s not quite breakfast, not quite lunch.
Yes, we know other cities have Chinatowns, but the New York City Chinatown is the largest in the Western hemisphere, and it’s brimming with restaurants steeped in Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hong Kong, and Fuzhou tradition. But let’s say you get bored of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, 456 Shanghai Cuisine, Shu Jiao Fuzhou’s noodles and dumplings, or Royal Seafood’s Cantonese offerings. Then you can head out to one of the boroughs’ six other Chinatowns in Flushing, Elmhurst, Corona, Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, or Homecrest (and if you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, Edison, New Jersey, is just a short train ride away) where you’ll find bakeries, dumpling houses, hand-pulled noodle joints, seafood palaces, and hot pot purveyors selling Henan, Hunan, Yunnan, Szechuan, Muslim, and Taiwanese fare, plus a slew of other regional specialties from all corners of that country.
5. Jewish delis
Pastrami may have been invented in Romania, but it became the anchor of a particular brand of restaurant here in NYC. That’s the Jewish deli, of course, which first rooted in the city sometime in the late 19th century. Today’s iconic shops–Katz’s, Russ & Daughters, Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, and Eisenberg’s, to name a few–draw locals and global tourists for a taste of classic New York, which extends beyond a menu of pastrami on rye, matzoh ball soup, corned beef, chicken liver, and smoked fish to the convivial–albeit cafeteria-like at times–environment that defines this type of spot. Get in line at the counter and then grab a booth, and don’t forget the mustard.
4. Bagels and bialys
You can thank the Polish Jews for bringing this bready staple to our metropolis; they baked the rings in coal-fired ovens in the Lower East Side and then layered them with lox, a new world marriage that became a Big Apple icon and a category we’ve dominated since, even if longtime residents of this city lament that the legendary bagels of yore are disappearing. Good versions still exist, and today’s top contenders include the rounds from old spots like Stuytown’s Ess-a-Bagel, Brooklyn’s Bagel Store, Murray’s, and Park Slope’s Bagel Hole as well as recent entrants like East River Bread, which posts up at Smorgasburg on the weekends. And while bagel shops proliferated across the Union awhile back, we remain unconvinced that you can find a good one outside of NYC (and after eating the stale, dense pucks that fill the baskets at most of these knock-offs, we’ve given up even looking). Hell, our bagels are so good, shops across the country brag about importing them–even though what they’re forced to put on shelves is often already a day old. And bialys, those pitted rounds filled with onion and garlic? Good luck even finding them at all beyond the boroughs’ edges.
Several waves of Italian immigrants have filled New York’s neighborhoods since the early 19th century, establishing Little Italy pockets in the boroughs, the most notable of which are in Manhattan and the Bronx. That laid our Italian food foundation, paved by the red sauce joints of yesteryear (a few good ones–like Bamonte’s in Williamsburg and Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue–survive) and pizza parlors like Lombardi’s. Eventually, we all got wise to regional Italian food, which opened the floodgates for the modern movement. A few examples: Park Slope’s al di la pays homage to the north; Danny Meyer’s Maialino focuses on Rome; and Porsena is a shrine to Tuscany. Further proof of Italian prevalence comes by way of spots like Del Posto, which takes humble Italian fare to fine dining heights, and the growing Torrisi empire, which upcycles classic Italian-American into a growing number of concepts.
The first thing you get when you move to NYC (besides a crappy apartment, of course) is an opinion on pizza, because at any given moment, you could be asked to expound passionately on who turns out the best late-night slice (this is usually a proximity-based answer), whose pies are worth the trek (Di Fara’s and Totonno’s), where the best new-school Neapolitan pizza resides (Motorino or Paulie Gee’s), and where you might find a decent Sicilian version of this classic (Nonna’s or Joe & Pat’s on Staten Island). What you won’t be invited to disclose, however, is whether you think New York trumps Chicago in the pizza game. Because an opinion that any city dominates this city when it comes to mozzarella and marinara is not an opinion at all, and uttering such blasphemy may as well be an offense punishable by a lifetime of sad microwavable party pizzas, because you clearly have no palate.
You know why it’s hard to pick 10 things NYC does better than everywhere else when it comes to food and drink? Because it feels like we’re underplaying our hand a bit to declare ourselves best at things like Georgian food when so few other places in the country have even one Georgian restaurant. The same can be said for food from Uzbekistan, Estonia, or Burkina Faso (because restaurants serving that type of food exist in New York, even if we don’t have them in droves). Which leads us to this conclusion: The thing NYC is very best at when it comes to eating and drinking–and the reason we’d rather be taking our meals here than anywhere else–is variety. Thanks to the confluence of cultures that really defines this place, you can eat something from just about every nation on this planet without leaving the city limits. And we can’t think of another city in the entire world that can claim that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 22, 2013