I Brain NY – Part 2: Eat, Drink, and See

Welcome to Part 2 of my NYC guide for attendees of the 2016 Cognitive Neuroscience Society annual meeting. Part 1 introduced the guide and covered subways, busses, taxis, and getting to/from the airports. Part 2 is going to focus heavily on food, with some additional advice about sightseeing thrown in at the end.

Please note that this post is a work in progress and will grow a bit over the next day or so as I add more restaurants (particularly more pizza, more bakeries, bagels, and more asian cuisine) and the attractions, so check back on Sunday for an even bigger list.

Coffee

To say there is a lot of fantastic coffee in New York would be an understatement, so I’m going to focus here on places that are within easy walking distance of the conference hotel:

  • Little Collins (Lexington Ave between 55th and 56th) – Superb Melbourne-style coffee. Go here to try a real Flat White.
  • Ninth Street Espresso (56th between Park Ave and Lexington Ave) – Cash only. Their roast is a bit bolder than what is used around the corner at Little Collins. Tasty baked goods.
  • Simon Sips (6th Ave between 46th and 47th) – Tricky to find, but hidden in the lobby of a soulless office building is some seriously good coffee.

Lunch and Dinner

With almost 10,000 restaurants in Manhattan alone, there is no excuse not to eat well in NYC. Amazing food can be had on any budget and in every neighborhood. With so many options, it’s tempting to utter that fateful phrase “We’ll find something.”, but trust me when I say that this is generally not a good plan. Yes, there are indeed a huge number of eating establishments, but most of them aren’t very good, or at least nowhere near as good as the place down the block. Your best bet is to search Yelp for what you’re looking for and use the ratings and reviews as your guide.

First up is a list of my favorite (relatively) affordable lunch spots in Midtown, all of which are walkable from the conference hotel.

  • Omar’s Mediterranean Cuisine (55th between Lexington Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – This place pretty much always has a line out the door (don’t worry, it moves quickly), and for good reason. The shawarma plate is fantastic and almost certainly more than you can eat in a single sitting.
  • Land of Plenty (58th between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – The best Sichuan (Chinese) food in the city is found far out in Brooklyn and Queens, but Land of Plenty is a totally respectable and delicious option for those seeking something seriously spicy at an affordable price.
  • Chola (58th between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – Does one of the best (if not the best) Indian lunch buffets I’ve found in the city.
  • The Kati Roll Company (53rd between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave, Midtown East) – A kati roll is essentially an Indian burrito, and is just as tasty as you imagine it would be.
  • Rafiqi’s (multiple carts in Midtown) – My favorite of the seemingly countless “street meat” shawarma carts, lamb over rice from Rafiqi’s made up a significant portion of my food intake when I lived in NYC. Cheap, quick, and delicious.

If you’re willing to pay a bit more, wait a little longer, or venture away from Midtown, the following is a selection of what I consider to be some of the best restaurants in the city.

  • Shake Shack (Madison Square Park, Flatiron) – My favorite burger anywhere (in the under $10 category). While Shake Shack has expanded and opened locations in many cities around the world, there is nothing like lining up on a nice day in Madison Square Park and eating at the original.
  • Katz’s Delicatessen (Houston and Ludlow, Lower East Side) – The quintessential New York Jewish Deli, established in 1888 and still going strong. Arguably the best pastrami in the world (tip at the counter when you order to get the best cuts). Open 24 hours on Saturday, a whole (huge) sandwich is pricey but worth every penny, and can easily be two meals. If you only have time to visit one classic NYC eatery, make it Katz’s.
  • Hide Chan Ramen (52nd between 2nd Ave and 3rd Ave) – Less famous than Ippudo but (in my opinion) much tastier. Amazing rich, salty tonkotsu broth with a generous serving of moist, fatty char siu pork and multiple noodle options. Nice ambiance too.
  • Grand Sichuan House (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn) – My favorite Sichuan restaurant in the city. It’s a long train ride from Midtown, but everything I’ve ever ordered there has been superbly spicy and flavorful.
  • Mile End Delicatessen (Bond Street, NoHo) – Another deli, this one Montreal-style. The original location is around the corner from our old apartment in Brooklyn, but their NoHo store is bigger and more centrally located. Delicious smoked meat, which you can get in a sandwich but is even better as part of the indulgent Smoked Meat Poutine.

