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Famous Foods of New York City

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This post is about 12 classic New York City foods to try when you are in town.

We also include recommendations of where to go for the best version of these foods. 

Some of these foods are enjoyed during our Pay-What-You-Wish Food Tours so join us!

Table of Contents


PIZZA

We will assume that most people have heard - if not eaten - pizza as you can find it in most major cities around the world.

But there is nothing like a New York slice! NYC has hundreds, if not thousands, of places to get pizza.

We don't want you to get a terrible slice so we’ve written up a post on where to find the best pizza in New York City.

Our Greenwich Village Food Tour stops at Bleecker Street Pizza where you can try the Nonna Maria slice for yourself.

Alternatively, if you want to visit at least half a dozen great pizza restaurants in the city, you can take the New York Pizza Tour from Secret Food Tours.

This outing includes at least 4 slices of pizza, one dessert, and a mystery dish!

For one of the best thin-crust pizza pies in New York City, head to Lombardi's, the first pizzeria in the United States, which opened in 1905.

You can also try Grimaldi’s located in DUMBO under the Brooklyn Bridge. Be prepared to wait for a table, but it is well worth it.

TIP: If you like street art, head out to Bushwick for our Bushwick Street Art tour and afterward go to Roberta’s Pizza - one of the best in NYC.


BAGELS

While most Americans are familiar with bagels, travelers from overseas may not be so here is a brief explanation.

A bagel is a round bread product that is made with yeasted wheat dough that is shaped into a ring and boiled, then baked. 

Bagels are about the size of the palm of your hand. They are typically eaten at breakfast with butter or cream cheese.

For a quintessential New York experience, try a bagel with lox.

This is an open-faced bagel topped with cream cheese and lox (similar to smoked salmon), topped with thinly sliced red onions and capers.

Bagels are believed to have been invented in the 1600s by Jewish communities in Poland.

When Polish Jews immigrated to America in the late 19th century, bagels began to appear in NYC.

At first, you could only get bagels at specialty Jewish food shops. On our pay-what-you-wish Lower East Side Food Tour, we visit one such shop, opened in 1936!

Now, bagels are a staple of New Yorkers' diets and you can find bagels all over New York City.

But not all bagels were created equal! Be sure to read our post on how to find the best bagels in New York City.


NEW YORK CHEESECAKE

Cheesecake is believed to have originated in Ancient Greece.

Romans conquered the Greeks and spread the cheesecake concept throughout parts of their empire.

Millenia later, cheesecake made its way to America through immigrants from Europe.

In 1872 an American dairyman William Lawrence of New York State unintentionally created cream cheese, similar to the French cheese Neufchâtel. 

He began to mass-produce cream cheese which was marketed as a spread for bread. 

Someone came up with the idea of using cream cheese in a pie mold, mixing it with eggs and sugar and voila! Cheesecake was born.

New York-style cheesecake is different from traditional cheesecakes in that it includes heavy cream or sour cream.

It is both silky and dense and can be quite sweet. There is nothing like it in the world.

For the quintessential NY-style cheesecake, you must have a slice from Juniors.

Opened in 1950, this landmark restaurant is located in Downtown Brooklyn near Brooklyn Heights. They also have locations in Times Square and Midtown Manhattan.

Be warned...slices are massive!

For the human-sized cheesecake, try an individual mini-cheesecake from Eileen’s Special Cheesecake at 17 Cleveland Place in NoLita.

Eileen has been making fantastic NY-style cheesecake in her small shop since 1976.

Another type of cheesecake to try in NYC is ‘Italian-style’, made using Ricotta cheese.

We recommend Pasticceria Rocco at 243 Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village and Veniero’s Pastry in the East Village.

New York Walking Tours

PASTRAMI SANDWICH

Pastrami is cured cuts of meat (similar to corned beef or brisket).

The origins of pastrami go back to Romania. “Pastra” is the Romanian word for preserve -- or in this case, cured.

This style of cured meat made its way to America via Romanian Jewish immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side.

Today the Lower East Side is where you can find the best pastrami sandwich in NY, at Katz’s Delicatessen.

Katz’s pastrami on rye bread sandwiches are big enough for two people to share.

Order a side of pickles or cole slaw and wash it all down with a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda and you will have done Katz’s right.

You might recognize Katz’s from the infamous scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally. Read more about Katz’s.

In case you have heard about the famous Carnegie Deli. Sadly, it closed in 2016 so don’t spend time looking for it. 

Instead, head to the East Village to the 2nd Avenue Deli. They also have a location in Midtown Manhattan.

Of course, if you want to take all of the guesswork out of it, you can enjoy a great Reuben sandwich on the Greenwich Village food tour from Secret Food Tours!


HOT DOGS

Hot dogs are another food that existed long before it arrived in the U.S.

First sold in the Lower East Side by a German immigrant in the 1860s, this quick and easy food caught on quickly in NYC.

At the World’s Fair in 1893, hot dogs we sold by the thousands and after that, hot dogs became a staple at baseball games across America. Now hot dogs are about as American as it gets.

Hot dog carts can be found just about anywhere in the city. Most carts sell the same brand of hog dog -- Sabrett. They are boiled and sit in the water until ordered up.

Some locals refer to hot dogs from a cart as 'dirty water dogs'.

Don't let the name put you off. With mustard, sauerkraut, green relish and hot onions on top, these hot dogs are yummy.

If you prefer a grilled hot dog head to the beloved Gray’s Papaya on the Upper West Side at Broadway and 72nd Street.

This is just a few blocks away from Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History.

