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 that inner Ziggy. After meeting so many of you on my tours (semi-shameless self promotion), and reading Trip Reports and questions on Trip Advisor, I now totally understand the struggle. You are reading this because you, unlike most visitors, understand that food is one of NY’s greatest attractions, that often doesnt 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, and avoid tourist traps.
1. Location Location Location. Stay in or close to a residential neighborhood, a food friendly one preferred. Pretty much anywhere below 34th, Hell’s Kitchen, and UWS, will do. 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 midtown east, close to Grand Central. In midtown, west is best (Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen) while south of 14th, east is better. Williamsburg a is fine and trendy pick but not very central, and getting a little too gentrified for my liking. The absolute best areas are generally between Canal and 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 food. But wealth of info can sometimes lead to too many choices that can lead to sleepless nights and other problems in bed! Besides this blog and other terrific food blogs like (ok, I cant come up with any, but I tried my best!) you also have Grub Street, Eater, Chowhound, and even the Trip Advisor forum. Yes the TA forum is filled with some savvy tourists and locals giving sound advice. Skip Guide Books, Zagat (aging voting scheme), 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 in NY especially. TA reviews are written by tourists for tourists, and by following the rankings you will be essentially feeding the most tourist filled 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 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. And my all time fave… “I ordered Spaghetti alle vongole without the clams, and I thought the pasta was a little bland”
4. Love thy neighbor, but not too much. Your neighbor says you must, must visit the place where the waiters sing, and that Thai inside the Theater District is just divine. Your Aunt Betsy from Chattanooga makes a killa pecan pie, but what exactly does she know about Jajangmyeon? I meet so many people who are very 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 city equipped with a list from my neighbor who’s been there 7 years ago. And as with pretty much any bullet on the list, exceptions abound. You may be happier in touristy places, your neighbor is super savvy, and maybe Aunt Betsy knows a thing or two about Jajangmyeon and where to get a good one in NYC.
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 anytime soon. Yes, go, but not before you stretch the borders a little. Little Italy itself is one big tourist trap, but the irony is that some of our better mid-range Italian like Pasquale Jones, Osteria Morini, Emporio and Rubirosa surround the area either in Soho or Nolita. And Nolita overall has a tremendously high concentration of good food. Little Italy is great for strolling while you wait for a table elsewhere.
6. Eat What You DONT Like. No, I’m not suggesting to eat olives if you hate olives, or eat Indian if it gives you diarrhea (I have a friend who so far is batting 100). But before you say “No Italian Please, we got plenty where I live”, its a good idea to get familiar with our massive “Italian” scene. And before you say “I hate Chinese food”, you should know that our Chinese food is very different than yours. Same goes for Thai, Korean, Israeli, and many cuisines out there. And perhaps its also a good time to try something new? Sri Lankan? Uzbek? Korean? Uzbek/Korean?
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. They tend to concentrate on the classic and iconic. A giant mishmash of world cuisines is really the best way of describing the food scene of NYC. We eat a lot of pizza and bagels, but not so much pastrami, cheesecakes, and hot dogs. In fact for every Jewish Deli serving pastrami today, we have 100 Ramen joints. 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, especially in the ethnic variety will surround you just about everywhere
9. Vet Like a Local. Once you select the restaurant, vet it against Yelp, Chowhound or Google to get a feel of the place and see what dishes people enjoy and dont. 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 and other publications say about the place. 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.
Introducing the TouristMeter™. A foolproof way of measuring how touristy a place is by dividing the number of TripAdvisor reviews (mostly tourists) by the number of Yelp reviews (mostly locals). The lower the number the more local the place. Eg…
Carmines – 3.4
Virgil BBQ – 2.8
Nishi – .22
Pinch Chinese .20
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 a good 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.