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Ask Casey: The NYC Bucket List

Ask Casey: Cooking and Kitchen Questions Answered

I have two more years left in New York City and want you to help me put together my NYC bucket list. What are the essential dining experiences in the city—that is, where/what should I make SURE I’ve had before I leave town?

It’s almost an impossible task to categorize and then tackle every quintessential New York experience—but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. (I did this when I was prepping to leave Chicago after grad school ten years ago, too. Restrict yourself to a student budget for an extra challenge!)

What follows is a highly subjective, ever-evolving list of moments and meals that remain indelibly classic from my incessant trawling over the past decade. It’s a mix of high and low and more than enough to get you started for the next two years.

The rundown is très Manhattan-centric because that’s been the bulk of my experience, but each venue tries to recapture the exhilarating soaring wash of realization that makes you want to stand on a street corner and yell, “New York is the greatest city in the world!”

And readers, chime in and help a gal out: What experiences scream “New York!” to you?

Burger Joint (119 W. 56th St., 212-245-5000)
Everyone loves the frisson of finding a low-down dirty wood-paneled burger bar in the lobby of the chi-chi Midtown hotel Le Parker Meridien. It could be in City Hall, it could be a hole in the wall on W. 85th St. I don’t care where it is. It’s the best damn burger in the city, dripping seductively with grease, cooked exactly to medium rare and piled high with the works.

burger joint, new york
Shake Shack (Madison Square Park at 23rd St., 212-889-6600)
shake shack, custard, burger, new yorkThe other best damn burger out there. My favorite memory of the Shack is watching the steam rise from my freshly-griddled burger on a frigid December night during the stylish stand’s first year of existence, when you had to go to great lengths to avoid the mind-bending waits.

Nowadays you can have a Shackburger and a custard in Midtown, Queens, or even Miami, but to do it right, you need to walk up to the window of the original location in Madison Square Park. And don’t forget to check out the custard of the day before you order.

wd-50 (50 Clinton St., 212-477-2900)
Surprisingly, for a city so devoted to new, now, next, there’s only one restaurant here that’s been consistently capturing the inventive, deconstructed food that we still call molecular gastronomy (for lack of a better term). Save your pennies—you don’t have to do the full tasting menu to pick up what chef Wylie Dufresne’s putting down. One bite of his eggs benedict—those are fried cubes of hollandaise in the photo—will blow your mind. And yes, it’s a filling meal!

something fried at Coney Island
Whether it’s clam strips and fries with your dog at Nathan’s or a batter-dipped Oreo from a street cart off Surf Ave., you’ve got to fill your belly with something unhealthy to go along with the faded carnival kitsch of the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel. Although you might want to wait until after you’ve attempted one or both rides to chow down.

coney island, deep fried oreo, street food, new york
deep-fried Oreo perfection

the modern classics: Le Bernardin (155 W. 51st St., 212-554-1515), Nobu (105 Hudson St., 212-219-0500), Babbo (110 Waverly Place, 212-777-0303)
There’s a line in Fleetwood Mac’s excellent jam “Secondhand News” that goes “won’t you lay me down in tall grass and let me do my stuff.” Pick one. Or pick all three. But just put yourself in the master’s hands and let him do his stuff, as they say. Nobu’s justifiably famous miso-glazed black cod has inspired a thousand imitators. Babbo’s pappardelle bolognese should be declared a historic landmark. And even the most ardent seafood non-fan would be swayed by the preparations and sauces (and the accent) of toujours-classy Eric Ripert.

oysters and champagne at Balthazar (80 Spring St., 212-965-1414)
balthazar, new york, restaurantYes, you could also go for a full plate of steak frites, but I think it’s so intensely romantic to snag a stool at the zinc bar, surrounded by the artfully faded mirrors, and order up a glass of pink bubbly and a dozen briny bivalves.

I’m way more jaded now than I was in the late 90s, when Leo DiCaprio was a Titanic heartthrob and rumored to be hanging out there quite often, craning my neck over the crowds and the banquettes to see if I could catch a glimpse of a star. But that cosmopolitan feeling every time I swan through the Balth’s bistro doors is just like the first time.

Gray’s Papaya (402 6th Ave. at 8th St. or 2090 Broadway at 71st St.)
It may be very New York to wolf down a dirty-water dog from a corner Sabrett cart, and so trendy these days to get a Morning Jersey at Crif Dogs, but the Recession Special at Gray’s Papaya is the ultimate classic gourmet frankfurter lunch. Those garlicky hot dogs, that weirdly frothy papaya juice (hey, it’s healthy!)—what a stomach-churningly awesome combination. I used to eat mine at the W. 71st St. location when I was feeling impoverished and ravenous, but you can keep it real downtown too. Best consumed while walking for the true cheap eats experience.

