Friday, October 24, 2014

How to eat well in NYC

   Food is the most memorable part of any trip for me. I have wonderful beach memories from Hawai'i, but I have even better memories of slurping noodles and shave ice. The Hagia Sofia is Istanbul was awe-inspiring, but sipping coffee in back alleys was even better. The memories we associate with food trigger different senses and are more powerful than just remembering what we see. And the pressure is on when you visit New York, one of the great food cities on Earth. You don't want to come here and have a bad food experience. Rather than make a list of great restaurants (there's plenty of those already), I figured I would compile some tips and resources to help you find the best food. So let's start with some habits to avoid.

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Quite a feast in #flushing. #chinesefood #queens #oystersauce #taiwanese #nyc #realnytours



FOR GOODNESS SAKE, DON'T EAT AT CHAIN RESTAURANTS!
   This seems obvious right? And yet, I have had many savvy clients who arrive at their hotel, probably in Times Square, and are tired, disoriented, and travel-weary; they see TGI Friday's aglow in neon and say "Screw it, let's eat there. At least we know what we're getting."
   The thing is, you don't actually know what you're getting. Generally, chain restaurants like Olive Garden or Applebee's are a good options in rural or suburban areas. They have low prices for food that tastes pretty good. The service is usually quite good as well. I never complained about these restaurants when I lived outside NYC. But chains in NYC are an entirely different experience. I actually will admit to patronizing TGI Friday's twice in Manhattan, at two different locations. And the first thing I noticed was the service was terrible. In one instance, it was later at night and the restaurant was nearly empty. And yet it took almost 30 minutes to receive our drinks and we never had food orders taken. We were starving and actually walked out to try to find a place to eat. It makes sense when you think about it though. In suburban areas, chain restaurants are some of the best waiter jobs available. They are busy, tables move fast, and there isn't as much competition for diner's dollars. But the clientele at Manhattan chains is often tourists, many of them foreign, who are unfamiliar with tipping in the U.S. Whereas top restaurants in NYC are numerous and the pricey checks and well-heeled clientele can make a good waiter a profitable living. So if you were any good at waiting tables, why would you work at the Times Square Red Lobster?
   The other issue is price. Low prices and unlimited-eating deals are the staple of chain restaurants. Olive Garden always has some variation on unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks. TGI is currently offering unlimited appetizers for $10. But you'll find these deals often don't exist in Manhattan, and that everyday prices have been gouged. Olive Garden helpfully lists menu prices at all their locations nationwide. At my old high school shopping mall in suburban Houston, Texas, chicken alfredo costs a reasonable $14.50. At the Times Square location, the same dish is $21.00! An almost 50% price bump. Is that just standard NYC prices you might ask? It is absolutely not. Mario Batali's mid-range Roman restaurant Lupa is famous for its spaghetti alla carbonara priced at $16.00. Italian standout Rubirosa offers cavatelli with sausage and broccoli rabe for $16.00. Century-old John's of 12th Street offers carbonara for $19.00. Perhaps most indicative of the price gouging is that at my last trip to TGI Friday's, the prices of alcohol weren't even listed on the menu, presumably so they could surprise customers with exorbitant bills. So while you might be tempted to go with something familiar, just remember that chain restaurants in NYC aren't even good compared to chain restaurants elsewhere.

WHAT ABOUT LITTLE ITALY?
   I'm less emphatic in disliking Little Italy than some tour guides. You will often hear that Little Italy is nothing more than a tourist trap, and in many ways this is true. A century ago, Mulberry Street was the heart of a heaving Italian immigrant district. But over the decades, changes in immigration policy and patterns has led to fewer Italians migrating to New York and many more Italian-Americans moving away from the neighborhood to larger homes in the Outer Boroughs and suburbs of New Jersey and Long Island. What was once home to more than 50,000 immigrants is now not home to a single Italian-born resident. But the identity of Mulberry Street still exists as a place for festivals and food, and currently the street is lined with sidewalk tables.
   But the restaurants aren't very good. Good restaurants in NYC succeed in a couple of ways. They are good enough to attract repeat business from their neighborhood, or they're so spectacular they draw diners from all over the city. In both cases, you have to put out a good experience for your customers or you risk losing them. Little Italy, however, is an attraction. People come to see the neighborhood but there's no one restaurant of great fame with a reputation to defend. And with the clientele being mostly tourists, the way to succeed as a restaurant is just to get the customers in the door. Which is why so many Little Italy restaurants employ pushy street-hawkers to hustle hungry patrons inside. And with a transient clientele, you don't even have to worry about impressing your customers. They won't be back anyways. Little Italy's restaurants suffer from mediocre and uninspired food at the same price as many much better Manhattan Italian restaurants. Little Italy is just not worth a special trip.
   But I don't think that means you should never eat there. The food isn't awful, it's just a bit blase. But if you happen to be passing through the area, it works fine as a relaxed lunch. Many of the restaurants slash their prices for lunch making it pretty good value. And the sidewalk tables are nice on a sunny afternoon. The places on Mulberry Street are also good for big groups, which can be hard to find in Lower Manhattan. But even with all that, I think I would still rather eat at any of the great Italian places in Nolita just a few blocks north, like Osteria Morini, Torrisi, Parm, Rubirosa, or Lombardi's.
   There is one thing I think is truly great about Little Italy though, the historic food shops. You can still get fresh made mozzarella and ricotta at Alleva, homemade pasta at Piemonte, piping hot porchetta at Di Palo, or crunchy sfogiatella at Cafe Roma. All these shops are more than 90 years old and still make their products the old-fashioned way. So if you happen to have a kitchen during your stay in NYC, making your own Italian feast at home with fresh ingredients might be the best meal you can have in Little Italy.