Pizza

Yes, pizza gets its own section. The first pizzeria in the United States was opened in New York in 1905, and ever since NYC has been a center of the pizza universe. Even if you’re not interested in going out of your way for pizza, do at least pick up a slice at one of the ubiquitous dollar slice joints that dot the city. It may not blow your mind, but a cheap New York slice will still be better than 90% of the pizza in California.

  • Di Fara Pizza (Avenue J, Midwood Brooklyn) – Widely considered to be the best pizza in the city and a serious contender for the title of best on earth. If you’re not a serious pizza snob it’s probably not worth the schlep and expense, but if you are it will change your life. If you do decide to go, I recommend this handy guide.
  • Lucali (Henry Street, Carroll Gardens Brooklyn) – If you’re seeking fantastic New York pizza but aren’t quite ready to commit to making the trek to Di Fara, Lucali is a great option. Located in one of my very favorite neighborhoods, you’re still going to have to wait in line but there is at least a lot of other stuff to see and do nearby.
  • L&B Spumoni Gardens (86th Street, Gravesend Brooklyn) – Specializing in Sicilian-style square “grandma” pies, Spumoni Gardens is a slice of the quickly disappearing “real” authentic Brooklyn.
  • Luzzo’s (1st Ave between 12th and 13th, East Village) – My favorite pizza in Manhattan, and I’m told their non-pizza options are equally delicious.

Bagels

Yes, bagels also get their own section. If you’ve never had a New York bagel, you’ve never had a bagel. I do not think this is a particularly controversial statement, at least for those who have experience what I consider to be one of life’s great joys.

My very favorite bagel was from the original H&H on the Upper West Side, which served up hot, fresh bagels 24 hours a day. These bagels were so good that I (and more than a few other people I know) often stopped here for quick dozen on the way to the airport in hopes of transporting some of the magic to the great bagel wasteland that is the rest of the United States. Unfortunately, the owners weren’t always so honest with their finances, and H&H ceased operations in 2011, much to the dismay of bagel lovers across the globe (including President Obama). While the world will never quite be the same, there are still many fantastic bagels in the city, three of which are listed below. Be ready for long lines at these places, but trust that it will be worth it.

Important: Regardless of where you go to get a bagel, the most important thing is that it is fresh and warm. This is absolutely critical, as the deliciousness of a bagel falls off approximately exponentially as it loses heat. If in doubt, ask the people behind the counter what’s still hot.

  • Absolute Bagels (108th and Broadway, Upper West Side) – Many consider this to be the best bagel in the city. I’m inclined to agree.
  • Ess-a-Bagel (3rd Ave between 50th and 51st, Midtown East) – Conveniently located within walking distance of the conference hotel, this was my go-to bagel after H&H closed.
  • H&H Midtown Bagels East (2nd Ave between 80th and 81st, Upper East Side) – Don’t let the name fool you; this place hasn’t been associated with the original since the 1970’s when it was bought from the original owners. That said, the bagels are solid, and more importantly, they’re open 24 hours a day.
  • As with pizza, the bagel you get from any random hole in the wall here is likely going to be better than pretty much anything you can get outside the city, so don’t feel like you absolutely have to go somewhere special. Just make sure it’s hot.

Baked Goods and Desserts

  • Bouchon Bakery & Cafe (Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle) – Opened by chef Thomas Keller (who currently holds no less than seven Michelin stars), Bouchon offers baked goodies that are as beautiful as they are delicious. My personal favorite is the Nutter Butter cookie, but if you get just one thing, make it their signature TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo). There is also a location in Rockefeller Center, but it is nowhere near as nice as the one at Columbus Circle.
  • Momofuku Milk Bar (56th between 5th and 6th, Midtown) – Whereas Bouchon works to have the feel of an elegant French bistro, Milk Bar is unashamedly American, and that’s not a bad thing. Founder and chef Christina Tosi has come up with some truly original creations such as Cereal Milk (milk that tastes just like what’s left in the bottom of a cereal bowl when you’re done with breakfast) and Crack Pie (sugary, buttery, and incredibly rich; a home-made version of this is how I won the dessert competition at our lab’s annual holiday party). Multiple locations in the city, the Midtown store is just a few blocks from the conference hotel.
 (Special thanks to Arielle Tambini– D’Esposito lab resident dessert expert– for her help with the bagels and bakeries sections)

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