NYC Tourist-Trap Survival Guide

Avoid lines, rip-offs and mediocre food when visiting the Big Apple
July 6, 2016
by Kelly Dobkin

NYC basically invented the tourist trap — a pricey or overly hectic experience that will swallow up your wallet (and/or your soul) if you don't have the right know-how. If you live here, at some point in your New York life, you will end up at one of these places, whether with your parents, in-laws or some other excitable first-time visitor who thinks he or she knows what's up. But have hope: Just because you're stuck in a tourist trap doesn't mean you can't find something good to eat. Which is where we come in: Here are ten of the most visited tourist-y restaurants and what to order and/or avoid at each. 

Tourist trap: Little Italy; specifically, the hawkish spots on Mulberry Street between Broome and Canal where restaurant staff will try to wrangle you inside. There are a few hidden gems, of course, but most New Yorkers would encourage you to look elsewhere for Italian food. 

How to hack it: Just north of the Little Italy melee, the longtime celebrity hangout Emilio's Ballato offers up a healthy dose of red sauce, plus old-school waiters, white tablecloths and actually good food. It's a bit pricey, but it's still a far better value than the mediocre joints farther south on Mulberry.  

Tourist trap: Carmine's, this Times Square red-sauce joint, which is known for its enormous portions, has been your parents' favorite since the late '90s.

How to hack it: There are two hacks here. One, check out the Upper West Side location, which is slightly less intense (from a tourist-crowd standpoint) than Times Square. And be sure to order Carmine's two standouts: the foccacia for one and the spaghetti with garlic and olive oil. If you're inclined to try other Italian restaurants nearby, head to Pizzeria Sirenetta on the UWS for high-quality pizza and antipasti, or Michael White's Ai Fiori or Marea in Midtown for some of the best handmade pasta on the planet. And if you're dead-set on red sauce, check out Parm for an elevated twist on the throwback.

Tourist trap: Joe's Shanghai, the Chinatown dim sum mecca is known for its soup dumplings and long waits.

How to hack it: Sister restaurant Joe's Ginger, located just down the street, has a much shorter wait and the same famous dumplings. Or, avoid both entirely and head to Nom Wah Tea Parlor around the corner for better quality food and service. RedFarm in the West Village also makes some mean soup dumplings using high-quality ingredients.

Tourist trap: Restaurant Row, the string of Theater District joints on West 46th Street that attracts throngs of tourists with pricey (and utterly average) prix fixe pre-theater menus.

How to hack it: There are some real gems on this block if you know where to look. Our favorites include Paul Denamiel's French bistro Le Rivage (hot tip: there's a secret menu), Sushi of Gari 46, the historic Barbetta and Sake Bar Hagi 46, an izakaya. 

Tourist trap: Smorgasburg. To be fair, this waterside food fest didn't start out as a tourist trap, nor is it remotely as offensive as other spots around town. These days, though, the mega-popular weekend fair is teeming with out-of-towners looking to Instagram their cheap eats against a picture-perfect backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. 

How to hack it: Get there right when it opens at 11 AM, and bring a crew so you can fan out and wait in different lines simultaneously. Don't miss Big Mozz, BrunchStreet and, for dessert, Wowfulls. And since Smorgasburg has multiple locations around the city now, choose your location wisely: The one at Prospect Park on Sundays is slightly more spacious and relaxed than the one in Williamsburg, and the Seaport location is open daily. To avoid the craziness altogether, Berg'n, the full-time indoor version of the market in Crown Heights, is decidedly less packed.

Tourist trap: Señor Frogs, the chain known for its perma-spring break vibes, sugary oversize drinks and bastardized Mexican fare opened in Times Square last year, attracting throngs of tourists, lots of media attention and even a NY Times review.

How to hack it: Embrace it. Soak in the flare bartending, take a shot of tequila while wearing a bespoke balloon hat and chow down on the nachos, which are apparently reputed to be decent. Once you stumble out into Times Square and need solid Mexican food to soak up all that booze, head to Tacuba, which recently opened on 9th Avenue. 

Tourist trap: Serendipity 3, known for its enormous, over-the-top frozen hot chocolates, this Upper East Side spot has been a tourist mainstay for years, and has only grown in popularity since the 2001 John Cusack movie of the same name. 

How to hack it: Head Downtown and skip it altogether. If you're looking for a killer hot chocolate, try the Brownie Batter at El Rey on the Lower East Side or the iconic rendition at City Bakery which is topped with a homemade marshmallow.

Tourist trap: John's of Bleecker St, an old-school pizza joint that's been a Village classic since 1929.

How to hack it: Despite the annoying line that seems to be omnipresent at John's, this is actually an excellent NYC pizza spot — one that's far better than Lombardi's or Joe's. It's a sit-down-only, no-slice joint with no frills and slightly uncomfortable wooden booths. Go in the late afternoon (never during lunch, which is a mad scene) and order a large pie with your choice of toppings and a slightly flat RC Cola from the fountain, and embrace the nostalgia. If you can't afford to wait, a Sicilian pepperoni slice from Prince Street Pizza in NoLita should do the trick. 

Tourist trap: Magnolia Bakery, famous for its sugary-sweet cupcakes and three minutes of fame on Sex and the City, the West Village bakery almost always has a line down the block, especially when the tourist busses roll up.

How to hack it: There's one thing to get here: the banana pudding. Beyond that, go elsewhere. Right nearby, there's Aux Merveilleux de Fred, a French import that makes unique meringue pastries and homemade brioche; and the aptly named Snowdays, offering Asian-inspired shaved cream with all sorts of crazy toppings.

Tourist trap: Chelsea Market, the indoor mall just north of the Meatpacking district filled with food and drink vendors that's maddening to walk through at peak times.

How to hack it: Go during weekends or lunch hour and prepare to battle the crowds (who all seem confused and will meander slowly blocking your path). The best time to go is around 5 or 6PM on a weekday. Cut through Anthropologie to avoid the crazed entrance on 9th Avenue and make a beeline for the hummus at Dizengoff and the tacos at Los Tacos No. 1. Or sneak into Lobster Place and snag a seat at the sushi bar.

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tourist trap