Cheap Eats in the Big Apple
Yes, it's easy to find a cheap meal in New York -- if you don't mind a soggy knish. Seriously, you can savor an upscale meal in this pricey town for less than you'd think; sometimes it just depends on the time of day or even the time of year that you dine. And keep in mind, thanks to the recession that's taken a big bite out of budgets, cheap is in fashion, even in New York.
If you can, plan your trip around Restaurant Week (held in January/February and June/July), when you can dine like the Trumps even if you've just been fired. Some of the most celebrated restaurants (The River Cafe, Nobu, Smith & Wollensky and Tribeca Grill) participate. This year, the price is $24.07 for lunch, $35 for dinner, excluding drinks, taxes and tips.
Some high-end restaurants frequented by silver-spooned New Yorkers offer deals year-round -- but you have to know when to go and what to order. Brooklyn’s storied Peter Luger is known for its expensive steaks. But if you dine here before 3:30 pm, the juicy Luger Burger is yours for $9.50; if you ask what it comes with they'll quip "a waiter," but for an extra $1.95 you can get fries.
Some expensive restaurants offer prix-fixe menus, giving you a taste of the good life for less. Bouley, a romantic French-inspired restaurant in Manhattan owned by renowned chef David Bouley, offers a $45 5-course tasting menu. You can also take advantage of hot spot Gotham Bar and Grill's $24 Green Market Prix Fixe Lunch.
If theater tickets are off limits, a cheap eat at Cafe Edison located in Hotel Edison in the heart of the Theatre District is the next best thing. This is where Broadway actors and producers talk shop over matzo ball soup and borscht -- there are omelets, burgers and sandwiches, too. The price is right: a bowl of matzo ball soup is just $4.35.
The burger joint in the Le Parker Meridien Hotel in midtown is extremely popular for -- what else? -- burgers, fries and shakes. The cost: $6.89 for a great burger with the works.
Eating a hot dog from Gray's Papaya is a rite-of-passage (every true New Yorker has scarfed down one of these bad boys, typically at 4 a.m.). You can get one for $1.50, or go for the $4.45 "recession special" (2 dogs and a drink).
Food trucks are all the rage lately on New York City streets. Order a cup of gourmet chili at Daisy May's BBQ USA cart (50th St. between 6th and 7th avenues), and you'll swear you’re in the Lone Star State. The chili is served with hot sauce and a flour tortilla, and you can order a side of beans.
Remember what you did in college when you had $4 for the week? You ate ramen noodles. Well, ramen noodles have been elevated to fine dining in New York. The best is Ippudo in Manhattan although it isn't as cheap as you'd expect for noodles -- this isn't your roommate’s noodle soup. A cheaper option is Great New York Noodle Town in Chinatown.
Dumplings are also an inexpensive and popular New York treat and the delicate dumplings at Prosperity Dumpling are a bargain at 4 for $1; there are 2 Lower East Side locations each with limited seating.
When the weather is warm, grab something fabulously Italian from Eataly in the Flatiron District, a humongous gourmet market dedicated to all things Italy (the panini are cheap), and picnic in nearby Madison Square Park. Or, visit the Plaza Food Hall located in the Plaza Hotel for gourmet take-out, then cross the street to enjoy your meal in Central Park.
And there's always pizza. John's Pizzeria in Greenwich Village is a New York institution; you can't order slices but you'll want to devour an entire pie anyway.
And, of course, there are always bagels. Bagels practically fly out of the bins at H&H Bagels so there's a good chance yours will be hot from the oven. Smother it with Nova lox, cold cuts or cream cheese and call it a meal; there are a couple locations (Upper West and Midtown).
Editor’s Note: prices are current as of April 2011
Laurie Bain Wilson writes often about New York City and is the author of several travel guidebooks, including New York City Made Easy and New York City with Kids.