Best affordable NYC Must do
$25pp before tax, tip, wine, drinks? For one meal or per day?
Where are you coming from?
When are you coming? How long are you here? How many meals do you have available?
We don't want to recommend food that you might do better at home, but we also may have some cuisines you can't find at home...
I'd say we are pretty strong in a lot of different cuisines but not equally.
What else are you doing while you are here? Planning around sightseeing, shopping, Broadway shows, etc? Also if you are sightseeing, to make the best use of your time, you should try to find things to eat to/from the tourist destinations or near the tourist destinations. Our tourist destinations are spread out all around Manhattan etc.
If you're interested in some of the places that are unique to NY, you could do a LES food crawl. I highly recommend RGR's self guided Lower East Side Gustatory tour but sub in Pickle Guys for Guss' Pickles and note that Economy Candy's address is incorrect:
See also realcheapeats.com. Especially their recommendations in Chinatown which provides a lot of good cheap eats.
Some of my favorite cheap eats:
Xian Famous Foods
53rd and 6th Halal cart
Momofuku Ssam duck lunch special
Lobster rolls at Luke's
Vietnamese - banh mi in Chinatown, do a search! Or Num Pang perhaps?
Pretzels at Sigmund
Sandwiches - Defonte's, Lamazou, No 7 Sub, Parm (long lines for dinner, try lunch), Faicco's
La Churreria - Spanish sandwiches, fresh churros and dark hot chocolate (Spanish style, so no cinnamon), good lunch specials too
Great NY Noodletown
There's quite a bit of classic NY foods you can do on a budget: pizza, bagels and smoked salmon, pastrami on rye, hot dogs, cheesecake, etc.
See my answer to this question here:
1. Best slice: Many of the famous and notable NYC pizza joints don't do slices. Only whole pies. There is more also more than one type of indigenous NY style pizza. So you need to decide what you want. Coal oven or gas oven. Slice or whole pie.
Best NY style pizza:
2. Best pastrami:
I really enjoy Katz's Deli (from When Harry Met Sally). I hope you like fatty beef. Their bread leaves something to be desired and there have been complaints about their security guards on nights/weekends. YMMV.
Unfortunately with Sarge's being closed right now, it's not like we have a ton of great options to choose from (and 2nd Ave Deli, while having other good items, isn't as strong in the pastrami dept). Carnegie is alright, not great, in my book.
Mile End is also famous but they don't do NY style, it's Montreal style.
Here is a long discussion thread on best pastrami:
3. Best knish -- unfortunately, it's not like there's a lot of competition in knishes these days either.
Yonah Schimmel is the most famous, probably, but I've heard that the 2nd Ave Deli and Zabar's ones are better, at least in Manhattan.
4. Best bagel -- first, read this:
Summary: the freshest bagels are the best; bagels don't age well at all.
I think a lot of long time NYers would also say that our bagel scene isn't as good as it used to be, either.
Focus on the smoked salmon instead. Preferably at Russ & Daughters, so you can get a taste of what an appetizing store is like. Do a search on Youtube for when Louis CK visited, to get a glimpse of what it's like.
5. Best hot dog -- kind of a misleading category. Most vendors use the same recipe Sabrett beef dog around the city. If you are just interested in an everyday "typical NY" hotdog experience, then Gray's Papaya. It's not gourmet, at all, though. Cheap, filling eats, and fun for people watching late at night, I guess.
Here's an in-depth discussion:
6. Best doughnut -- go to another city, honestly. The West Coast and Chicago have us beat.
7. Best cheesecake -- I defer to the judgment of Serious Eats:
See also: Eats Unique to NY:
If you are interested in other foods that are specific to NY and hard to find elsewhere, you also need to be looking at William Greenberg's black and whites, egg creams from Gem Spa or Ray's, the Pickle Guys, the Halal Guys chicken/lamb over rice cart, Sigmund's pretzels.
look for ways to go well under budget on some meals so that you can go over on others. very cheap breakfasts and lunches allow for more expensive dinners and you won't have to sacrifice quality.
for fine dining, the reverse is true. you could do a great late lunch at Del Posto for $35pp++ and have something light in the evening.
Kathryn mentioned Xi'an Famous Foods, where a meal for two could cost under $20. Cafe Hong Kong has a ridiculous lunch special price, where many dishes are $6.95, including their much discussed string beans and peking style pork chop.
For dinner, you could do one night at John's on Bleecker and another at Otto, both of which should easily be under $25pp.