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A Perfect 24 Hours of Cheap Eats in New York City

A mad dash around New York City to find cheap eats available at all hours of the day

Three plates of boiled half-moon dumplings.
Veselka’s boiled pierogies
Photo by Gary He

Editor’s Note: The following is loosely adapted from Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd,” in which the lead character tries to find a crowd at all times. For the purposes of Eater NY’s cheap eats package, this lead character tries to find a busy place to eat affordably at any hour of the day — essentially, the perfect 24 hours of cheap eating. The restaurants and dish recommendations are real, via Eater critic Robert Sietsema; the rest is fiction.

I’d been feeling down for a long time, but seemed to be snapping out of it as I sat in a coffee shop in the West Village. I was surrounded by a crowd of earnest working stiffs at 10 in the morning, faces tinted green by the glow of their laptops. Frequently a hiss would rip the air as a barista reached for the steam lever. A few days ago, these sights would have laid a heavy hand upon my heart, but now they made me almost giddy with delight, as I fidgeted on my low stool contemplating my cortado, the Times spread across my lap.

Cheap Eats

10:35 a.m., Toby's Estate Coffee

Gazing out the window, two columns of pedestrians jostled on the sidewalk, one heading north, the other south with what seemed like ferocious speed. I gradually forgot my newspaper and became transfixed by the scene. I played a game with myself, noting the details of each person as he or she passed, trying to figure out what activity each was pursuing and what their ultimate destination might be.

As I watched, I saw one person emerge who seemed different from the rest. She walked purposefully, yet her expression was inscrutable, seeming to encompass a wealth of emotions at once: hunger, curiosity, and wild abandon, suffused with a certain overall sadness.

Toby’s Estate Coffee West Village Photo by Robert Sietsema

I became so curious that I threw down the paper and dashed out the door of Toby’s Estate Coffee, hoping not to lose her in the crowd. She disappeared among a group of high schoolers from Humanities making their way to a very early lunch, pushing each other off the curb while shouting oaths and laughing uproariously. Suddenly I glimpsed her on an open patch of sidewalk before she disappeared into a clump of nannies pushing strollers.

She was of medium height and dressed in just a suit and necktie, though the weather was cold for early spring and the clouds threatened rain. Her brow was furrowed and her hair tied in a bun on top of her head. Her complexion was grayish, and her features spoke of authority.

44 Charles St., at Seventh Avenue South, West Village

11:10 a.m., Highline Pizzeria

Highline Pizza Hell’s Kitchen Photo by Robert Sietsema

Her pace quickened as she broke free of the strollers and headed for a crowd of hardhats, who were standing in a knot in front of Highline Pizzeria, contemplating the usual construction workers’ two-slice lunch. The tiny inside of the place was jammed, too, but she seemed to thread her way among the roughnecks with ease and ordered a chicken parm slice, which she wolfed down almost as one bite.

503 West 28th St., near 10th Avenue, Chelsea

12 p.m., Larb Ubol

Larb Ubol Hell’s Kitchen Photo by Robert Sietsema

But the slice didn’t seem to satisfy her. Soon she was booking it north along 10th Avenue, veering toward Ninth just south of the Lincoln Tunnel. She managed to make it to the Port Authority where she dashed into the 9th Avenue entrance, and was soon striding with evident relief through a thick crowd of shoppers just arriving from Jersey. But once they’d dissipated into the surrounding streets, my subject began to look nervous again, and soon darted out the door onto Eighth Avenue, where she maneuvered through the traffic like a skateboarder.

She ended up at Larb Ubol, a Thai café with some of the spiciest food in the city, where the lunch rush was already going full blast. Not deterred, she was soon seated at a fabric-covered booth in the rear of the room, sucking down a bowl of duck larb, while mopping her brow with a lace handkerchief.

480 Ninth Ave., at 37th Street, Hell’s Kitchen

1:35 p.m., McWhorter Barbecue

McWhorter BBQ Newark Photo by Robert Sietsema

Before I knew it her phone was out and she was summoning an Uber. I experienced a moment of panic, but knew I must jump in a yellow cab to follow her. She was already ahead of me by two blocks as her black SUV shot down the West Side Highway to the Holland Tunnel. Thirty-five minutes later we were careening through Ironbound, Newark, pulling up in front of a corner tavern on a residential side street.

Somehow she knew McWhorter’s Barbecue would be thronged with state troopers and local cops at this hour. That she’d be able to slip ahead of parties waiting for tables in the crowded dining room because there was only one of her. She grabbed a small table next to the rotisserie, a hand-cranked affair that burned charcoal. As I looked incredulously she gobbled her third substantial meal in as many hours, tucking into a grilled chicken and meaty pork ribs, sided with fries, rice, and Portuguese mixed pickles.

104 Mc Whorter St., at Green Street, Newark, New Jersey

Flan La Palapa East Village Photo by Robert Sietsema

2:30 p.m., La Palapa

I was beginning to get the picture: The subject of my curiosity was seeking out the dining venues most crowded at any given time if the day. Nearly an hour later, after a trek on the PATH and a circuitous subway ride, she was sitting in La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant not far from Tompkins Square. There among several crowded tables she daintily ate an entire bowl of guac and chips before assaying a pair of open-faced sandwiches of refried beans and chorizo called molletes, finishing up with flan.

