New York is a 24-hour town, and night meets day at the breakfast table, where after-hours revelers mingle with barely awake visiting moms and dads and their ravenous children. As any kid will tell you, pancakes and waffles are among humankind's greatest inventions. But how do you pick from among so many restaurants? To ferret out the city's best breakfast places, a crew of discriminating young New Yorkers—the offspring of stockbrokers, teachers, artists, and even restaurant critics—sampled dozens of muffins and pondered the difference between merely adequate French toast and that which is truly magnifique. Here are 10 places that won their hearts: some out of the way, some tourist destinations in themselves. They're scattered across Manhattan, so there's likely to be one near where you're going, and you're likely to find a table. If you don't have any after-breakfast plans in mind, we've made a few suggestions.
With its undulating walls and cocoonish booths, Coffee Shop looks like a diner from outer space. And the staff, consisting mostly of fashion models—both would-be and has-been—lends the place an otherworldly glamour. But the menu is totally down-to-earth, featuring big-feed combos with English, Mexican, French, and American themes, as well as simpler choices like killer cinnamon-raisin French toast and a luscious fruit platter with eight kinds of fresh fruit. Unfortunately, Coffee Shop's coffee is below average, so drink the o.j. instead. The main dining room offers views of Union Square, where a world-class farmers' market is in full swing by 8 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday year-round. A skip and a jump away are the Forbes Magazine Galleries (62 Fifth Ave., at 12th St.), whose collection of 19th-century toy boats, early versions of Monopoly, and Fabergé eggs will delight everyone. 29 Union Square West, at 16th St.; 212/243-7969; breakfast for four $28.
Hankerin' for soul food? There's no better place than the Pink Teacup. This Greenwich Village mainstay may surprise you with its combinations—salmon croquettes matched with scrambled eggs, or fried chicken and delectable apple fritters. Invariably, the platters include a ladle or two of grits. Portions are huge; order one breakfast for two—the waiters are so kindly and accommodating, they won't care. The Pink Teacup is in the middle of the Greenwich Village Historic District, and a walk in any direction will take you past prim town houses, some dating to the early 1800's. In particular, Bedford Street directly west of the restaurant has several gems, including the narrowest house in the Village (No. 751/2; see if the kids can spot it) and a tenement that was renovated in the 1920's to resemble an off-kilter Swiss chalet (No. 102). 42 Grove St., just west of Bleecker St.; 212/807-6755; breakfast for four $32.
Just off the second-floor lobby of the SoHo Grand Hotel, Canal House occupies a series of rooms with ceilings so high and tables so far apart that you'll feel lilliputian. Breakfast may be pricey, but the quality matches the elegant setting: the corned-beef hash is made right here, and the buttermilk-and-buckwheat pancakes were pronounced "yucky-looking but delicious" by 12-year-old Paola. The miniature jars of preserves went straight into tiny pockets for later-in-the-day pick-me-ups. Canal House opens at 6:30 a.m. to accommodate early risers, and the location is a good jumping-off spot for touring SoHo. Be sure to wander Canal Street, one block south, where ragtag retailers sell everything from used electronics to Russian Army surplus goods—backpacks, small enameled medals, floor-length coats fit for Siberian winters. (To find the best selection of markers you've ever seen, check out the five-story art store Pearl Paint, at 308 Canal.) Also nearby is the Children's Museum of the Arts (182 Lafayette St., between Broome and Grand Sts.), where hands-on projects await. 310 West Broadway, just north of Canal St.; 212/965-3588; breakfast for four $60.
Lexington Candy Shop
For a well-executed rendition of the standard diner breakfast, there's no better place on the East Side than the Lexington Candy Shop, a luncheonette decked out in 1940's chrome and Naugahyde. But it's not a theme restaurant—the joint's for real! Youngsters can perch on swivel stools at the Formica counter while adults sink gratefully into the booths. The pancakes, eggs, toast, and oatmeal are all fine, and a bargain by Manhattan standards. But if you're feeling adventurous, sample such local oddities as a jelly omelette (much better than it sounds) or a chocolate egg cream (a fizzy version of chocolate milk). Let the effervescence propel you to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, three blocks west. 1226 Lexington Ave., at 83rd St.; 212/288-0057; breakfast for four $22.
The pumpkin waffle—sprinkled with raisins and pumpkin seeds, dribbled with warm honey, and crowned with a dollop of sour cream—is one of the glories of Sarabeth's in the Hotel Wales. With a glass of "four flowers juice"—orange, pineapple, banana, and pomegranate—it may be one of the most healthful meals your traveling children get. Also commendable are the omelettes and pastries, especially the fresh English muffins and berry scones. The only disappointment is the much-touted French toast, which is cakey and leaden. On the Upper East Side, it's close to all the major museums, but instead of battling the tourist hordes, dally in one of the less trafficked establishments, such as the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian's design museum located in the former Andrew Carnegie mansion (2 E. 91st St., at Fifth Ave.); or the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Ave., at 103rd St.), which has a splendid collection of antique dollhouses and fire-fighting paraphernalia. 1295 Madison Ave., at 92nd St.; 212/410-7335; breakfast for four $44. Other branches: Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Ave., at 75th St., 212/570-3670; 423 Amsterdam Ave., between 80th and 81st Sts., 212/496-6280; Chelsea Market, 75 Ninth Ave., between 15th and 16th Sts., 212/989-2424.
