From coal-oven pizza to pastrami on rye, nowhere does food quite like New York City. While there’s no shortage of authentic eateries, dining out in the Big Apple can be a bit of a minefield, so we’ve created a guide to classic New York City cuisine and where to find it.
There is still some debate about when the bagel was first introduced, with some suggesting it first appeared in 17th century Poland and others in Ancient Egypt. However the New York bagel we know and love today is likely to have started out as a culinary tradition among medieval Jewish bakers in Germany, prior to their migration to Poland. According to Maria Balinska, author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, the bagel is actually a ‘cousin’ of the pretzel. Her theory revealed that the bagel’s predecessor, the obwarzanek, was already prominent at the Polish royal court and the first known reference to the bagel was found in regulations issued in Yiddish in 1610 by the Jewish Council of Krakow. Historians propose the origin of the word ‘bagel’ is rooted in the Yiddish word ‘beigin’ meaning ‘to bend’.
As a result of a huge increase in Eastern European immigration in New York in the 19th century, new residents brought with them culture and culinary traditions, including the bagel. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that new technology allowed bakers to create multiple bagels at a time. Today, they’re one of the most popular foods in New York City. If you need to refuel while you explore attractions in New York, a bagel is the perfect light bite.
“An authentic bagel is hand-rolled, kettle-boiled and defined mostly by its competing textures,” says Peter Shelsky of Shelsky’s of Brooklyn. “A real bagel has serious crust which gives way to a dense, chewy interior. A bagel is not light and fluffy. The reason bagel purists roll their eyes at folks who ask for their bagels toasted is because toasting a bagel negates this defining competition of textures. It adds a new layer of crust which isn’t supposed to be there and it softens up the whole affair!”
Shelsky’s sells bagels in a range of flavours, old and new. Peter added: “A great bagel is only as a great as what you put on it. Not only do we sell a traditional, old-school, dense and chewy Brooklyn bagel, but we pride ourselves on putting some of the best smoked and cured fish we can on them.
“Silky smoked salmon, sourced from some of the best smokehouses around the country, homemade smoked whitefish salad made from fish sourced from Door County, Wisconsin, house-cured gravlax and house-pickled herring are all important parts of what makes our bagels so special.”
Don’t miss: Russ & Daughters’ traditional bagels such as the Shtetl with smoked sable, goat cream cheese, tomato, onion and capers, the delicious traditional bialys at Kossars, rainbow bagels at The Bagel Store.
Coal Oven Pizza
While it’s widely known that the original home of pizza is Naples, coal oven pizza certainly put down its roots in New York City. The recipe for the classic margherita pizza, said to be named after Queen Margherita of Italy (1878), travelled with immigrants to the United States.
The first documented pizzeria in the U.S was Lombardi’s, which opened on Spring Street in Manhattan. This historic pizzeria opened in 1905 and is still serving slices today, albeit at a slightly different location. Lombardi’s serves authentic coal oven pizza with simple yet delicious toppings. Opt for an original margherita with fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, roman and basil, or the white pizza with fresh mozzarella, ricotta, romano, garlic, herbs and basil. The restaurant also offers meat toppings including prosciutto, pancetta and sweet Italian sausage, all in-keeping with tradition.
Patsy’s Pizzeria in El Barrio was the first to sell individual slices in 1933 and is still serving its authentic coal oven pizza slices and whole pies to its loyal customers and visitors exploring nearby New York attractions. Alongside its traditional recipes, Patsy’s has developed some more unusual pizzas, such as Patsy’s Pizza Alla Vodka with a creamy vodka sauce.
Don’t miss: “True NY-style pizza” at John’s of Bleecker Street, another of New York City’s oldest pizzerias Juliana’s Pizza, a Sicilian slice at Joe’s Pizza, Beyonce and Jay-Z’s favourite joint, Lucali.
