Leave New York for a year or two and it will have changed. Restaurants, cafes, and bars come and go like a natural migration. But there are a handful of old-school restaurants in New York City that are culinary landmarks—places everyone should visit if you really want to take a bite of the big apple.The waiters are usually on the gruff side and the interiors look like they haven’t been renovated since the time when rotary phones were still a thing. Which makes them all the more charming.
Founded in 1900, this old-school Italian-American stalwart in Williamsburg is one of the oldest of its kind in New York City. It’s the sort of place you might see some made men lingering around a back table filled with heaping bowls of spaghetti and meatballs and straw-wrapped bottles of Chanti.
The beauty of Bamonte’s (32 Withers Street) lies in its vibe, and not necessarily the food. The dining room still looks like it did when Dwight Eisenhower was sitting in the Oval Office. And the food is an edible time machine of Italian-American classics.
Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
There once was a time when the borough of Queens had hundreds of beer halls, breweries, and beer gardens—about 800 in all of New York City. But anti-German sentiment after World War I and Prohibition dried them all up. The one remaining relic is this 112-year-old Czech beer hall, Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden (Bohemia is the western half of the Czech Republic).
The large leafy garden in Astoria is a fun place to gather with friends drinking Czech beer on draught and soaking it up with some Central European deliciousness like goulash with dumplings and huge haunches of tender pork.
Located in Ridgewood, Queens, Gottscheer Hall is the greatest New York beer hall you’ve never heard of. Founded by an obscure German-speaking community that had settled for centuries in a part of Slovenia, this century-old beer hall has a menu of Teutonic-flavored dishes like plus-sized soft pretzels, the requisite sausages, and heaps of sauerkraut. But it’s not about the food at Gottscheer Hall: the fun, bibulous spirit of the place trumps everything else.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
This iconic tile-bedecked seafood restaurant below Grand Central is an enduring gem of the New York dining landscape. As the name suggests, oysters are on the menu, but there’s so much more, including 25 different varieties of fish that come out baked, pan-seared, fried, and pretty much any other way imaginable. There are soups, sandwiches, and stews, and it all makes you wish you had a second stomach.
Insider’s tip: Headed to the Oyster Bar? Don’t miss our complete guide to the restaurants in Grand Central Station!
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the de facto gourmet and glamorous restaurants of New York City were mostly of the Gallic variety. Le Grenouille, established in 1962 and located on East 52nd Street near Fifth Avenue, is a still-existing relic of that time. And while the kitchen has (slightly) modernized what it creates and the dining room is (slightly) less stuffy than it used to be, the dishes and atmosphere here are still very old-school French, a museum of taste dedicated to what it was like to dine in these cathedrals of French cuisine 60 years ago.
Famous for the “fake orgasm” scene with Meg Ryan in the 1989 film “When Harry Met Sally,” Katz’s is much more than a real-life film set. Open since 1888, Katz is truly one of the most old-school restaurants in New York City. This venerable smoked meat mecca tantalizes taste buds with melt-in-your mouth pastrami and sandwiches that are stacked so high that a small family could feast on just one. Yes, this place is on the tourist map but everyone—locals and visitors alike—need to come to Katz’s at least once. Or once a year.
Brennan & Carr
Since 1938, this Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn bar has been satisfying beef-hungry locals with beer and its amazing roast beef sandwiches that come out of the kitchen bathed in luscious broth. Brennan & Carr is not a bad place to have a few drinks because when you need something dense in your stomach, look no further than that sandwich. They also have a pork version, hot dogs, burgers, and soup, but it’s all about the beef here.
Insider’s Tip: Looking for even more iconic dishes from this great city? Check out our article on the most famous foods from New York, which includes everything from General Tso’s chicken to the oh-so popular cronut!
L&B Spumoni Gardens
Ludovico Barbati began selling pizzas from a horse and carriage around Gravesend in 1938. The pizzas were a huge hit and so a year later, he found a brick-and-mortar establishment and L&B was officially born. Today it is more popular than ever.
While this Gravesend, Brooklyn stalwart has a full menu of Italian-American staples, the one and only thing to really get here is the thick-crust square cut pizzas. And it’s worth a trek from anywhere in the city. L&B Spumoni Gardens is old-school Brooklyn to its core. Come in the warm-weather months and grab an outside table.
Founded in 1933 in east Harlem, this venerable pizzeria was founded by Pasquale “Patsy” Lanceri when the neighborhood was a predominantly Italian part of town. Patsy’s is considered one of the city’s first pizzerias (along with John’s of Bleecker Street, Totonno’s (in Coney Island) and Lombardi’s (in Little Italy). There are a few other locations—on the Upper West Side, in Midtown East, near NYU—but this location on East 118th Street and First Avenue is the original for crispy New York City pizza.
Peter Luger Steakhouse
There are a legion of old-school steakhouses in New York—enough to warrant a separate list of the best steak in NYC—so Peter Luger will represent that faction of the New York dining landscape. After all, this Michelin-starred sanctuary of all things steak in Williamsburg has been serving up sizzling sirloin for a few generations, having begun life in 1887 as a German beer hall. The ancient waiters, who trudge around the half-timbered-bedecked dining rooms, are appropriately and famously gruff.
New York’s oldest Sicilian eatery, founded in 1904, Ferdinando’s Focacceria is an old-school delight. Sitting just west of Cobble Hill, Ferdinando’s has a menu of southern Italian staples like gooey red-sauce-and-cheese-smothered rice balls and chickpea-stuffed raviolis. The real draw, though, is the better-than-it-sounds spleen sandwich, which is how Ferdnando’s got its start over a century ago, selling these Sicilian sandwiches to longshoremen.
Insider’s tip: Craving more sandwiches? Check out our list of the best sandwiches in NYC!
Since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, this West Village eatery has been pouring sangria and sauteeing gambas al ajillo on the corner of West 4th and Charles Streets. The jacketed waiters, many of which have worked here for decades, roam the room. The best spot at Sevilla is at the curved bar: perch yourself here with a friend or two for an evening, pop open a bottle of Rioja Reserva and snack on old-school Spanish fare.
David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes here and here.