Burger: Shack Shack
The original location of the burger empire is still our favorite, and though lines can get long at peak hours, rainy, snowy, and generally bad weather days make for a short wait for one of our favorite burgers in the city. Plus sitting in Madison Park and eating a Shack Burger is how lunch was meant to be.
Changing little over its century-plus of operation ("Send a salami to your boy in the army!" a sign in the window still reads), New York deli Katz's is about as obvious a tourist destination as NYC has—but man, is it a good one. As a pastrami destination there's none better. Either a simple pastrami sandwich or a Reuben will do you right, and either will fill you up for days with some of the finest smoked meat we know. Order at the counter and your sandwich-maker will slice off a piece of pastrami and hand it to you so you can nibble as you wait; licking those smoky, fatty juices off your fingers is one of the city's great eating pleasures. New York has other delis—but for the combination of meat, charm, history, and Lower East Side digs, Katz's is your place.
A few years ago, Shake Shack was just that cutely retro stand in Madison Square Park where office-dwelling New Yorkers would spend their entire lunch hour in line for a burger. Today, it's got several more locations in New York (some in generally food-deprived neighborhoods) and beyond; it's earned national repute; and it's permeated pop culture so deeply that some awful romantic comedies shoot about half their scenes there. (Not that anyone at SE Headquarters has seen Something Borrowed...) But its rapid fame hasn't changed the fact that it's one of our very favorite burgers in New York—a thin, smashed burger that's everything a fast-food burger should be. The original Madison Square Park location is still our favorite, but any location will get you a great meal.
Gray's Papaya and Papaya King
You come to New York, you want a hot dog. But rather than take a chance on any old street vendor, we'd recommend you go to Gray's Papaya or Papaya King—two old-time stands that serve classic, natural-casing hot dogs we love. (Don't go to any of the other hot dog wannabe spots with Papaya in the title. These are almost all hot dog pretenders.) At Papaya King, we get the combination slaw and sauerkraut dog with pickles and mustard. It's sweet, salty, spicy, and meaty at the same time. At Gray's the "recession special," two hot dogs and a medium Papaya juice, is still one of the better lunch deals in town. You'll find all sorts of dogs in New York these days, some simple and some cheffy, but the Papayas are still the best spot for the classics we love.
The consummate New York steakhouse, a piece of city history, and a truly fine place to have a meal. Yes, the waiters are gruff, the menu is limited, and reservations can be hard to come by; but if you're intending to go to Luger's, you know all that already. What's important for our purposes is that the dry-aged porterhouse for two is a work of carnivorous art. As the meat is carved tableside, you'll know you're at the right place. While the history and old-school ambience are part of the draw, the steaks are every bit as good as they're said to be. (Other great options for steak include Prime Meats, Porter House New York, Minetta Tavern, and Prime House New York.)
Keith McNally's Soho restaurant is written up year after year for its fantastic steak frites and raw bar, celeb-sprinkled clientele, and charming bistro-style ambience—and you know what? It's all true. Whether or not it's the best French restaurant in New York isn't really the question; you go to Balthazar for the grandeur, the dining room's soft glow, the feeling that you're in the right place. (And the French fries. You go for those, too.) That the food tends to be very, very good (if not expensive) only adds to Balthazar's appeal.
While Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich's Italian food emporium is less than a year old, it's already a tourist attraction up there with the Empire State and the Statue of Liberty. Wander its cavernous ground floor and you'll find every Italian foodstuff you'd want, everything you could think about wanting—bakery, pizzeria, cheese counter, panini counter, espresso bar, gelato stand, fish market, rotisserie... and that's before you get to the restaurants. Eataly can be overwhelming, no doubt. But the food-loving stroll through it the way the clothes-obsessed do Barney's or Bloomingdale's: not to buy, necessarily, but to gawk and experience and absorb. It's a madhouse, but one without equal.
Doughnut Plant, New York, NY
Mark Isreal's designer doughnut shop has been featured everywhere from the New York Times to Bobby Flay's "Throwdown" to any number of other Food Network programs; its Blackout chocolate doughnuts and Peanut Butter and Jelly raised doughnuts are now the stuff of legend. Luckily for the tourists who make the pilgrimage here, they're really, really good. (Recent favorites of ours include the Tres Leches and the Oatmeal—nowhere near as healthy as it sounds.) We've seen a lot of tricked-out doughnuts, but these are among the few that manage to be creative and gut-level satisfying at once.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Grand Central is a natural stop on the tourist circuit, either as a matter of transport or as a destination itself, too see the majestic terminal; and Grand Central Oyster Bar is the place to dine. Down a level under striking vaulted ceilings, it's a way to feel like you're in the heart of the station—and dining well while you are. While we won't vouch for the whole menu, the raw seafood is top-notch, and pan roasts are delicious, too.
I'm often amazed by how many of my out-of-town friends insist on visiting "that Belgian French fry place with a million different dipping sauces," but I'm always happy to oblige. Pommes Frites sells nothing but fries—delicious, thick-cut Belgian fries served in paper cones—and their turnover is so high that your batch is rarely more than a few minutes old. One-trick ponies always get attention, but this one is worth the trip; fry fiends really couldn't do much better. (As countless NYU students know, they're even better after a few drinks in the East Village.)
Joe's on Carmine
This West Village spot is an often-recommended spot for "real New York pizza," and it delivers, with a textbook and consistently delicious slice that's thin and crisp with nicely charred spots on the bottom, just the right ratio of sauce and cheese. It's talked up for the right reasons. Centrally located and open late, it's as good a first-time NYC pizza experience as any you'll find.
The Spotted Pig
New York's first and most-loved gastropub. A runaway hit ever since it opened in 2004, the Spotted Pig still lures visitors and locals to the disorienting diagonal grid of the West Village for an always-lively bar scene, killer Roquefort-topped burgers, and the rest of April Bloomfield's straightforward but incredibly appealing food menu. (Salt and fat-averse, steer clear.) Favorites like deviled eggs and incredible ricotta gnudi never leave the menu, though there's always something new, as a look at their new summer cocktail menu reminded us. Equal parts convivial drinking spot and destination-worthy restaurant, it's a quirky cornerstone of the West Village we love.
Forget Ess-A-Bagel or H&H—of the widely known bagel shops, Murray's is by far the best. They're notorious for their refusal to toast your bagel (because "they're so fresh, they don't need to be toasted"); we won't comment on that stance, though we will say that their bagels are fine specimens indeed, just the right size, each with a thin crust and light, stretchy interior in a way that so many bagel shops just don't get right. While we also love Absolute Bagels uptown, Bagel Hole in Brooklyn, and Bagel Oasis in Queens, Murray's is your central spot for a classic New York breakfast.