In the film "New York, I Love You," when speaking about immigrants to the Big Apple, Julie Christie's character quips, "That's one of the things I love best about New York. Everyone came from somewhere else." We couldn't agree more, especially when we get to enjoy that diversity on the plate.
Over the centuries, each new wave of newcomers has brought their distinctive cuisine to New York's doorstep, resulting in a motley crew of imported fare that's incredibly regionally specific. It's a town where you don't just go out for Chinese, Spanish, African or Italian food: You go out expressly for Sichuan, Basque, Senegalese or Sardinian.
In the summertime, when locals flee the city (especially on weekends) and the tourist hordes descend, it really does seem like everyone in town came from somewhere else. But the dearth of locals means that it's just a touch easier to score a seat at the city's hottest restaurants, making summer a particularly good season to splash around in the deep and diverse Manhattan dining pool. Plus, some of New York's best casual eats (frozen custard, anyone?) simply taste best in the summer months.
Just as immigrants have come here seeking opportunity, so too have the most talented chefs, who flock here to make bold, high-profile culinary statements. Chef David Bouley cooks up all-natural, seasonal fare at his namesake Bouley, where the warm décor and dishes lend a down-home feel to the elegance. French chef (and Top Chef judge) Eric Ripert also manages to preserve a measure of quaintness at his seafood venture Le Bernardin; though it's ensconced in a Midtown office tower with modern décor, the artful dishes transport you to a small French fishing village. Fellow Frenchman Jean-Georges Vongerichten brings romance to the Trump Tower locale of his Jean Georges restaurant with gorgeously presented, Asian-inflected French cuisine and Central Park views. American Thomas Keller also exploits those views at Per Se, where stone and wood detailing adds an earthy backdrop to lavish French/New American dishes.
Then there are those elite few restaurants whose all-around excellence has made them "native" New York institutions. Since 1959, the chefs at The Four Seasons (no relation to the hotel chain, btw) have been dishing up traditional American cuisine like crisp-skinned duck to the power-player set. The big-top décor at refined-French Le Cirque (open since 1974) adds a touch of whimsy to the well-coiffed atmosphere, in which crisp waitstaff glide about with platters of foie gras ravioli and crème brûlée. The newcomer in this set is institution-in-the-making Marea (opened in 2009), specializing in sumptuous Italian seafood-delicacies like sea urchin and octopus are flown in from far-flung sources.
Even in summer, when local competition has thinned, a seat at one of the town's trendiest eateries is some seriously hot property. If you're feeling lucky, you might want to throw your hat in the ring at Momofuku Ko, where on any given day over 1,000 people vie online for a reservation for one of the 12 (yes 12!) seats to sample chef David Chang's Japanese/Korean fusion. Seats are also scarce at Mario Batali's Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, where food enthusiasts visit for the chef's divine pasta tasting menu. And don't be surprised if you have to take a place in line behind the likes of Natalie Portman or Beyoncé and Jay-Z to snag a table at chic French bistro Pastis, where celebs and stylish locals pile in for the vintage Parisian stylings and steak frites.
But if you want to put trendy aside for more casual eats, you'll be best served at neighborhood faves that preserve the original cuisines and spirit of 19th and early 20th century immigrants that shaped the island. What could be more quintessentially New York than pastrami on rye at Katz's Delicatessen? The Lower East Side eatery -- the oldest deli in New York -- keeps the Yiddish culture of the area's Eastern European émigrés alive with every hand-cut slice. On the Italian tip, Barbuto, housed in a former West Village garage, excels in rustic fare that would make even a Mulberry Street mamma proud. For real-deal dim sum, head to Oriental Garden, where the kitschy Chinatown interior and gruff staff only add to the authenticity of the scrumptious bites on offer. Get your Japanese fix at either Menchanko-Tei, a ramen house popular with the business set, or Sushi Azabu, a hidden sushi speakeasy.
After this taste-bud-driven romp through the world, you might just be craving some familiar American comfort fare. At landmark burger joint J.G. Melon, there are absolutely no frills in décor, toppings or service, yet the (arguably) best-in-town burgers and cottage fried potatoes have a cult following. Brave the lines at retro-chic Shake Shack for its crave-worthy burgers, hot dogs and frozen custard. End it all on a sweet note at Magnolia Bakery, known for its just-like-grandma's banana pudding and cupcakes.
And finally, this being the city that never sleeps, you'll of course want to know where to go for the best coffee fix. Pint-sized Bluebird Coffee Shop updates the boho coffeehouse culture of the East Village with hot-rod espresso machines and skinny-jeaned baristas. For a more luxuriant experience, head over to Stumptown Coffee Roasters in the Ace Hotel New York, where you can settle into the deep sofas in the lobby with a gorgeous coffee drink (latte foam art!) and PBJ donut. The baristas may channel classic New York with 1920s newsboy caps and ties, but the coffee chain itself started in Portland. It's just another fine example of New York taking the very best of what the world has to offer, adding its own unique spin and making it its own.
We couldn't possibly fit all of our favorites into one article. Click here to follow our Foursquare list Eating New York City, where you'll find our 193 favorite restaurants in the city
-- Emily C. Brands and Rachel B. Levin, www.thepurplepassport.com
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