This post is in partnership with Expedia Canada & Food Bloggers of Canada; as always, my recommendations and opinions are entirely my own.
As a regular visitor to New York City, I have an ever-evolving list of the places I’ve been and recommend, and new places I want to try. But I know some of you don’t have the time to go through my long list and just want the highlights for a quick trip. Yes, you should see the standards like the New York Public Library (there’s always an interesting, and free, museum-quality display inside), the Met and Central Park. But if you’re after great food with your site-seeing, then Union Square, the Lower East Side and Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill should be top of your list.
Here you’ll find my seven favourite NYC eats and, very close by, the three eateries at the top of my must-try list for my next trip.
Where to start?
My favourite New York neighbourhood is Union Square.
I love wandering the greenmarket and buying a snack of whatever is in season (how about those peaches?!). The people watching is incredible. I’ve seen everything here — Cirque de Soleil-quality acrobats and showmanship, the cutting edge of NYC youth fashion, great (and not so great) musicians, dramatic chess games, and people offering advice on any question you have for just 25 cents. And if you’re into street photography, this is the NYC place to visit for unique and willing subjects. There’s tons of shopping here too, including big discount chains, Trader Joe’s, Lululemon, and, my favourite, Strand (828 Broadway at 12th), with its 18 miles of books and thoughtful selections on tables throughout the store.
Union Square is New York. Thought it was Times Square? Nope, that’s just for tourists!
So where to eat near Union Square?
- I visit Union Square multiple times on every NYC visit. At least one of those times is to eat at Union Square Cafe (21 East 16th Street, between Union Square West and 5th Avenue), restauranteur-extraordinaire Danny Meyer’s flagship. While not inexpensive, this is some of the best food you will ever eat. The menu is seasonal with French, Italian and Asian influences and features produce from the Union Square greenmarket around the corner. Hospitality is centre-stage and you’ll feel that you’re a welcomed and favoured guest, even on your first visit. If you’re unable to get a reservation, stop in for a late or early lunch and you’ll most likely get a seat at the bar (the bar nuts are delicious, but save room for the banana tart for dessert). Buy the cookbook too — the recipes for scotta dita (lambsicles) and scalloped potatoes have become regular parts of my life when I crave a little NYC from afar. Keep an eye on the address though. The lease expires at the end of 2015, and the restaurant — which has been here for almost 30 years — will be moving.
One can’t, unfortunately, eat at Union Square Cafe every day. So I have a few go-to places to get cheap eats while I’m prowling for photos of Union Square denizens.
- If I just need a pick-me up, I want sugar. On a chilly day I’ve been known to go to Max Brenner Chocolate by the Bald Man (841 Broadway at 13th Street) for a dark Italian or a spicy Mexican (ummm, those are drinks, though I’d be happy to be introduced to any gentlemen fitting the description …). Yes, the restaurant looks like a tourist trap, but they know what they’re doing in the chocolate department. The dark Italian is how you imagined hot chocolate would taste when you were a kid, before someone handed you a cup of powdery brown water and claimed it was so. The spicy Mexican is a much more grown-up version.
- When I need protein, I walk up Broadway seven blocks straight to another Danny Meyer place, Shake Shack (SE corner of Madison Square Park, Broadway & Madison between 23 and 26 Streets; plus many many other locations). This is burger joint with outdoor seating (and often long lines; go off-peak or check their web cam for the line length). They turn top-quality ingredients into burgers, hot dogs, fries, premium soft serve treats (concretes!), and real lemonade. Delicious.
- If you’re like me, you’ll be in and around Union Square a lot during your NYC visit. After I’ve already been to Union Square Cafe, sometimes I still want something more upscale for lunch or dinner. Gramercy Tavern (42 East 20th Street) never disappoints. You’ll need reservations for the main restaurant, but the Tavern Room is less expensive and you can usually get a walk-in table, or sit at the bar. As it is a Danny Meyer restaurant, excellent service, quality ingredients and a menu of both classics and innovation are standard. Their strawberry tart was summer on a dessert plate.
Lower East Side
I’ll also spend a half day prowling around the Lower East Side before a late afternoon walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Yes, most people walk in the opposite direction, but that means you won’t be able to have dinner in Brooklyn after your walk (and stay tuned because you don’t want to miss this dinner). However … you have more flexibility if it’s a weekend; see below.
While in the Lower East Side, check out the Tenement Museum for some history of this neighbourhood which housed many of NYC’s (and therefore America’s) early immigrants, and pop into some of the art galleries and boutique clothing shops that are taking over this once poor area.
