The Only in New York guides originally appeared in the October 15 & 31, 2017, issue of Wine Spectator, "New York City: A Wine Lover's Guide." Find it on newsstands through Oct. 16, 2017, or buy a digital edition.
205 E. Houston St.
Telephone (212) 254-2246
Open Monday to Wednesday, 8 a.m. to 10:45 p.m.; Thursday, 8 a.m. to 2:45 a.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. through Sunday, 10:45 p.m.
It's hard to miss Katz's Delicatessen. Located on the Lower East Side, where the vibe increasingly tilts swank and dimly lit, Katz's neon marquees blare proudly. They serve as a polestar for pilgrims who have come to receive blessing at the city's high temple of pastrami.
Crumbly and smoky, with a saline twang, Katz's pastrami sandwich is one of the headiest dishes in town in terms of sheer intensity of flavor ($21.45). To achieve this piquancy, the meat is cured for up to a month, rubbed with coriander, pepper and other spices, smoked, boiled and steamed to a point of tenderness that it must be hand-cut at the counter upon order. And that's basically the extent of the signature dish: "Meat and bread, maybe a little mustard. Simple. You let the meat speak for itself," explains Jake Dell, the deli's third-generation owner and manager.
Opened in 1888, Katz's found early success as a gathering spot for the neighborhood's Jewish community; in the 1920s you might have come by after a show at the nearby Yiddish theater to "have a knockwurst, sit and schmooze and talk to your neighbor," says Dell.
Today, diners enter to find a dizzying scene: A collage of beer ads, hanging salamis and fading photos of celebrities who have stopped by in the past 30 or so years plasters the walls. Visitors still come for the nostalgia factor and for the restaurant's pop cachet, its most famous cameo being the "I'll have what she's having" scene in 1989's When Harry Met Sally ... .
Beyond pastrami, Jewish cuisine devotees can enjoy the slightly brinier corned beef ($20.45), frankfurters ($3.95), knockwursts ($7.95), turkey sandwiches ($20.45), knishes ($5.45), latkes and sour cream ($12.25 for three), and matzo ball soup ($7.45).
As New York's immigrant neighborhoods became high-rent districts, the city suffered a great deli die-off. Today, Katz's is among the last of the originals. (Old-timers like 2nd Avenue Deli and Pastrami Queen persist, and a few newcomers, such as Mile End and Harry & Ida's, are adroitly tweaking the deli script.) "We're afraid of change!" says Dell. The restaurant, however, is making one update to accommodate the tastes of the times: Dell has been testing wine-and-pastrami pairings, as the city's most famous sandwich shop prepares to offer a wine selection.—Ben O'Donnell
32 Spring St.
Telephone (212) 941-7994
Open Lunch and dinner, daily; cash only
Nowadays in the pizza capital of America, it's not unusual to see queues of committed pizza-philes scrolling through their newsfeeds as they wait to be let into buzzy pizzerias. But at Lombardi's, that line stretches back to 1905, when pizza in the U.S. existed largely in the home kitchens of Italian immigrants. Lombardi's was the exception.
In those days, Naples transplant Gennaro Lombardi had a grocery store on Spring Street. For a nickel apiece, he sold cold tomato pies, wrapped in paper and tied with string, to Italian factory workers hungry for home. Lines grew so long, and demand so high, that Lombardi pivoted, acquiring this country's first license for a dedicated pizza restaurant.
America's original pizzaiolo based his style on the pizza of his native Naples, which is made with very fine flour and cooked at very high heat, for a burnish-edged, molten-centered knife-and-fork affair. Lombardi's New York-Neapolitan version is similarly charred, but more sturdy and foldable. The margherita pie ($24 for a large) is crispy and lightly pliant, with housemade San Marzano tomato sauce, basil and islands of fresh mozzarella. Leading New York pizza men who learned this style at Lombardi's include Anthony Pero of Totonno's, John Sasso of John's and Patsy Lancieri of Patsy's. Today, the city's pizzascape is teeming with diverse takes, from classic Grimaldi's to quirky Paulie Gee's.