I've never met a kid who doesn't like dim sum. At Chinatown's Golden Unicorn, these small snacks—slippery dumplings crammed with meat or seafood; crunchy fried shrimp; doughy steamed buns concealing savory minced pork; even coconut gelatin—are served Hong Kong-style, from metal carts pushed around the dining room. You can take as many small plates as you want or ignore a cart completely (the one serving chicken feet, for example). Thirteen-year-old Tracy's favorite was cheung fun`, a pair of shrimp wrapped in a glistening rice noodle, while nine-year-old Jonathan preferred the custard tarts that are a legacy of Portuguese colonization in China. The child-size portions and dazzling number of choices encourage children to be adventurous, and prices are so reasonable, you won't mind their experimentation. Dim sum is typically eaten for breakfast or lunch, and Golden Unicorn offers it every day beginning at 9 a.m. Afterward, a tour of Manhattan's sprawling Chinatown is in order. Try a scoop of mango, litchi, green-tea, coconut, or red-bean ice cream at the excellent Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St.). 18 East Broadway; 212/941-0911; dim sum for four $36.
American Festival Café
Pick a window seat and find yourself in the midst of the twirling skaters who circle the Rockefeller Plaza rink. Favored by power-breakfasting businesspeople, the American Festival Café offers a predictable range of food at prices that border on reasonable, given the spectacular setting. My gang preferred the simpler choices—oatmeal, fruit-topped granola, and eggs with bacon—over the chalky buttermilk pancakes paired with a blueberry compote that tasted like prunes. Don't miss the shredded potatoes: a loaf of oniony spuds browned on all sides and strewn with fresh chives. After breakfast, merge with the excited throng outside the street-level studio from which the Today show is broadcast live weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m.—that is, if you can lure your kids away from the skating rink. F.A.O. Schwarz, the gigantic toy store, is a few blocks north on Fifth Avenue. And Times Square is just a few blocks west. Rockefeller Plaza, 20 W. 50th St., just west of Fifth Ave.; 212/332-7620; breakfast for four $48.
If your teenagers want to see the East Village, start at Veselka, a venerable Ukrainian coffee shop that functions as an around-the-clock hub for this bohemian neighborhood. Sit below the funky mural and watch the world wake up, as artists drift in for their first espresso of the day, then furtively head off to their day jobs. The muffins, lush and large, are among the best in town (especially the whole-wheat blueberry). Also order anything made with buttermilk, such as the well-browned waffles dusted with powdered sugar and served with a chunky raspberry purée. The cheese blintzes are fab, too; other selections that reflect the community's Eastern European heritage include kielbasa and kasha—steamed buckwheat with a nutty flavor. Begin your tour of the area at Third Avenue and work your way east along St. Mark's Place, past the jewelry stalls, punk boutiques, and piercing parlors, until you reach Tompkins Square Park, where there's a great playground. 144 Second Ave., at Ninth St.; 212/228-9682; breakfast for four $20.
The name sounds like a cartoon character, but Barney Greengrass ("The Sturgeon King") couldn't be more serious about fish. This Upper West Side landmark dispenses chub, lox, Nova, kippers, sable, whitefish, pickled herring, sardines, and sturgeon, whose faintly smoky and boneless white flesh is likely to be preferred by youngsters. Examine the showcase and proceed into the dining room—curiously, it's wallpapered with scenes of New Orleans. Here you can order thin slices of any fish, served with lettuce, olives, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and a toasted bagel. Of several fish-and-eggs combos, my favorite is scrambled eggs with caramelized onions and Nova. If the kids turn up their noses at smoked fish, let them eat cheese omelettes and toast. After breakfast, tour the nearby Children's Museum of Manhattan (212 W. 83rd St., between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave.) or, if the sun is out, go for a hike in Central Park. 541 Amsterdam Ave., at 86th St.; 212/724-4707; breakfast for four $48.
This old-fashioned bakery is justifiably famous for its orange-scented doughnuts—crunchy on the outside and moist within. Your charges will never guess they're made from whole wheat. Nearly as good are dense wedges of coffee cake, sugar-dusted crullers, and a rotating selection of outsize muffins, including lemon-poppy seed, blueberry, zucchini, and apple-walnut. Early one Saturday morning Cupcake put together a picnic breakfast for my daughter's softball team, and, as the coach lamented, the girls were more excited by the pastries than the game. Cupcake's comfy four-table room is in the middle of one of New York's greatest grocery districts (Ninth Ave. between 37th and 44th Sts.). Among the meat markets, fishmongers, greengrocers, and bakeries is a West African store that sells dried bats, and a Greek market that purveys numerous varieties of brine-soaked olives along with cakes of laundry soap in a setting that hasn't changed for a century. The excursion boats of the Circle Line, which circumnavigate Manhattan, leave from Pier 83, at the west end of 42nd Street, from March through December. 522 Ninth Ave., at 39th St.; 212/465-1530; breakfast for four $12.
ROBERT SIETSEMA, a Village Voice restaurant critic, is the author of Good & Cheap Ethnic Eats in New York City (City & Co.) and the forthcoming Secret New York (ECW Press).