It may be called the “Big Apple,” but New York City’s culinary scene is a far cry from all-American apple pie. Manhattan and its outer boroughs are set apart from the rest of the USA for its diverse offerings of food from around the globe. The rich immigrant history is apparent in each enclave through character, culture, smell and taste. Here are seven New York neighborhoods that will tour your taste buds around Europe, Asia and Australia, no passport required.
East Village – Little Ukraine
Eastern Europeans settled in droves in the East Village after WWII. It’s now a grungy, artsy, post-punk neighborhood but it still reflects the old world culture and charm. In the back of the unassuming National Ukrainian Home on Second Avenue, Ukrainian East Village restaurant is a wood-paneled, needlepoint-adorned home-cooked haven. For over 50 years, classic, no-frills, hearty dishes like pierogi, borscht and stuffed cabbage have been staples on the menu (which is written in Ukrainian).
The National Ukrainian Home also houses the New York University dive bar favorite, Sly Fox. Third generation youth frequent the watering hole, where most of the bartenders are Russians and Ukrainians. They refer to it by its Ukrainian name Karpaty.
If after a few drinks you’re up for an updated spin on the cultural cuisine, corner diner Veselka is always open… as in 24/7. They have been around since 1954, but the innovative menu of constantly changing special vareniki (pierogis with flavors like pumpkin and short rib), borscht, bigos (a Ukrainian Hunter’s-style stew with Kielbasa, roast pork, sauerkraut and onions) and blintzes alongside traditional diner fare make for a modern, creative and tasty experience.
Flushing – Mandarin Town
The well-known Chinatown in Lower Manhattan has become a tourist destination with Americanized cuisine, but Flushing is home to authentic eateries with traditional homeland meals like spicy wontons, soup dumplings and egg tarts. A Chinese community set foot in Flushing, Queens in the 1970s. Today the area is considered the “Chinese Times Square” due to its abundance of Asian-owned businesses and an ever-growing population hailing from China.
Walking down the streets, multiple dialects of the Asia-native languages can be heard, matched by the cuisine that can be found. The number one go-to staple? Dumplings. At White Bear, an over-the-counter experience, the #6 spicy wontons, or wontons in chilli sauce, is the order. Over at Joe’s Shanghai, communal tables with rotating trays tow soup dumplings onto soup spoons and into happy mouths. Dan tats (egg tarts) with flaky crusts and a variety of custard flavors finish off the culinary tour of Mandarin Town at New Flushing Bakery.
West Village – England
If someone dropped you in the middle of West Village without bearings, you might very well confuse it for a London neighborhood, so it makes sense that British storefronts are popping up along the cobblestone-lined streets. For a quiet, subdued and authentic experience, Myers of Keswick, a British market with imported goods like meat pies and PG tips, sits by its lonesome on Hudson Street.
Over on Greenwich Ave, “the British are coming” feels like an appropriate chant with the colorful kitsch and chatty British staffers. Tea & Sympathy is one part restaurant, serving traditional British grub such as bangers and mash and black pudding, and one part shop, selling lollies (sweets), tea accessories and tea. There are no subtleties here. The shop will have you walk through an iconic red British phone booth to enter. Next door, A Salt and Battery is an order-at-the-counter fish and chips dining experience of the British pub classic: battered fried fish and fries.
Gramercy – Curry Hill
Gramercy is a not quite uptown, not quite downtown neighborhood inhabited by fresh-out-of-college 20-somethings looking for a good time. In other words, there are a lot of bars, restaurants and fancy apartments. At first glance, it is very commercial and devoid of culture but look a bit further. There is a sub-neighborhood of Gramercy, between 26th and 29th on Third Avenue and Lexington, known as Curry Hill for all of its Indian restaurants, grocers and shops.
For inexpensive, flavorful meat and vegetarian options, Mughlai Indian Cuisine on Third Avenue is an understated venue with simple Indian design elements that give the atmosphere an authentic vibe. Their naan, mango lassi, tikka masala and saag paneer are heralded by New Yorkers.
The generous lunch specials at Pippali are a great option for newcomers looking to try a variety of flavors, and Chawla’s 2, the second New York branch of the popular Indian chain, is a fast and unique experience. The delicately flavored and masterfully spiced cream chicken is a favorite around the world (with locations also in Australia, New Zealand and Canada).
Italians have been residing in Little Italy since the late 19th century. The neighborhood is lined with restaurants from every corner of Italy, with staff outside hoping to lure tourists in with a boisterous Italian charm and chatter. Opt out of the tourist traps and head to La Mela. Robust family-style meals are served in what appears to be an endless space with wall murals recalling a sweeping Italian countryside. Most of the staff is Italian and on some nights there are crooners with guitars serenading guests in the main dining room. The never-ending menu includes signatures like mozzarella and tomatoes, stuffed mushrooms, rigatoni pomodoro and veal francaise.
Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street has been around since 1972, serving up the best linguini in town. Despite debates about authenticity, it is a staple in the community, with a mafia history to prove it. Reputed mafia leader Matthew Ianniello (restaurant owner Umberto Ianniello’s son), made the establishment his hangout in the 70s, and New York gangster Joe Gallo was shot and killed within its walls.
Leave room for cannoli and gelato at 125-year-old Ferrara Bakery, marked by a giant cannoli hanging over its brick exterior. In mid-September, catch the nearly century-old Feast of San Gennaro festival, which takes over the streets of Little Italy with vendors serving up sausage and peppers, gelato and pizza.
Lower Manhattan – Australia
Australians are overflowing in New York City. Many young Aussies make their way over on their worldly travels or in the pursuit of creative careers and cultural inspiration and settle into Lower Manhattan and Williamsburg. There are Australian restaurants popping up all around Manhattan.
Flinders Lane in Alphabet City pulls in influence from Southeast Asian, British, Greek and Italian cuisine to make for modern Australian cuisine. Bold food with focused flavors pepper the menu with dishes like seafood curry laksa and candy beet salad.
Over in Greenwich Village, Bluestone Lane Collective Cafe, a Melbourne-inspired coffee shop, serves up Australian brekkie, flat whites and cold press juices.
Midtown West – Koreatown
Midtown Manhattan’s Koreatown is a mecca of Korean BBQ, bakeries, soju houses, beauty stores and karaoke. The first Korean restaurant in the area dates back to 1972. Korean immigrants came to the US with very little money, the Korean government had placed a $1,000 limit on any Korean going to the US, so the low rents and high foot traffic (from the Empire State Building and Garment District) of the area were ideal.
The busy streets are bustling with energy throughout the entire day and night, from Korean Americans and tourists alike. While there are numerous worthy Korean BBQ spots to check out, it would be amiss to visit without dining at Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong for table-grilled meats and eclectic small plates (kimchi, seafood pancakes, beef tongue) that fully express vinegar and spice-centric Korean cuisine. Afterward, treat your sweet tooth at Tous Les Jours Bakery for a wide array of French-Asian baked goods made with the finest ingredients from South Korea.
And if you still want apple pie after all that, head to The Blue Stove in Williamsburg for the best in all the boroughs.
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