As a Classics Week special, Robert Sietsema rounds up his picks for standout old-school meals in New York City.
So maybe these modest eateries are not yet old enough to be historic (though some certainly are) — their utility lies in providing cheap meals year in and year out for decades, rarely raising prices and always providing delicious food. One of the secrets is an army of discerning regulars who’d never put up with a decline in food quality.
Afghan Kebab House – Hell’s Kitchen was once paved with cheap Afghan dining establishments, ensconced on the ground floor of tenements, festooned with Persian rugs, grilling lamb chops over charcoal but also offering a surprising number of vegetarian selections, including the wonderful bolani: blistered flatbreads stuffed with orange pumpkin, to be dipped in tart homemade yogurt. 764 9th Avenue, (212) 307-1612.
Cedars Meat House – Grilled meat — from chicken and lamb shawarma to slender sausages to kidneys and sometimes even brains — is the forte of this Lebanese butcher shop, and there’s also a steam table full of meat stews and lively vegetable dishes, plus perfect rotisserie chicken. Seating is limited to a counter that runs along the wall, but who wants to linger over such a delectable meal? 41-08 30th Avenue, Queens, (718) 606-1244.
Kashkar Café – Originating along the Silk Road just over the Chinese border, the food at this replica Uyghur tea house includes all the Central Asian standards such as manti (shown), plov, dill-dusted fries, charcoal-grilled kebabs, and pickle plates that often contain cherry tomatoes and even watermelon in addition to the usual cucumbers. Almost mind-bogglingly, plates of kimchi are also available. How they got there is too long a story to recount here. 1141 Brighton Beach Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 743-3832.
Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn – Sit at the carved wooden bar at this German old-timer and enjoy a cut-rate menu of bar snacks including a broad range of wursten (sausages) and schnitzels (breaded cutlets), washed down with one of the best Teutonic draft beer selections in town. The picturesque setting provides spectacular views of the brooding Arthur Kill, the body (corpse?) of water that separates New York from New Jersey at these latitudes. On weekends, an octogenarian oompah band entertains. 4254 Arthur Kill Road, Staten Island, (718) 984-1202.
Lexington Candy Shop – Step inside this antique premises and do a double-take: Everything inside seems to date from the Roaring Twenties — soda-fountain taps, Formica counter, twirling green stools, booths upholstered in red Naugahyde. Concentrate on egg creams, malted milks, phosphate-flavored Cokes (lemon, cherry, vanilla, or chocolate), and Creamsicle floats, and you’ll have a great time. Hamburgers decent, but breakfasts are the real things to eat here. 1226 Lexington Avenue, (212) 288-0057.
Mitchell's Soul Food – This long-running palace of African-American cuisine does some of the best fried chicken in town, and the smothered pork chops aren’t too shabby, either. A recent renovation has doubled the available seating and removed the thick plastic barriers that were once thought necessary in this extensively gentrified neighborhood. Pray that this amazing spot persists. 617A Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn, (718) 789-3212.
Oasis – When this place appeared in 2004, it forever changed the dining terrain in Williamsburg. Never before had there been a place so cheap, so centrally located, and so authentically Middle Eastern (the proprietors are Palestinian). Start with the falafel, but if you relish meat, continue on to the perfect kofta kebabs, on a platter or in a sandwich, and consult the pastry case afterwards if you have room. 161 N 7th Street, Brooklyn, (718) 218-7607.
Odessa – Apart from a church and a credit union or two, most of the Ukrainian presence that dominated the East Village after World War II is long gone. But Odessa — named after a city on the Black Sea — remains, dishing up massive portions of Eastern European food at bargain prices, including potato pancakes, kielbasas, pierogi, and sauerkraut. If it happens to be breakfast time, don’t miss the cheese blintzes and the challah french toast. 119 Avenue A, (212) 253-1482.
Opa Souvlaki of Astoria – A dancing peasant with a codpiece decorates the outdoor signage, and inside, with the aid of artistically wadded plaster, an undulating Greek beachscape is evoked. The forte of this place is cheap grilled meats, from the eponymous pork souvlaki all the way to the stuffed sheep guts called kokoretsi. And every meal comes with feta-snowed salad, fries, or lemon potatoes, and warm pitas in abundance. For super cheap, get the bulging pita sandwiches. Under the N tracks since 1969. 2844 31st Street, Queens, (718) 728-3638.
Pakistan Tea House – For at least 30 years, this downtown miracle that evoked Silk Road teahouses has been dishing up meat, chicken, and vegetable curries and exceptionally good flatbreads made to order in the tandoor oven. Cabbies hang here, as well as Tribecans looking for a bargain (combination meals that include two curries, raita, and rice or bread come in as low as $6.99). 176 Church Street, (212) 240-9800.
Waverly Restaurant – The days when there was a diner on nearly every block in some parts of town is long gone, but this 35-year-old Greenwich Village institution persists, ladling out soups, flipping burgers, and delivering egg-dominated breakfasts in miniature skillets. For once, the hash browns aren’t half bad, and don’t miss the french toast if you’re in the mood for pain perdu. 385 6th Avenue, (212) 675-3181.
Wo Hop – Hard to believe that Wo Hop is nearing 80 years old, one of a dwindling collection of Chinese-American restaurants that once dominated a much smaller Chinatown. The walk-down space, populated by blue-coated waiters, still slings the same chow meins, chop sueys, and egg fu yungs as it always has, though now, with their lightness and vegetable intensity, these dishes seems almost healthy. No pork belly or pizza here. And the price continues to be right. 17 Mott Street, (212) 962-8617.
These restaurants are listed in alphabetical order.