Another excellent hot dog chain is Nathan’s. What started out as one hot dog cart in 1916 is now an international chain.

For a great hot dog and fries, head to Coney Island, the sight of the first Nathan’s.

Our post on things to do in Coney Island includes Nathan's as one of the best places to eat. 

For a unique twist on the hot dog, try Crif Dogs in the East Village.

If you get their John-John Deragon (a hot dog with cream cheese, scallions & everything bagel seeds) it’s like eating two must-try New York foods in one!

They have a second location in Williamsburg.


FALAFEL

Falafel is a chickpea batter made with herbs and mild spices and deep-fried into a ball a bit smaller than a golf ball. 

Falafel is usually eaten in pita bread with some lettuce and tomato garnish and tahini (sesame paste).

Falafel sandwiches or even falafel balls on their own are a cheap and quick snack.

Though there are food carts that sell falafel around twin, the best is at Mamoun’s on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.

They have been serving NYC the best falafel since 1971.

They stay open until 5 am every night and it can be quite busy at that time as it is near the campus of New York University.

They have another location on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.

Both our Greenwich Village Food Tour and Lower East Side Food Tour visit Mamoun’s.


DOUGHNUTS

The concept of the doughnut goes back centuries with variations across the globe.

An early form of the doughnut made its way to America with Dutch settlers in the 1600s.

At that time, doughnuts did not have holes. It wasn’t until centuries later that doughnuts began appearing with a hole in the middle.

In fact, the first hole-making machine was invented right here in New York City in 1920!

If you want to discover one of the best doughnut shops in the city, the Greenwich Village food tour includes a gourmet doughnut in addition to some of the other dishes on this list.

Here are some doughnut shops that we cannot recommend highly enough.

At the Doughnut Plant you can get traditional doughnut flavors like vanilla glazed, chocolate frosted, and jelly-filled.

This shop is known for its creative take - they came up with the world's first Crème Brûlée doughnut!

If you are seeking the international craze - the “Cronut” (the croissant/doughnut hybrid) you will find them at Dominique Ansel Bakery at 189 Spring St. in SoHo

We pass it during our SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown. Read more about the Cronut from our post on things to do in SoHo and how you can ensure you get one before they sell out!

The Doughnut Project in Greenwich Village offers some really unusual but yummy doughnut flavors like a doughnut with maple glaze and a slice of bacon!

One favorite is “The Bronx”, with a basic that has a hint of olive oil and bite of black pepper.


BLACK AND WHITE COOKIE

The origin of this cookie in NYC starts with a Bavarian immigrant bakery on the Upper East Side.

This classic NY cookie is a big flat disc with a shortbread base and iced with fondant frosting. One half has vanilla fondant and the other half has chocolate, hence the name.

These cookies are SO New York that they even make an appearance in an episode of Seinfeld.

Seinfeld fans, you might enjoy our self-guided Seinfeld tour.

For some of the best Black and White cookies head to Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side and William Greenberg Desserts at Hudson Yards in Chelsea and also on the Upper East Side.


SOUP DUMPLINGS

Soup dumplings (xiaolongbao) are one of the most famous dishes that originated in the Jiangnan region of China. 

Xiaolongbao are small steamed dumplings filled with seasoned pork filling and - as the name indicates - savory soup! Other fillings are available such as pork and shrimp, chicken, or beef.

The wonder of this food is not only the delicious flavor but also the magic of how the soup stays in the dumpling. 

You must know how to eat these dumplings or you may end up spilling the hot soup inside.

Xiaolongbao are served with a side of black vinegar and strips of ginger, but even without this condiment, you will enjoy every bite - and sip!

In New York City, head to Chinatown and check out one of the following places: Joe's Shanghai, Noodle Village and Deluxe Green Bo.


EGG AND CHEESE ON A ROLL

Just about any deli in NYC whip up this sandwich of scrambled eggs covered with a slice of cheese (usually bright orange American cheese) served on a soft kaiser roll. 

egg and cheese

Add bacon for a BEC (Bacon, Egg, Cheese). Try your egg and cheese on a bagel. Ask for other types of cheese - swiss, cheddar, gouda. 

It takes less than 5 minutes to make this sandwich and even less time to gobble it down!


GENERAL TSO'S CHICKEN

This Hunan-style Chinese dish is battered chicken pieces fried until crispy then tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce. 

It is typically served with broccoli and sometimes hot red chile peppers so be on alert. 

While there is no doubt that this dish is incredibly tasty, its origins are in dispute. 

In 1972, a prominent chef of Hunan Chinese cuisine, Peng Chang-Kuei, moved from Taiwan to New York. 

General Tsos Chicken

He opened Peng's Restaurant on E. 44th Street in Midtown Manhattan and claimed that his restaurant was the first to serve General Tso's Chicken.

Meanwhile, across town at Shun Lee Palace on E. 55th St., chef T.T. Wang and partner Michael Tong claim that they put General Tso's Chicken on the map.

Regardless of where it came from and how it got to New York City, General Tso’s Chicken is a must-try. 


PORK BUNS

Another Chinese treat is steamed pork buns (char siu bao). These fluffy, steamed buns are filled with sweet and savory barbecue pork. 

You can also get a baked variation, but steamed buns are more traditional.

Pork buns

Pork buns are a staple of Dim Sum, Chinese brunch where small plates of a variety of foods are served.

Many Chinese restaurants in NYC serve these at any meal. You can also find them at bakeries in Chinatown. Our favorites are made at Mei Lai Wah and Golden Steamer.


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About The Author

Stephen Pickhardt

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers. Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo, Washington.org, and more.
Updated: December 2nd, 2022
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