It’s easy to think that Manhattan is all about fine dining, thanks to an impressive 67 Michelin-starred restaurants and a profusion of marquee chefs, whom many New Yorkers follow with a passion reserved for star quarterbacks in other cities. Yet the real secret to dining in the city is knowing that while you can top out at $450 for the per-person prix-fixe menu at sushi temple Masa, a bowl of soup dumplings at the legendary Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown will set you back just six bucks. As New Yorkers know, look to the inexpensive ethnic restaurants and neighborhood eateries for affordable meals you’ll brag about back home. Also consider visiting during Restaurant Week — which are actually three to four weeks in winter and summer, when the city’s hottest eateries offer special three-course lunch and dinner deals.
Ethnic fare wins for diners watching their wallets. Where else can you eat your way through 33 global cuisines and still have cash to spare? Stroll lower Lexington Avenue, from East 32rd Street to East 23rd Street, to see why it’s called Curry Hill for its fairly priced Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Or head to Chinatown, below Canal Street, for Szechuan, Hunan and Cantonese food that transports you right to the home country. Nearby Little Italy may be touristy, but who cares when you’re tucking into steaming bowls of ravioli and pillow-soft tiramisu. Korean kimchi, hot pot and tangy barbecue don’t get any better than in Koreatown (that’s K-Town to locals), a mini Seoul that’s chockablock with affordable spots along West 32nd Street.
But why end your international dine-around there when you can sample everything from Vietnamese pho to Greek gyros, Indonesian rijsttafel to homestyle Dominican sancocho, hand-to-mouth Ethiopian dishes to tongue-tingling Jamaican jerk, Lebanese falafel to Brazilian feijoada? If only you had more time.
Pizzerias, delis and diners
Pizza — cheap, delicious and ubiquitous — is the city’s unofficial food. Thanks to generations of enterprising Italian immigrants, no food is more quintessentially New York than a great slice. But trying to find the best is a sure way to start an argument among locals. With no clear winner, just remember to eat your slice like a New Yorker: Pick it up with your hands, fold it lengthwise and bite.
Though slowly disappearing, the legendary New York diner still exists. (Tom’s Diner, of Seinfeld fame, is still slinging eggs and bacon.) Meanwhile, nothing says tradition more than a classic New York deli, where mile-high pastrami and corned-beef sandwiches still reign supreme, and the perfect breakfast is Nova Scotia salmon on a bagel.
Food halls and more
New Yorkers do love their food courts, but in Manhattan they’re filled with locally owned eateries, not chain restaurants. Across the street from Grand Central Station is Urbanspace Vanderbilt, with more than 15 artisanal food stalls (everything from bespoke bao to award-winning pizza). Near the High Line, Chelsea Market boasts food stands, bakeries and purveyors of eye-popping cheeses and chocolates in a block-long building. You’ll think you’re smack in the middle of Italy at the culinary extravaganza called Eataly, with locations in the Flatiron District and World Trade Center. Note that they can get extremely crowded at lunchtime.
The go-to spot for Manhattan chefs and fresh foodies is Union Square Greenmarket on the city’s Lower East Side. In peak season, 140 regional farmers, fishers and bakers sell their produce, baked goods, preserves, meats, seafood and cheeses here on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Make a meal of it — with the best people-watching in Manhattan on the side.
Ways to save: Follow the crowds to the city’s colorful food trucks. Licensed and graded by the city (look for an “A”), they serve an ethnic smorgasbord in Midtown Manhattan, Central Park, the World Trade Center and many other places New Yorkers congregate. Then dig into an affordable halal meal, kimchi taco, lobster roll, waffle — or just a classic New York hot dog. It doesn’t get any more local than that.
Booking a table is essential for the most in-demand restaurants, for before you attend the theater and during the holiday season. Many of the best ones use the free reservation systems of OpenTable or Resy. Still having trouble snagging a table? Try eating at an off hour (1:30 lunch, perhaps) or grabbing a stool if the restaurant has a bar.
Ways to save: Save money by having lunch, not dinner, at higher-end spots. You’ll get to taste an acclaimed chef’s food for less — for example, at showstoppers such as Le Bernardin or Gramercy Tavern. Prix-fixe menus can also save you money, especially at lunch. Or try breakfast; a couple of iconic restaurants offer a relatively well-priced breakfast, including Balthazar and the Mercer Kitchen.