My absolute favorite time of year to travel to NYC is January. Coming from always sunny Southern California, I truly enjoy the temperature change and seeing a simpler side to The Big Apple. In January there are significantly less tourists, reservations are usually available and it's the time when hotels, restaurants and retail stores offer their largest discounts of the year.
Here you can find my personal recommendations for delicious bites, unique finds, must see spots, travel tips (all in order from highest to lowest priority) and my personal itinerary from our most recent visit.
Cheap Eats and Small Bites
SHAKE SHACK - usually my first stop. Burgers are juicy and their Concretes (frozen custard with mixed in yumminess) cause my mouth to water months after. Our two favorite Concretes are The Great White (vanilla custard with marshmellow sauce and crunchies) and Jelly's Last Donut (featuring a Doughnut Plant Donut mixed right in!).
THE BURGER JOINT - hidden behind a curtain in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien hotel, you'll blast into a 1998 haven where cool kids behind the counter serve up paper bags filled with greasy fries and perfectly cooked patties. Be prepared to wait in line because this is a popular local secret. FYI they use a strong dijon mustard on the burgers so say "thanks, but no thanks" if you're not a fan.
MOMOFUKU MILK BAR - Home of the Cereal Milk soft serve and Crack Pie (this crack don't kill and is worth the extra few bucks). The Momofuku Noodle Bar also receives great reviews if you're into Japanese ramen, but I ran out of time to check it out so can't give you a personal rec.
MAGNOLIA BAKERY - Known for their Banana Pudding for good reason and I don't even like banana Pudding. Mmm mmm good.
MCSORLEY'S ALE HOUSE - I'm not a bar person, but this is definitely worth a visit. As NYCs oldest saloon, everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Houdini have ordered a beer at this old school joint. Don't waive your tourist flag - your order is either light or dark (beer) - and you'll be rushed over 2 half pints for $5 and that's it. Then find a seat with some strangers and take in the history that surrounds you.
SERENDIPITY 3 - Definitely worth the trip to say you did it, but I would put it last on your list. Share the famous Frozen Hot Chocolate and stop while you're ahead (but I'm pretty sure there is a minimum per person purchase, so you may need more than one).
Moderate to High Priced Splurges
NORMA'S - Yet another gem inside Le Parker Meridien hotel. Honestly, we weren't even going to check it out until a couple we met at dinner across town raved about it to the point where I wanted to run back to my hotel and order room service. Thanks to their reliable recommendation, I had one of the best breakfasts I've ever experienced. I was told, "You're going to ask yourself, why would I pay $28 for French Toast? Then you put it in your mouth and you know." The Crunchy French Toast dipped in rice crispies and drizzled with caramel sauce is to die for; cooked to perfection - firm on the perimeter and soft not soggy in the middle. Stick to dishes they're famous for and you can't go wrong. Lucky for me, there's one in Palm Springs!
COLICCHIO AND SONS - UPDATE: I am very sad to say that this restaurant closed in September of 2016 - let's hope that Tom Colicchio has something new coming to NYC soon! This restaurant gets an enthusiastic WOW for customer service and quality experience. There is a reason Tom Colicchio is the Top Chef of Top Chef and he really shows off here. Spend the extra money on a tasting menu and sit back and enjoy the service splendor. Just to name a few of the small, but brilliant details - the ambiance was upscale/modern without being pretentious; we were served complimentary, additional courses throughout the meal; the sommelier stopped by and treated us to an additional glass of whatever we had already ordered; we were sent home with muffins for the morning and the server wrote down a list of suggestions for where to get the best pizza in the city!
I've eaten at some of the top restaurants in the world and Colicchio and Sons kicks other restaurants asses, hands down for service. Food is delicious, presented beautifully and of the highest quality, but I will admit that they weren't the most memorable dishes we've ever had. However, even with that said, I will be making a reservation any time I get a chance to visit NYC.
LA PIZZA & LA PASTA (Eataly) - Just simple, clean Italian flavors. It's a perfect stop for a moderately priced lunch (try to grab a table at the counter or come early to avoid a long wait). I recommend the Margherita Pizza and the Spaghettone Cacio e Pepe.
