6 Classic New York Foods
The Iconic Foods You Absolutely Must Try in New York City
You find yourself in New York City, arguably the food capital of the world, and you have no idea what to eat. Take a deep breath, ensure you are well out of the way of any commuting New Yorkers moving at 3 times the normal human walking pace, and take a moment to ponder what type of person you are. Do you want to experience fine dining at Michelin star restaurants and luxuriate over a 4 hour dining experience? Do you want to quickly grab a bite to eat on the go to maximize time for your non-food exploration of NYC (this is not uncommon for New Yorkers to do)? Or do you want a bit of a balance somewhere in between?
There are countless options for you, whatever the results of your soul searching, but one thing we urge you to do while you’re in NYC is to try some (or all!) of the quintessential New York City foods – foods that really belong to New York City, its people, its culture, and its history. Some you may find yourself craving for the rest of your life, while others may leave you a bit underwhelmed. But for better or for worse, these are the must-experience NYC foods:
- The Bagel
The bagel is a true New York staple, and New York bagels are famous for a reason – they are simply delicious. While there are many breads throughout the world that are to die for, no bread can replace a good bagel. Bagels are made from a dough that is mixed, kneaded, shaped, proofed, boiled (sometimes in a flavored water such as malt syrup, honey, or baking soda), and then baked. Bagels are hand-made and fresh baked throughout the day and there is no better place to have a delicious bagel than in this city. Most bagel shops serve a wide variety of bagels most commonly including plain, poppy, sesame, onion, garlic, pumpernickel, salt, and everything, though these days you can find bagel flavors such as cinnamon raisin, blueberry, or chocolate. One excellent choice is the egg bagel, though it’s very much a dying breed and is rarely found these days. But all bagel varieties are delicious – except maybe for the pumpernickel. And the everything bagels that have salt – watch out for those of you aren’t a big fan of salt.
Bagels can be eaten without any additions, but most people like to slice the bagel in half and add cream cheese. Cream cheese also comes in a variety of flavors at nearly every bagel shop, the most common flavors being plain, chive and onion, sun-dried tomato, vegetable, jalapeño, cheddar, and sometimes less traditional ones such as strawberry or maple syrup. These days, there are also many shops that offer non-dairy cream cheeses to accommodate vegans and those with intolerances. Alternatively, some people eat their bagels with just butter.
You can also go above and beyond the basic bagel and cream cheese and go for a bagel sandwich with toppings such as tomatoes, onions and the classic lox or capers.
One thing to note: there are bagel shops that have very strict no-toasting policies, arguing that a fresh bagel made the proper way needs no toasting. If you really prefer your bagel toasted, make sure you confirm whether they will toast ahead of ordering.
Regardless of how you choose to take your bagel, please just take one, or many, while you’re in town.
It’s hard to understand what real cheesecake should be like if you haven’t lived in New York (or visited on a cheesecake mission). There are all sorts of things floating around out there called “cheesecake”, including some that outrageously call themselves “New York cheesecake”.
Let’s start with the basic – a plain cheesecake. First, I’d like to emphasize the point that a plain cheesecake is plain. It is not vanilla cheesecake, it is not white chocolate cheesecake, and it is not supposed to have a “hint of lemon”. So many places get this wrong. They have a plain or classic cheesecake on their menu (some even go so far as to call it “classic New York cheesecake”) and then actually present you with a vanilla cheesecake. No!
Second, let’s discuss how this plain cheesecake should actually taste. It is not meant to be a block of sugar. It is meant to taste tangy with a hint of sweetness. Even when the first sin of creating a vanilla or white chocolate cheesecake is not committed, many cheesecakes fail to have the right ratio of cream cheese, sour cream, and sugar. Sugar is overused and sour cream is underused or sometimes, tragically, omitted altogether.
So, we have established that a plain cheesecake is meant to be unflavored and tangy with a hint of sweetness.
Next let’s turn to the cheesecake crust. Traditionally, the crust was a mix of graham crackers, butter, and sugar, and this is still the most common. But there are so many variations on the crust these days including shortbread crusts, oreo-cookie crusts, cake-like crusts, and even non-existent crusts. Now for most people, this is less of a make-or-break factor than what sits on top of it, because worst case, you can just avoid eating the crust and focus on the creamy goodness on top. There is no single type of crust that is required for the cheesecake, but the absolute worst offenders are: (1) dry, crumbly crust and (2) cake-like crust. The crust should be crunchy, crisp, and moist. And actually, it’s the one part of the cheesecake where a sweeter flavor is more acceptable. There is nothing worse than a cheesecake that is essentially sitting on top of a sponge cake. The crust is meant to offer textural contrast to the rest of the cheesecake and elevate it, so it’s a shame so many places don’t get it right.
The cheesecake described above is surprisingly hard to find, but NYC has the best of them – hence the world-famous term “New York Cheesecake”.
Of course, there are countless variations of cheesecake as well – an infinite number of flavors, shapes, sizes, and toppings – and these can be fantastic as well. When it comes to food, creativity is a great thing, and let’s face it – sometimes you just get a craving for a chocolate peanut butter espresso cheesecake instead of a plain cheesecake.
But while you’re in NYC, please do try the classic, famous, plain New York cheesecake, because the traditional style has been so diluted elsewhere that it’s quite hard to come by.
But some great specialty shops include the world-famous Junior’s (see our review here), as well as Eileen’s Special Cheesecake (see our review here).
For more great dessert in NYC, see New York Desserts.
If you’re looking for a posh, sophisticated, upscale steakhouse, NYC is the place to be. The best quality, the best cut, the best flavor, great service, and old-school steakhouse atmosphere. This is the city of legendary steakhouses. Everyone seems to have a favorite steakhouse, but two that we’d recommend are Delmonico’s and Peter Luger’s.
