New York's Best-Kept Secrets

From uptown to downtown and everywhere in between, we scoured Manhattan for its most authentic restaurants and deal-friendly stores.

By Katherine Wheelock, Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010, 12:00 AM

New York City at sunset

(Vincent Laforet)

Readers' Choice Best food city and best shopping city

There's an irony to New York that few visitors realize. For as big a city as it is, the comment you consistently hear is that it's really just a small town. That's because those of us who live here have tracked down a handful of intimate restaurants and affordable shops where we feel right at home. For travelers, however, the thousands of options can be dizzying. So we decided to translate our city of 8.5 million into a small town for all, whittling the countless restaurants and shops down to a far more manageable 17. Then we plotted them on a map to make sure, as in any small town, that no matter where you are—uptown, downtown, or somewhere in between—you're never more than a few blocks from a place you'll feel comfortable.

1. Century 21
At this epic Financial District discount department store, you're almost guaranteed to find a jump-up-and-down deal. Prices on pieces from designers like Marc Jacobs, Narciso Rodriguez, and even Prada can be slashed up to 70 percent. It should come as no surprise, then, that you're also guaranteed a lot of company. Attack plan: Go early (the store opens at 7:45 a.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. on Saturdays, and 11 a.m. on Sundays), scan the accessories on the first floor, and then hightail it to the designer collections upstairs, the well-stocked men's department near the west entrance, or the shoe store next door. 22 Cortlandt St., c21stores.com.

2. 88 Palace
New York City can transport you to a foreign country in the time it takes to cross an intersection—or, in the case of 88 Palace, ride an escalator. With an entrance on the top floor of a Chinese shopping mall, the restaurant is a sea of local families and carts teetering under the weight of classic Hong Kong–style dim sum: tender pork spare ribs, pan-fried dumplings, and steamed beef meatballs. At about $1.50 apiece, the dim sum is as good a deal as any in Chinatown. 88 E. Broadway, 212/941-8886.

3. Peasant Wine Bar
You probably wouldn't notice this place if you passed it. Underneath the high-toned Italian restaurant Peasant, this subterranean wine bar is one of downtown's best-kept secrets. With a discounted menu cribbed from its parent, it's the perfect spot to spend an evening over wood-fired pizzas, a heaping meat plate, and a simple green salad. Add to that a carafe of red wine, along with complimentary olives and bread, and you might wonder why anyone springs for the pricier entrées upstairs. 194 Elizabeth St., peasantnyc.com, pizzas $14.

4. Ina
While it can be tough to dig up deals in the swish boutiques and well-stocked vintage shops of Nolita—SoHo's quieter, less flashy neighbor—the side-by-side Ina outlets (one men's, one women's) are a pretty good bet for deep discounts. In these high-end consignment shops, it's totally conceivable to find Manolo Blahniks worn for a night at 60 percent off or a Christian Dior dress for less than you'd spend on a pair of Nine West boots. 19 & 21 Prince St., inanyc.com.

5. Freemans
Once the exclusive domain of the über hip, this Lower East Side restaurant, set in an unassuming alley flanked by old tenement buildings, has mellowed with age. Now the 19th-century-America-themed spot (note the emphasis on taxidermy) is simply a place for great food and drink. Best of all is the brunch, where nothing—not the poached eggs with cheddar-cheese grits and buttered toast, nor the waffle with crème fraîche and bananas—tops $14. Freeman Alley, freemansrestaurant.com, brunch from $10.

6. The Mermaid Oyster Bar
If there's one secret Greenwich Villagers guard jealously, it's the daily blue plate special at Danny Abrams's oyster bar. On a good night, the rotating $20 special—offered until 7 p.m.—will be the shrimp and avocado sandwich with chipotle mayo, or the whole roasted Idaho trout. Along with your dish, you get a glass of sauvignon blanc or a Blue Point beer. If the special doesn't appeal, you can always hit the bar for a dozen fresh oysters (from $26). 79 MacDougal St., themermaidnyc.com.

7. De Robertis Caffe
In the 106 years since De Robertis opened, the East Village has evolved from a neighborhood of Polish butchers into one of New York's nightlife capitals. Yet from the café's black-and-white mosaic-tiled floor to the freshly baked Italian desserts, you wouldn't think anything had changed. Order a cappuccino; a crisp, cream-filled cannoli or sfogliatella (a pastry stuffed with barely sweet ricotta); and a couple of pine-nut-crusted cookies. Presto: You have the makings of an unhurried afternoon in old New York. 176 1st Ave., derobertiscaffe.com, pine-nut-crusted cookies from $17 per pound.

