With so much to see and do after sundown in New York, fitting in food can turn into a late-night game of Tetris. There are institutions like MoMa, the Met, Central Park and the High Line, endless streets of shopping and bar-hopping, Broadway shows, gigs and live comedy acts all vying for your attention. Locals bid farewell to three square meals a day in favour of visiting the city’s best late-night eating spots – and you’d be well advised to take their lead and join the queues.
The Halal Guys
Post-Broadway show, you’re probably hungry, culturally overloaded and in need of something hearty and comforting. Enter The Halal Guys, a successful, four cart-strong, no-frills dining experience. Queue up at one of their locations (see below for details) and order their juicy combination lamb and chicken platter featuring freshly cooked and shredded meat with rice, all drizzled with a super-spicy red chilli sauce and their deliciously creamy white garlic sauce.
According to Shay and Greg, a couple from Greenpoint in Brooklyn, there is as much competition for tickets to the Radiohead concert they’ve just come from, as there is for food-cart real estate in the Midtown area. 'You have to be wary of imitations. There’s another cart down the street that looks like The Halal Guys, and they even say they are The Halal Guys if you ask them," says Greg, 'but they’re not."
And what makes The Halal Guys better than the rest? 'The food," says Shay. 'And the white sauce; lots of it – it’s so good." The original and the best Halal Guys night-time cart is on the south-west corner of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue, open from 8pm till 4am. Then, there is a second cart opposite that on the south-east corner; a third on the south-west corner of 53rd Street and 7th Avenue, and a fourth on the corner of 52nd and 6th – and many imposters in between. Expect to be confused, and, if in doubt, look for the bright yellow takeaway bags... and those long queues.
East Village and Lower East side
Desnuda, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Katz’s Delicatessen and Crif Dogs
Ravi DeRossi has the market cornered when it comes to East Village eateries, owning venues like Death&Co, Mayahuel, Cienfuegos and Desnuda. The latter, a pocket-sized bar, was the original space for another one of Ravi’s establishments, the wine-and-cheese bar Bourgeois Pig.When they relocated to a bigger place across the road, he was left with a choice: to sell, or come up with a concept for the space that didn’t require a kitchen. 'After playing around with marinating scallops in tequila, I researched and found out about ceviche," says Ravi. 'It was perfect and something that we could prepare at the bar."
Peter Gevrekis is a former Wall Street banker and co-owner of Desnuda. He has a knack of knowing what you want before you do, and it pays to pick up what the big, boisterous, knife-wielding guy is putting down – especially if he thinks you can handle his smoked oysters. 'Let’s see how you go with the salmon ceviche first," he says. Peter mulls up a mixture of lapsang souchong tea and Szechuan peppercorns, then, with a flourish of culinary theatrics, pulls the smoke through a water pipe, using it to flavour the oysters. Eager diners (who have passed the salmon screening) wait with unbridled enthusiasm for the individually covered oysters to soak up the delicious flavours.
Momofuku should mean loud, popular and brilliant – but it actually means 'lucky peach’ in Japanese. The lucky and organised diners of the bustling Momofuku Ssäm Bar are rewarded with the opportunity to partake in the flagship roast duck, which at US$140, promises to fill anywhere between three to six hungry mouths – but you need to order three days in advance.
If you can’t get your head around pre-empting cravings, don’t let your envy ruin your appetite as you see them feast on succulent meat wrapped tightly in pancakes, laden with trimmings. You haven’t missed out on the jewel in the Momofuku crown and prized late-night snack: the steamed pork-belly bun. This juicy, melt-in-the-mouth slab of meat enveloped in subtly sweet pillowy pockets truly deserves the often bandied about 'taste-sensation’ title.
Korean-American owner David Chang (who, in addition to his four-restaurant stronghold in NYC, recently opened up an outlet in Sydney), explains the after-hours eating culture simply. 'It’s a cliché, but NYC really doesn’t sleep. For example, a lot of cooks don’t finish up their shifts till midnight or later," he says. 'After I’ve finished a shift, all I want is delicious food and cold beer." You’ll likely bump into his staff after their shifts at nearby International Bar, where you can shout them a drink for giving you a top NYC culinary moment.
Katz’s Delicatessen is one of the last bastions of what was once a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Taking over from the Russian immigrant Katz family in 1988, owners Alan Dell and Fred Austin have kept the fluorescent, late-night beacon from becoming a block of high-rise apartments. It draws crowds that reach dizzying heights on weekends, all seeking matzo ball soup, brisket, corned beef or pastrami sandwiches, knishes (baked dumplings), latkes (potato pancakes) and other Jewish comfort food.
