Six Iconic NYC Food Stops

These classic New York institutions dish up fantastic meals alongside history and family legacy. Their loyalists, often spanning generations, keep returning for specialties just as invigorating as the owners’ life stories.

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Ray Alvarez has long remained the face of his eponymous candy store, one of the few remaining places in the city that preserve the much sought-after chocolate New York egg cream. Photo by: Sophia Michelen

Ray’s Candy Store

113 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009; Contact: +1 (212) 505-7609; Cost for two people: $6-15/`460-1,150 (cash only); www.rayscandystore.com

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Ray Alvarez has long remained the face of his eponymous candy store (left), whose walls are festooned with newspaper cutouts (centre) celebrating his birthday. The deli is one of the few places in the city that preserves the much sought-after chocolate New York egg cream (right), considered a dying culinary art.

There’s no mistaking who the famed “Ray” of Ray’s Candy Store is from the minute you enter this small East Village shop. The interiors are as interesting as they are arresting. The walls are covered with old, local neon adverts, newspaper clippings of Ray Alvarez and his famous celebrity visitors, birthday party notes and congratulatory cards of yore. The “menu” is a humble handwritten note scribbled on recycled cardboard, papers and even paper plates. The institution, established in 1974, has remained unchanged for decades. Authenticity is part of its charm. Even the sound of the turn-of-the-century cash register brings about a nostalgic symphony from an era long ago. The image on the storefront captures the real-life Ray, and meeting him is more than half the fun of experiencing this 24-hour hub across from Tompkins Square Park.

Fried Oreos and beignets are top sellers, in addition to his soft-serve ice cream and the famed New York egg cream—a drink made with milk and seltzer that is considered a dying culinary art. The ingredients may not sound appetising, but the flavoured-syrup blend is summer in your mouth. The place, once frequented by the legendary Anthony Bourdain, is a pilgrimage of sorts for young students and skateboarders who pop in regularly to say hi. Loyal customers who grew up on the Ray’s diet now turnup with their own children. Having recently become an American citizen in 2011, Ray (born Asghar Ghahraman) arrived in the U.S. on an Iranian Navy vessel by “jumping ship,” as he describes, and stayed in Miami for a few years until coming up north to New York. Yet, he is fond of his Iranian culture, especially Farsi poetry. He pulls out his poetry binder from under the ice cream machine and reads his favourite verses aloud in between take-out and online orders.

“Don’t talk about yesterday, talk about today… it’s beautiful,” he charmingly translates. The digital orders have increased due to the pandemic, and Ray has adapted well, even whilst months away from his 90th birthday. He can be found welcoming patrons at his shop with an infectious smile and a warm hello even during the wee hours. His life stories are as interesting as his food. Or it’s the other way around.

 

Barney Greengrass

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Barney Greengrass at New York City’s 541 Amsterdam Avenue is a restaurant deli renowned for their fish specialities.

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Barney Greengrass’s staples include potato latke, house blend coffee (top right), matzo ball soup (top left) and smoked gravlox (bottom right) available to order. The dining room (bottom left) exudes an old world charm.

541 Amsterdam Avenue at 86th Street, New York, NY 10024; Contact: +1 (212) 724-4707; Email: 100years@barneygreengrass.com; Cost for two people: $40-60/`3,070-4,600; www.barneygreengrass.com

Within minutes of walking into Barney Greengrass, it becomes clear why this 114-year-old New York institution, and its original founder, Barney Greengrass himself, are called the “Sturgeon King.”  Rows of colourful smoked salmon, also called “lox”, and their world-famous sturgeon, stir a visual representation of a Jewish staple that blends into a New York way of life: the authentic bagel & lox. Freshly squeezed orange juice, home-made matzo ball soup and potato latkes are rushed from the kitchen to hungry diners.

Third-generation owner, Gary Greengrass, continues to carry the tradition and commitment even through the COVID-19 outbreak. “We’re a small business with a big reputation,” explains Mr. Greengrass, while adding that they have had to pivot to online orders during the pandemic, despite having had mail orders available for decades across the U.S. The restaurant has been featured in several shows and movies, but word-of-mouth has granted the establishment its claim to fame, bringing locals and tourists to this Upper West Side destination. 

 

Myzel’s Chocolates

140 West 55th Street (between 6th & 7th Ave), New York, NY 10019; Contact: +1 (212) 245-4233; Cost for two people: $15-20/`1,150-1,530; www.myzels.com

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Owner Kamila Myzel (left)) reaches the top shelf of her liquorice wall for a customer; Home-made chocolates and marzipan fill the shop, while marzipan Easter eggs (right) made a special appearance on the menu for the holiday season.

