What to Eat in NYC

New York City (NYC) has a lot of really good food: So much good food that it is very difficult to decide where and what to eat when in the city. The question I pose here is this: If someone is in New York City for the first and only time for a day and can eat three foods/meals what should they eat? Before moving on let’s put forward two assumptions about this person to make my job a bit easier: 1. He has a very diverse palate and is willing to eat foods of most cuisine. 2. He is well-traveled and intends to continue traveling and dining in other cities.

Given this background information, the relevant question boils down to this: In what cuisines or types of food does NYC have a comparative advantage? We want to guide our tourist towards types of foods that are not only really good, but not readily available elsewhere in the country. With that in mind, I present the three types of food our tourist (let’s just call him Humbert since that name isn’t getting a lot of play lately) should eat:

  1. For breakfast, Humbert should eat a bagel. For whatever reason (one commonly offered explanation is that the NYC tap water is so conducive to bread making, but I’m dubious), it is rare to find a bagel of excellent quality outside of New York, even somewhere as close to New York as Washington D.C. The key to making a New York bagel is boiling the bagel before baking it. The result is a fairly crunchy outside with a puffy inside. My preference for topping the bagel is lox and cream cheese, but Humbert may choose toppings according to his tastes. If Humbert is in a particularly fishy mood but not in the mood for smoked salmon, I would highly recommend whitefish salad, an underutilized but delicious spread. Humbert should choose the type of seeds (or lack thereof) on his bagel according to his tastes.
  2. For lunch, Jewish deli is the way to go. Jewish deli is pretty much unique to New York due to the Eastern European Jews that flooded the City in the late-19th and early-20th centuries (I say “pretty much” because of this phenomenal New York deli in Myrtle Beach, SC). You can’t go wrong with overstuffed pastrami, corned beef, or tongue sandwiches on rye. Of course, that should be washed down with a Dr. Brown’s product (Cel-Ray if you want to live on the wild side), my preference being cream soda.
  3. Pizza has to be on Humbert’s itinerary. I previously gave a moderately negative review of Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Wikipedia gives a fairly accurate description of the essential characteristics of New York pizza that emphasizes the thin hand-tossed crust and, once again, alludes to the “water hypothesis” for why New York pizza is superior. But, there is so much more to New York pizza than the regular pie. There are pizzerias that use fresh buffalo mozzarella; there is the Grandma’s pizza, which is my personal favorite due to its thin crunchy crust combined with fresh tomatoes and only small patches of mozzarella cheese that do not overwhelm the sauce. Either way, Humbert cannot visit New York without eating pizza.

Now, let me emphasize that I am not listing the best foods of NYC. I am listing foods that NYC has the most significant comparative advantage in. Sure, you could probably find a fantastic Indian restaurant in NYC, but you likely could find one just as easily in San Francisco. High-quality pizza, bagels, and Jewish deli are difficult to find outside of NYC and thus merit a spot on Humbert’s list. Any gastronomes out there have any objections or additions?

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on June 23, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    I think you nailed it in terms of must eats… though if desired, you could make the pizza a snack (either pre or post dinner) and include a fourth meal.


  2. Posted by lawgorrhea on June 23, 2009 at 11:40 AM

    i loved this post.

    although…i have one question: how would the NY bagel compare to the Ohio bagel?


    • Posted by Josh on June 23, 2009 at 2:07 PM

      It wouldn’t compare: it’s a different creature. But, the Ohio bagel is pretty good compared to other non-New York bagels.


  3. I disagree, Josh.


    Utterly delicious and I challenge you to name me ONE OTHER Sri Lankan restaurant in the US outside of New York. (Actually, if you find one, please let me know. I’ve only experienced Sri Lankan food at Sigiri and am very curious whether it is always so delicious or if it’s just Sigiri… and I’d like to be able to get it outside of New York.)


  4. Posted by johnfarr on June 25, 2009 at 7:47 PM

    i would suggest going to some sort of classic, old school new york type place, even if only for drinks (though i suppose this goes beyond your original parameters). these places have a nostalgic, 40’s-50’s era charm that is tough to duplicate in other cities. of course new york has not only a comparative advantage but also a monopoly in this area.

    examples include the bar at the algonquin hotel, bemelman’s bar at the carlyle hotel, and l’veau d’or (http://eater.com/archives/2009/01/who_goes_there_le_veau_dor.php), which i still mean to visit some day. i also recently had brunch at “cafe loup” which fits into this niche nicely.


  5. Posted by Doc on June 28, 2009 at 10:22 PM

    Josh, with all due respect, I think a couple of specific references are needed. Think about lunch at Barney Greengrass – this place has been around for 100 years in NYC and looks it. It has the best lox, onions, and eggs anywhere (is there such thing as fresh lox, yes!) and where else can you have a finely smoked sturgeon on rye with a slice of swiss? I dare any other city in the world to offer up such mind-numbing treats. Go to the Carnegie Deli for the best cheesecake in the world. It can be ordered online if one is inclined to go to heaven. Also, the Carnegie had the best pastrami in NYC (as rated by New York Magazine, before it’s long-winded decline) in 1975, so it’s been around for a bit. The sandwich easily serves two, if not three. It’s lifetime owner, Milton Parker just passed away this year at age 90, and may have lived longer if not for all the yummy fat in the corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.
    I felt encumbered by the weight of knowing that no specific deli was mentioned. I feel much better now. Or maybe it was the Alka Seltzer.


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