In our Versus issue, we pitted the City by the Bay against Gotham in a food-on-food cage match. Here, Peter Meehan argues for New York; see here for Chris Ying’s argument for San Francisco. And for more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine today!
To argue the superiority of eating in New York over eating in San Francisco is to compare wildly mismatched fruits.
In one corner, there’s the Big Apple, eight and a half million strong, an unruly, unrulable polytheistic polymath, the economic capital of the world, where the huddled masses unhuddle and turn into Americans—or, really, make America theirs. In the other corner, there’s the self-important kumquat of a township called San Francisco, forty-seven square miles of drafty apartments that coders live in before they get tired of riding the Google bus and move down to Mountain View. In fact, to compare any municipality in the United States to New York is just a way of lying to yourself: your city doesn’t compare.
This is okay, though. Having been in New York for almost twenty years now, I often pine for elsewhere. I lust for the diversity of Chinese cuisines to which the greater Los Angeles area can lay claim, and for the salty, beefy foods of my Chicago childhood. When I visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and walk into the Warm Temperate Pavilion, I am made weak in the knees by the perfume of piney trees and plants—the mix of rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus, and who knows what else (I’m a New Yorker, not a botanist) that seems to grow wild on every non-piss-covered street corner in San Francisco.
So here’s the thing: I get it. Your city is nice. Maybe nobody steals your bike there, or your farmers’ market doesn’t turn into a brown-and-gray parade of root-cellar rejects for half of the calendar year. But your city, especially when your city is San Francisco, is no match for New York.
Oddly, the one place that I can’t get out of my mind when I think about this matchup is Punjabi Grocery & Deli, a subterranean cabstand on First Street near Avenue A, on the border between the East Village and the Lower East Side. All the food is vegetarian, prepared at a mother–ship location in Queens and driven onto the island to be displayed in a six-foot deli case and then reheated in one of a battery of microwaves. There are two stools to sit on in this alleyway of a pit stop, but one typically eats along a narrow ledge running the length of the place, facing the wall, reading PSAs about the dangers of kohl, or various outward-facing missives from the Sikh community explaining how Sikhs, even though they have beards and wear turbans (actually dastaars!), aren’t Muslim extremists.
I don’t want to get bogged down by all the excellent details, like that the samosa with chickpeas and everything (a ladle of yogurt, a drizzle of sweet tamarind sauce, a dusting of amchoor-y spice mix, a shower of raw onions) is the “restaurant” dish I have eaten more times than any other, or how it’s impossible to spend more than $8 per person there. Punjabi is important to me because it is open all day and all night, it is vegetarian, it is good, and it is in the middle of a very busy downtown nightlife neighborhood. It is a lifeline, a portal to another culture, a place for people from all walks of life—cab drivers and vegan goth girls and old-line Bolsheviks who moved to the neighborhood long before it was douche-banker housing central—to rub elbows for barely any scratch.
New York is stocked tip to top with spots like that, though they take different forms. The canyons of midtown are speckled with twenty-four-hour bodegas—or “Korean delis,” depending on where in New York you live and what they call businesses of that nature there. Inside, there are griddles manned by men in paper hats who will fashion you a hangover-slaying bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich in less time than should be humanly possible.
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Those sandwiches were a $3 splurge that was so worth it when I first moved to New York and was working as a receptionist who often needed something to take the edge off the night before. My best memories are experiences of texture more than flavor: crinkly, crumpled, shiny foil keeping a sandwich swaddled in steam-softened white paper piping hot; the kaiser roll crumbly, the fine cornmeal from its underside adding a pleasant grit to the assemblage; the bacon on the border of unbearably crisp but not too far gone; the egg, if eaten while magma-hot, still passably tender; squeezed-out packages of ketchup providing cool, sweet counterpoint.
Koreatown never fully goes to sleep, and in Chinatown, there’s only a blink of the eye between when Great N.Y. Noodletown pushes out the last group of drunk cooks who’ve spent a hundred dollars on Tsingtaos and heaps of Singapore chow fun and when the bakeries favored by tea–sipping grannies come to life.
Of course, when one starts getting into conversations about “ethnic” food, that’s when the real Turkish oil wrestling kicks in, with food nerds reaching deep into each other’s kispets to go for the kill. But there is nothing to talk about in an SF–versus-NY matchup unless “San Francisco” includes everything within a two-hour drive of the city center (which, at certain times of day, is barely enough time to get over to the East Bay). Yes, there is more Mexican food there. But go and get shuttled through the line with brusque efficiency at Chelsea Market’s Los Tacos No. 1 and you will end up with what are currently the best tacos in New York—where the tortillas have that fresh-masa magic, where the meat is charred by cooks who mean business, where, even though you are smack-dab in the middle of a yuppie food mall, there is no impeaching the quality of food you are unceremoniously served on paper plates, and which you would be happy to be served in East LA.