The smell of chocolate permeates the air even before the small shop comes into view. The line outside Myzel’s Chocolates is a key indicator that you’ve arrived at the right place. Once inside, you’re transported to a European chocolate oasis in the heart of Manhattan. Owner Kamila Myzel, who emigrated to the U.S. from Poland, affectionately says that her “love of people and customers like family” is what keeps her committed to her work. “I like the daily conversations with people. It means a lot to me,” she gushes. In addition to her hand-made chocolates, Kamila proudly showcases her renowned home-made cookies and over 250 varieties of liquorice from around the globe. Sweet, sour and salty varieties satisfy all taste buds and bring in generations of loyal fans—all of whom rallied to save her shop during the pandemic as business decreased and rent prices in New York increased. Over 3,000 people donated to her GoFundMe page in only two days. Today, Myzel’s is revitalised and continues to bring locals and tourists alike to savour the taste of chocolates. 

 

Vaniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe

342 East 11th Street, NY 10003; Contact: +1 (212) 674-7070; Cost for two people: $20-23/`1,530-1,750; www.venieros.com

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Walking into Veniero’s is like winning a ticket to yesteryear New York. Patrons are treated to Italian espressos and pastries (top right); The black-and-white photo (bottom right) showcases the original entrance to the café at the beginning of the 20th century. The in-house New York cheesecake with fruit toppings (top left) and mini Italian cannoli with pistachio toppings (bottom left) taste even better than they look.

A visit to New York would be incomplete without a visit to Veniero’s. Located in the East Village, this 125-year-old Italian café brings quintessential Italian flavours and history to life—from scratch nonetheless. The sweets speak for themselves as loyal customers that span generations of families continue to flock the shop. Some of Veniero’s must-try baked goods are their famous cheesecakes, cannoli and cookies—all made in-house by skilled bakers who’ve been around for decades. The ingredients are sourced locally and are of the finest quality, mentions Veniero’s owner, Robert Zerilli, who animatedly narrates his life’s stories to anyone who lends a listening ear. Frank Sinatra’s music pours over whistling espresso machines as Zerilli proudly motions towards a portrait of his late father with Sinatra himself. Veniero’s is a time portal that is sure to whisk you to classic old New York in more ways than one. 

 

Veselka

144 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003; Contact: +1 (212) 228-9682; Cost for two for dinner: $50/`3,810, lunch: $40/`3,050; www.veselka.com

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Ukrainian women make over 7,000 pierogi every day.

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

The outdoor seating at Veselka (top left) was put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic and has since become a permanent fixture; Plates of boiled and fried pierogi (top right) feed hungry New Yorkers that crave home-made Ukrainian food; Recent proceeds from borscht sales go to Ukrainian relief efforts in wake of the war (bottom right); Borscht (bottom left), another Veselka bestseller, is served with sour cream on the side.

Veselka is as close as you can get to Ukraine without actually going to Ukraine. Not a day goes by when this East Village staple doesn’t consistently draw its regulars for a dumpling-like pierogi pilgrimage. What started as a small shop in the 1950s has sustained across three generations and has now expanded to a restaurant. Their dishes are made to order with locally sourced ingredients. “Veselka is love” is etched across their dining room and their generosity extends to their patrons and food alike. Their most popular dishes include the soupy borscht, potato pancakes, goulash and pierogi so loved that over 7,000 are made every day. For the final act, dig into their award-winning blintze (Ukrainian-style crepes), which will satiate your sweet tooth cravings. 

 

John’s of 12th Street

302 E 12th St, New York, NY 10003; Contact: +1 (212)475-9531; Cost for two people: $50-70/`3,830-5,370; www.johnsof12thstreet.com

Six Iconic Nyc Food Stops

Original tiles from the turn of the century cover the floor at John’s of 12th Street, while photographs of celebrity patrons line the walls next to the booths(right). Chicken parmigiana is a bestseller at the Italian joint (left).

Dining at John’s of 12th Street is like dining at an old friend’s home—a familiar, cosy feeling welcomes you to this 114-year-old traditional Italian institution. Not many of these restaurants are left today owing to gentrification and the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes John’s stand out from other home-style Italian food joints is their wide range of vegan options: Meatballs, pastas, soups and desserts are just as popular as their non-vegan plates. Their chicken parmigiana is a bestseller, while spaghetti and meatballs, and other red-sauce dishes follow closely behind.  Needless to say, there’s something for everyone and their large portions will ensure nobody goes hungry. Stories of celebrities and yesteryear New York mobsters enthral residents who continue to visit the place. Interestingly, the giant candle in their back dining room grows with wax from when Prohibition ended in the 1930s. The entire space is filled with laughter and the delicious, welcoming aroma of cooked garlic. You’ll be planning your next trip to John’s before you even realise.

 

This article was featured in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India May-June 2022. Get your copy here.

 

Also Read | ‘One God, One Wife, One Shop: Inside Dubai’s Iconic Kebab Grill

 

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A D V E R T I S E M E N T

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A D V E R T I S E M E N T

  • Sophia Michelen seeks to explore the most authentic, obscure and unconventional travel journeys. As a photojournalist and writer, always with her camera, she is insatiably curious, filled with wonder, and seeks to capture and report on the human stories that have and continue to weave cultures and countries around the world.

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