Mark is a regular at Max Fish, a bar just down the road from the iconic deli, and often comes in for a late-night larger-than-life Reuben sandwich: slabs of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut wedged between two thick slices of rye bread. He explains the crowds as being a bit 'bridge and tunnel" (those who have to travel via bridge or tunnel from anywhere other than Manhattan) on weekends in the early hours, partly due to the suspended placard marking the spot where a much younger Meg Ryan showed Billy Crystal her best fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. 'There’s always one who wants to give it a go – it can be pretty funny sometimes," says Mark, but adds that it can make eating a little difficult, too.
On quieter nights, the servers are happy to share their polarised opinions on whether gentrification has been better or worse for the neighbourhood, and if it’s really quiet, they might even forgive you if you don’t quite grasp the ticket-stamp-pay-later system. The 'not being from round here’ excuse doesn’t always cut the mustard, and you wouldn’t be the first to cough up a $50 add-on for losing your ticket.
Hot dogs have earned their stripes as part of NYC food culture, and on the street stands, what you see is what you get. But, if you take a few steps down off St Mark’s Place into Crif Dogs and into what looks like a standard hot dog joint – you get the opposite. Friends Brian Shebairo and Chris Antista wanted to open up a place that paid homage to hot-dog powerhouses like Nathan’s and Walter’s in their neighbouring home state of New Jersey. After two years of research sourcing the best dogs, onions, pickles, chilli sauces, cheeses, mustards and buns, they opened up Crif Dogs in 2001 – apparently named after the word that came out when Brian tried to say his partner’s name with a hot dog in his mouth.
In 2006, Brian acquired the establishment next door – which is what really makes this place different. The hot dog counter is up front, but there’s a phone booth in the corner waiting for you to pick up the receiver, speak to the hostess and be escorted into a speakeasy cocktail bar. 'It’s called Please Don’t Tell – but everyone knows," says local Kate, who works in PR for a fashion label. 'You’re supposed to call and make a reservation, but I’ve been rejected entry seven times. It’s the chilli dog and cheesy fries I come for anyway." If you managed to impress the door girl, and despite the luxury of your new secret location, can’t quite forget the cheesy, onion-y, frankfurter-y aroma from the hot dog bar – you can order one delivered with your martini.
Fatty crab, Coppelia and the Spotted Pig
Fatty Crab feels like a cross between a colonial Malaysian eatery and a Mexican corner cantina, and like many of the nearby Meatpacking District’s clubs and bars, they don’t take bookings. Looking around (which doesn’t take very long because the place is really tiny) the rich-and-preppy meets cool-and-groovy clientele generally have three things in common: a relaxed sense of personal space, a bucket-sized bowl with huge hunks of crustacean swimming in a red coconut sauce, and a napkin tucked into their collars.
Having worked at Seri Melayu restaurant in Kuala Lumpur and in the Thai kitchen of the Westin Hotel in Chiang Mai, owner and chef Zakary Pelaccio wanted to flex his Asian-influenced skills on late-night New York diners. He opened the place in 2005, and has since spawned an Upper West Side location, an outpost on the Virgin Islands and a barbecue incarnation, Fatty Cue, in Brooklyn and now Manhattan.
'It’s spicy, messy and plain fun to eat," says Kate Telfeyan, director of public relations in the 'fatty crew’. 'Late-night eating is all about good times – and the crab is hands-on in a way that it makes the perfect let-your-hair-down dish." Just don’t let your hair get in your food. Taking the waiter’s suggestion, the perfect accompaniment for a bowl of chilli crab is Fatty Crab’s take on the Mexican beer, Tecate. Jazzed up with salt, chilli and lime on the rim, it gives the cerveza (beer) extra burbujear (fizz).
With 29 per cent of the city’s population identifying as Hispanic, New York almost operates as a bilingual city. This provides the perfect opportunity to practise your Spanish skills, especially if you find yourself at Coppelia – a well-priced Latin diner. Ordering your ropa vieja (slow-cooked beef with capsicums, beans and rice) and mac and chicharron (a Cuban take on the American classic mac 'n’ cheese glammed up with pork belly) in Spanish will earn you a smile and kudos with the waitstaff here.
Owner Julian Medina is originally from Mexico City, and also owns Toloache and Yerba Buena elsewhere in Manhattan. He opened 24-hour Coppelia in April 2011 in the middle of New York’s lively gay, drag and cabaret scene, and not surprisingly, it offers little solace and lots of noise and colour in the later hours, as well as a great meal.