Most importantly, have some snacks!
- Doughnut Plant I’m not really a doughnut person, but I can’t resist Doughnut Plant yeast doughnuts. Luckily they’re available all over NYC now, though I have a soft spot in my heart for the original Lower East Side location (379 Grand between Essex and Norfolk). You can find them at Shake Shacks, Dean and Delucas, and various coffee shops and cafés all over the city (and they deliver!). But they are oh-so-perfect at the actual Doughnut Plant shops and you’ll have way more flavours to choose from. They have seasonal and regular flavours — and the flavours are intense, they don’t just taste of sugar. The doughnuts come in yeast, cake, and (square!) filled varieties. Doughnut Plant was one of the originators of the gourmet doughnut trend, and they really know what they’re doing.
- When I’m at Doughnut Plant’s Lower East Side location, I also make a stop at Guss’ Pickles (85-87 Orchard Street). I usually buy two Guss’ Sours, right out of the barrel, one to eat right there on the street and one for later. The pickles are still made from the original recipe, old when Izzy Guss first arrived in America over a century ago. They’re crisp and sour and wake me up better than an espresso.
Brooklyn It will take you a little over an hour (plus time to snap your bridge and skyline photos) to walk from the Lower East Side across the Brooklyn Bridge and get to my other favourite NYC dinner — Pok Pok NY. If it’s a weekday and you don’t have a reservation, you should time this walk to leave Manhattan around 4:00, so that you have a good chance of getting a table when the restaurant opens at 5:30. On weekends, Pok Pok is open for lunch, so you could even have lunch, walk the Brooklyn Bridge back toward Manhattan the traditional way, and then eat my Lower East Side snacks.
- Chef Andy Ricker has created magic in an informal resto in Brooklyn (lightening originally struck at his Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon). Pok Pok NY (117 Columbia St at Kane, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn) has the best Thai food I’ve had outside of Thailand. Most of the ever-changing menu is northern Thai, but a few dishes are from elsewhere in the region. This is real, completely authentic fare that you’d have trouble finding anywhere outside of Asia, except if you’re lucky enough to have a Thai friend who’ll cook for you. Being at Pok Pok makes me desperately miss wandering the streets of Chiang Mai and discovering deliciousness. There’s a smaller version down the street, Pok Pok Phat Thai (127 Columbia Street). For those of you with a good memory, Pok Pok Wing, once in the Lower East Side, sadly no longer exists.
Three to try
My next New York visit is tentatively planned for October 2015. Yes, I’ll be visiting all my regular haunts like Union Square Cafe, Pok Pok and Doughnut Plant. But I also want to try some new places I’ve not been yet.
None of these are new, but these are the top three restaurants I’m itching to try:
- My first new-to-me place is in Manhattan, in the eastern part of Midtown, and nearish to Rockefeller Centre, the New York Public Library and its distinguished lions, Bryant Park, Grand Central Station and the UN. Sip Sak (928 Second Avenue, near 49th Street) is known for incredible Turkish food. I’ve sampled Chef Orhan Yegen’s cooking before, at his now-closed restaurant in the Theatre District. I was very impressed. Just thinking about his kofte and lamb dishes is making me drool!
- In the Bowery (and therefore close to my Lower East Side snacks), is Uncle Boons (7 Spring Street near Elizabeth). I’m told the home-cooked Thai, grâce à two chefs from Thomas Keller’s Per Se with much experience in Thailand, is fantastic. The dishes I really want to try are the mieng kim with betal leaves (oh how I love the fresh taste of betal leaves!), green mango salad, charred prawns, and the crab fried rice.
- My last must-eat is for dessert. Back over on the Brooklyn side, and about a half hour’s walk from Pok Pok (just right for working up your appetite again!), is, supposedly, the best pie in Brooklyn. Four and Twenty Blackbirds (439 3rd Avenue, at 8th Street, just west of Park Slope) is a tiny shop selling pie by the slice, or whole pies made to order. There’s a café (serving more than just pie) in the Brooklyn Public Library, at the north end of Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, about a 45 minute walk from Pok Pok. I’ve heard people rave about the black bottom oatmeal, salted caramel apple, lemon chess, blueberry crumble, salty honey, green chili chocolate …. Well, people just rave about their pies. And before I keep on raving, I want to try them for myself.
When is your next trip to NYC, and what are your must-eats? Or have you just come back from a trip and do you have places to recommend?