The hardest part of finding a hidden gem is, well, finding it. SoHo (South of Houston Street) and Nolita (North of Little Italy) in Manhattan are dotted with plenty of under-the-radar restaurants and bars doling out some seriously good grub—you just need to know where to look. From cafés tucked away in bookstores to a Thai dining room buried below ground, these are the food places in SoHo and Nolita that only locals know about.
Housing Works Bookstore Café
At the apex of the cobblestone-lined Crosby Street is the unassuming Housing Works Bookstore. The cavernous space is lined to the ceiling with books—everything is donated to support Housing Works’ AIDS and homelessness advocacy programs—and in the very back of the store is a tiny café. Most people come in for a coffee or tea, but there’s also pastries, sandwiches, salads, and soups, all sourced from local businesses. Grab something to eat, then curl up with a book at one of the many tables.
On Mercer and Prince Street, there’s a tiny shack jutting out from Fanelli Café. To most, it won’t look like much, until you walk by at lunchtime and see a line dotted with construction workers and young professionals snaking down Mercer Street. Here, the menu is slim: choose from a roster of soups (“Tomato!” “Moroccan lamb stew!” “Chicken vegetable!”), all spooned into white paper cups and served with hunks of baguette. Pro tip: it’s cash only.
Spring Lounge has gone through a lot of names—Chappy’s, Wilson’s 10:30—before settling on its current title in the 70s. It’s known in the neighborhood as ‘the Shark Bar’ because of the many stuffed sharks exhibited in the space. But despite its fluctuating identity, this is a genuine, neighborhood dive. Spring Lounge is always brimming with locals at every hour of the day (opening time is 8am), along with groups looking for cheap beer (especially on Sunday mornings, when you can get free bagels).
Stationed along tree-lined Elizabeth Street, Lovely Day is a local haven for hip, healthy Thai-ish fare. The menu is extensive, peppered with Thai classics like pad thai, curries, and papaya salad, but there are also things like a cheeseburger flanked by French fries. It’s a pretty small, funky space with red diner booths and mismatched cutlery. What the staff won’t tell you, though, is that there’s a hidden dining room below the restaurant—with the same food—so it’s worth trying to grab a seat if there’s a wait upstairs.
Snuggled among the delightfully cutesy Nolita stores is McNally Jackson, a book lover’s paradise. Adjacent to the bookshelves is a simple café, one where a coffee machine constantly whirrs, tongs frequently reach into a case of pastries from places like Ovenly, Sarabeth’s, and Balthazar, and diners munch on salads or crusty sandwiches while tearing into a book. There’s no Wi-Fi here, so, refreshingly, tables are never taken over by computers.
M&O easily passes as your neighborhood bodega; it’s a cramped store bestrewn with your quintessential snacks and canned items. But tucked in the rear end of the store is a serious sandwich operation. Here, pick your own bread from the cabinet, then make your way over to the counter, where sandwich makers tuck hunks of roasted pork and plump meatballs into crusty bread. A hand-written menu lists the always-available sandwiches, but there’s also specials written out and papered along the glass case.
Squeezed into a sliver of a space, Lahore Deli is only well known by off-duty taxi drivers and in-the-know SoHo workers. The teeny storefront offers up Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi home cooking like kebabs, briyani, and curries, all for around $5. There’s no seating, so take the heavy containers and a cup of the famed chai to go.
New Yorkers are quite familiar with the storied Nom Wah Tea Parlor, one of Chinatown’s oldest dim sum restaurants. But most are unaware there’s a tiny—and unusually uncrowded—outpost on Kenmare Street, pleating and steaming a host of dumplings (think shrimp & snow pea and pork soup dumplings), along with rice and noodle dishes. Everything is small and shareable, so order a bunch of dishes for the table.
There’s certainly nothing fancy about the charmingly teeny Mikaku. There are no more than five tables in the hallway of a space, with a couple of stools in the window and by the sushi bar. Although the business mostly relies on delivery, the move is to snag one of the few chairs and have the wallet-happy lunch special. The bento box comes with your choice of protein slick with teriyaki sauce, plus gyoza, salad, and rice—for under $9—and the sushi-roll special features either two or three rolls, for $9.25 or $12.50, respectively.
Cocoron is the kind of place that takes noodles seriously—but in an unpretentious way. House-made soba noodles (made from buckwheat) are the star here, swimming in warm, earthy broth. You’ll see most people working away on dip sobas, a dish that involves a bit of a DIY situation. Diners place uncooked noodles in a broth studded with things like meatballs, chicken, and tofu; the soba cook and ultimately meld with the broth, creating a wheat-infused soup that you drink at the end. The menu is decidedly not meat-heavy, so it’s a great place to bring vegan and vegetarian friends.
For such a small restaurant, Pepe Rosso To Go boasts a pretty substantial menu of Italian classics: paninis, pasta, salads, and larger mains like chicken milanese and poached salmon. The portions are big, especially for the price, but if you come for lunch you’ll get the best deal: for $9.95, choose between the soup of the day or a salad, plus either a panini or a bowl of pasta (like penne flush with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella).
Nolita is hardly lacking in dimly lit, charming cafés, but this Turkish spot is worth a stop—especially when you can’t get into The Butcher’s Daughter across the street. Bowls of baba ganoush and hummus crowned with cumin fly out of the kitchen, ready to be mopped up with warm bread. The rest of the menu consists of dishes like lamb brochettes, phyllo rolls overflowing with cheese, and a whole branzino. If you’re not hungry, there’s always room at the bar to sip house-made sangria and chat with the friendly bartender.
We’re not here to tell you all about Rubirosa, the offshoot of Staten Island’s beloved pizzeria Joe & Pat’s, because you’ve probably already heard about the famed cracker-thin pies. But what most people don’t know is that between 11.30am and 5pm, the kitchen serves slices at the bar or to go, a semi-secret move that’s beneficial to both your wallet and stomach.
It’s certainly almost impossible to snag a reservation at Uncle Boons, but the hip Thai restaurant has a funky sister restaurant around the corner. This restaurant is modeled after Chinese takeout spots—neon-lit photos of the dishes hang above a woven bamboo wall—and it’s just as small, peppered with a few tiny tables. The menu is slim, but takes inspiration from Thai street food; try the steamed curried fish, tucked in a banana leaf.