Just like a mom balancing work and being a mom, a tourist in NYC needs to find the right balance between being a tourist and unleashing the inner Ziggy. After meeting so many of you on the East Village and Hell’s Kitchen walks (semi-shameless self promotion) lately, and reading Trip Reports on Trip Advisor, that struggle has gotten more apparent. You are reading this because you, unlike most visitors, understand that food is one of NY’s unsung attractions, that doesnt quite play well with other attractions. In fact they really hate each other. Sometimes, something will have to give, but it can result in a much more enjoyable trip. Here are 10 rules to help you strike that balance.
1. Location Location Location. Stay in or close to a food friendly neighborhood. Pretty much anywhere below 34th is fine, Hell’s Kitchen, UWS, and other residential areas. I dont mind Times Square so much because of its proximity to Hell’s Kitchen though many make the mistake of eating in TS or walking east instead of west. I’m not a fan of the east side, close to Grand Central. Williamsburg a is fine trendy pick but not very central. The best areas are generally below 23rd, and the most central is Union Square. If I would have to pick one hotel, and I did on two occasions, it is the Hyatt Union Square. A stone throw away from NYC’s best food neighborhood, East Village, and many others
2. Read appropriately. NYC is the easiest place to research. But often that kind of convenience can lead to the most headaches due to the magnitude of choices. Besides food blogs you also have Grub Street, Eater, Chowhound, Yelp, and even Trip Advisor forum is filled with savvy tourists and locals giving sound advice. There’s no need for Guide Books, Zagat, and Trip Advisor reviews are absolutely useless here.
3. Trip Advisor reviews are absolutely useless here. So important that it needs to have its own bullet. The ranking themselves are useless everywhere, but here especially. TA reviews are written by tourists for tourists, and by following the rankings you will be essentially feeding the most touristy of places, while missing out on local spots. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. But with the TA algorithm rewarding the more heavily reviewed, often in heavily touristy midtown, you miss on some of the best NYC has to offer including newer places. The brilliant Momofuku Nishi, one of my current favorites is ranked #3,188 as of this writing
Side Note: I take it all back. Reading reviews does have some entertaining values, like this one… “the restaurant is small. the tables are shared with others there is no knife at the table there is no tablecloth. there is no bread very poor experience. the food was no bad, but not delicious. i will not recommend it.” — A recent Nishi review.
4. Love thy neighbor, but not too much. Your neighbor says you must, must visit the place where the waiters sing, and the Thai right inside the theater district is just divine. Aunt Betsy from Chattanooga makes a killa pecan pie, but what does she know about Jajangmyeon? I meet so many people who are completly comfortable taking advice from neighbors, friends, and family, not realizing the vast information available from locals. Just think about your own town, and the prospect of me coming to your place equipped with a list from my neighbor who’s been there 7 years ago
5. Make Little Italy Great Again. Little Italy continues to be in everybody’s things to do (and eat) and as long as its in the guide books I would not expect that to change. Yes, go, but not before you stretch the borders a little. Little Italy itself is a tourist trap, but the irony is that some of our best mid-range Italian like Pasquale Jones, Osteria Morini, Emporio and Rubirosa surround the area either in Soho or Nolita. Little Italy is great for strolling while you wait for a table elsewhere.
6. Google Maps is your friend. Get familiar with Google Maps and start starring those places. Get a feel on whats near what, and how how far is far. Click on directions to see distances, make routes if needed. Its not that hard
7. When in Rome, eat Ramen. No you dont have to eat Ramen here, thats not the point. But you also dont have to eat Patrami and hot dogs. Although they can be quite good at some places. Unlike Rome and much of the rest of the world, it is not exactly clear what is the cuisine of New York. Guide books need to write something, but often have a difficult time pinpointing our relatively young cuisine. A giant mishmash of world cuisines is really the best way of putting it. We eat a lot of pizza and bagels, but not so much pastrami, cheesecakes, and hot dogs. In fact we eat a lot more Ramen than pastrami. Its not even close. Best way to approach food here is to eat like a local, with a few “classics” like Pastrami mixed in.
8. The $150 rule. It has become almost automatic, like a joke really. When you are trying to figure out your budget, consider the $150 rule. That’s what you should expect to pay for two in much of Manhattan and Brooklyn for a regular full service, three course meal with a drink. Yes, there are much more expensive options, and much cheaper options all over the city. But for many of the restaurants recommended here and elsewhere, a proper meal with a drink, after tip/tax averages at $150. How many of those can you afford during your span, is entirely up to you. Cheap options will surround you just about everywhere
9. Vet Them Well. Once you select the restaurant, vet it against Yelp and Chowhound and Google to get a feel and see what dishes people enjoy. If there’s a particular dish that catches your eye on the menu, plug it in the Yelp search box to see what people say about it. Maybe its not as thrilling as it sounds. Google “[Name] food blogs” to see what bloggers say about it. Take a look at pictures of the space to make sure it matches your comfort level. I get a little nervous when I read so many tourists go to Pure Thai Cookhouse without knowing exactly what they get themselves into.
10. Meet a Local / Take a Food Tour. There he goes again with the self promotion. Ok, take any food tour, as long as its nicely paced, private or small group tours. Big Apple Greeter is another idea. The point is not so much the tour itself, but the prospect of meeting a knowledgeable local and maybe gaining a friend that can assist you well after the tour is over. I met a father and daughter earlier this week who got introduced to Halvah, among other things during the East Village walk, Later on we continued to email which resulted in trying soup dumplings for the first time, in addition to Nishi and coming home with a pound of Halvah from Seed & Mill in Chelsea Market.