We counted over 100 restaurants within 10 minutes walk of our appartment, serving over 20 ethnic types of food. New places would spring up regularly, and it was clear that those who were damned by criticism didn't survive long.
So which were my favourites? We spent a year on the Upper East Side in 2003/04, and took every chance to eat out and experience the types of food we wouldn't get at home.
Here's a selection of the places I miss, and that I would head back to on a return to NYC.
1. Curry in a Hurry
This was our favourite no-frills Indian. On the lower part of Lexington Ave, we would head down to this Indian restaurant hot-spot and invariably venture into this place. Good, fast service, great meals for under $10, and free unlimited dessert (kir, a type of rice pudding). The food was tasty and we never left hungry.
Thai restaurant. This was probably our absolute best restaurant in the city, and sadly we only discovered it in our final weeks. They have three places in town, and our favourite was certainly the one in Chinatown, although it is the least posh. The fried rice was the best we've had, and the quality in general was excellent. Again, a very no-frills place with low prices to match, and I was surprised to see that they now had a website!
3. Junior's Diner
This is something of a New York institution. A decent but unremarkable diner, but you don't come here for a cooked breakfast. Junior's is home to arguably the best cheesecakes in the world, and the trek to the original location in Brooklyn is worth doing for several reasons. If you are heading back to Manhattan after gorging on a giant slice of cheesecake, you will enjoy the view of the city as you walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. More importantly it will give you the chance to work off one or two of the many calories you've just taken in!
This was a unique eating experience. In the middle of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, this is smaller than Manhattan's Little Italy but a lot more interesting. We were recommended Dominick's by someone at work, and they suggested that as a white boy I should not take a walk down the street on a March evening. I grudgingly took the local advice, and we were dropped at the door by cab. Inside, the meal was fabulous. No menus - you just sit on long benches and shout out what you fancy. If it's pizza, pasta or meat, they'll make it. And the lack of paper extended to the bill. The waiter came up at the end and told me verbally how much, and as I had expected it was less than comparable meals in the city. They also shared my work colleagues' fear for our safety and had us sit inside the restaurant until the cab arrived and then had the driver escort us out. It felt like overkill, but then I can't claim to know the area as they do. In any case, a great meal!
5. Little Poland
In need of Polish food, I stumbled across this place early on on the lower East side and enjoyed the massive platters on offer, with no-nonsense home cooked food that left us bursting at the seams. The place had the feel of a workers' cafe, and the staff were polite but stern. If you want high carbs quickly in Manhattan, come here!
In the Polish enclave of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, this was everything that Little Poland wasn't. Modern, well-lit, full of families and service from young smartly dressed waitresses, with equally good food. the added benefit for me was the chance to wander through the local shops and buy a range of Polish ingredients that were unavailable to us even in the UK.
This French culinary school served gourmet meals at a fraction of the prices you would normally pay. Cooked for and waited upon by students of the school, the quality for us was better than many restaurants we have enjoyed where we have paid four times as much. The food tastes sweeter when you have a bargain!
8. Le Pain Quotidien
We have found this chain spring up all over London too, but our first venture here was on the Upper East Side. Seated on long benches, the rustic setting was enhanced by the gorgeous bread that was served, along with a chocolate nut spread that left me grinning for the rest of the day! It's like Nutella but a whole load tastier. A great venture out for a leisurely weekend brunch. I'll round off with our two favourite take-outs from around the block.
9. Go Sushi
At a time when sushi was rare in the UK, outside of London at least, this was our first exposure to regular Japanese food, and we couldn't get enough. Fast service, good prices and delicious rolls made this place a big hit with us. Waiting here for food was also a great chance to see how weird our neighbours were. I sat in there once when a girl brought her giant rabbit in and casually chatted to him/her while waiting for her food.
Last but not least. This noodle bar would serve us so much noodles for under $10 that the two of us would be able to eat till we were full and have lots left for lunch the next day. Sadly looking at the review it seems that people are falling out of love with Lili's, but our memories of it were happy ones, of large bowls of hot noodles on a cold winter's day.