There are thousands upon thousands of restaurants in New York City, and with a steady stream of openings and closings, the landscape is constantly changing. Every year, the hotspots change. And I’m all for following the current food trends. But through the immense changes the City has undergone in recent decades, some of the most popular New York meals and bites have remained constant. Classics are classics for a reason, and of the dozens of restaurants that have truly become New York institutions, here are my favorites (and what to order when you get there)—
Chocolate Chip Cookie at Levain
So. Fucking. Good. It’s kinda halfway between a cookie and cake, because Levain’s cookies are THICK 🍑 . Stuffed with chips, melty and messy. I always get chocolate all over my hands with these, because they’re overflowing. Honestly, one Levain cookie is a pretty decent lunch in my opinion. There are now locations around the City, so no need to spend ninety minutes on the subway to try one.
Pastrami on Rye at Katz’s Deli
One of the two most acclaimed Jewish delis in the City, and personally, I have always and will always prefer Katz’s to Mile End. Their pastrami sandwich (get it on rye, as it should be) is truly a New York icon. Like as much so as Audrey Hepburn or Andy Warhol. The amount of pastrami on this sandwich is literally overwhelming. Get it with Reuben / Russian Dressing, and expect to spend over $30 if you’re eating in. The sandwich alone is $25. That may seem extreme, but 1) it’s New York and inflation has gotten insane, so the price isn’t unusual, and 2) I can’t express to you how massive this sandwich is. I have never eaten the whole thing in one go, and I can eat quite a bit. I always take one half home for later, and still feel full. The experience of eating at Katz’s is an experience in itself. You can even sit in the spot, although you may have trouble getting the seat, where the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally was shot. Wherever you sit, you’ll get the classic New York deli experience, equal parts chaotic and warm.
Halal Platter from the Halal Guys
Halal food is one of those things that people who don’t live in the City aren’t too aware of, or at least I wasn’t before moving here. Black and white cookies, bagels and lox—known far and wide. But halal food is my most ordered New York fewd, and the Halal Guys are the gold standard. For anyone who doesn’t know, halal food is food that is considered acceptable under Muslim dietary laws. The equivalent of kosher food in Jewish law. You won’t find any pork products at the thousands of street carts and restaurants throughout the City, but you will find heaping portions of dishes like chicken over rice, gyros, and falafel. Halal Guys has tons of options, and allows you to fully customize your meal, like a middle eastern Chipotle. It’s usually $10-12 for a platter, and you get enough food to make two meals out of it. I also find that unlike some cuisines, Halal food usually keeps pretty well. I usually get the chicken over rice with whatever side I’m in the mood for. Always go for the white sauce.
Peking Duck from Peking Duck House
One of my first quintessentially New York eating experiences. Shortly after I got to NYU, my roommates and I shared a Peking duck here, and it was one of the best meals I’d ever had. This is truly authentic Chinatown. It’s not cheap ($75 for a duck), and it’s slightly creepy that you literally get a whole cooked duck with the neck and head still on. But it’s more than worth it, and mind you one duck feeds several people. I recommend a meal deal—$47 per person for four people, for example. You get two entrees with one duck, and the entrees are pretty large. While $47 isn’t cheap, it’s pretty normal as far as a sit-down meal in Manhattan. As far as the creep factor, you don’t eat the head, presumably; and don’t be a baby—it’s just a duck head, and it’s an authentic Chinese classic, prepared in the traditional way. Nothing to be afraid of, save for the fact that I felt physically distressed after eating there for the first time because I ate more, more quickly than I had in years.
Hot Dog at Gray’s Papaya
Number one munchie / drunchie. Open late (open very late or all hours pre-COVID), this super cheap New York classic serves American comfort food like burgers, fries, and their original specialty, hot dogs. Usually only standing tables, no chairs, but that’s part of the experience. As are charming touches like trash left behind by previous customers, and shitty fluorescent lighting. Really, the trashy energy is kinda comforting, and it’s so New York. Young, downtown New York. Like many denizens of the City of Cities, so many of my most memorable, some mostly forgotten nights out have ended at Gray’s Papaya. And the food truly is delicious.
Cheesecake at Junior’s
Times Square classic, with multiple locations. They serve all kinds of food, mostly American classics. But cheesecake is by far their hottest commodity, and for good reason. It’s pretty pricy, especially for a full cake, but worth it IMO. They have countless flavors, and out of the many, many cheesecakes I’ve sampled in NYC, Junior’s is the best.