Many people have taken credit for this spectacular breakfast dish over the years. In the 1860’s, Delmonico’s Restaurant in lower Manhattan, the first restaurant or public dining room ever to open in the US, claimed it had created the dish. Allegedly, a regular patron of the restaurant, Mrs. LeGrand Benedict, wanted something new to eat for lunch and discussed this with Delmonico’s chef, Charles Ranhofer, who then created the dish. Ranhofer has a recipe called ‘Eggs a’ la Benedick’ (Eufa a’ la Benedick) in his cookbook The Epicurean, published in 1894. The recipe states to cut some muffins in halves crosswise, toast them without allowing them to brown, place a round of cooked ham and add a poached egg to each toast, then cover it with Hollandaise sauce.
To contradict this story, in 1942, a feature appeared in New Yorker Magazine based on an interview with Lemuel Benedict, a Wall Street broker, a year before he died. The story stated that Lemuel Benedict was suffering from a hangover at The Waldorf Hotel and ordered “some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs and a hooker of hollandaise sauce”. According to this story, the Waldorf’s chef Oscar Tschirky was so impressed that he added the dish to his menu. However there have been many other claims and references to this New York dish.
Whatever its exact history, Eggs Benedict is a much-loved breakfast or brunch dish in New York City, and eateries are serving it up both traditionally and with a modern twist. Poco, a legendary brunch joint in the Alphabet City neighbourhood, has become famous for its unique take on this classic dish. According to Sara Grizzle, managing partner at Poco NYC, traditional eggs benedict are served on top of English muffins and Canadian bacon. She said: “What makes Eggs Benedict so great? Honestly, I think it’s the hangover. The hollandaise sauces makes it authentic, we put smoked paprika in ours.”
“We created a Poco Twist by using homemade arepas (corn pockets) and Pat LaFrieda jalapeno chorizo. We call this the Poco Benedict. It is probably our most popular Benedict, but the lobster one is right on its heels.”
Don’t miss: King Creole Benedict with creole shrimp, poached egg, and cranberry hollandaise at Queens Comfort and Egg Shop’s Benedict with poached eggs, black forest bacon, English muffin croutons and Meyer lemon yoghurt citronette.
Manhattan Clam Chowder
Originating in the eastern United States, clam chowder quickly split into two popular varieties – New England and Manhattan. Historically, New England clam chowder is said to have been introduced to the region by French, Nova Scotian or British settlers in the 18th century. However Manhattan clam chowder, famous for its distinct red colouring, first appeared in a recipe in 1934.
Such is the competitiveness between the two chowders that in 1939 the New England state of Maine debated legislation that would ban the use of tomatoes in chowder, the trademark ingredient of a Manhattan clam chowder.
Today you’ll find various versions of the dish from Delaware, Long Island, New Jersey and Rhode Island among the two most famous. Tomatoes were supposedly first added in place of milk by Portuguese immigrants in Rhode Island, as tomato-based stews are a tradition in Portuguese cuisine.
You’ll find different versions of this New York dish all over the city, but one of the best places to tuck into an authentic Manhattan clam chowder is in the middle of Grand Central Station. The Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant offers a truly unique setting to try this popular dish. The recipe has been kept much the same by this gourmet eatery, lovingly made by executive chef Sandy Ingber. On this historic New York dish, Sandy said: “Like the New England chowder, this recipe dates back at least to the 1970s. It could be older, but there’s no way to trace it. We call it ‘red soup’ (and yes, we call the New England chowder ‘white soup’).
“What makes our clam chowder so special is it actually tastes like clams. It is a complex, lightly spicy tomato-based vegetable soup with onion, celery, green peppers and potatoes, highly seasoned but not overly. It creates a wonderful soup with lots of goodies inside.”
According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, Americans eat 20 billion hot dogs a year. So what’s the history behind New York City’s obsession with this dish? Unsurprisingly, the word ‘frankfurter’ comes from Frankfurt, Germany, where sausages similar to hot dogs originated. It’s believed these sausages appeared in the 13th century. The word ‘wiener’ refers to Vienna, whose German name is ‘Wien’, and is the name for the sausage made of a mixture of pork and beef. By placing a wiener or frankfurter in a bun, it becomes a hot dog.