8. Biergarten
For all the fabulosity swirling around the Meatpacking District, the Biergarten at the Standard Hotel is a welcome reality check. At this low-key spot, visitors can take a seat at one of the communal picnic tables, order a dinner-plate-size pretzel, and relax with a stein of German pilsner. 848 Washington St., standardhotels.com, pretzel $8.

9. Nordstrom Rack
This recession-friendly discount department store arrived in Manhattan last spring, and it's been rightfully mobbed ever since. Located in Union Square, on the threshold of Greenwich Village, the store has a shoe collection that's already a local legend; its floor of last-season goods and overstock items from labels like Marc by Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, and Dolce & Gabbana manages to be chock-full but well-organized at the same time. 60 E. 14th St., nordstrom.com, Frye boots $200, marked down from $318.

10. Fishs Eddy
A utilitarian housewares store isn't usually a must-see, but Fishs Eddy gives you hundreds of reasons to add the deal-heavy emporium to your itinerary. Every inch is piled with unique and affordable dishware: vintage-style cereal bowls edged with a flower print ($8); Blue Plate Special dishes modeled after the Manhattan diner variety (from $11); and teacups, marbles, mugs, and salt and pepper shakers in all colors and patterns. What's more, whatever won't fit in your suitcase, the store will ship at reduced rates. 889 Broadway, fishseddy.com, marbles from 10¢ apiece.

11. Defonte's of Brooklyn
When this classic Italian sandwich shop opened a Manhattan location in 2009, it caused quite a stir. Like the 88-year-old original in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the new East Side branch serves gargantuan heros worth questing after. Our picks: the peppers and eggs (just like it sounds; order it with red sauce), the hot roast beef (with fried eggplant and mozzarella), or the Sinatra special (fried steak smothered with tomato sauce and mozzarella). 261 3rd Ave., defontesofbrooklyn.com, sandwiches from $8.50.

12. SSS Sample Sales
At any given moment in New York City, a high-fashion, low-price sample sale has designer clothes marked down as much as 80 percent. It's finding that sale that's the hard part. The Garment District's SSS Sample Sales solves the problem by creating a permanent home for truckloads of clothes, shoes, and bags, all from this season and last. Labels like Kate Spade, Tory Burch, and Theory are in regular rotation. 261 W. 36th St., clothingline.com.

13. J.G. Melon
The city has no shortage of hyper-creative meals, but sometimes you just want a good old-fashioned burger. This dark, pubby Upper East Side institution is filled with post-collegiates, polo-sporting locals, and downtown faithfuls on a pilgrimage, all hunkered over the main attraction: eight juicy ounces of a secret ground-sirloin blend on a soft white bun with American cheese, red onion, and pickles—all for the old-fashioned price of $9.25. 1291 3rd Ave., 212/744-0585.

14. Muji Times Square
For 30 years, Muji has cultivated a devoted following in Japan, and now New Yorkers have access to the goods. All four U.S. stores are in the city, and the best of them all is just off Times Square. You'll find high-quality nylon Dopp kits, foldable speakers designed for travel, and souvenirs that even non-tourists can appreciate, such as pint-size sculptures of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building that double as rubber stamps. 620 8th Ave., muji.us, Statue of Liberty from $5.75.

15. Bouchon Bakery
Among the Time Warner Center's glossy boutiques and jacket-required restaurants, the casual Bouchon Bakery is a nice change of pace. From a seat in the café overlooking Central Park, visitors can order star chef Thomas Keller's ham and cheese sandwich, plus a glass of sparkling wine, for a price that rivals most neighborhood diners. If time's tight, consider taking a couple of house-made Oreos (chocolate sablé cookies stuffed with white-chocolate ganache) to go. 10 Columbus Cir., bouchonbakery.com, sandwiches from $11.

16. Fatty Crab
Chef Zak Pelaccio gets a fair share of attention for his inventive, pork-happy Malaysian-inspired food—so much so that waits at his Meatpacking District and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, outposts can seem endless. That's not the case at the Upper West Side branch, where a weekday $19 prix fixe lunch rotates in some wildly creative Southeast-Asian small plates. Think pork-belly tea sandwiches, green mango salad, and scallop satays with peanut sauce and more. 2170 Broadway, fattycrab.com, prix fixe noon4 p.m., small plates from $7.

17. Salumeria Rosi
New York has some of the best Italian food in the country. Case in point: Cesare Casella's cool, cave-like wine bar and meat shop, where hocks of cured ham hang above the butcher counter and seating is at simple marble tables. The menu is made entirely of shareable small plates—stellar cured meat, the freshest mozzarella outside Italy, and, on occasion, duck meatballs stuffed with nuggets of perfectly salty pecorino. 283 Amsterdam Ave., salumeriarosi.com, plates from $3.

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