Now a few doors down from its initial location, Lombardi's still uses the original 1905 coal-fired oven. Under the aegis of current owner John Brescio, you can't order just a slice, but you can customize each half of your pie. The menu also includes a clam pizza ($35) and old-school starters ($9 to $19).
The few wine options are identified only by varietal or type (Chianti, Montepulciano, white Zinfandel) and are $8 a glass, $36 a bottle. Let's face it: You come here for the pizza. And maybe you stay for a taste of the history.—Hilary Sims
RUSS AND DAUGHTERS
179 E. Houston St.
Telephone (212) 475-4880
Open Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
There are two crucial facts about Russ and Daughters: You're gonna have to wait, and it's worth it.
This Lower East Side smoked-fish emporium always has a cluster of people clutching numbered tickets grabbed at the door and waiting to be called.
Counter workers—some pensive, others with droll sass—move deliberately and offer a taste of anything you ask about. It's not just a gesture of generosity; they actually wait for you to confirm it's what you want. Yet no one complains or misbehaves. Everyone in line knows the payoff is huge. Owned by the same family since its founding in 1914, this is one of the last stores of its kind, which were known as "appetizing" stores.
The distinction has its roots in the rules of kosher, which keep meat separate from dairy. As a result, if you wanted meat you went to a delicatessen; for fish and cream cheese and bagels you went to the appetizing store. There you would find gorgeous smoked salmon displaying different origins and processing; whitefish; herring; roes and caviars; notably silky cream cheese in a number of variations; and my favorites, smoked sturgeon and whole smoked trout.
Sure there are other sources. Some may prefer uptown purveyors Barney Greengrass, Zabar's or Sable's. But all of us holding our numbered tickets here know we can't get better smoked fish, anywhere.
This is why we wait.—Owen Dugan
385 Sixth Ave.
Telephone (212) 675-3181
Open Daily, 24 hours
The classic diner is among the most inspiring restaurant concepts in American history. It's the original fast-food joint—a chrome-trimmed, neon-lit beacon with 24-hour cheap eats cooked quick. Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper were inspired to put it on canvas; movies like Diner, Goodfellas, Back to the Future and Pulp Fiction put it on the big screen; Happy Days and Seinfeld brought it into our homes. The diner provides a cultural reference point where all are equal and the American dream is a blue-plate special.
Waverly Restaurant owner Nick Serafis, now 74, immigrated to New York City in 1968. A baker in Greece, he found work washing dishes and waiting tables. By 1975, he'd saved enough money to open his diner where a quiet West Village street meets Sixth Avenue. And not a lot has changed since then. A 2011 renovation and expansion was more restoration than remodel—saffron curtains, burnt sienna leatherette booths and cast-iron hanging lanterns still give the place a faux-chophouse vibe. The diner's signature large-scale painting of Jefferson Market Courthouse (now the library up the block) got a touch-up, but the original neon sign still buzzes and Serafis still comes to work every day at 6 a.m.
The 24-hour menu also remains unchanged. "You can have breakfast for dinner, you can have dinner for breakfast," Serafis says.
Waverly is a Village icon, and you already know what's on offer. Order a patty melt ($11) and a chocolate shake ($6). Order a bacon and cheddar omelet with home fries and an English muffin ($14). Definitely order the housemade spinach pie ($13). Former New York mayor Ed Koch was once a regular here, and Sen. Chuck Schumer comes by too. Serafis remembers one famous regular more fondly than the rest, however: Zorba the Greek star Irene Papas.
Once ubiquitous, the New York diner has become an endangered species, but archetypes like Waverly persist: Old John's Luncheonette and Lexington Candy Shop uptown; Joe Junior, La Bonbonniere and Cozy Soup 'n' Burger downtown; Junior's in Brooklyn; the Bel Aire in Queens. Serafis 86s the thought of ever closing up shop. "Why would I retire? So I can stay at home and do nothing?" he asks. "You stay at home, you die." Thus, Waverly endures.—Robert Taylor