17 Quintessential NYC Foods and Dining Experiences
Definitive and modern classics for any appetite.
Along with the weekly crop of restaurant debuts that call New York City home, and essential Brooklyn eateries or places for barbecue, Thai food, and omakase sushi, the city is also filled with some truly iconic foods that help shape its culinary landscape.
Whether you just moved here, are visiting for the first time, or a local who’s craving a familiar favorite, some of these landmark spots and dishes have been around for generations, while others are more recent but still impactful. For your next outing, here are 17 quintessential foods and dining experiences to try in NYC.
The dish: A chocolatey frozen dessert (dipped with fries)
Open since 1954 and decked out in bright colors and dessert-inspired decor, this world-famous landmark offering two floors of fun is flocked to by dessert-lovers of all ages. At Serendipity3, the signature must-try is the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate drink made with a rich blend of cocoas (be sure to add on an order of fries for dipping). Along with an adults-only Spiked Frrrozen Hot Chocolate and other treats like massive sundaes, the menu has everything else you’d need for a full meal, from appetizers and Mac N’ Cheese to salads, hamburgers, and brunch.
Los Tacos No. 1
The experience: Al pastor tacos on your feet
There was a time when people would try to make the argument that NYC’s landscape of Mexican cuisine couldn’t hold a candle to cities like Los Angeles or Chicago. But with more solid spots continuing to find a home here, our gratitude for places like Los Tacos No. 1 runs deep. With locations in Chelsea Market, Grand Central, Times Square, and Tribeca, this fast-casual taqueria was started by three friends from San Diego who spent four months living in Tijuana to do research before launching in 2013. There’s no chairs here, but do expect a line for made-to-order tacos filled with Carne Asada, Pollo Asado, Adobada, or Nopal, all on housemade tortillas.
Smith & Wollensky
The dish: Steak
Open since 1977, Smith & Wollensky continues to uphold its standing in NYC steakhouse lore. This institution hand-butchers and dry-ages their beef through a four-week cure entirely in-house, and many members of the wait staff have been a familiar face to guests for over 30 years. In a city with no shortage of steak offerings, a meal here remains a quintessential dining experience. Along with cuts like the Bone-In Rib Steak, NY Sirloin, and Classic Prime Rib, dig into an array of seafood, meats, and classic sides like Creamed Spinach and Onion Rings before finishing it with the signature Bourbon Pecan Sundae.
The dish: Bagels
Ever since Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought bagels over to New York City in the late 19th century, this circular baked good with a hole in the middle has come to embody the Big Apple, and practically talks in a New Yawk accent. The local tradition is hand-rolled and boiled before baking, and the city’s tap water (which is so delicious it's nicknamed the “champagne of drinking water”), is often attributed to what makes them taste so special here. This longtime UWS bagel shop has mastered the classic style—chewy, dense, and fluffy inside with bite on the outside. Top it off with cream cheese, lox and all the fixins, or just eat yours toasted with butter while walking down the street. There’s nothing more iconically New York.
The dish: Pinwheel Lasagna
In a city filled with Italian food institutions, Don Angie, which opened in 2017, could still be considered one of the new kids on the block. But this smash-hit homage to Italian American cuisine from married duo, Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli, has cemented itself to icon status with the help of a signature dish: the Pinwheel Lasagna. Meant for sharing and made with Bolognese sauce, mozzarella, and sweet Italian sausage, there’s a good chance that this eye-catching social media darling (and its crispy-edged top) already looks familiar. It’s just one of many must-try items on the West Village eatery’s menu, and how the restaurant continues to remain one of the most coveted reservations in town.
The dish: Hot dogs
While hot dog carts can be found throughout the five boroughs, typically, they’re strategically located in tourist-heavy areas. For the majority of residents here, hot dogs are often relegated as a warm weather bite for sports stadiums, cookouts, 4th of July, and the beach. But when a craving for a good frank comes throughout the year, head to Gray’s Papaya, a family owned and operated business since 1974 that’s a hit across all spectrums of locals. The most popular order is the Recession Special, a deal that’s been running for more than 35 years. The price was $1.95 throughout the ‘90s, but currently it will set you back $6.95, and comes with two Franks and a medium sized tropical drink in flavors like Banana, Coconut, Papaya, or Piña Colada.
The Halal Guys
The experience: Top-notch street food with red and white sauce
When it comes to local street food, The Halal Guys are legendary. First started as a hot dog cart in 1990 at the intersection of 53rd and 6th Avenue (which still pulls long lines), they eventually shifted to serving halal food to a fan-base that originally consisted mostly of taxi drivers, office workers, and late-night partiers. Now, in addition to the brand’s newest locations like at Queens Center in Elmhurst, the chain commands multiple storefronts and carts within the Big Apple, as well as more than 100 locales across the globe. Can’t-miss favorites include the Beef Gyro, Chicken, and Falafel platters smothered in the signature white sauce, and a few drops of the extra spicy hot sauce.
The dish: Cheesecake
Nowadays, new restaurant openings don’t often offer cheesecake, but perhaps that’s because New York City already has Junior’s Cheesecake, an institution that’s synonymous with the dessert. Their landmark restaurant at the corner of DeKalb and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn, with its iconic signage and signature orange-and-white logo, has been open since the ‘50s. Here, you’ll find all the cheesecake you could ever want, with plenty of variety like the Original NY Plain and Brooklyn Crumb, to Pumpkin and Raspberry Swirl. For those in Manhattan, stop by the newer Midtown locations like in Times Square.
