9b. THE FOOD SOLUTION
I have a few easy solutions to the food problem. The first is that it is very, very difficult to find a bad slice of pizza in New York. I've eaten hundreds upon hundreds of slices of pizza here over the years and I think I've gotten a truly bad one only about two or three times. No matter how greasy or run down the place looks, if you see someone who looks even vaguely Italian standing in front of the ovens, I'd personally give you a thousand dollars if the pizza wasn't at least acceptable. It's a cheap, fast, filling, and easy lunch. With a smart choice of toppings it can actually be quite healthy.
The same can be said for bagels, although it is slightly easier to find a badly made bagel. If the place has a fairly wide selection of different flavors of bagels in cases, and they aren't already cream-cheesed and wrapped in plastic, you're probably in luck. A nice, big, hearty bagel can be surprisingly filling, especially with a vegetable or lox spread.
Of course, you can't eat pizza and bagels every day. Another great alternative to fast food is the delis. Delis are even more prevalent in New York than fast food places. There's a deli on practically every block of the city, except in certain conspicuous neighborhoods. At least two-thirds of them have a sandwich counter, if not more. Some others have a larger, nicer selection of food in addition to sandwiches, like an extensive salad bar. Many of them can make hot sandwiches and even burgers. Deli sandwiches are custom made to your order, are usually made with fresh ingredients, and can be fairly large (sharable, even). While they can be a bit pricey in the busier neighborhoods, they're still a much healthier, better value for your money than fast food. The trick to this and the bagel solution is finding a place to sit to eat.
One warning: as good as the pre-made food in the delis' hot plates may look or smell, don't even think about it unless you personally witness a new dish being brought out from the kitchen. Mostly that food has been sitting there crusting over and festering with bacteria for twelve hours. During that time, it's been coughed and sneezed on about twenty-five times and fingered by nose-picking children and homeless people. There have actually been studies done on it that would ruin your appetite. Diarrhea in a dish. Stick to whatever is safely enclosed inside a glass case and accessed only by employees wearing plastic gloves.
For those who don't need a huge lunch, fresh fruit is almost as easy to find as a deli. Smoothies are getting easier to find all the time and are a healthy, refreshing snack on a hot day. The sidewalk food carts offering a wide variety of foods beyond a hot dog seem to be multiplying like rabbits in recent years. You're likely to see quite a lot of them. They do require licenses, so I'm sure they have to pass certain health and safety requirements, but mostly I would use caution. The price is extremely low, but I would consider myself very lucky to get a spectacular meal from one. I did recently discover a food cart on the southwest corner of 6th Avenue and 53rd Street with a long line of people waiting to be served from it. I asked a woman on the line what was up with this food cart. She said there's always a long line at it because people who work around there know it's the best one in the whole neighborhood. I plan to try it at some later date when I happen to be hungry.
Since most New Yorkers walk everywhere, and therefore have to carry whatever food they've bought to bring home, grocery stores can be found about every five blocks or so in residential neighborhoods. If you're not in a residential neighborhood, there is a certain logic to finding one, which will be discussed later. And these aren't the enormous, sprawling grocery stores of the suburbs. They're small and compact. In addition to all the foods commonly known that can be eaten without cooking them, the nicer, upscale grocery stores will very often have hot soups and other hot and cold pre-made food. It's generally of higher quality and safer than that found at the delis, but use your best judgment.
If you're more inclined to want regular sit-town dining with table service for all or most of your meals, the best advice is to walk away from Fifth Avenue and away from 42nd Street as far as you can, preferably to the east or west. The busiest, most touristy neighborhoods will for obvious reasons have the most expensive restaurants with lackluster service by overworked staff serving mediocre food. I'm not talking about five-star restaurants here, but ordinary, day-to-day dining. Visitors who can afford to eat at five-star restaurants every day probably don't need my advice.
The further away you get from the center of Manhattan, the much better your chances of finding a decent place with decent prices just by checking out its menu and taking the gamble. These are the residential neighborhoods, populated by locals and the places where locals eat. Diners are not as numerous as they could be, but if you find one, you'd be hard-pressed to get a cheeseburger and fries for under six or seven dollars that isn't totally edible.
If you're really at a loss or are tired of looking, ask someone who works at a clothing store or some other establishment where you are. Unless they consistently bring their own food to work with them, they will more than likely have a whole roster of good places nearby to eat for a reasonable price. They do it every day at lunchtime, after all.
©2012, Ryan Witte