'Late-night eating is part of NYC culture," explains Spotted Pig manager Jamie Seet. 'You can get anything at any time – for example, Michelin-starred food at 2am at The Spotted Pig." The quiet suburban corner of Greenwich Avenue and West 11th Street is home to this gastropub, which is just as famous for its celebrity clientele as it is for its food. Like Fatty Crab, you can’t make bookings at this converted townhouse, and on weekends, be prepared to wait. 'Friday nights are a mix of bridge and tunnel diners, regulars that come after midnight, foodies and foreigners. The energy is palpable."
Have a drink at the bar while you wait for a table in the cluttered yet cosy upstairs dining room. Although The Spotted Pig’s sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi (a type of gnocchi) and the chargrilled burger are solid favourites, the late-night diners opt for something a little less conventional – the crisp pig’s ear salad with a lemon caper dressing. 'People get it because they want to be daring," says Jamie, 'but they end up loving every bit of crunchy, chewy cartilage."
Blue Ribbon and La Esquina
New Yorker brothers Eric and Bruce Bromberg opened up the first Blue Ribbon in SoHo in 1992, named after the famed Paris cooking school that they attended – Le Cordon Bleu. The late-night, Southern-style eatery covers everything from an entree platter of beef marrow and oxtail marmalade to a hefty lobster served with corn on the cob, baked potato and a delicious amount of butter, and has proven popular with numerous other outlets throughout the city.
Beth, originally from Alabama, works odd hours as an art dealer, which means she is a late-night regular at Blue Ribbon – partly for the chicken and partly because she has been living above the restaurant for 10 years. 'I’m from the South and fried chicken is part of our identity. I can’t just ignore that delicious smell when I get home late from work! It’s just so good, even after midnight." Being able to say you’ve tried the fried chicken that’s frequently voted best in town will give you some props with the locals when you’re more than likely down at local SoHo watering hole Fanelli’s, having a nightcap and telling the tale of your trip so far.
Further down that street, you could walk past La Esquina’s roadside-style taco stand, order a couple of machaca tacos from the street-side window (complete with chargrilled marinated steak, onions, coriander and chipotle salsa with scrambled egg), and be perfectly satisfied – but you would be missing out. Underneath the street-level taco shack and cafe lies a subterranean, semi-secret restaurant. It’s the project of Serge Becker, the doyen of NYC nightlife and the entrepreneur behind Bowery Bar, Miss Lily’s, Cafe Select and the exclusive cabaret club The Box. If you haven’t made a booking three weeks in advance, all hope is not lost.
Jack, a fast-talking interior designer, is a regular who knows all the tricks for how to get in. 'Approach the doorman with the utmost confidence, and dress to impress," he says. 'Go up to the guy with the clipboard by the door near the taco counter. Make sure you’re looking good. Act like you’re supposed to be there – and remember to smile." If successful, you’ll be taken via the kitchen to a cavernous catacomb-like underbelly restaurant. 'The best thing about La Esquina late at night is the vibrant crowd and party atmosphere, seamlessly blended with an elevated dining experience," says Jack.
A late-night triumph like this calls for a celebration with your pescado taquito (fish taco). Settle in with a frozen blood-orange margarita – you might be here for a while. The crowd, like most of NYC, can be intoxicating.
The hit list
The Halal Guys
Visit their Facebook page for up-to-date cart locations.
The Spotted Pig
314 West 11th St, at Greenwich St, +11 1 (212) 620 0393. No bookings. thespottedpig.com.
643 Hudson St, +11 1 (212) 352 3592. No bookings. fattycrab.com.
207 West 14th St, +11 1 (212) 858 5001. coppelianyc.com.
97 Sullivan St, +11 1 (212) 274 0404. Reservations for groups of five or more.
114 Kenmare St, +11 1 (646) 613 7100. Reservations need to be made 21 days in advance.
122 East 7th St, +11 1 (212) 254 3515. No reservation needed. desnudany.com.
207 2nd Ave. Online reservations only. momofuku.com.
Katz’s Delicatessen 205 E Houston St, +11 1 (212) 254 2246, katzsdelicatessen.com.
Crif Dogs/Please Don’t Tell
113 St Mark’s Place, +11 1 (212) 614 0386, crifdogs.com.
514 Metropolitan Ave, +11 1 (718) 782 4502.
Brooklyn Public House
247 Dekalb Ave, +11 1 (347) 227 8976.
Moore St Brooklyn, +11 1 (718) 417 1118. Reservations for groups of 10–18. robertaspizza.com.
Photography by Paul Barbera.