There is some ambiguity surrounding the arrival of the hot dog in the United States, which has led to many charming stories. One delightful anecdote suggests a German peddlar, Antonione Feuchtwanger, once sold hot sausages in the streets of St. Louis Missouri but had to loan his customers gloves to avoid burning their hands. As the story goes, his profits plummeted because customers would walk away with the gloves, so Antonione’s wife suggested he put the sausages in a split bun instead.
According to most, the real story is that an immigrant by the name of Charles Feltman owned a pie wagon that delivered his freshly baked pies to the local businesses in Coney Island in 1867. His clients soon began requesting hot sandwiches and so he thought hot sausages served in a roll might be a simple solution. So, with the help of the man who built his pie wagon, Feltman transformed it to incorporate a tin-lined chest to keep bread rolls fresh and a small charcoal stove to boil sausages.
One of the oldest known restaurants to serve hot dogs is Nathan’s Famous. Nathan Handwerker, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, went to work for Charles Feltman, slicing hot dog rolls and delivering hot dogs to workers. It’s said that after a year he’d saved $300 and opened a competing hot dog stand. Today, Nathan’s Famous still serves its delicious dogs, although it has expanded not just across the U.S, but all over the world. Wherever you are exploring New York City attractions, you’re pretty much guaranteed to stumble across a Nathan’s.
Among the chain’s celebrity diners are legendary gangster Al Capone and President Roosevelt. Today, alongside its original hot dog, Nathan’s offers chilli dogs, chilli cheese dogs, crinkle-cut French fries loaded with bacon and cheese, burgers and corn dogs.
Don’t miss: Crif Dogs’ unique creations including the Chihuahua, a bacon wrapped hot dog with avocado and sour cream, Ditch Plains’ Ditch Dog smothered in mac and cheese, a classic New York hot dog and a cool papaya drink from Papaya King.
Pastrami on Rye
Pastrami has been linked historically to the likes of Romania, Greece and Turkey. In Turkey, pastirma is an air-dried cured beef, however early references in English used the spelling ‘pastrama’ closer to the Romanian spelling. Pastrami was introduced into the U.S when Jewish immigration peaked in the second half of the 19th century. It’s believed ‘pastrami’ was probably an imitation of American English ‘salami’.
Records indicate Sussman Volk may have been the first to produce the pastrami sandwich in 1887. Volk, a kosher butcher and a Lithuanian immigrant, claimed the recipe came from a Romanian friend in exchange for storing their luggage while they visited Romania. According to his descendant, Patricia Volk, he made pastrami and served it on sandwiches from his butchers shop, but it was so popular he eventually converted his shop into a restaurant selling pastrami sandwiches.
Today, many of New York City’s original delicatessens still serve pastrami sandwiches to the masses. One of the most famous is Katz’s Delicatessen. Dating back to 1888 and, this deli certainly knows what makes an authentic pastrami sandwich. In an interview with Bloomberg, current owner Jake Dell revealed there are rules to dining at Katz’s: “I talk so much about pastrami, people often tell me to shut up. But if you come into my restaurant and order the classic pastrami sandwich and ask for it on white bread with mayo, I might not be able to stop myself from throwing you out of my establishment. I’m nicer than my grandfather, who would have actually done it.” According to Dell, pastrami is meant to be eaten with mustard – spicy deli brown mustard – and rye bread.
Don’t miss: 2nd Ave Deli’s impressive selection of sandwiches, franks and knishes, Harry & Ida’s legendary ‘Pop’s Pastrami’ sandwich, Ben’s Best’s overstuffed sandwiches, Liebman’s Deli’s tasty meat sandwiches with pickles and coleslaw.
With its earliest origins in Ancient Greece, the cheesecake has greatly developed to become the popular New York dish we know today. A recipe for cheesecake, known as ‘libum’ by the Romans, was allegedly written by Marcus Porcius Cato, a politician at the time. The recipe for libum was two pounds of cheese well-crushed in a mortar, add 1 pound of bread-wheat flour and an egg and mix well. It is believed small cheesecakes were served to athletes during the first Olympic Games held in 776 B.C.