Perhaps it is more generous to take a shark-fighting stance here and give up my left arm (in the form of Mexican food) and bash the nose of the beast with a right-handed haymaker of Thai cuisine. It’s not just that the Thai food is better here, which it is. It’s that in the fifteen years that I’ve been paying attention, our Thai food scene has blossomed and matured. This kind of change is made possible by New York’s size—because for whatever neighborhood is now hip and out of reach, there’s always a new place to go—by new waves of immigrants bringing their food with them and new waves of eaters eager to try them. I remember being twenty-two or twenty-three when Mitchell Davis, a mentor of mine, took me to SriPraPhai, even then a destination, though it was in a space the size of a shoe box. Fast-forward a decade and a half, and SriPraPhai has expanded twice into neighboring spaces: it is now a landmark, an institution, with a tony, tiled fountain in its backyard patio—and it still serves the best very crispy watercress salad anywhere.
In that time, a dozen or more smaller Thai restaurants have opened around Elmhurst, slinging blindingly spicy dishes, serving up grilled cuttlefish and blood soup and raw shrimp and showing us that herbs like dill play in Thailand, too. When Andy Ricker docked his Pok Pok ship down on the Columbia Waterfront, it added to the dialogue, creating a regular stop where you could get a fix of rau răm or sawtooth herb. And after the closure of the last of the shitty spaceship-themed Thai restaurants that dominated Manhattan with sticky-sweet noodles in the middle-aughts, a new crop has started to flower—places serving what is putatively Isaan food, and which is often very good—especially when someone will bring it to you to eat in front of a movie at home.
And while I would stake the entire reputation of New York’s eating scene on the shoulders of everyday places, something must be said for the establishments with the starched linens and sommeliers, for the places helmed by the chefs who reach for the stars.
I think it is worthwhile, perhaps, to tiptoe back in time. Delmonico’s is too far back, maybe, and dwelling on the ripple effect of New York’s steakhouse culture is too obvious. But modern restaurants are defined, in part, by the legacy of Joe Baum, who reinvented restaurants—or created a new concept for what a higher-end restaurant could be—in New York in the 1960s. With the Four Seasons and its ilk, he took restaurants from being eateries that rewarded the caste of their patrons with the appropriate-level service and made them into showy productions, places of democratic theater in the public sphere, cultural phenomena. This is a change that came to restaurants here, on the stage that only New York can provide, and then took over the world.
And where did the cooks who toiled under the chefs who institutionalized the French gastronomic dominance of the mid-twentieth century go to open their restaurants and make their names? New York. Chefs still whisper bedtime stories to each other about Lutèce and Soltner. (And they can still brush shoulders with him at a cooking school here.) Jacques Pépin washed up on these shores, directly from cooking for three French presidents. Jean-Louis Palladin suffered out of the spotlight in D.C. and came to New York too late for his genius to get its proper due, a penalty meted out on any number of chefs who have not made conquering New York part of their story. The city rejected Thomas Keller’s restaurant Rakel—which, by all accounts, was exceptional and forward thinking and should have been beloved—and he retreated to the West to gather power before putting his stamp on the Time Warner Center. He opened in New York not because it made sense, but because owning a piece of the firmament here is one way to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and confidently say, “I am one of the world’s greatest chefs.”
But this is not an argument about history; it is one about eating. And the high-end eating in New York is challenged only by Tokyo in its diversity and quality. There is no one with a respectable breath in their lungs around to challenge that assertion. And to my comrade Mr. Chang’s claim that fancy eating in Tokyo is better than it is here, I say this: there you get a facsimile, the best version someone can create of something somewhere else. Here, restaurants must bend (or they will be bent) to the city, their customers, their whims—they become of this place.
Alain Ducasse, God Himself among haute French chefs at the time, could not walk into town and dictate how we would dine when he opened Alain Ducasse at the Essex House. (I don’t know that we were right to reproach him so, but in New York, New Yorkness often trumps what’s right.) Look instead to how Daniel Boulud (first at Le Cirque), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (at Lafayette and then JoJo), and Mario Batali (at Pó) learned to navigate the desires of New York’s café society, its bankers, its celebrities, its dumb kids out to celebrate an anniversary or a birthday, and how they turned those lessons into the models of modern luxury restaurants: Daniel, Jean-Georges, Babbo. These are places that are still somewhere between good and great to eat at, and that are imitated the world round, sometimes at franchises owned by their founders. This is to say nothing of the establishments (great and small) that have come and gone over time; we have lost more great restaurants here in the last decade than your city has opened in the last century.