BLUE RIBBON SUSHI - Known for their fried chicken and quality sushi, but I'll be honest - neither blew me away. While the fish was definitely fresh, I left remembering the small portions with large prices. One perk - they're open late so if you find your tummy rumbling after catching a show near Lincoln Center, it's a short walk away.
PARK AVENUE TAVERN (Brunch) - There is one dish that we come here for: HOT HAM & CHEESE with parmesan cream and a sunny-side egg. Open for brunch Saturday's and Sundays, they also serve $5 Cocktails. Brunch is a popular New York staple with many options to choose from, so we will probably do some comparison shopping in the future. But, this is a great option if you're near Grand Central.
BABBO - While I take pride in my research and decision making skills, this was by far my greatest let down of the trip (I will mention that this was the ONLY place my husband chose on his own. Oops.). From start to finish, I was extremely underwhelmed (which is saying a lot for a pasta addict) and definitely will think twice before going to another Mario Batali restaurant. We arrived about 25 minutes early for our reservation and when I politely checked in (not expecting to be sat) I was rudely dismissed and then we were seated 25 minutes AFTER our reservation time. Tables are packed together like sardines and service is mediocre. We opted out of the pasta tasting menu and I ordered the Pappardelle & Bolognese, my absolute favorite pasta dish. Unfortunately, it was so heavily covered (not sprinkled) with parsley I could barely finish it. We also ordered the $120 Ribeye for 2, which was overcooked from the medium rare we requested and lacked flavor and luster. Needless to say, I should have saved the $300 and gone to Anthropologie.
Unique Experiences Not to be Missed
JAMES BEARD HOUSE - Many have heard of the James Beard Awards, but few are familiar with the foundation that raises money to provide aspiring culinary students with scholarships to accomplish their dreams. The James Beard House was Julia Child's idea, established to preserve the culinary icon's brownstone in Greenwich Village following his death. Culinary patrons pre purchase tickets for a set price (roughly $170-250pp) for an opportunity to partake in a fixed multi-course menu (with drink pairing), culinary showcase put on by some of the best chef's in the country. Each evening a new featured chef comes to the foundation, donating not only his time, but his team and their travel expenses, as well as the evening's food and drinks so that all proceeds benefit the foundation.
You begin the evening by walking through the home's kitchen where the chef is hard at work putting together the hors d'oeuvres and prepping the meal, out to the back room and patio where you join roughly 75 or so of your evening's guests where you mingle with a cocktail in hand as the first beautiful bites are passed around. After about 45 minutes, you are led to your banquet style assigned table, usually located upstairs in Beard's study/reconstructed bedroom. For the next 2-3 hours you enjoy the company of new friends as you are served a sampling of the chef's finest dishes, all accompanied with perfect wine pairings, including a desert course with tea and coffee available.
The most magnificent part of the dinner is at the end of the night when the chef comes up to thank the guests and takes questions from the room. Our chef for the evening, Chef Karsten Hart of Rhode Island, spent nearly 30 minutes talking about his inspiration for the dishes as well as what the night meant to him and then went around the room and met with each table to express his thanks our support. What an incredibly intimate experience that we will never forget.
Quick Tips: You can see a calendar of featured chef's with their evening's menu on the website so you can choose what chef, menu and/or price that best suits you. Sign up be a JBH Member as a Food & Wine Enthusiast "Friend" for $29 and receive $50 off of your first dinner (which will be deducted from your purchase following the meal). You will not receive a check at the end of the night as you will have already pre-paid and tips are not allowed.
MIDNIGHT STREET FOOD CRAWL with Jeff Tastes - As far as food tours go, this one was probably the most memorable from the dozens we've done in the past. Found on one of my favorite travel experience sites, Vayable, Jeff offers a different side of the NYC food scene by taking you out on the streets of Queens where a world of international cuisine appears below the metro tracks to serve the working-class as they return from their jobs in the city. Jeff has been building relationships with these food vendors for years by asking questions (in his attempt at white-boy Spanish) and showing a genuine interest to understand and promote the under-appreciated street food culture in this area. Bring a water and your walking shoes and leave all pretension behind as Jeff takes you street by street to try everything from fresh tamales and coconut milk to pig-ear tacos and goat stew. More than anything, we appreciated the authenticity of the food, the genuine kindness of the people and the merging of cultures that you don't get to experience in the Manhattan bubble. For a relatively low asking price compared to many other culinary tours, all food is included and you leave with just enough room to breathe.