Brooklyn Blackout Doughnut at Doughnut Plant
Doughnut Plant is amazing not only for its quality, but variety. There are not only many flavors, but many *categories of donuts*, including denser cake donuts, and much fluffier options, in addition to some in between. My favorite is the chocolate filled, chocolate all around Brooklyn Blackout. But I’d go for a varied half dozen, because they have several more interesting flavors, plus all the classics.
Shack Burger at Shake Shack
Shake Shack has expanded to many cities across the world, most in the Eastern United States, but remains a New York classic, and when I first tried it upon moving here, a revelation. People say it’s New York’s answer to In-N-Out on the West Coast. I’m sorry, but no no no. Shake Shack is much better than In-N-Out. Full stop. Burgers are much juicier, and Shack Sauce beats Animal Sauce no contest. Veggie burgers are good too, as are their shakes (duh).
Pierogi at Veselka
Nothing like potato pierogi outside on a summer night in the EV. Truly a classic, albeit less widely known than places like Katz’s. Pierogi may seem better suited to frigid Polish winters, and perhaps they are on the whole. But Veselka’s are lighter somehow (I especially recommend the goat cheese and arugula), although I’m probably partially or even mostly equating them with summer because I have most often dined here in the summer months, for whatever reason. Memory is the root of so much love. But my personal foodie history aside, there’s something here for everyone, and by NYC standards it’s reasonably priced—$9 for four, and they’re filling.
Pancakes at Bubby’s
So fluffy, and the perfect amount of sweetness, not to mention all the equally delicious options as far as toppings and flavors. They are expensive at $22, but you won’t find better in the City, and Bubby’s really is the quintessential New York brunch experience, and the best of Tribeca.
Frozen Hot Chocolate at Serendipity 3
Pretty much everything at this cramped, quirky little UES restaurant is good, but the massive frozen hot chocolate is the best of the menu, and the most famous. There’s also the $1,000 gold flecked Golden Opulence sundae, which I think is stupid and I would totally judge anyone for ordering because for fuck’s sake there are people starving in the world. But the decor is charming, the burgers juicy and cheesy, and it’s also a noted hotspot for celebrity sightings. Very crowded, so do expect a wait.
Bodega Egg Sandwich
This is more of a general one, lesser known but a local favorite. Bodegas are everywhere in the City. I honestly don’t really know if they’re a thing outside New York, or major cities in general, so in if you’re not familiar with them—bodegas are small, usually family owned ethnic grocery / convenience stores that often have a deli and grill. Many if not most have a large menu, and almost all serve breakfast at all hours. The classic order is an egg sandwich (for me, it’s always egg and cheese on a croissant). Obviously there will be some out there with shitty food, but overall, over almost a decade in this city, I’m honestly kinda shocked by how many bodegas have really good food. They’re also usually open very late, if not 24 hours. Great when I’m high and don’t find anything in my totally full fridge that satisfies the vicious munchies. Also, many bodegas have a resident cat, and they’re usually friendly. So that’s fun, if you like cats.
Pizza at Joe’s
The most iconic New York pizza, together with Lombardi’s. I prefer Joe’s, as does Spider-Man, presumably (he worked there, as is written on the wall at Joe’s). Their pizza is always under $5 a slice, and it’s got the perfect ratio of really really delicious sauce to cheese, and a thin crust that is, as New York style pizza should be, both crispy and chewy. No complaints, except that they don’t have ranch dressing which I absolutely need to dip my pizza in. It is what it is. 🤷🏼♀️
Bagel and Lox at Russ and Daughters
Perhaps the most *New York* thing on this list, and the essence of the Lower East Side. Russ and Daughters is run by the same family that set up shop in 1907 selling herring from a barrel. They’ve long since expanded their menu, but the classic is still bagels and lox—in a city with hundreds of Jewish delis and restaurants, theirs is pretty widely acknowledged to be the best.
Dim Sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Another New York institution with a long history. Opened in 1920, Nom Wah retains its vintage charm, and hasn’t made many changes to the menu over the years. They have no reason to. The food is consistently amazing, and incredibly authentic, naturally. They have great entrees, but the dim sum is the main attraction. For those who don’t know, dim sum are small plates of appetizers—the usual set up is to go with multiple people and share a bunch. Order tea to go with it all. Delicious, and a true experience.
Final notes—since this is mostly a food post, I’m not going into detail on iconic New York drinks—but the two I recommend starting with—a Negroni at Dante, and beer at McSorley’s. Expect a crowd at Dante, and mean bartenders at McSorley’s. Seriously, they’re huge assholes, but it’s worth it because it’s the oldest bar in the City and Abraham Lincoln drank there.
And I did not include what many would cite as one of the most iconic New York desserts—the black and white cookie. This is because I have no use for them and usually find them dry and pointless.