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Alleva Deli in Little Italy. Doin it right for 121 years.

DON'T USE TRIPADVISOR RATINGS FOR RESTAURANTS
   While I love using TripAdvisor for finding good hotels, tours, and things to do, it's not the best source for restaurant info. This is because the reviews are only done by tourists and not by locals. I'm not saying tourists have bad taste, that's completely untrue. But restaurants are different in a lot of ways in New York City than in other places. They are much more cramped, prices are a bit higher, soft drinks don't often include refills, bathrooms are often only a single unisex toilet, and other small differences can lead to an undeserved negative review.
   TripAdvisor's ratings system also places emphasis on establishments with lots of reviews, which is generally a good thing. But the restaurants that get the most reviews from tourists tend to be in heavily touristed areas like Midtown. There certainly are good dining options in Midtown, but generally the restaurants are better in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side or Greenwich Village. And these places just aren't always as highly represented on TripAdvisor's ratings. It's not that TripAdvisor's ratings are bad or incorrect, they are just missing a lot of the neighborhood restaurants that are beloved by locals. And it almost guarantees you'll be eating in a spot with lots of other tourists.

USEFUL RESOURCES
   There's lots of great resources for researching good restaurants. In fact, there's so much info that it can be overwhelming. So I'll let you know a few of my go-to info sources. 
   Yelp.com is the behemoth of user reviews. What's great about them is that locals and tourists alike leave reviews so you get a good overall sense of people's experiences. Plus so many people use it that there's a good sample size to base an opinion from. Lots of times Yelp can be a good resource for finding the best in neighborhood places that excel but escape the notice of critics. It does have some drawbacks though. Yelpers are often overly critical of service and a great restaurant can elicit tanking reviews from just a few bad service interactions. The trouble is that sometimes service really does need improvement and other times a reviewer is just overly prickly. So I tend to use Yelp for finding a good casual place nearby, but not for finding special occasion places.
   One of the best resources for a visitor is the recommendation map on Eater.com. They have a map of their 38 essential NYC restaurants. They range in price, location, and style. But as they put it, the list constitutes their answer to the question "can you recommend a restaurant." So it makes a great resource for finding the best of NYC's restaurants.
   Localeats.com  is another great resource. They sift through reviews from different critics and user resources like Zagat and come up with a curated list of places that are positively reviewed in lots of different venues. They also have a list of the top 100 restaurants in NYC as well as best-of winners in individual genres of cuisine.

FOLLOW YOUR NOSE
   Ultimately, you don't need other people's opinions to find good places. Often walking down the block and wandering into someplace unexpected will lead to a great discovery, especially if you are in a great dining neighborhood. For this strategy to work, it helps to be located in Downtown or Western Brooklyn. The best neighborhoods for food are Greenwich Village, Tribeca, Nolita, the East Village, the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Hell's Kitchen, Chelsea, Chinatown, Soho, Greenpoint, Red Hook, Fort Greene, and Astoria Queens all fall in right behind. Other 'hoods have good and bad options. So if you are wandering through Lower Manhattan or Western Brooklyn you have a great chance of finding a great place to dine.
   Like other places, restaurants in NYC with big crowds are usually good, though this doesn't apply if you're in a major tourist area like Midtown, the South Street Seaport, or Little Italy. But otherwise a lot of patrons is a good sign. But I do find that visitors often don't appreciate the whole-in-the-wall vibe that a lot of great NYC restaurants cultivate. Bustling restaurants on a corner with big signs and lights are often poor options compared to small places in the middle of a block with no sign or obvious markers. I usually assume that a busy mid-block restaurant is better than a bustling corner spot though this isn't a concrete rule.
   So stay away from tourist areas or chains, do some research in advance, and find yourself in cool neighborhoods and you will eat like a king in NYC.

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