Enjoy the great tastes of the Times Square and Theater District area at these standout homegrown choices, where you always eat better, and usually for less money, than at a national chain.
With so many great local and family-owned restaurants and bars packed into these few popular blocks, I am always amazed by visitors who opt for national chains more at home in any suburban shopping mall anywhere in the USA.
Avoid the tourist traps and get native NYC vibe and flavor, along with value for your restaurant dollar, at these local choices, where celebrity-spotting is included on the menu.
100 Things to Do in New York City Before You Die
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This is always my top recommendation to out-of-town visitors who want to eat in Times Square or the Theater District it overlaps.
Get thin crust pizzas cooked in coal-fired brick ovens, with a traditional, eight-slice pie serving up to four people costing $16.50.
There’s also pasta and salads, all housed in a former church with original stained glass windows, so I like to joke that eating here is a religious experience.
One warning: Only pies are sold. Do not embarrass yourself by asking for slices.
My go-to menu item is always the calamari – the appetizer portion is enough for a meal, and bigger eaters can add a salad. My son is a fan of the hearty and traditional spaghetti with meat sauce.
John’s is also unique because it is in a decommissioned church, so you are eating surrounded by stained glass windows an impressive architecture.
There also is a John’s outpost in Jersey City.
John’s Pizzeria, 260 W. 44th Street, (212) 391-7560
If all you want is a slice and a soda, any of the many 99 cent pizza slice joints in midtown are fast and filling, and most are open to midnight or later.
Although many now charge $1.25 for a slice, they are still among the best grab-and-go snacks or meals in town.
Shake Shack made its name with upscale burgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes courtesy of NYC restaurateur icon Danny Meyer, one of the smartest businessmen and nicest guys in the food business, top reasons his restaurants are so successful.
The lines are long and it’s hard to find seats unless you stop in well before or well after normal lunch and dinner hours, especially before the theater curtain.
- Order a concrete – a dense frozen custard ice cream in a cup with a straw — to sustain you during a show.
Yes, Shake Shack is now an international chain, but it is NYC’s own international chain, which began as a kiosk in Madison Square Park, in Flatiron, that’s still there and still serving.
Shake Shack, 691 8th Avenue, (646) 435-0135
Junior’s has been serving the best cheesecake on the planet since 1950 at its original outpost in downtown Brooklyn, and now has added two locations in Times Square.
True to its Brooklyn roots, the decor in Times Square features images of the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field, where they played before breaking the hearts of all New Yorkers and moving to Los Angeles.
There’s lots more on the menu here than cheesecake, including burgers, salads and Jewish deli classics.
With the demise of the famous Carnegie Deli and the Stage Deli, Junior’s is the best place in midtown for a traditional overstuffed pastrami or corned beef on rye.
Junior’s is also open early for breakfast and late for after-theater.
- Juniors, 1515 Broadway at 45th St. (212) 302-2000 and 1649 Broadway at 49th St.
Sardi’s has been a Theater District landmark for a couple of generations, more celebrated for its walls papered with hundreds of framed caricatures of famous Broadway show people and other celebrities than for its food.
While it was closed for more than a year during the height of the Pandemic, Sardi’s owners painted and upgraded the electrical system.
Here is the NY Times article celebrating the re-opening of the celebrated NYC icon in December 2021.
- The dining room menu tends to be over-priced and under-flavored. Opt instead for a drink at the bar. You’ll still get to enjoy the museum-like artwork by legendary illustrator Al Hirschfield, and watch the crowd, which often includes a tip-of-the-tongue Broadway or Hollywood celebrity.
Sardis 234 W. 44th St., (212) 222-8440
Joe Allen’s has been feeding both theatergoers – and the performers who pay to see them – since 1965, has a menu that ranges from a spicy Thai stew ($19) to a pan roasted monkfish ($28) and is such a Times Square mainstay that its website lists each show’s running time.
A post-theater drink is part of the Broadway experience, and you might be rubbing elbows with one of the Broadway or Hollywood stars who hang out here.
There’s also a late night bistro with live entertainment, and Broadway show performers often stop by after their last curtain call of the evening to unwind and enjoy watching a fellow performer entertain.
- Joe Allen, 326 W. 46th St., (212) 581-6464
Burger and Lobster is the name, and the only things on the menu, along with fries, beer and wine, at this second NYC location for the popular London-based group of restaurants.
The lobster is fresh and briny, and the burgers are made from top quality Nebraska beef – the kind of beef my father sold in his butcher shop in the Bronx when I was a kid.
The same menu and prices as the as location in NYC Flatiron, plus some additional items aimed at the theater crowd, including a Po Boy ($20) with cornmeal crusted lobster, and Burger Bites ($10) and Lobster Bites ($10), both served in a fried pastry shell.
- Burger and Lobster, 132 West 43rd Street, 917-565-9044
This traditional “red sauce” restaurant serves family-style Italian favorites. Skip the steak in favor of a half-dozen types of veal, including Parmigana and Picatta, or a dozen different pasta choices.
Be careful when you order, since each dish is meant to serve two. That means one main, one salad and one dessert for two people – so be sure you are dining with a friend.