77 St. Marks Pl., between First and Second avenues, East Village

3:40 p.m., Otafuku

Otafuku East Village Photo by Robert Sietsema

I looked at my pocketwatch and it was 3:40 p.m. when she left La Palapa, propelling west on St. Mark’s through little knots of idlers basking in the afternoon sunshine, who didn’t seem to notice her as she passed among them. Spotting a line waiting for octopus balls at Otafuku, she joined in, and soon left with a little tray of them, dipping and eating as she went.

220 East Ninth St., between Second Avenue and Stuyvesant Street, East Village

4:45 p.m., Veselka

Pierogi Veselka East Village Robert Sietsema/Eater NY

Her next destination was Veselka, where she took a seat in the back room and immediately ordered a plate of potato and onion pierogies, sour cream on the side. She looked nervously around her, as fellow diners picked up their backpacks and exited through the side door, leaving her in a half-empty dining room around 4:45 p.m.

144 Second Ave. at East Ninth Street, East Village

5:45 p.m., Peppa’s

After a very crowded subway ride, I found my quarry fidgeting in front of Peppa’s on the northern edge of Flatbush, just as workers coming home were stopping in for carryout, and she joined the jostling throng inside. When she got to the counter, she ordered jerk chicken, two festivals (a linear doughnut), and a vinegary escovitched fish. Was she eating with someone else? Then she took the bulging bag back to the tables in front of the Church Avenue Q and B stop, and ate the entire bag calmly and methodically, as passengers streamed in and out of the station around her.

738 Flatbush Ave. at Clarkson Avenue, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens

7:20 p.m., Tad’s Steaks

Tad’s Steak Times Square Photo by Robert Sietsema

Though she’d spent the entire day in serial eating, she seemed not the fuller for it. Her next destination was Times Square, where she passed by Red Lobster, Bubba Gump’s, and Sardi’s, maybe because they weren’t crowded enough at this hour. She seemed to enjoy crossing and recrossing the square, pausing at one point among the Minnie Mouse, Spiderman, and Buzz Lightyear human bobbleheads. Eventually she lined up at the flame grill of Tad’s Steaks with a dozen others, and ordered a sirloin steak dinner with a baked potato, garlic bread, and a salad. Her steak was done rare and she took a table precisely at 7:20 p.m.

761 Seventh Ave #50 at West 50th Street, Midtown West

11 p.m., Papaye

Papaye Bronx Ghanaian Photo by Robert Sietsema

In the following hours my energy began to flag but hers didn’t. She went to an Egyptian restaurant in Ridgewood and scarfed a falafel sandwich just before closing, thenventured up to the Hub in the Bronx for pizza and ate two Sicilian slices among a rather raffish crowd. I spotted her in Papaye, a Ghanaian café on the Grand Concourse, at 11 p.m., where men in robes and skullcaps ate bowls of fufu and light soup with their bare hands, then washed them in the basin up front. She had a bowl of lamb peanut soup and white yam fufu as I stood outside shivering.

2300 Grand Concourse at East 183rd Street, Bronx

2 a.m., Hector’s Cafe & Diner

Hector’s MePa Photo by Robert Sietsema

I followed her down to Hector’s, in the Meatpacking District, which opens at 2 a.m. many mornings to accommodate early arriving truckers. It’s the only place of its type left in Manhattan. I didn’t notice what she ordered, because I went home to climb back into my coffin and take a well-earned rest. How could I leave off my surveillance? Well, I was pretty sure I knew where she’d show up when the sun rose, and was intent on testing my theory.

44 Little West 12th St. at Washington Street, Meatpacking District

8 a.m., Dominique Ansel Bakery

Dominique Ansel Bakery Soho Photo by Robert Sietsema

So bright and early at 8 a.m. I swept up to Dominique Ansel Bakery, the home of the Cronut, and like I suspected, a line had already formed. There she stood, a little nervous as always, but wearing the same clothes, assuring me she hadn’t gone home in the interim.

189 Spring St., between Sullivan and Thompson streets, Soho

I have to admit I was thrilled to see her. You find yourself unavoidably bonding with someone after following them for 24 hours. Wondering if she’d recognize me, I stepped up to introduce myself, but was unprepared for her startled reaction when I announced:

“Hi, my name is Virginia Clemm Poe, and I’ve been dead 171 years. How about you?”

Highline Pizzeria

503 West 28th Street, Manhattan, NY 10001 (212) 564-3330

Peppa's

738 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11226 (646) 683-6012

Tad's Steaks

761 7th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10019 (212) 767-8348 Visit Website

Otafuku x Medetai

220 East 9th Street, Manhattan, NY 10003 (646) 998-3438 Visit Website

Veselka

144 2nd Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10003 (212) 228-9682 Visit Website

Dominique Ansel Bakery

189 Spring Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (212) 219-2773 Visit Website

Larb Ubol

480 9th Avenue, Manhattan, NY 10018 (212) 564-1822 Visit Website

Hector's Cafe & Diner

44 Little West 12th Street, Manhattan, NY 10014 (212) 206-7592

Toby's Estate Coffee

125 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249 (347) 586-0063 Visit Website

McWhorter Barbecue

104 Mc Whorter Street, , NJ 07105 (973) 344-2633

Papaye

196 McClellan Street, The Bronx, NY 10456 (718) 681-3240 Visit Website