New York City’s restaurant scene is ever changing. There are tens of thousands of places to eat in the city, and every week a new group opens while another group shuts down. Unlike most of the rest of the United States, most restaurants tend to be small and locally owned. You’ll find a few chains here and there (especially when it comes to fast food), but for the most part NYC restaurants tend to be small and unique.
So for the visitor this means negotiating a minefield of unknown quantities. Of course there are many “famous” restaurants throughout the city, but they tend to be grouped in the high price ranges. This is a great city for a dining splurge, but it’s also a great place to try something unusual alongside locals in the lower price ranges.
The awesome competition for your food dollar in this city means that places that offer substandard food or that charge too much for what they serve tend to close fast. This means that nearly every place that has been open for at least a year or so must be doing something right. The old and universal advice that you should go to crowded places and avoid empty ones is especially true here.
Dining around Times Square
The Times Square area has tons of places that have lots of foot traffic from new tourists, so a great location can often protect their poor offerings since they don’t need to rely on repeat business. There are many goofy chain restaurants right on Broadway (Bubba Gump Shrimp, TGIFriday etc) and if those places appeal to you that’s fine.
There are also many good restaurants throughout the area, including a concentrated strip sometimes called Restaurant Row on 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. These places specialize in pre and post theater dinners, and many of them are quite good, although they tend to be a bit pricey as well.
Aside from the above, it might be best to eat outside of the Times Square area, even if you are staying there. Places with a never-ending supply of tourists have little incentive to offer great food at good prices, so they usually don’t. Neighborhoods where the locals go to eat are usually a much better bet. You might really be surprised by how inexpensive many of the popular places outside the Times Square area are. The competition from 5 other places on the same block means restaurants can’t overcharge and still stay around long.
Other neighborhoods to try
Upper West Side — This residential area is jammed with all kinds of restaurants in all price ranges. Broadway is the central artery, but Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues have more interesting restaurants.
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Chelsea — Just south of the Times Square area you’ll find this interesting residential district. Again, you can find nearly everything here with very few kitchy places mixed in.
Meat Packing District — This section of the West Village is now home to a couple dozen super trendy restaurants, many with al fresco seating during summer. This is a place to be seen, but also loaded with good places with plenty of repeat customers.
West Village — This area is completely residential, which is a good thing for potential diners. Hudson Street and Carmine Street are both lined with places, but all the side streets have small places on nearly every corner as well.
East Village — This area has only recently become a hot dining spot for locals. Lower rents have meant that some chefs and owners can experiment with unusual things here and get away with it. St Marks Street (8th Street) from 2nd Avenue to Avenue A is lined with interesting places, many of which are very reasonably priced. 6th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues is Indian Restaurant Row, with literally one place after another down the whole block. An old joke says they all share the same kitchen, but that seems unlikely.
SoHo — This neighborhood has really changed a lot recently, but a group of really nice places along West Broadway remains popular. The trend here has been toward larger places, but this historic area still has lots of smaller places as well.
A few of the greatest hits
You can get a slice of cheese pizza for the same price as a subway ride (currently $2) within about a 3-minute walk from nearly anywhere in Manhattan. Some neighborhoods have a place on every corner, and in spite of what some people contend, they really do tend to be very similar to one another. The lore that New York pizza is the best in the world might be true for people who’ve long since fried off their taste buds by eating one too many ridiculously hot slices. It’s really the fun way in which you eat the New York pizza that adds a bit of magic.
The carts all over Midtown and a few other areas sell hot dogs for around $2 each that are actually much better than you might think. The nickname “dirty water dogs” gives them a usually-undeserved bad reputation. These aren’t the best hot dogs in the city, but you have to try one at least once, and these carts are damn convenient if you are a bit peckish between meals.
There are Chinese restaurants in every neighborhood in Manhattan and quality tends to be unusually good and prices tend to be low. Obviously Chinatown is loaded with places — many of which depend mostly on local Chinese diners — but quality is spotty and many of the places are dirty. It can be an adventure, but it’s not necessarily the best place in town to go for a great Chinese meal.
This neighborhood has shrunk down to three blocks of Mulberry Street that are lined with nearly identical Italian restaurants. Quality tends to be good and prices can be reasonable since competition among the places is so fierce. It only takes 10 minutes to see everything that’s left of this neighborhood, but it can be interesting and a nice place for one memorable meal.
This page will continue to be updated on a regular basis. Check back periodically for much more on this huge subject.