Welcome to Syracuse: A Newcomer's Eating Tour

If you want great deals on honest, unfussy food, Syracuse is where you'll find it. Here are the 10 places you should stop by first.

Syracuse for Food Lovers: The First Places to Try

A true city of the people, Syracuse hits its sweet spot in restaurants that are as great a deal as they are delicious. If you want honest, unfussy food and friendly people serving it up, you've come to the right place. We consulted Syracuse Post-Standard food writer Don Cazentre, food blogger and Syracuse New Times restaurant reviewer Margaret McCormick, and restaurant owners Daryl McGrew and David Holtman to nail down the city's best picks.

Riley's and Darwin

"Riley's wants to be a neighborhood tavern," says Cazentre, "but it brings a higher standard along with its friendly vibe." Indeed, Riley's rarely missteps, from its perfect old-school cocktails to its miraculous fried oysters and unreal desserts. Four years ago two Riley's acolytes, Daryl McGrew and David Holtman, opened Darwin, the tiny downtown sandwich shop now turning out some of the best food in the city. Their offerings, from the fat-with-juicy-meat lobster roll in summer to the muffuletta, will have you convinced that it was a bayou, not the Erie Canal, that once ran through town. 

Photo courtesy of Darwin

Darwin: 211 North Clinton St., 315-373-0484

Riley's: 312 Park St., 315-471-7111

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

Of late, Dinosaur has gone national, with outposts in Brooklyn, Harlem and soon Chicago, but here in its original location, all the gritty glory of its early days is still on display, visually telling the story of a once-small biker joint that has gone big-time. What's good here? Nearly everything, from the succulent ribs to the melt-in-the-mouth brisket, to the sides that have locals calling Dinosaur the best vegetarian restaurant in town. Eat outside, around back, in the summer, and the live music, the intoxicating aroma of smoke and the gleam of the Harleys parked in a row will tell you everything you need to know about this city.

246 West Willow St., 315-476-4937

Eva's European Sweets

The fluffy frosted cakes in the dessert case notwithstanding, it's the Polish cooking that has made this place legendary. "Their pierogies are the stuff of dreams," says McCormick. With several boisterous dining rooms decked out in folksy-auntie decor, Eva's makes everyone, from parties of two to groups of 12, feel like family. "It's family-owned, family-operated, and you can feel it from the moment you walk in," says McGrew.

1305 Milton Ave., 315-487-2722

Gannon's Isle

"Habit-forming," is how Syracusans describe this mom-and-pop local ice cream chain, where Eileen and Patrick Gannon have personally made every batch of hard-pack ice cream. "Any day or night in the summer, you'll find long lines to get in," says McGrew. Now those who used to go into withdrawal in the winter months can visit the adorable downtown location year-round. Homemade ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cakes with custom flavors will only increase your devotion.

1525 Valley Dr., 315-469-8647

401 South Salina St., 315-214-8477

4800 McDonald Road #6, 315-299-7048

Heid's of Liverpool

Lining up for a hot dog at this retro drive-in is "a Syracuse rite of passage," says Holtman; "it's iconically Syracuse," agrees Cazentre. But which to choose — the red "frank" or the white "coney" (pronounced "cooney" by locals)? "My preference is one of each," says Cazentre. Not in the mood for meat? The "sea dog" — a fried cod filet served on a bun — is pretty darn good too.

305 Oswego St., Liverpool, 315-451-0786


Nutritional yeast has never been as sexy as it is at this newcomer "on the cutting edge of farm-to-table," says Cazentre. Colorful and satisfying "bowls" with perfectly-cooked shrimp, tea-poached chicken, or tofu or seitan layered over the top keep locals coming in regularly for lunch. The smoothies and breakfasts are also not to be missed, as is, not incidentally, one of the best burgers in town, oozy with Sriracha cheddar.

214 Walton St., 315-422-6200

Otro Cinco and Alto Cinco

Virtually any night of the week you can find the masses bursting out the door at the California-Mexican Alto Cinco on Westcott Street (though the newly expanded dining room means getting in has, thankfully, become easier). And yes, the enchiladas with green sauce, generously portioned burritos and tacos are first-rate, but Alto also serves one of the best breakfasts and brunches in town. Alto's new downtown alter ego, Otro Cinco, boasts many popular Alto dishes along with (irresistible) upscale additions like lobster tacos. Don't be put off by their tiny storefront; they too, will be expanding soon.

Photo by Harrison O'Brien  

Otro Cinco: 206 S. Warren St., 315-422-6876

Alto Cinco: 526 Westcott St., 315-422-mexx

Red Chili

For years, China Road was the only show in town for fine Chinese food, but last year saw not one, but two new (literal) hot spots pop up, both specializing in Sichuan food. Tang Flavor, downtown, is quite good, but Red Chili is exceptional. Its fiery and amazingly fresh dishes up the ante — try the cumin lamb or any of the hot pot dishes, which get cooked right at your table.

2740 Erie Blvd., 315-446-2882

S2 Bistro at Scotch 'N Sirloin

When the snow is swirling outside — which is the case here about eight months a year — there's no cozier spot than S2 Bistro, aka "The Scotch," at Scotch 'N Sirloin. The dark cave of a room beckons with its roaring central fireplace, peaty glasses of Scotch and complimentary salty popcorn and peanuts in the shell. But don't just come for happy hour. Beloved chef Yann Guigné of the much-mourned L'Adour has taken the helm here, and his steak frites is the best in town.

3687 Erie Blvd E., DeWitt, 315-446-1771

The Blarney Stone

There are lots of "best" burgers in town, but the best of the best is arguably found in this Irish dive bar in Tipp Hill. "It's Blarney for sure," chorus Holtman and McGrew. Blarney makes a "good, cheap burger" that puts more-expensive ones in town to shame — with a buttery griddled bun and gorgeously seasoned meat. It's easy to see why people walk right past all the generous (and free) bar eats on offer and order these like they're going out of style.

314 Avery Ave., 315-487-9675

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