The experience: An onsite ordering system as legendary as its pastrami
Established in 1888, Katz’s Delicatessen in the Lower East Side not only has bragging rights as the city’s oldest Jewish deli, but also as the home to one the New York City’s most iconic orders: A pastrami on rye sandwich. The restaurant’s dining space is most recognizable for the very memorable orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. But as one of the most popular eateries in town, order is maintained from mobs of hungry customers through an onsite ticketed ordering system. After receiving the small ticket at the door upon entering, it’ll guide you through your journey of personal one-on-one time with the (notoriously straight talking) pastrami cutters, in addition to paying your bill at the end. And be warned, lose the ticket at your own peril because it’ll incur a fine to your bill.
The dish: Chocolate chip cookies
When it comes to local chatter about a dope chocolate chip cookie, it’s going to be the Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookie from Levain Bakery. Founded in 1995 in the Upper West Side, the treat was originally created by the owners as an energy booster for their triathlon training. But after selling them at the shop, they took off and soon became a signature item that helped launch an empire. With locations across the city, this hefty 6 oz treat with a perfect ratio of chocolate chips flecked throughout the dough makes for a hearty indulgence that isn’t too overly sweet. If you were to ever have a cookie for a meal, this would be the one. And for any late-night cravings, they’re now available in 2 oz versions at the frozen food section of grocery outlets.
The experience: Waiting in line for the city's best pizza
Among New York City’s iconic foods, pizza is a golden child. The dish arrived from Southern Italy in the early part of the 20th century, and eventually, the NYC-style slice was born—inspired heavily by Neapolitan technique but cooked inside a coal oven. Since pizza is so near and dear to our hearts, we’ll happily go stand in line at Lucali, a Carroll Gardens institution opened in 2006 by Mark Iacono that does a truly magical take on our beloved pie. Iacono does everything the old-fashioned way—from a made dough that takes 24 hours to proof, to house-marinated tomatoes for the sauce, he bakes the pies in a scorching hot wood oven, creating that bubbly, crispy crust. Grab a spot in line ahead of its 5 pm opening time (closed on Tuesdays), and take note: it’s cash only. And swing by the nearby slice shop Baby Luc’s, which is their first expansion venture.
When Magnolia Bakery’s cupcakes made a cameo on a Sex In the City episode in 2000, it catapulted the unassuming spot to stardom. And with lines at the original West Village location perennially snaking around the block since then, true insiders also know that the Classic Banana Pudding is a must-try. Made with decadent layers of vanilla wafers, bananas, and vanilla pudding, the decadent dessert is a creamy and wonderful concoction that’s the spot’s real star.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
The experience: Dim sum
For this quintessential food ritual that’s ideal for a group (especially on the weekends), head to Nom Wah Tea Parlor, New York City’s first dim sum parlor. With its origins dating back to 1920, here, popular items include the “O.G.” Eggroll (which actually contains egg), Siu Mai, Har Gow, Turnip Cakes, Pork Buns, and more small plates of Cantonese-style dishes. And if you’ve got time to kill before or after your meal, be sure to explore its infamous Doyers Street home, also nicknamed “the bloody angle” from turf disputes between local gangs in the early 1900s.
Russ & Daughters Café
The experience: Sampling fish at a Jewish appetizing store
After starting as a pushcart selling herring, more than a century later, family-run Russ & Daughters continues to be a local institution for smoked fish, bagels, schmears, and more. For New Yorkers, waking up with a craving for their fish offerings on the weekend means mobilizing quickly because there’s a good chance a line is already forming. Head to the original shop, the Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard Street which opened in 2014 to mark the brand’s 100th anniversary, or a Brooklyn Navy Yard locale.
The experience: Tasting-menu style sushi
In recent years, omakase sushi has become New York City’s ultimate splurge meal. And the most recognizable and noteworthy place remains Sushi Nakazawa. Opened in 2013 by chef Daisuke Nakazawa of the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this tasting-menu experience serving twenty pieces of globally-sourced fish and seafood offers guests a prime seat at the chef’s counter to watch the magic unfold. One of the 10 seats there costs $180, and the dining room option is priced at $150.
The experience: Soul food
American soul food was born out of the cuisine cooked by Black migrants who left the South from the early 1900s to the 1970s for other regions of the country. And when it comes to enjoying this fare in New York City, Sylvia’s remains a top favorite. Founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods, a North Carolina native who moved here as a teenager, her eponymous restaurant has remained an uptown epicenter for soul food and Black culture and social life—cementing her status as the legendary “Queen of Soul Food.” Currently operated by four generations of Woods’ descendants, popular items include Fried Chicken, Barbecue Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese, and Sweet Potato Pie.
The experience: Pierogi brunch
While late nights in the East Village might have revelers partying and drinking all across the neighborhood, weekend mornings are meant for converging at the culinary institution, Veselka. Open since 1954 and located on a stretch also known as Little Ukraine, the Ukrainian coffee shop and eatery is popular for dishes like Borscht and Goulash, and is also a prime destination for nursing a hangover through a brunch featuring their Pierogies. The signature menu item of Ukrainian Dumplings are made with bacon, scrambled eggs, cheddar cheese, and potato while served with the Creamy Chipotle Ketchup and a side of great people watching.