“It’s really hard to keep this down to five places—and if you asked me tomorrow, I’d probably give you different answers,” writes born-and-bred New Yorker Ruth Reichl. “But here’s what I’m thinking today.”
If you don’t know who Reichl is, here’s a brief primer: She served as the New York Times restaurant critic from 1993 to 1999 and then the editor-in-chief of the legendary Gourmet magazine until its closure in 2009. She’s written classic food memoirs such as Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, the novel Delicious!, and the cookbook My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life. Whatever restaurants she’s thinking about on any given day are guaranteed to be excellent, not just for their food but for their place in the city, their ambiance, their story.
In The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook: A Collection of Stories with Recipes (out October 11), Reichl tells quite a story about the time her mother left her with a guide’s family in Mexico for a week when she was 8 years old in the hopes that she might become fluent in Spanish. While that didn’t happen, she did learn how to make delicious black beans cooked with duck fat, onions, chili and unsweetened chocolate. Here, she tells us of cheap bites and childhood memories from places closer to home.
The Grand Central Oyster Bar
I’ve been coming here since I was a baby, and just the aroma of the stew—that mixture of cream, Worcestershire sauce and oyster liquor makes me imagine my father is there, sitting on the next stool. I never eat at a table, and I can’t understand how anyone would sit anywhere but at the old counter, in front of the stew cooks. On the way out, I always stop at the whispering gallery, to tell my secrets to the wall.
Xi’an Famous Foods
I fell in love with the food when they first opened in the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing, but now that they’re everywhere I can indulge my passion for their Chang An spicy tofu whenever I want. It is, I think, one of the great cheap dishes of New York.
And while we’re on cheap snacks—the duck buns at Corner 28 in Flushing are superb: Peking duck, sliced before your eyes, and tucked into a bun with scallions and hoisin. There’s not a better $1.25 snack in the city. Why someone hasn’t brought this to Manhattan is a mystery to me.
Pearl Oyster Bar
My go-to place for dinner. Nobody makes a better lobster roll. The fried oysters are great, there’s a mean Caesar salad, the clam chowder is fantastic, and they cook whole lobsters to perfection. Great skinny fries, too. Noisy, friendly, and a great place to be if you’re eating on your own.
El Quinto Pino
I love everything about this little Chelsea place—the tapas are great, the ambiance is friendly—but the real reason I come is for the uni panini. It is, I think, the best sandwich in the world.
Growing up on 10th Street, I ate at the 8th Street branch all the time. The skinny little hot dogs, with onion sauce, are the taste of home to me. When the bun is slightly crisp and warm… I’ll even admit to a strange affection for the papaya drink, although I suspect this is an acquired taste.