Tidbits for Political Junkies with Short Attention Spans & Hearty Appetites


Wednesday, August 11, 2004


The Convention Cheap Eats Guide

Yeah, I know. I haven’t exactly been posting a lot lately (work seems to be intervening). But I’ll try to make it up to you here & now with a Digestible News exclusive: my personal guide, as a longtime resident, to cheap eats in lower Manhattan. Think of it as a service to visiting media, bloggers, protesters, etc. There is no attempt to be comprehensive: for every place I’ve included, there are a least a few more that I considered, and probably many times more than that that I just don’t know about. The idea here is not overwhelm you with choices – just to provide a worthy handful.

One note: If you happen to be at the convention, or otherwise at Madison Garden, you are basically screwed food-wise. Manhattan has a well-deserved reputation for wonderful food – but not as a result of anything you are likely to find in the handful of blocks closest to Madison Square Garden or Penn Station. What you will find is just about every fast-food chain you can think of, all of which, due to sheer volume, have trouble even on a normal day maintaining their franchise standards (“70% satisfaction every time”) – so who knows what the situation will be during the convention. The alternatives are largely a lot more expensive and not all that good (“sports bars,” unsurprisingly, abound); your best bet is to head at least a few blocks away from the area, if you can – and all of these choices fit the bill. The subway is your friend here: within minutes, you can be halfway across town – and they are largely impervious to street-level congestion.

An absolute must is take-out only Daisy May’s BBQ, the most convincing evidence yet that you can, after all, get good barbecue in New York. Their main location is 46th Street & 11th Avenue – but there are also carts offering an abbreviated menu dotted around town: 39th &amp;amp;amp;amp; Broadway (i.e., a five minute walk from the Garden); 50th & Sixth Avenue; and near 40 Wall Street. The barbecue is the real thing – cooked “low and slow” over wood – and the chef, who clearly has a gift for flavor, is a veteran of several of the city’s high-end dining establishments (Daniel, Le Cirque, etc). There’s no need to apologize for this stuff as “budget” food: it’s flat out delicious, by any standard. As a North Carolinian, I’m predictably smitten by their pulled pork – though on my last visit, I was having such a tough time deciding between that and the Texas brisket that I bought one of each (conveniently, their packaging – ready-to assemble kits with bun, barbecue, and toppings in separate containers -- makes it easy to save an extra sandwich in the fridge to enjoy later). For $8 bucks a sandwich – it’s hard to go wrong.

For pizza lovers, SliceNY has already done a nice job of highlighting the landmark destinations, even assembling a visitor’s guide at GOPizza, so I won’t repeat their efforts here. Their ostensible claim is that they are “making nice” to the visiting Republicans, but my own guess is that the hordes of protesters will likely be more grateful for, and deserving of, this effort. In lower Manhattan, John’s on Bleecker (just below 7th Ave), and Lombardi’s on Spring Street (at Mott) are the essential stops (both have coal ovens); just be aware that if you show up at peak dinner hours (7-9 PM), you may also mean long lines.

If you’re in the vicinity of Lombardi’s, also consider Café Gitane (242 Mott), about a block away (Just north of the corner of Prince & Mott). This is a casual café with vibrant French/Moroccan fare, including exceptional salads and sandwiches. There’s almost nothing on the menu over ten bucks. The last time I was there, dinner for two, including a decent bottle of Alsatian Reisling, came in under $50 bucks – and more than half of that cost was the wine.

For Pannini (which is what you call grilled-cheese sandwiches when you upgrade the ingredients & charge eight bucks for them), the essential stop is ‘ino on Bedford Street, the place that started the craze. You’ll be amazed at what they can do with the right ingredients, a couple of sandwich presses, and a few toaster ovens. Consider the “Quatre-pannini” -- which for two extra bucks allows you the privilege of ordering not just one sandwich, but your pick of four different quarter-sandwiches. (And don’t miss the truffled egg toast, for $7). The wine list is appealing, reasonable and all Italian; if you’re unfamiliar with Italian wines, ask for help, or a small taste. They’ll work with you. They’re open from 9 in the morning until 2 AM; best bet again is off-peak hours. One warning: the place is so comfortable, it’s very easy to keep ordering wine. One memorable afternoon last fall, I walked in with two friends, and we managed to spend less than $20 on food – but then couldn’t pass on the temptation to order a second bottle of wine. Total tab: about eighty bucks – still not bad, all things considered.

‘ino, by the way, is just a few blocks from John’s Pizza – and has a larger sister location in the Lower East Side, at Ludlow & Rivington. Another worthy choice for pannini, is Bread in Soho – on Spring Street about a block east of Lombardi’s.

Grand Sichuan. Ninth Avenue & 24th Street. This place frankly looks like a dump from outside – and the interior has all the charm of a basement rec room that hasn’t been re-decorated in thirty years; but you don’t go here for the atmosphere. It’s not uncommon to have to wait for a table here – but tables turn very quickly, so the wait is rarely long. Specialties are the soup dumplings, which you must experience if you’ve never tried them, and tea-smoked duck.

El Cocotero (18th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues) This new addition to Chelsea’s restaurant offerings has been an instant, if low-key, hit. The food is honest, simple, Venezuelan fare; the atmosphere casual and friendly; and the prices right. Arepas with tasty fillings are around five bucks (I’m fond of a version called Reina Pepiada, shredded chicken with avocado & cilantro); main courses hover around ten; and, since the place does not have a liquor license yet, you can bring in your own beer or wine.

