Eating breadsticks in a Times Square chain restaurant has a time and a place. But for many visitors to New York – those who travel for pleasure and culture – sampling the thousands of eating and drinking establishments in New York City is a trip highlight.
Sometimes you just need a quick local fix before dashing to your next appointment. Sometimes you want an easy mid-range meal that won’t wreck your Fitbit stats.
Then there are “occasions,” when you want the kind of luxury dining experience only New York can offer.
You’ll find local favorites for each eating need on this list of nine New York restaurants, three for each meal and budget.
Fast and cheap: Russ & Daughters
At this legendary shop, family-owned since 1914, you can order a Schmear (your choice of cream cheese on a hand-rolled bagel, we like the onion) for just $2.45, or less than the price of a subway ride.
Some like to eat it the traditional New York way – charging down the street.
Nice sit-down: Balthazar
Not all trendy SoHo restaurants invite guests to linger. But Balthazar’s cozy ambiance does with giant bowls of cafe au lait and just-made croissants from their attached bakery.
“Eggs any style” includes “en cocotte” (baked in a ramekin with cream), in puff pastry (scrambled with wild mushrooms and asparagus) or Norwegian (poached with smoked salmon), with the occasional side of celebrity-sighting.
Not a meal, an experience: Norma’s at Le Parker Meridien
New Yorkers standoffish? Nah. They love impressing visitors with a ta-da moment.
For some it’s when the Wah-za waffle arrives – fruit outside, fruit inside and a creme brulee top – because sometimes in New York breakfast isn’t eaten, it’s experienced.
It’s just one block from Central Park, so diners can enjoy a post-feast walk.
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Fast and cheap: Uncle Gussy’s
New York’s most popular lunch stop may be the Midtown street corner. Choices: Stale pretzels. Limp hot dogs. Or you can do a hot, freshly carved lamb gyro with the works at this insanely popular food truck run by two brothers.
Mom makes the OMG tzatziki sauce. You’ll want to pony up the 80 cents for an extra hit.
Nice sit-down: Friedman’s
The city constantly nudges visitors to walk – through museums, up subway stairs, the mile-plus length of the High Line. Hours later, a special exhaustion takes hold that can lead to questionable food choices.
Fortunately, this homegrown lunch spot with healthy (veggie bowl), indulgent (mac ‘n’ cheese) and many gluten-free options (including hamburger buns) has four locations from downtown to uptown.
Not a meal, an experience: Locanda Verde
Trendy joints with months-long waiting lists for dinner usually have open tables at lunchtime.
This buzzy Tribeca hotspot co-owned by Robert De Niro is a great option for a long, lazy A-List meal. The menu reads: “Tutta la nostra pasta e fatta in casa.” Translation: All our pasta is homemade.
Try the popular My Grandmother’s Ravioli and you won’t need the translation.
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Fast and cheap: Tortilleria Nixtamal
If New York is a melting pot, its bubbling core is Queens, the cradle of ethnic eats.
Life-changing tacos can be had at the borough’s authentic tortilla factory that all the pricey Manhattan Mexican restaurants buy from.
Here, the fresh tortillas are warm and $2.75 buys a taco stuffed with house-made chorizo or grilled cactus. The mole chicken tamale also has a devout following.
Nice sit-down: Barawine
There are more than eight million people living in the city yet sometimes visitors come and go without ever meeting a soul. The elbow-to-elbow community dining table in this downright convivial brasserie in Harlem usually remedies that.
There are excellent wines by the glass and a superb roast duck breast.
Not a meal, an experience: The Four Seasons
Ultimate, iconic, flawless and incomparable are adjectives routinely used to describe this swanky grande dame. Yet words can’t describe the glowing luxury of the mid-century room, its perfectly chilled martini or the rack of lamb for two.
Purists looking for a classically New York night out might consider getting to the restaurant before its relocation in July 2016.
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Margaret Heidenry lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and Boston Magazine. Tweet her at twitter.com/mheidenry