And meanwhile the younger guard pushes ahead in the fancy-restaurant realm. Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone’s ever-growing colossus does not seem to stumble, bob, or weave even as it charges into deeper and more fraught waters. They have reimagined (without overly reconfiguring) Italian-American luxury at Carbone; they have opened an expensive-as-hell bagel shop that instantly won over a city of people who are very bitchy and opinionated about their boiled dough-rings.
Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara, who trained under Danny Meyer (the man who turned a restaurant empire, an interest in Midwestern-style fast food, and a fetish for hospitality into a nine-figure IPO) and whose father held a high-up job for Joe Baum’s restaurant company, helped resuscitate formal service and high-end front-of-house practices practically lost to time. A friend of a friend ate there and was surprised by an off-the-menu mid-meal course of nachos. It turns out Guidara’s back office had stalked his Instagram, seen the evidence of nacho fever, and made arrangements. When you get past the craziness of what technology has made possible (thanks/you terrify me, geeks of SF), that is the very definition of white-glove bespoke service: the new version of a maître d’ knowing the style of champagne you like to start your meal with, and having it ready before you even remember to ask. Except, you know, with nachos. Which are awesome.
Phew. That was a long list of white guys with fancy places that I’d need richer friends or better professional prospects in order to frequent. Let’s have a drink, shall we? Because when it comes to liquid refreshment, you have come to the right city.
My preferred drink at most hours of the day is coffee. In the couple decades since I’ve been paying NYC taxes on my paychecks, the city’s coffee culture has transformed. It was something I wrote about back when I used to get to print words in the New York Times, and it was Gregory Dicum, a San Francisco–based writer, who hipped me to the topic. I promptly dedicated myself to learning what was what in the cup.
Today, I have a very catholic view of coffee consumption: drink what you like. Whole swaths of my city get down with Café Bustelo and Illy, and, regardless of what I think about the beverage, my heart does somersaults like a baby golden retriever whenever I see somebody do the old-school deli-coffee shake: take it to the curb, invert the coffee in its flat-topped paper cup (preferably with that Greek-esque we are happy to serve you design treatment), and shake it to make sure the gross quantities of sugar and milk that have been added to it are properly distributed. I’m a snobby coffee guy, to my financial disadvantage, and if you wanna go toe-to-toe on roasteries and quality cafés, I won’t hear anything less than “we’re peers.” And I’d argue it’s probably actually easier to get a cup of overthought bean juice in New York, there being fancy coffee places almost everywhere these days. Four Barrel is mighty, and I bow to its lumberjack swagger and size, but Abraço has more personality per square inch than anywhere, and its iced coffee is perfect, and Box Kite does a job that only Matt Buchanan could have a problem with.
Gosh. Things are a little tense here, aren’t they? Maybe we should have a real drink to end this on a positive note.
Wine? Sure! I like grape juice as much as the next toddler, but drinking the stuff made by somebody who lives in a faux–château McMansion northeast of your city—somebody who’s crammed a shitload of overripe fruit into an under-aged barrel and fermented the results to port-wine strength—doesn’t leave a lot of options for the rest of our night together. The tannins will rape and pillage our tongues, and the alcohol will keep us from a nightcap.
Maybe you’ve heard of Europe? See, in New York, we have a fantastic and wide-ranging selection of wines from that continent, imported carefully, wines at every point in the price and alcohol spectrums, wines fermented naturally and gently and expertly. Let’s saunter down to Astor Wines & Spirits or Chambers Street Wines and pick up a bottle. Or we could go out to a wine bar—there’s the Four Horsemen, hip as can be and stocked with great natural wines—and most restaurants have unpronounceable iterations of chenin blanc by the glass these days.
We could get a cocktail, of course, but I’m biased in that category, what with my brother being the guy behind PDT, one of New York’s finer cocktail emporiums. That said, I don’t mind if we duck into this anonymous bar here on the corner, a place that nobody’s ever written about or is ever going to write about, and order a bourbon on the rocks.
See, one of the greatest things about drinking in New York is that, let’s say we get carried away in there, and we end up sodden comrades, commiserating over the shared territory between our two cities—how money changes them, how all the old-line bars have closed or are getting taken over, how it’s hard to afford anything anymore, how things are different than they were when we were first adults in our respective towns. The great thing is, we can do that until four in the morning, and assuming we don’t go to eat something at that point, which we could do, we just stick our hands out toward the high moon or the brightening sky, and a yellow car comes and takes us wherever we’re laying our heads.
Tomorrow we’ll meet up for breakfast—have you ever had the sturgeon and eggs at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side? God, it’s good!—and I’ll let loose on the million and one things I hate about this godforsaken shithole. Because if there’s one thing that New Yorkers are better at than eating, it’s complaining about New York. I’ve really had to rein myself in. But that’ll have to wait until the morning.