HIGH TEA AT THE PLAZA - The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel serves high tea service from 2-5pm daily. Set across the street from Central Park, the iconic Plaza Hotel is an idilic stop for a memorable trip to the city. Sip tea in luxury as you snack on mini sandwiches and perfectly baked scones for a few hours, chatting about all of the fun places you've visited on your vacation. It's always fun to say you spent an afternoon where movies like The Great Gatsby, Home Alone 2 and Crocodile Dundee were filmed (just to name a few!).
INTERESTING ATTRACTIONS & TO DOs
HIGH LINE PARK - A repurposed 14.5 mile strip of old railroad, turned hip/modern public park that sits above the city streets. Take your own self guided tour to explore an amazing example of how a big city is taking conservation to the next level.
EATALY - If you love all things Italy like I do, then an entire building (think the size of Target) dedicated to Italian food, drinks and stuff is the place for you. Eataly is an indoor Italian marketplace with 7 restaurants, a bakery, a cooking school and the place to find authentic Italian goods.
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING at night - I'm not a huge fan of paying lots of money for a city view, but you honestly can't miss a chance to climb this iconic building. In total Sleepless in Seattle fashion, I suggest going up as late as possible to skip the lines and the crowds while taking in the night lights. The last elevator goes up at 1:15am so you can easily go on a whim after a show or evening cocktails. Cost is $27 for adults to the main deck (significantly more if you want to go higher up, but not necessary in my opinion). Make sure to talk to your hotel concierge before you go, they often give in-the-know guests fast passes to skip the rediculous lines.
THE LATE SHOW with David Letterman - UPDATE: SORRY FRIENDS, DAVID HAS RETIRED! Looking for a free way to spend an afternoon while being entertained by big time celebrities? If you've got 3 hours to kill, this is a great option. Request tickets early and be prepared to wait around before taping. If chosen, they will most likely call and ask you 1 of 2 questions: What color hair does Alan Kalter have, the announcer have? (red). OR What instrument does Paul Shaffer play? (keyboard). It doesn't matter where you are in line to get your tickets, but it does matter where you are when they line you up to go into the theater so try to be towards the front for the best view. Who knows how much longer you'll have a chance to see Letterman live, so take advantage while you can.
MONEY SAVING SECRETS
FREE MUSEUM DAYS - Plan ahead and save your cash by scheduling museum visits on the days they offer free admission. Click on the link and it will take you to all of the options in the city. Keep in mind that lines can be long so arrive early, but they almost always move fast. I went to the MOMA on a Free Friday afternoon and the line was around the building, but I was in after only 15 minutes and even with the crowds saw everything I wanted to in just over an hour.
RESTAURANT WEEK - Twice a year, a long list of notable restaurants offer 3 course, pre-fix menus for $25 for lunch and $38 for dinner, giving you the best chance enjoy a legitimate foodcation without breaking the bank. This is usually offered in January and August, but check ahead because specific dates change each year. If the huge list starts to give you heart palpitations and stress induced hives, I suggest you do a Google search for the best restaurants to check out and you'll usually find a few good articles that suggest where you should make reservations.
BROADWAY WEEK - 2 for 1 tickets to the hottest shows on Broadway happens once a year (usually in January). Last year my husband and I had Orchestra level seats to Wicked for $154 total!
LINCTIX - If you are between the ages of 21-35, you can sign up for free to get tickets for $32 each to practically all Lincoln Center shows. Membership only allows you to buy 1 ticket, but you can get tickets together through the purchase process as long as everyone has their own membership number. We just saw Ethan Hawke up close and personal in Macbeth for only $69 total for Orchestra level seating.
HOTEL WEEK - After New Year, tourism dies down in the city and hotels have open rooms, so in January many high end hotels slash their prices from $100-200 per night for Hotel Week. If January is not an option, I start checking TravelZoo 2-3 months before my trip and I can usually find some amazing rates. Just be patient and book when you find a good deal; you can always cancel your reservation (terms permitting) if you find something better.