It has long been said that New York is one of the best places on earth to dine out. And even though I’m sure that thousands of people have proof of this, I can’t say I’m 100% convinced. If you’re a hapless tourist such as I, and don’t have much time to do a lot of research beforehand (beyond the skimming of a Time Out guide on the plane and swotting up on Chowhound) the process of getting fed well can actually be quite a nightmare. And I’m not even a first-time visitor. There are so many rules – which I think would probably apply to anyone with only days to spare in a large city, but for some reason, it seems to be super-hard to get a decent good value meal in NYC.
For starters, don’t even BOTHER thinking you can get a table anywhere decent on a Saturday night unless you have booked at least a week ahead. Which makes it rather daunting if you only arrive in town the day before, jetlagged to the eyeballs and just getting to grips with everything. As a result, last Saturday night we headed to an esteemed gastropub called The Spotted Pig because, not only did it sound wonderful, but it was one of the few restaurants with a ‘no reservations’ policy. How naive we were – we were told there would be a three hour wait minimum. We had to abandon ship, but luckily my friend B had a organised a sneaky back-up reservation somewhere else, but unfortunately the meal turned out to be dreadful with dire service (that’s another story).
If restaurants don’t take reservations, such as the uber-popular brunch spot called the Clinton Street Baking Company on the Lower East Side, you should basically turn up and get your name on the list at least one hour before you want to eat anything. Even if that means going for a ‘pre-breakfast’ somewhere else. You will spend much of your time queuing in this way in New York – be it at an ice cream parlour or a breakfast joint – and nothing is ever going to change this. It makes it hard to be spontaneous, but you’ll just have to suspend that urge while you’re here. Alternatively, just prepare to eat dinner every night at 10:30pm when everyone else if finishing. It has just occurred to me that the entire process of eating out here is like a competitive sport – once you know the rules, be prepared to play hard to reach the finish line.
Another thing that I had forgotten since my first visit to NYC was just how jawdroppingly expensive everything is. I mean, really expensive. We are talking bagels that cost $15, ice cream sundaes costing $20 and steaks that will put you back on average $50 per head, just for the meat without sides. Wowzers. Ironically, the bagels that we enjoyed in Katz’s Deli (yes, yes, I know, probably considered the ultimate tourist trap) were MORE expensive than the souvenir T shirts for sale at the exit!
A great way to circumnavigate all of this is to know a couple of locals who can give you tips. My friends B and D have proven invaluable with advice and recommendations. B says that you have to reserve EVERYTHING weeks ahead, and be warned that restaurants will double book you unscrupulously, as it’s no guarantee whatsoever to be told that you’re on the list. D says that he sticks to a few close favourites and prefers the small, local places. And failing that? If you have no friends based in NYC, take a tip from me. I just badgered a complete stranger on the street for pancake recommendations (when the queue for yet another brunch place snaked ominously around the block) and even though he looked slightly afraid of me, he gave me a great recommendation for a diner a few blocks away. Which did sterling pancakes…and had one free table! Phew…
It’s not all doom and gloom however – I have managed to have some really great meals here, and individual reviews for places I have enjoyed will follow soon…
I’m on my way to San Francisco next – anyone got any good recommendations? I thank you!
In the heady days of 2004 when the pound was strong and the dollar weak, I went to New York and felt like a visting Sheik. $12 for a sandwich? Why that's only £6. I'll have two. The preceding year when money was tighter I lived on hot dogs and slices of ray's pizza.Henry
Those were heady days indeed, Henry! I also visited when it was $2 to the pound and a bagel the size of my head was practically tuppence…what I also remember is the scores and scores of Brits waddling up and down endlessly shopping, cashing in on the exchange rate. A depressing sight!
And I was one of those waddling Brits