There’s also a location on the Upper East Side at 1081 Third Ave. (Lexington Ave. and 63rd St.)
- Tony’s di Napoli, 147 West 43rd St., (212) 221-0100
Midtown Manhattan may not seem like a great spot for ribs, but Virgil’s offers huge portions of messy, excellent barbeque — Memphis pork ribs, Georgia chicken fried steak, Kansas City fried chicken and Texas beef brisket, each around $22.
Go early as the place fills up, and gets loud when full.
- Virgil’s BBQ, 152 W. 44th St., (212) 921-949
Carmine’s started on the Upper West Side, serving huge family-style platters of Italian favorites. Since each dish is enough to feed two – and priced accordingly – it’s easy to over-order. So my advice is to choose something that combines meat and veggies – such as rigatoni and broccoli – to cut down on the number of dishes ordered.
There also are Vegan and Gluten-free options on the menu.
The Times Square location is more touristy than the UWS (Broadway at 90th St.), but both attract large groups with large appetites and loud voices, often celebrating something, whether it’s a bachelorette party, graduation, or just an evening out.
I’m including it here only because Carmine’s is well known and well advertised and there would be questions why I did not include it.
There are other great Italian restaurants in the area – including my top choices, John’s and Tony’s di Napoli. Both offer excellent food at excellent prices without the large and often rowdy, obnoxious groups which have come to define Carmine’s.
Note – Both Carmine’s and Virgil’s are now part of a huge national restaurant conglomerate, but since they both started in New York City, I still consider them local.
- Carmine’s, 200 W 44th St., (212) 221-3800
Margon has been serving up Latin food for more than 30 years, prepared and served by members of the Margon family in the kitchen and behind the counter of this luncheonette.
You’ll be eating alongside construction workers, office workers and even those costumed characters who pose for money in Times Square.
The lunch special will set you back a whopping $10.90 for a whopping platter of a meat choice, rice, beans and sweet plantains, and a Latin-style soda like Materva Yerba Mate or Colombiana. Save room for the homemade flan for dessert.
Margon is open 7am to 4:30pm only, and closed Sundays.
- Margon, 136 West 46th Street
5 Napkin Burger
The bistro mini-chain 5 Napkin Burger packs them in. It’s named for the number of napkins you are supposed to need to eat one of their moist, giant burgers.
The $15.95 house burger is 10 ounces of fresh ground chuck topped with Gruyere cheese, caramelized onions and a rosemary aioli. Other burgers include Italian turkey, lamb kofta burger, a veggie burger and even a burger salad. There’s also a late night menu of $1 sliders.
- 5 Napkin Burger, 630 9th Ave., (212) 757-2277
Bond 45 moved from its location in the historic Bond Clothing Store at 154 W. 45th to another cavernous space around the corner, with the same mix of chops, pizzas and pastas and some new items, such as lobster burger.
Some say it is overpriced — the meat lasagna has a $27 price tag — but it remains such a go-to for well-heeled theater diners that it made a cameo appearance in the TV series “Smash.”
There’s also a downstairs club with live music and dancing on some nights – be forewarned that it is a $25 admission and $25 food and beverage minimum, per person.
- Bond 45, 221 W. 46th St., (212) 869-4545
This popular mini-chain specializes in flame-broiled chicken. It’s fast and cheap – 1/4 chicken and a hot vegetable side is around $10, and its location at the corner of Ninth Ave. and 42nd St. makes it a five minute walk to theaters.
Decor is one step up from a fast food joint, and the rest of the menu is not fancy either, with burrito bowls and burgers, but if you want fast and fresh to make your curtain time, this is the place.
- Chirping Chicken, 587 Ninth Ave., (212) 244-7334
These restaurants have closed, but we include them here since they are still on outdated lists and faux-NYC sites.
The Hourglass Tavern on Restaurant Row (46th St.) closed in 2020 after being unable to negotiate an new lease. It used to offer a popular pre-theater prix fixe dinner anchored by pork chops or pasta for less than $25, equally popular after-theater cocktails.
The Japanese restaurant served sushi, tempura and sashimi platters at modest prices, across the street from the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
This popular burger joint used to offer more than 40 options of burgers or grilled chicken sandwiches, from blackened to ones smothered in Boursin cheese, ranging from $9.95 to $14.75. And great milk shakes.
The cafe bistro used to serve a wide-ranging menu from mussels with white wine to a porterhouse for two, and the bar upstairs was popular for after-theater cocktails.
Evelyn Kanter is a native New Yorker who has written for the NY Times, NY Daily News, NY Post, New York Magazine, and is a former on-air reporter for WCBS Newsradio 88 and WABC-TV Eyewitness News.
Evelyn Kanter also is the author of several NYC and Hudson Valley guidebooks, including my latest, 100 Things to Do in NYC Before You Die.
NOTE: This article was published originally on NYC on the Cheap, my longtime NYC website which was hacked and destroyed in Feb 2022.
The original article and this update remain (C) Copyright Evelyn Kanter, ecoXplorer.