Classic New York food

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This excerpt from our New York City guide lets you know how to eat like a New Yorker.

Unlike California or the South or even the Southwest, New York is never really referred to as having one defining cuisine. Try asking for some ‘New York food,’ for example, and you could wind up getting anything from a hot dog to a South Indian feast or a $500 Japanese prix fixe at the Time Warner Center’s Masa. Cuisine in this multicultural town is global by definition, and constantly evolving by its very nature. That said, it’s the food items with the longest histories that folks usually have in mind when they refer to New York City specialties. Those at the top of the list – bagels and slices of pizza – were introduced by Eastern European Jews and Italians, because those groups were among the earliest wave of immigrants here. But egg creams, cheesecake and hot dogs, just to name a few, are also uncontested staples of New York eats.

Hot Dogs

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A derivative of sausage and one of the oldest forms of processed food, the hot dog goes back thousands of years, making its way to New York via various European butchers in the 1800s. One, Charles Feltman of Germany, was apparently the first to sell them from pushcarts along the Coney Island seashore. But Nathan Handwerker, originally an employee of Feltman’s, opened his own shop across the street, offering hot dogs at half the price of those at Feltman’s and putting his former employer out of business. Today the original and legendary Nathan’s still stands in Coney Island, while its empire has expanded on a national scale. And there is barely a New York neighborhood that does not have at least a few hot-dog vendors on its street corners, although some locals would never touch one of those ‘dirty-water dogs,’ referring to the new wave of chi-chi hot-dog shops that can be found all over town. Enjoy yours, wherever it’s from, with ‘the works’: plenty of spicy brown mustard, relish, sauerkraut and onions.

Bagels

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Bagels may have been invented in Europe, but they were perfected around the turn of the 19th century in New York City – and once you’ve had one here, you’ll have a hard time enjoying one anywhere else. Basically, it’s a ring of plain-yeast dough that’s first boiled and then baked, either left plain or topped with various finishing touches, from sesame seeds to chocolate chips. ‘Bagels’ made in other parts of the country are often just baked and not boiled, which makes them nothing more than a roll with a hole. And even if they do get boiled elsewhere, bagel-makers here claim that it’s the New York water that adds an elusive sweetness never to be found anywhere else. Which baker creates the ‘best’ bagel in New York is a matter of (hotly contested) opinion, but most agree that H&H Bagels (www. handhbagel.com), with locations on the Upper West Side (2239 Broadway at 80th St) and the main store in Midtown West (639 W 46th St), ranks pretty high. The most traditionally New York way to order one is by asking for a ‘bagel and a schmear,’ which will yield you said bagel with a small but thick swipe of cream cheese. Or splurge and add some lox – thinly sliced smoked salmon – as was originally sold from pushcarts on the Lower East Side by Jewish immigrants back in the early 1900s.

Pizza

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Pizza’s certainly not indigenous to Gotham. But New York–style pizza is a very particular item, and the first pizzeria in America was Lombardi’s (32 Spring St btwn Mulberry & Mott Sts), which opened here in 1905. While Chicago-style is ‘deep dish’ and Californian tends to be light and doughy, New York prides itself on having pizza with thin crust and an even thinner layer of sauce – and slices that are triangular (unless they’re Sicilian-style, in which case they’re rectangular). Pizza made its way over to New York in the 1900s through Italian immigrants, and its regional style soon developed, its thin crust allowing for faster cooking time in a city where everyone’s always in a hurry. Today there are pizza parlors about every 10 blocks, especially in Manhattan and most of Brooklyn, where you’ll find standard slices for $2.50. The style at each place varies slightly – some places touting crackerthin crust, others offering slightly thicker and chewier versions, and plenty of nouveau styles throwing everything from shrimp to cherries on top.

Egg Creams

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This frothy, old-fashioned beverage contains no eggs or cream – just milk, seltzer water and plenty of chocolate syrup (preferably the classic Fox’s U-Bet brand). But when Louis Auster of Brooklyn, who owned soda fountains on the Lower East Side, invented the treat back in 1890, the syrup he used was made with eggs, and he added cream to thicken the concoction. The name stuck, even though the ingredients were modified, and soon they were a staple of every soda fountain in New York. While Mr Auster sold them for 3¢ a piece, today they’ll cost you anywhere from $1.50 to $3, depending on where you find one – which could be from one of the few remaining old-fashioned soda shops, such as Lexington Candy Shop on the Upper East Side, or an old-school deli, like Katz’s Deli.

New York–Style Cheesecake

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Sure, cheesecake, in one form or another, has been baked and eaten in Europe since the 1400s. But New Yorkers, as they do with many things, have appropriated its history in the form of the New York–style cheesecake. Immortalized by Lindy’s restaurant in Midtown, which was opened by Leo Lindemann in 1921, the particular type of confection served there – made of cream cheese, heavy cream, a dash of vanilla and a cookie crust – became wildly popular in the ’40s. Junior’s (1515 Broadway at 44th St), which opened on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn in 1929 and in Midtown just a few years ago, makes its own famous version of the creamy cake with a graham-cracker crust. Today, you’ll find this local favorite on plentiful dessert menus, whether you’re at a Greek diner or haute-cuisine hotspot.

More eating recommendations can be found in Lonely Planet's guide to New York City.