From the Manhattan to the Waldorf salad, New York City restaurateurs often lead the way when it comes to signature dishes and cocktails. We trace the history of some of the most iconic foods created in NYC.
While pizza and bagels have come to define New York City eats, those foods originally belong to Italy and Poland. There are, however, dozens of foods and drinks native to the five boroughs invented by enterprising restaurateurs looking to stand out in an oversaturated market. Here, we break down the stories behind 10 New York additions to the culinary world, from the cosmopolitan to the chopped cheese.
Some 10 years before Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City’s cocktail-swilling, shoe-loving protagonist, put the cosmo on the map, it was a surprise local favorite at Tribeca’s The Odeon. In 1988, bartender Toby Cecchini had heard from a waiter that a pink cocktail was popular in San Francisco, so, feeling inspired, he decided to create his own. Using as a base Absolut Citron, the flavored vodka new to the market that year, he added one part each of Cointreau, lime and Ocean Spray cranberry juice. The Odeon was a popular spot among the rich and powerful: the cast of Saturday Night Live hung out there, the restaurant is featured on the cover of the ’80s ode to excess Bright Lights, Big City by James McInerney and sightings of the likes of Robert DeNiro and Jean-Michel Basquiat were not uncommon. The recipe spread across the city by word of mouth. These days, The Odeon no longer has the cosmo on the menu, but they’ll make it for you if you ask.
Philadelphia has the cheese steak; New York, specifically Harlem and the Bronx, has the chopped cheese. Best described as a deconstructed hamburger, the chopped cheese is seasoned ground beef grilled alongside peppers and onions, blanketed in slices of cheese and chopped with a spatula and placed atop a roll with mayo, lettuce, tomato and hot sauce. Harlem’s Blue Sky Deli, locally known as Hajji’s, is where the sandwich originated. It’s an Arabic recipe, owner Salah Alhubaishi says. Cheese was an American addition. The key to getting a good chopped cheese, according to Desus Nice – one half of the duo Desus & Miro, who through their podcast Bodega Boys popularized the sandwich – is that it “has to come from a bodega that has bulletproof glass and a cat.”
The story behind this classic cocktail sounds as if it was itself concocted after drinking too many Manhattans, but there may be some truth in it. At an 1874 party celebrating the election of Samuel J Tilden as governor of New York, held at the Manhattan Club, socialite Jennie Jerome requested a cocktail of rye whiskey and vermouth. She’d later give life to another famously stiff drink, the Winston Churchill. The drink’s origin story is disputed; however, people began requesting ‘the Manhattan cocktail’ after the club, and the name stuck.
In 1894, after a night of drinking, Wall Street broker Lemuel Benedict entered the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with the intention of curing his hangover. According to the story he told The New Yorker, printed in its December 19 1942 issue, Benedict ordered “some buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a hooker of hollandaise sauce.” Legendary chef Oscar Tschirky knew a good thing when he saw it and added the dish to the breakfast and lunch menus with some minor tweaks: Canadian bacon in place of the regular kind and an English muffin substituted for toast. Graciously, he named the meal after its creator, Lemuel Benedict.
Speaking of Oscar Tschirky, the Swiss-American maître d’hôtel has more than one culinary claim to fame. In 1896, when he published the recipe for the Waldorf salad in The Cook Book by ‘Oscar’ of the Waldorf, it was listed simply as apples and celery tossed in a good-quality mayonnaise. Chopped walnuts were added later in 1928, with the addition published in The Rector Cookbook.
While 17th-century Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants may lay claim to chicken and waffles, their recipe (waffles covered in pulled chicken and gravy) was decidedly different than the soul-food staple we know today. The modern, sweet and syrupy incarnation is credited to Wells Supper Club in Harlem. The recipe was an act of serendipity: Wells was frequented by jazz performers, who often arrived after gigs that fell somewhere between dinner and breakfast, so as a compromise they were served fried chicken and waffles. Nat King Cole found the spot so unforgettable that he held his wedding reception there.
Arnold Reuben, a Jewish-German immigrant, opened Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen on Park Avenue in 1908. In 1914, according to one telling, a famished actress came into the deli asking for a combination sandwich. So Reuben gathered together what was in the kitchen: roast beef, swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing. She liked it so much she asked for it to be named the Annette Seelos Special, after herself. Reuben ultimately decided against this proposition.
The Tom Collins hoax of 1874 was a popular prank in New York. The gist is that one person would ask their interlocutor if they had seen Tom Collins. A friend, in on the joke, would say they had seen Tom Collins at a local bar and that he had been haranguing and carrying on about the initial interlocutor. The two would then encourage the interlocutor to go find Tom Collins. Only Tom Collins didn’t exist, and when they arrived the bartender would give them a gin drink. The recipe first appeared in print in Jerry Thomas’s 1876 book The Bartender’s Guide. Thomas, known as the ‘father of modern mixology,’ served the Tom Collins at the four saloons he owned throughout New York City.
A modern-day craze, the cronut was created by French pastry chef Dominique Ansel for his Dominique Ansel Bakery. A customer remarked that the menu didn’t feature any donuts. Ansel, only having experienced donuts in New York, was more familiar with the croissants he had grown up eating in his native country. So he began his recipe with what he knew and the hybrid of the two pastries became the portmanteau cronut. After a Grub Street writer wrote a blog post about the new dessert, eager customers began lining up and the cronut became a star.
Opened by German immigrants in 1902, Glaser’s Bake Shop began making black-and-white cookies long before a 1994 episode of Seinfeld popularized the treat. The cookie, half chocolate and half vanilla, sees the two flavors meet right in the middle and was one of the original recipes the shop purveyed when it opened. After 116 years of operation, sadly Glaser’s closed in 2018, but the cookie lives on.