Grand Central Oyster Bar (lower level of Grand Central Station, E. 42nd St. at Park Ave., 212-490-6650?)
Some of the choices on the vast menu can be less than stellar, but you’ll never regret sitting under the Guastavino tile vaults as old-timers in paper hats shuck oysters and pile up a raw bar plate just for you. Two floors above, the glorious constellation-bedecked ceiling of Grand Central rises to the heavens, and you can marvel at one of the most architecturally astounding piles of granite we’ve got in this fair city.

grand central oyster bar, new york

Central Park picnic with food from Zabar’s (2245 Broadway at 80th St., 212-787-2000) and Fairway (2127 Broadway at 74th St., 212-595-1888)
Ah, Central Park. Olmstead and Vaux’s perfectly wild escape within the urban jungle, a panoramic respite that makes you appreciate the New York skyline all the more. What better way to celebrate the coexistence of the natural and the urban than by throwing elbows at two of New York’s finest food emporiums, filled with global delicacies and some mighty fine babka, before hauling it off to loll on the Great Lawn and listen to some free music? Culture, cheese, baguettes, hummus, and some surreptitiously-sipped wine in plastic cups. That’s a summer night in New York.

Not enough for you? Need more restaurant recommendations? Or are you just wondering why any fool would want to eat oysters as often as I do? Send your questions to Ask Casey at caseyATwww.www.goodfoodstories.com.

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  1. this is awesome–thank you!! very excited to start crossing things off my list. also was glad to see i’ve already done a number of these (blessed with burger joint close enough to work for the occasional lunchtime treat…), but will certainly be revisiting many in the next 1 year and 11 months. now, to find a date for the oyster bar…

  2. This is a great list! Also on mine: Kossar’s Bialys. One or more of the Momofukus. City Bakery for chocolate chip cookies and/or pretzel croissants. Moshes bakery in the E Vill for black & white cookies. Katz’s Deli for pastrami. (Why yes, I *am* Jewish!)

  3. Great article! I love Balthazar. I try to go there when I make it up to the city. I suggest splurging on the Le Grand, which is a slightly smaller version of the Balthazar seafood tower. It still towers with raw oysters, periwinkles, crab claws, mussels and seafood salad.

  4. Great list. Been to most, but still have more to go. You could probably add 100 more to that list.

  5. Oh yeah, pretzel croissants were a big afternoon pick-me-up when I worked right around the corner from City Bakery. (Noticing a trend of how I use food to combat job unease?)

    Sarah, don’t you now have a fiance who is legally obligated to join you at said oyster bar? If not, tell me when…

  6. Central Park is a great place to picnic. I like the northern reaches of Riverside Park, and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx too. great picnic menu you have planned.

  7. A native NYker who moved to CA as a teenager, my vote goes for that thin-crust pizza you just can’t get anywhere else in the world. That would be an entirely separate post – there must be thousands of pizzerias in Manhattan – but which are the best? Finding out would be a fun experiment! ~Meredith

  8. Well, you certainly get around! I’m married to a real foodie, so I’ve been to many of these places, yet some have escaped us.And yes, I’ve noticed many-a-celeb at Balthazar, too. Thanks for the list. That must be such a fun part of writing this blog for you.

    1. Hey Sheryl, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve been coming to NYC regularly since I was 10 years old, so I’ve had 20-odd years to work on that list. And I DO spend pretty much all my money on food, housing, and shoes!

  9. I’m always in search of the best burger, so I can’t wait to try the so creatively named Burger Joint. 5 Napkin Burger isn’t bad if you have not tried it yet.

  10. Deep-fried Oreos?! How did I never know these existed? I’ll have to bookmark this post for my next trip to NYC.

  11. When I saw the title of your post I thought, “Well she’s gotta try Gray’s Papaya.” And there it was. I don’t know that they’re the best hot dogs in the world (believe it or not I really like IKEA’s:) But washing it down with the fresh juice and the atmosphere–makes Gray’s so good.

    I nominate Roxi’s deli for best cheesecake.

  12. Oh my. Deep-fried Oreos. Must have.

    This entire post is making me seriously hungry. I’m a Midwest girl, so I don’t have a lot of NYC dining experience. But I DO have really, really, REALLY fond memories of Ferrara’s when I visited my sister there in the 1980s. Oh, those cannolis!

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