The Lunchbox Food Company (West Side Highway between Clarkson & Leroy Streets). Okay, I admit it: I’d go there just to sit in their back garden all afternoon and drink their insidiously good ginger-sake lemonade. But the food is also good, and certainly good value. In general, the menu is cooking-school-grads do diner food, and they pull it off well. Even potentially dull staples such as tuna salad can surprise here: their version is nicely brightened by a sherry vinaigrette, and served with arugula pesto on olive foccacia. This place deserves to be crowded, but seldom is – presumably due to a location that sounds more out-of-the-way than it actually is. Take the #1/9 train to Houston St., walk one block north, and then four relatively short blocks west until you reach the West Side Highway; the Lunchbox will be on your right, just north of the corner, sandwiched between a garage and a car wash. Weather permitting, you’ll be in an ideal location for a stroll afterwards: the Hudson River Park is right across the street.

Pearl Oyster Bar. (18 Cornelia, between Bleecker & West 4th). This one, I admit, isn’t exactly cheap: The lobster rolls are market-priced, typically $20; the fried oyster roll is $15. But for food of this caliber, the place is a bargain. The menu is very simple: a handful of appetizers, the aforementioned rolls, plus a selection of simply prepared fish dishes and whole lobsters; nothing is fancy, just very fresh and expertly prepared. If you can, you’ll want to get a seat at the main bar – where it’s friendlier, and for some reason less cramped than at the small tables in the adjoining room. Long waits at dinner time are not unusual, so figure it into your schedule – or consider going for lunch instead. (N.B. The oyster roll is officially only on the menu at lunch, but I’ve found that if you ask nicely, they’ll often indulge the request at dinner time).

The Shake Shack (south end of Madison Square Park: near 23rd St & Fifth Avenue). Danny Meyer, a restaurateur better known for upscale expense-account destinations, has added to his stable a simple hamburger-and-hot-dog kiosk in the middle of a shady green park. This isn’t wow food, just fresh & honest – and that’s more than enough. Best bets are the Shack Burger ($3.95) and the Chicago Dog (though I haven’t gotten around to trying the shakes yet). Also worth considering is their ‘Shroom Burger – which, while delicious, seems to have been engineered as a subtle form of revenge against self-righteous vegetarians: it’s a whole portabello mushroom cap, topped with cheese, breaded and deep-fried, and served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and their signature (mayonnaise-based) “shack sauce.” True, no animals were harmed – and please, enjoy it; just don’t pretend it’s good for you. Even the beverage choices include some welcome surprises. You’ll find good lemonade, soft drinks such as Abita’s Root Beer, and respectable beer & wine choices (Brooklyn Lager, $5; Half-bottle Huet Vouvray, $16).

Rainbow Falafel (17th Street near Union Square West). This little take-out only Middle Eastern eatery, in a battered storefront approximately the width of a broom closet, draws such long lines every day at lunchtime that several other establishments have popped up nearby just to peel off a business from the ones who won’t wait. In fairness, however, the lines move fast – and the reason for them becomes obvious when you taste the food. There’s nothing remotely subtle about this stuff, but it’s hard to beat for $3.50. Stop by a deli beforehand and get a tin of Altoids (you’ll want them afterwards) – then carry your sandwich, along with a lot of napkins, into nearby Union Square Park to enjoy.

Other things to consider:

Restaurant Week

For a more upscale dining experience, without the expense, I’d give serious consideration to booking an advance reservation at one of the spots participation in the summer-long “restaurant week.”

The hook is simple: for either $20.12 (at lunch), or $30.12 (at dinner), you can have a three-course meal at one of what are billed as “New York’s best restaurants.” The reality, of course, is that some of the participants in the program are more deserving of this description than others: the trick is to choose carefully (and pay close attention to their level of participation. Some only offer the deal at lunch, a handful only at dinner, etc); the best ones will book up early. A handful that jumped out that I can vouch for personally are Amuse, Aureole, The Mercer Kitchen, and Patria (all four participating at Lunch only); and I’d be equally comfortably steering anyone to Café Boulud, Chanterelle, Jo-Jo, Riingo, Tabla, or Tamarind (also Lunch-only participants); or Montrachet, Tribeca Grill, or Zoe (either Lunch or Dinner).

New York Magazines Cheap Eats List. 103 Selections, including several of the ones included here.

Dessert Places:If you find yourself with a sudden hankering for something sweet, a few places come to mind. La Bergamote, Ninth Avenue & 20th, consistently offers an astonishing array of pastries, all unapologetically butter-laden and French. Miniature tarts and éclairs are just the right size to be irresistible without inducing needless guilt. (Their sandwiches, which may be breathtakingly simple, such as duck pate on a baguette with sliced cornichons, are also delicious). In the West Village, the Magnolia Bakery (Bleecker & West 11th St) is known for their cupcakes, which seem to sell as fast as the bakers can replenish them. Most are apparently consumed within a few feet of the front door. The polar opposite of La Bergamote’s precisely executed art, Magnolia is all homey goodness & buttercream.

The Zagat Guide.

Seriously, if you think you’re going to spend more than $100 on food while you’re in New York (and this is very easy to do in a day), you should have a copy of the Zagat Guide. If it spares you from one bad meal, or helps you find one particularly good one, it’s worth the price. The “Best Buys” section alone can save you the cover price the first time you use it.

I use it in combination with Vindigo – which is handier when you’re trying to figure out what’s closest by, and has everything you need to know about finding anything (maps, subway information, etc). Vindigo also has a few other very useful features for visitors: ATM locations, bathroom locations, etc.


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