One of the best parts of any NYC Family Vacation is all of the amazing food! Today I’m sharing with you some quintessential Must-Eat NYC Foods to check out on your next visit to the Big Apple.
Best Food in New York City
NYC is home to some of the best restaurants and chefs in the world, and so many delicious food trends pop up there.
While there is always a revolving list of Trendy Foods to Try in NYC at any given time, that list changes quickly, and I instead wanted to focus on classic NYC foods that have stood the test of time and will still be readily available – whether you’re heading to NYC next month or next year.
I also tried to stick to casual eats that work for family travel, so you don’t have to plan your vacation around restaurant reservations. However, if you’re looking for amazing restaurants for foodie families check out my Best NYC Restaurants for Families post.
Be sure to grab our free printable checklist at the bottom of the post!
To get you excited about your NYC adventures, here are some of my favorite books set in New York:
- Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (she also has a highly praised cookbook)
- Anthony Bourdain’s Bone in the Throat
- F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
- Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s
And, some of my favorite New York City cookbooks:
- Anthony Bourdain’s Appetites Cookbook or Les Halles Cookbook
- David Chang and Peter Meehan’s Momofuku
- Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery
I don’t own these ones, but they come highly recommended:
Black and White Cookie
“Look to the cookie.”
There are two variations on this classic cookie: made with buttercream frosting or covered with dark chocolate and white chocolate icing. Both versions are made with a fluffy, yellow cake-like cookie that puts just about every sugar cookie (or “Lofthouse” cookie) to shame.
You can get these all over the city but I highly recommend the ones found at Amy’s Bakeshop and Zabar’s.
Dominque Ansel Bakery has so many amazing French pastries (madelines, macarons, Religeuse) and unique desserts (zero gravity cake, avocado toast ice cream sandwich, gingerbread pinecones, frozen s’mores) – but the dessert that put this bakery on the map was the Cronut, a delicious hybrid of croissant and donut that the bakery serves in many different seasonal flavors.
Plan to line up, but plan to stick around in the courtyard and enjoy your treats – or head around the corner to the playground (with splash area) for an impromptu picnic.
NY Hot Dog – with Papaya Juice (non-negotiable)
OK, we’re not talking “gray water dogs” (the kind you get from street vendors) – I’m specifically recommending Papaya King, Papaya Dog or Gray’s Papaya for a snappy, steamed, all-beef hot dog served with creamy and sweet papaya juice. It may seem like an odd combination, but once you try it you’ll see the light.
NY Egg Cream
This soda shoppe classic originated in NYC but is increasingly hard to find. We had ours at Lexington Candy Shop, but you can find them at some delis or diners around the city.
An egg cream ironically doesn’t contain cream or egg – it’s milk, carbonated water and flavored syrup. It’s frothy and tastes similar to a milkshake, but doesn’t have the thickness and actually quenches your thirst (while I find that I always need a glass of water after a milkshake).
Okay, so I love me some Chicago-style deep dish, but I don’t think you have to belong to one camp or the other. When in
Rome, er NYC, you eat as the locals do.
There are some amazing pie shops serving up delicious pizza (Roberta’s, Grimaldi’s, etc) that you can’t go wrong with, but many New Yorkers swear by a good 99¢ slice from local chains 2 Bros. Pizza or 99¢ Fresh Pizza.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of rugelach, a croissant-type pastry found with fruit, nut or chocolate fillings at delis and bakeries around the city. The dough is made with cream cheese, giving it a tart flavor so it’s not too sweet. Many people consider this a must-try and you can often find one for less than $1, so it’s a fair gamble to take.
NYC is home to some of the best and most unique donut shops in the country, and for our next NYC trip I plan to sample even more, but for now my favorite has to be Doughnut Plant. My all-time favorite is the rose flavored Doughflowers (pictured above – also available in strawberry-glazed or blood orange-glazed) but I also highly recommend the Tres Leches and Brooklyn Blackout donuts.
When it comes to Montreal vs NYC bagels, I’m never going to choose. Montreal bagels are sweeter and have crunch, while NYC bagels are softer and a better vehicle for the amazing homemade cream cheeses that many NYC delis slather on them.
And as you can see – these are incredibly filling and can easily be split among two people.
Bialys are similar to a bagel, but they are only baked (not boiled) and are made with gluten-flour instead of wheat flour. They are less sweet, slightly crispier and drier, and less chewy than a bagel. The inside often has large air bubbles and they can be stuffed (with onions, smoked salmon or different fillings).