Over the years, many other claims were made to the first recipe resembling New York style cheesecake. In New York City, Arnold Reuben, the owner of the famous Turf Restaurant, claimed his family developed the first cream cheese cake recipe in the 1920s. As the story goes, he was served a cheese pie and fell in love with the dish and then developed it using his own recipe, serving it in the Turf Restaurant on Broadway.
So, what makes an authentic New York-style cheesecake? Many say it’s the heavy cream or sour cream. Most New York cheesecakes are rich, smooth and creamy, made with vanilla extract and sugar and baked twice in the oven. One of the city’s favourite bakeries is Eileen’s Special Cheesecake. Since opening in 1976, the business has rapidly expanded and now ships its delicious cheesecakes all over the United States. “Our cheesecake is made with the eight traditional ingredients that are essential for New York cheesecake,” said Eileen. “Our popularity during the 41 years we have been in business is based on our quality and the love and care that is our special ingredient. The passion behind our cheesecake can be appreciated when our clients truly experience ‘love at first bite’.”
Chicken and Waffles
Commonly attributed to America’s Deep South, this comfort food actually originated in New York. The earliest American chicken and waffle combination dates back to the 1600s when it was used by the Pennsylvania Dutch. At this time, waffles were topped with pulled chicken and gravy. But it wasn’t until the opening of now legendary joint, Wells Supper Club, that the dish became mainstream.
The restaurant in Harlem, New York opened in 1938 and became a late night venue for jazz musicians, who would stop by after their gigs too late for dinner and too early for breakfast. The compromise was fried chicken and waffles. Nat King Cole was said to be such a fan of Wells Supper Club and its famous dish that he held his wedding reception here. Since the launch of the restaurant, the meal quickly spread across the city and eateries dedicated to serving chicken and waffles appeared.
Don’t miss: A choice of bacon-cheddar, dried cherry, rosemary-mushroom, apple-cinnamon, spiced-pecan or classic waffles with your fried chicken at Sweet Chick, classic chicken and waffles with syrup and molasses butter at Hill Country Chicken and Streetbird Rotisserie’s chicken with red velvet or banana cornbread waffles.
Contrary to popular belief, the Baked Alaska was actually invented in New York City. Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhofer claims to have invented the dish to honour the acquisition of Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867. Although no account exists to support the claim, the dish was not referred to as Baked Alaska until some years later. In 1894, Ranhofer allegedly named the dish an ‘Alaska Florida’, to replicate the contrast between its hot and cold elements. As Delmonico’s was one of the earliest restaurants in the United States, it has claims to the creation of Baked Alaska, eggs benedict, lobster Newberg and other dishes.
General Tso's Chicken
This sweet, deep-fried chicken dish has become a staple of New York City cuisine. It’s named after Zuo Zongtang, a Qing dynasty statesman and military leader. The meal allegedly originates from China’s Hunan province and was invented by chef Peng Chang-kuei. He is said to have created grand banquets for the Chinese Nationalist government from the end of World War II until the introduction of Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949. As the story goes, Peng Chang-kuei fled the country to Taiwan. During the 1950s, he opened a restaurant in the capital of Taipei and served Hunanese cooking, including General Tso’s Chicken.
It’s said that the dish has changed so much that in New York City it is not wholly reminiscent of the original. New York City chef Tsung Ting Wang adopted the recipe as a sweeter, fried version and made it popular in the city in the 1970s. When the creator of the dish, Peng Chang-kuei opened his own restaurant in the city, he discovered people were already eating altered versions of his original recipes, so he served his Hunanese version instead. Today, you can find General Tso’s Chicken on the menus of almost any Chinese restaurant.
Whether you’re heading to the Empire State Building or to watch the New York Yankees, be sure to combine your sightseeing with some authentic New York City cuisine.
Image credit: City Foodsters, Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, Poco NYC, Vincent Desjardins, Johnn, Kim Ahlstrom, Loozrboy, Fernando Mafra, Jaysin Trevino, Kimberly Vardeman, MsSaraKelly, Jazz Guy, Nick Amoscato
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