Where does a former New Yorker go when he visits his old stomping ground?
In a few weeks I’m off to NYC for my bachelor party, and my best man asked me if there was anything I absolutely wanted to do, or any place where I must go to eat or drink while back in town. Around the same time, my future father-in-law pinged me because he and his wife are heading to NY for their 30th wedding anniversary, and I had offered them suggestions should they ever visit the greatest city on earth. Between those two requests, I figured it was time to sit down and write out my list.
What follows (in two parts) is the best advice I can offer to anyone visiting NYC. The caveat I’ll throw out there is that I’ve been out of New York for two and a half years, and things change there so fast that I’m certainly including a place or two that is past its prime, and definitely missing dozens of other places are sure to be incredible. New Yorker’s are natural foodies, so it’s no secret that the scene changes so quickly. If you have a friend who lives and works in NYC right now, hit them up. Otherwise, my list is the next best thing.
And for this post, I’m linking to Zagat reviews, not Yelp. Not to get off on too much of a tangent, but the reason I love Zagat is because they rate on three factors: Food, Decor, and Service. Each is an important part of a dining experience that can’t be captured by a simple star system. Maybe I’ll dive into why Zagat is far superior in another post, but for now, just enjoy the food. Oh, and understand that in Zagat ratings, a 30 is a perfect score, and anything over 20 is considered very good.
Big Wong is the quintessential Chinatown experience. The Zagat rating says it all: 22 for food, 6 for decor, and 12 for service. Go there for either the congee or my personal favorite, the roast pork over rice. It’s the real deal for Cantonese fast food. Which means the place is not the height of cleanliness, service is incredibly rushed, sometimes pushy, but damn that roast pork is delicious.
Joe’s Shanghai has something you must try: soup dumplings. Expect to be sat at communal tables with complete strangers, but don’t worry, they don’t care about you and don’t want to talk to you any more than you want to talk to them. Do read about how to eat a soup dumpling so you don’t absolutely destroy your mouth on the hot broth. And then proceed to burn off every tastebud anyway. But damn, it’s worth it.
John’s Pizzeria is a local chain of pizza joints, with the one in Times Square. Does that sound like a lose-lose situation? It’s not. It’s real-deal authentic New York style pizza. And it’s inside an old church. It’s not for a fancy night out, but it does make for a great meal if you’re in the area.
Marseille – While we’re in Hell’s Kitchen, which truly was my old stomping ground, if you’re in the mood for a French Brasserie, go hit Marseille for their seafood. You can also visit them for brunch and get the same level of food you’d get at Balthazar, but without the 3 hour wait.
Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien – Forget Shake Shack. Well, maybe don’t ditch out on Shake Shack entirely, but if you only have time for one burger in NY, it should be Burger Joint. Just go during off-hours because the lines are insanely long.
MarkJoseph is where you should go for a steak. Forget all the steakhouses you’ve heard about before coming to NY. I’m not even going to list them. No doubt you’ve heard about a famous steakhouse or two in the city. Skip ’em. MarkJoseph is an authentic steakhouse experience, and is not known to tourists. Minimal decor, amazing service, and absolutely massive cuts of incredible meat. I highly recommend going with a big group and getting the porterhouse to share.
Blue Smoke is my top choice for BBQ in the big city. (Especially since learning that RUB closed!) Blue Smoke, being a Danny Meyer restaurant, has absolutely amazing service, and of course delicious food. And I wish I could recommend RUB to you, because it was an amazing BBQ joint, but unfortunately, they closed 🙁
Eataly – I wasn’t sure if I should put this on the Eat list or the Experience list, because it’s both a place to eat and an experience to be had. Let’s stick with the Eat list for now. It’s a grocery store unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s also a series of restaurants, but each counter only serves one thing. There are counters for the different types of “restaurants” within the store for everything you’d expect: espresso, fish, meats & cheeses, pasta, pizza, and sandwiches. You can’t get pasta at the fish “restaurant” for example, so explore the whole place, decide what you want to eat, and stick with that. Because of this setup, it’s not good for big groups.
Lil’ Frankie’s is where to go for what we all think of as Italian food: spaghetti and meatballs or a Neapolitan pizza. It’s cash-only, and also super crowded because it is a mainstay of the east village.
Catch is the place you want to go if you want to hit the trendy Meatpacking district for an expensive meal. The food is incredible, and the scene is exactly what you’d expect from the area: see-and-be-seen.
Finally, a few other places are worth mentioning for some unique fare. City Bakery has pretzel croissants that are to die for. Luke’s Lobster Shack has the best damn lobster roll this side of Maine, and there are locations throughout the city. The Meatball Shop is exactly what it sounds like, and is amazing for it. And lastly, it’s worth every penny to get a $12 salad at any of the Chop’t locations, particularly for their dressings.
Surprisingly, I don’t have as much to offer on the drinking part of my old town. Partly, that’s due to the highly situational nature of going out in NY—some places you hit early in the night, some late, others only on off nights, and some could be the best place in the world one night but totally dead the next. And then there’s the fact that bars change over more than the restaurants do. For example, two great dive bars I would like to recommend are closed down. What follows are the best of what I feel comfortable recommending.
Dead Rabbit – This is top on my list since a recent visit to NY. I was introduced to their drink menu so large it could be confused for a novel, then served an ass-kicking cocktail in a porcelain tea cup. There are two levels to this bar, be sure to go to the top floor for the full experience.
Swift’s Hibernian Lounge has live jam sessions on Tuesday nights (at least they used to a few years ago). In addition to that, they have a great beer selection.
Molly’s Shabeen is about as seriously Irish American as a bar gets. Don’t make a special trip for it, unless hunting down a perfect pint o’ the plain is your thing (as it is mine), but if you are in the neighborhood, I highly recommend checking it out.
PDT – OK, so you have to enter through an odd door inside of a hotdog shop (granted, it’s Crif’s, but still…) in order to pay for pricey drinks. But the drinks are well made and damn tasty.
Stay tuned for the next installment: experiences to have and traps to avoid.