When it comes to food, New York has its own charm. Walking down the streets of Manhattan feels like constantly being transported into a different country. From mouth-watering tonkotsu ramen, midnight yakitori, grandema's Vareniki, crusty Paratha, heart-warming Khachapuri to Uyghur-style dry-fried rice noodles… the city constructs a multiverse of food, with nearly 30,000 restaurants serving up dishes from all corners of the globe. At the core of the experience is that these restaurants are really, really authentic.

I didn't say that. The data did. From 2016 to 2022, over 2.5 million restaurant goers wrote about their experience dining at 19541 restaurants in New York. The word “authentic” appeared 45,211 times, making it 21% of the experiences shared on Yelp. When it comes to evaluating the quality of the restaurant, authenticity matters a lot. The restaurants where more reviewers mentioned them as authentic received higher average ratings.

These restaurants have received the most "authentic" reviews. Can you guess which they are?

Hover over the card to reveal the answer.

The story becomes more complex when we look deeper into why restaurants are perceived as authentic.

What is authentic food?

For some restaurants, authenticity has nothing to do with the cuisine. For others, they matter a lot.

Authentic Restaurants in NYC

People do not regard American food, unsurprisingly the most common cuisine in New York, as authentic, mostly because authentic food is often used as the opposite to Americanized ethnic cuisine. Ethnicity is implied. Then the further away from the Americanized experience the restaurant seems, the more authentic it is deemed.

But there is no objective measure of to what extent the food served at an ethnic restaurant is not Americanized, thus authentic. In a study in 2015, researcher Stephen Christ who studied Mexican restaurants found that the use of the word “authenticity” depended largely on the customer, not the chef. “The owner of a Mexican restaurant may claim to have the most authentic facility because his chef is from Mexico or he has more employees from Mexico than any of his competitors,” he said. “But for the consumer, the most important consideration is 'how much does this food fit my expectation of what Mexican food is based on growing up and having taco day at high school or eating at fast-food taco restaurants?’”

Restaurant goers set expectations based on their limited knowledge of what an ethnic cuisine looks like. The knowledge varies from person to person. And since most Yelp reviewers are Americans, their pursuit of authenticity creates its own trap: Food authenticity becomes an americanized view of what non-American food is.

Food authenticity: The Americanized view of non-American food
Keywords of restaurants' reviews by cuisine

No one would think the slice of pizza sold at the corner shop for 99 cents — despite how delicious and irresistible it is — is authentic Italian, but more are likely to regard those thin-crust pizzas cooked in a wood oven a staple of authenticity from South Italy. Although the individual level of knowledge of authenticity varies, the collective wisdom is still useful: Research found that the perception of authenticity affects customers' purchase intentions. That is to say, if restaurant owners could understand the business of authenticity, they would be well positioned to win the market.

The search for authentic food in New York

Authentic food means the American version of non-American food as we defined in the last section. Here comes the second charm of New York City: the New York restaurant frequenters on average have pretty decent knowledge of what good ethnic food is, largely thanks to the diverse immigrant communities that have lived across the five boroughs in the past century. They brought the original cooking to the city, passed down their knowledge to their American offsprings, and educated their white neighbors. The well-traveled metropolitan city dwellers are also more likely than those from inner cities to tell apart well-cooked Kung Pao chicken from orange chicken sold in Chinese fast food places. Among all US cities, the New Yorkers’ version of non-American food may be the closest to how food actually tastes in their home regions (but not the prices.)

Ethnicity V.S. Authenticity
Top 10 cuisines and neighborhoods in NYC

There is a clear association between certain types of cuisine and neighborhoods, particularly in areas with a significant immigrant population. For instance, Chinese food is commonly found in Chinatown, while authentic Korean cuisine is primarily concentrated in Flushing rather than in K-Town.

However, there are also neighborhoods that are more diverse in terms of their cuisine offerings, such as the East Village. Although the area is now populated by white and Latino residents, it has had a rich history of different populations over time, reflected in the diverse range of food available.

I have created an interactive map that allows you to discover the diverse range of authentic cuisine available in New York City. Simply select your preferred option - neighborhood or cuisine - and start exploring! 🎉

Staten Island