New York City's First Foods and Where to Find Them

You haven't eaten a Reuben (or a hot dog, or Baked Alaska, or eggs Benedict) until you've eaten the original iterations in the Big Apple.

By Bill Wiatrak January 20, 2017

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Delmonico's invented many of the dishes you'll still find on modern steakhouse menus today—during the 19th century.

I was nervous when I first spied it heading towards the table, its giant, red, spiky claws pointing upward, a dollop of spinach trapped between its cleaved halves. Delmonico’s Restaurant created the Lobster Newberg in 1876, almost a century before I was born, and I’d been so anxious to try the famous dish, I forgot to ask the price. This famous restaurant is the oldest fine dining restaurant in America and I was delighted to be able to get in last-minute without a reservation to try some of the dishes that helped make it famous.

Many foods we see on restaurant menus today as well as fast food options were created by New York chefs and food entrepreneurs over the last century—and many are still served at the very places they first came from. Some of the origins are lost forever, but there’s enough documented venues on the list to keep you busy if you’re in New York for a few days.

Ask anyone what the most famous food in America is and the response will likely include hot dogs and hamburgers, although both have origins in or connections to Germany. German sailors, homesick for their native cuisine, were served meat patties in the early 19th century in lower Manhattan and because of the nationality of the clientele, the creations were called Hamburgs. The bun and “er” were added shortly thereafter and the rest is history. There’s no existing restaurant to take credit for the invention, but the same is not true of the hot dog.

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Customers crowd the picnic tables at the original Nathan's Famous hot dogs stand in Coney Island.

This American creation is also called a frankfurter or wiener because of its similarity to a Teutonic-style sausage, but the American version was made popular a hundred years ago by Coney Island worker Nathan Handwerker. Legend has it that urged by his friends, a young Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor, Nathan and his wife Ida took their life savings of $300, Ida’s mother’s recipe and started selling his “not yet famous” hot dogs at the boardwalk for a nickel a pop. The patrons loved the new food, the price was right and Nathan pioneered America’s signature junk food. Nathan’s not around anymore, but you can still visit his original location at Coney Island and have a dog made from a century-old recipe.

The Bloody Mary is probably the world’s most famous morning-after or “hangover drink,” and although its origins are disputed, many agree that it was first concocted in the King Cole Bar circa 1935. The bar is now part of the St. Regis hotel, so be prepared to spend at least $25 to sample the tomato juice-based elixir. At least there are some great bar snacks included to help ease the sticker shock. It is widely believed that the aptly-named Manhattan cocktail was invented at The Manhattan Club in Manhattan. That’s a lot of Manhattans! Or is the plural form Menhattan? Alas, we may never know, as The Manhattan Club went out of business in 1979.

The Reuben sandwich sounds like someone's namesake sandwich, and it is. Arnold Reuben, the once-owner of Reuben’s Deli, allegedly created it for his girlfriend one night in 1914 and the resulting sandwich was a smashing success. Reuben’s place is long gone, but Katz’s Delicatessen stepped in and created a variation of the sandwich by mixing pastrami and corned beef. This eatery is one of the most famous in the world, featured in many movies and maintaining its old-school approach to serving hundreds of customers a day since the late 1800s. Their sandwiches are so big, you might have a difficult time getting one onto your mouth.

In addition to Lobster Newberg, Delmonico’s invented a long list of other popular foods such as the Delmonico steak and Delmonico potatoes and, less obviously, the wedge salad, Chicken à la King and even Baked Alaska. For such a high-end restaurant, the entrees are reasonably priced and its signature dessert is nothing short of amazing, featuring layer after layer of ice cream and cake in a delicious meringue, finished off with apricot compote. There are a few Delmonico’s spinoffs and similarly named restaurants in New York, but the original can be found near Battery Park on James St.

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The iconic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was the first to serve eggs Benedict.

The Waldorf Astoria Hotel and Delmonico’s have both made claims to the invention of eggs Benedict, with equally viable stories, so if you’re a fan of the dish, you’ll probably to have to try both just to be sure. The Waldorf Salad however, is a sure bet. It was invented here in the late 1800s by Oscar Tschirky, who, as it happens, was the maître d' at both establishments at different points in time.

New York cheesecake can be found at most establishments in the Big Apple but owes it heritage to the invention of cream cheese in the Catskills in the 1870s and the influx of Jewish immigrants who created various incarnations of the dessert. Junior’s Restaurant took the recipe one step further when it was established in the 1950s and is considered by many to be the standard by which all cheesecakes are measured. The original 1950s location is in Brooklyn, but you’ll find locations from Times Square to Boca Raton, Florida.

Next time you’re in The Big Apple, stop by one or two of these iconic restaurants and find out for yourself if the original lives up to all the hype. But above all, make sure you don’t skip the Baked Alaska.

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