If you’ve only ever had grocery store pastrami, you may not understand what the NYC obsession with a good pastrami sandwich is all about. Pastrami is slow-cooked beef brisket that should melt in your mouth the minute you take a bite. It’s salty, smoky and perfectly seasoned with the fat completely melted into the meat. At Katz’s, it’s served with chewy rye bread and spicy mustard.
The best burgers ever. Period. Hands down.
A custom blend of freshly ground beef that is cooked medium, served on a potato roll and slathered with their special Shack sauce. Crinkle fries, fresh lemonade and frozen custard also round out your meal to be one of the most satisfying burger meals you will ever have.
Shake Shack is now a global chain, so if you have one near you, you can skip doing this in the city. (Although, I don’t know how anyone can walk by a Shake Shack and not give in. That’s a special kind of willpower I don’t have.)
The King of the T-bones, a porterhouse steak is thick, should have great marbling and is usually big enough to serve two people. In NYC, porterhouse is a way of life and any steak house serving it takes their task seriously. It’s an expensive meal with high expectations. If you’re a huge steak lover – and especially if you don’t have great steak houses where you live – this is a necessary splurge while in NYC.
For many, Peter Lugers is still the gold standard, but there are many other great steak houses in NYC.
A Chinese steamed bun filled with hot soup (and sometimes other fillings) that must be eaten carefully – because the soup is always hot!
Bite off the top of the bun and slurp out the soup before popping the rest of the dumpling into your mouth. There are so many varieties, but I love mine spicy! You can get these to-go or in a sit-down restaurant.
At Least One Amazing Asian Meal
There are so many delicious options available in NYC for Chinese, Japanese and Korean foods, and I hate lumping them together, but I really want to encourage you to try a couple of the offerings available while you’re in the city – and don’t just go with items that you can find at your local take-away or buffet.
Spicy Noodles from Xi’an Famous Foods, Gyoza or Korean Fried Chicken from Her Name is Han, Takashi for yakiniku or just about anything from the Momofuku chain are my top picks.
NYC is credited with popularizing brunch (and many classic brunch recipes originated in NYC), and while you can now get a great brunch just about anywhere, I still think it’s a must-do whenever you’re in the city.
My daughter insists on brunch at Sarabeth’s every time we’re in the city. The food is always amazing (and I’m not a breakfast person so that’s saying something), though the service is sometimes a mixed bag. There are several locations but our favorite is just south of Central Park. If you don’t have time for a full brunch, at least grab some scones and preserves to-go.
Two words to describe NYC summers: hot and humid.
So, they’ve had to perfect their ice cream offerings – and there are so many phenomenal ice creams or frozen concoctions available in the city that I even wrote an entire post dedicated to it: Check out our favorite NYC Ice Cream Spots and Recommendations here.
Whether you indulge in a frozen hot chocolate from Serendipity 3, ooey gooey buttercake ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery, or a salty pimp soft-serve from Big Gay Ice Cream (my top three picks) – you won’t be disappointed.
There are always some exciting new food trends in NYC, so I definitely recommend checking out whatever is hot when you’re visiting – but be aware that some of it is just “Instagram hot” and not actually worth the line-ups, expense or taking the time out of your family vacation. (Case in point, we travelled over an hour total to get the viral rainbow bagel and I was just not a fan – it was okay and fun to try, but not worth the time it took out of our vacation.)
- Knish – a soft potato-based snack seasoned in a variety of different ways. It’s delicious but hard to find outside of the Lower East End.
- Cookies – there are so many amazing bakeries in NYC (Levian, Maman, Bouchon) that have amazing offerings. Levian’s Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookies and Maman Bakery and Cafe are definitely worth going out of your way for.
- Cupcakes – NYC was the global epicentre of the cupcake craze that has somewhat died down in the last decade, but it still is home to some amazing offerings. Magnolia is a NYC institution and if you stop by, be sure to also grab some banana pudding.
Must-Have NYC Drinks
Honestly, there weren’t any drinks (except for an egg cream) that are super stand-out recommendations for me. We tried the Freak Shakes at Black Tap and they were just an instagram-worthy milkshake, not really worth lining up for 45+ minutes. (The burgers were good, but I’d take a Shake Shack burger over them any day.)
There are plenty of cocktails that NYC is famous for and some great local coffee spots, but nothing you can’t find at home.