New York City is overwhelming when it comes to eating out. With nearly 16,000 places to choose from, it would take over 20 years at the rate of two a day to sample them all.
The challenge is in seeking out the non-tourist places, the better, more reasonably priced restaurants among the thousands of mediocre or overpriced ones.
These are often neighborhood places - the kind you don't read about in the restaurant review columns where the famous and beautiful people go to be seen and written about.
You hear about them from other people - a little Greek or Korean restaurant in the theater district, not overpriced like most in that area; a colorful Italian restaurant where pasta is made on the premises; or one of the Indian or Thai restaurants where the curries are authentic and the prices moderate.
Greenwich Village has a number of excellent and affordable restaurants, and the area still has a certain mystique, with its charming old houses and narrow streets. It also has a pleasant, safe, neighborhood kind of atmosphere.
Here are all kinds of ethnic restaurants - Greek, Brazilian, Mexican, Middle Eastern - as well as vegetarian, hamburger, pizza, and quiche.
Good Chinese food is often synonymous with good value, and one of the best is the Szechuan Cottage, 53 Christopher Street (212-807-6700). Chef M. T. Yu was formerly at the Grand Hotel in Taipei, and he also cooked for Mme. Chiang Kai-shek when she lived on Long Island. His Hunan and Szechuan dishes are excellent.
The luncheon special is $2.95; dinner for two is about $16 and includes cold hors d'oeuvre, a fresh quartered orange, tea, and entree. There's free delivery by bicycle with a minimum order of $5.
It would be difficult to find a small French restaurant as pleasant as the Cafe de la Gare at 143 Perry Street (212-242-3553). Family-style French dishes include cassoulet, blanquette, and le pot au feu. The menu is small with four appetizers, four entrees, and four desserts. Prices are from $9.50 to $13.50, with a prix fixe menu at $14.50. Closed Monday.
Claire, at 156 Seventh Avenue and 20th Street (212-255-1955), has decor by the award-winning set designer Robin Wagner (''Chorus Line,'' ''Hair''), and has become known quickly for superb seafood. Marvin Page and his wife, Claire, also have a restaurant in Key West and, not incidentally, a terrific key lime pie here.
They serve a Bahamian-style conch chowder and other unusual fish such as monk fish, black tip shark cutlets, sturgeon, fresh salmon and trout, all very, very fresh. Lunch starts at $4.95; dinner $8.95 to $12.95, with steak at $15.
Ye Waverly Inn, at 16 Bank Street corner of Waverly Place (212-929-4377), is a charming early American tavern (without the ale). It's been here since 1920 with simple, homespun dishes such as chicken pot pie, barbecued ribs, pot roast, roast lamb, and excellent homemade rolls, fruit cobblers, and sundaes. Lunch is under $10; dinner from $6.95 to $15 a la carte.
Cafe da Alfredo, 17 Perry Street, is really a small Italian bistro in a charming town house in Greenwich Village and has probably the best Italian food for the price in the city. It attracts a young crowd with good pasta alla carbonera, entrees at $10 to $15.
In the theater district, among the many Brazilian restaurants is Cabana Carioca, 123 West 45th Street (212-581-8088), a lively, often crowded restaurant that serves authentic Brazilian dishes at moderate prices. Specialties are salt codfish
bacalau, chicken with okra, flan for dessert. Prices from $4 to $12.
John's Pizzeria, 278 Bleeker Street (212-242-9529), is a Greenwich Village classic. It has probably the best pizza anywhere and also wonderful calzone, the pizza dough wrapped around a ham or sausage and ricotta cheese filling.
New to New York is Pizzeria Uno, 393 Avenue of the Americas (212-242-5230). It has an attractive 1920s to 1930s decor and the kind of Chicago pizza you can make a meal on, with twice as much filling. Deep Dish Specialties include Mexican Pizza, the ''Veggie,'' and a fresh crab pizza at $3.75 and $6.50. An Express Lunch guarantees five-minute service for soup or salad and pizza at $3. 75.
You'll be comfortable in blue jeans and flannel shirt when you go to the Cottonwood Cafe, 415 Bleeker Street between Bank and 11th Streets (212-924-6271 ). It's a lively, casual cafe with a young staff and Tex-Mex food.
There are dishes such as cheese and broccoli soup and nachos, chili with beans and beef, hot corn bread, crisp chicken livers, enchiladas, tortillas, and warm pecan pie. Prices are moderate - from $5.75 to $8.
You'll find a bright, friendly folkloric setting with satisfying Greek food at Xenia, 871 First Avenue (212-838-1191). Classic specialties include egg-lemon soup, a luxurious mixed antipasto, stuffed grape leaves, taramasalata, and of course spanakopita, the famous Greek spinach pie, moussaka, shish kebab and flaky pastries. $8 to $12.
For novelty and nostalgia more than eating, you might enjoy getting pie and 35-cent coffee from the coin-operated windows of the only Horn & Hardart Automat left in New York, at 200 42nd Street (212-599-1665). Also cafeteria dishes from
Good Indian restaurants that are fairly inexpensive are India Pavilion, 325 East 54th Street (212-223-9740); Nupur, 819 Second Avenue (212-697-4180); and Madras Woodlands Restaurant, 310 East 44th Street (212-986-0620), an Indian vegetarian restaurant. The best food of the three is perhaps Madras Woodlands, and the most inexpensive is Nupur. All under $10.
Not everyone realizes that the Delegates' Dining Room at the United Nations is available to visitors, who need only to get a visitor's pass. Only lunch is served, but it is possible to find yourself sitting next to some rather distinguished people just by chance.
The ''all Japan'' lunch at Hatsuhana, 17 East 48th Street (212-355-3345), is one of the best values in the city at $8. Here a kimono-clad hostess greets you with a smile and a hot towel. Shrimp tempura is $7.50 with soup and a beverage. Watching the sushi chefs at work is an added attraction.
You can't find anything more typical of inexpensive New York food than knishes, and the best are at Yonah Schimmel's, 137 Houston Street (212-477-2858) , founded in 1910. Everything is homemade - the famous potato, kasha, spinach, and cheese knishes baked fresh every half hour, homemade yogurt, cheese bagels, poppyseed cookies, and wonderful strudel. Knishes start at 90 cents.
Pronto Ristorante, 30 East 60th Street (212-421-8151), has a glassed-in center area where fresh pasta is being made in the middle of the shiny brass and white-tiled room. Northern Italian foods include pasta specialties and veal dishes. From $7 to $15.
The Green Tree Hungarian Restaurant, 1034 Amsterdam Avenue at West 111th Street (212-864-9106) has hearty, inexpensive food and a lively, informal, old cafe atmosphere that's popular with students. Chicken soup, borsch, chicken paprikash, apple strudel, and palacsinta are included on the menu. From $4 to $7 .