Delmonico’s – Located in the heart of the financial district at the very tip of Manhattan, this historic, traditional steakhouse has seen all kinds of business executives, politicians, and celebrities over the years (including Abraham Lincoln). It opened in 1837 and is the birthplace of the widely imitated Delmonico steak, a style of preparation from one of several cuts of beef (generally the rib cut). It is also often credited with being the first American restaurant to allow patrons to order à la carte instead of prix fixe and is where the much beloved brunch dish Eggs Benedict was first created.
The restaurant is quite opulently decorated, service is great, and it’s a nice place to visit if you’re looking for a special night out because of its historical significance and worldwide renown. Delmonico’s
Peter Luger Steakhouse – Located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Peter Luger’s is widely considered to be the best steakhouse in NYC. It has a very classic steakhouse vibe with exposed wooden beams, brass chandeliers, and beer-hall-style tables. It is best known for its preparation of the porterhouse steak, and if any steak is considered quintessentially NYC, it’s the Peter Luger porterhouse. Peter Luger’s
Everyone has heard of New York pizza, so if you want to try the quintessential New York foods, you’ve got to give it a go. Now let’s set aside value judgments on the quality of NY pizza and the contentious question of which place is home to the best pizza in the world. Chicago? NY? Naples? Sicily? The answer is unequivocally Naples (sorry NY), but that’s irrelevant for purposes of this discussion. New York pizza is famous and you should not only eat it, but eat it like a New Yorker.
There are two types of places you can go – a restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall joint. If you’re opting for the restaurant-style, then the most famous ones are Grimaldi’s (see our review here) and Lombardi’s. You order a whole pie with toppings of your choosing, the pie is brought to your table and placed on a pizza stand and sliced, and then you eat. These two restaurants are New York staples, decorated minimally with lots of wood and the classic red and white pizzeria theme. They both have crazy long lines during peak times and don’t take reservations.
The other option is to stop at any one of the thousands of pizza shops around NYC that sell pizzas by the slice. You can find unknown places that sell cheese slices for $1 per slice or you can go to places that have developed more of a following with correspondingly higher prices and a more extensive variety of toppings. You don’t need to walk long before you find a slice-selling joint, but if you specifically want to target one with more repute, then you could try Artichoke Basil, Two Boots, or Joe’s Pizza. There’s also the well-known “Famous Ray’s” pizza, which is infamous for having about 20 locations all around the city with different owners each claiming to be the original.
Please remember to fold your pizza slice in half before you eat. Please do not ever use a fork and knife. And eating as you walk is permissible and should make you feel like a true New Yorker.
Note: Over the last 15-20 years, Neapolitan pizza (pizza from Naples, i.e. the best pizza in the world) has taken off in NYC. Though these are far from classic New York pizza, they are some of the most delicious pizzas NYC has to offer. Visit New York Pizza for our reviews of almost all of them!
- Deli Sandwiches
Who doesn’t love a good deli sandwich? Unfortunately, though, you can’t get one in too many places outside of NYC. Delis abound in NYC – every New Yorker has a local deli, and frequents it routinely. A deli can be an independent shop, an offshoot of a restaurant, or part of a bodega or grocery store. The concept is the same: you walk up to the counter and either create your own sandwich or pick from one of dozens of sandwiches described on the deli’s menu. The ingredients are fresh, the portions are ample, and there is something to be made for every type of palate – even the most finicky of the bunch.
Bread options generally include white, wheat, multi-grain, rye, pumpernickel, sliced, roll, sub, bagel, and wrap.
Deli meat options include many varieties of turkey, chicken, pastrami, corned beef, ham, salami, and pretty much anything else you can name.
Cheese options include sliced cheddar, pepper jack, monterey jack, colby, mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, and occasionally blue cheese.
Topping options include lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, pickles, peppers, avocado, hummus, olives, and more.
You can get as much or as little of anything as you want. Most places have the option for toasting as well.
You can easily stumble upon a deli as you walk – it’s hard to walk around the streets of NYC without doing so. But if you want to seek out an iconic place, the obvious choice is Katz’s Delicatessen, most famous deli in NYC, known primarily for its pastrami on rye. The sandwich is expensive, but the pastrami is piled high enough to ensure even the hungriest eater leaves on a full stomach. Katz’s
If you’re interested in trying other great non-deli sandwiches in NYC, visit New York Sandwiches.
- Black and White Cookies
A black and white cookie is very hard to find outside of NYC and very easy to find inside of it. The cookie itself is a bit misnamed in that it’s more like a cookie-shaped cake than an actual cookie. It’s like a large, soft, cake-like shortbread or vanilla cookie, and is not crispy or hard. It’s made with batter more similar to cake batter than cookie dough. On top of the cookie you’ll find half vanilla fondant frosting and half chocolate fondant frosting.
These cookies are deli and bagel shop staples and can be found in a variety of bakeries, cafes, and supermarkets. The trick is finding a good one – fresh baked, using good quality ingredients. There are variations on how the recipes used for black and white cookies, so they don’t all taste the same, but William Greenberg, Zabar’s, and Glazer’s Bakeshop are all known for their version.
If you’d like to delve into some more serious desserts in NYC, check out New York Desserts for some real standouts.
The Bottom Line
In New York City, you will never have a shortage of food options, and you can stumble upon great food just casually walking around the city. But the endless choices can often be overwhelming if you don’t have a specific goal. Use the above list and associated links as a guide to find some of the great (or, at a minimum, iconic) food New York has to offer. Whatever your taste, whatever your budget, New York has the right food for you.