No other city in the world does the holidays like New York! New York City has always had a love affair with the holidays. After all, it was a group of immigrant construction workers who began the tradition of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree on what was merely rubble, so they could feel connected to the homes they left behind. Today, that tree lighting is watched by over 8 million people from around the world.
Those lights? Well they wouldn’t have been possible without the genius of a Thomas Edison employee based in our great city. While the Sinterklaas myth behind the man was brought to our shores by the Dutch, it was Thomas Nast, a well-known New York illustrator, who gave life to Santa Claus with his depictions of the jolly old man for Harper’s Weekly. The inspiration for Nast’s image came from the son of the man who created our Chelsea neighborhood, Clement Clarke Moore, who’s credited with authoring A Visit from St. Nicholas or as many know it today: ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.
And prior to Dickens’ Christmas Carol, native New Yorker Washington Irving celebrated the season by bringing Americans some British traditions with his collection of stories called The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon which is more remembered today for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Not to mention all the many other winter holidays that are celebrated here like nowhere else in the world—consider the lighting of the world’s largest menorah, Paul Winter’s Solstice Celebration at St. John the Divine, Regeneration Night at the Apollo, or El Museo del Barrio’s Three Kings Day Parade. But for this foodie, my favorite tradition is with our annual holiday markets that pop up for various limited time periods with the help of the folks from Urbanspace NYC.
Perhaps it’s the European in me, but I’ve just always loved these outdoor markets, and the Columbus Circle Holiday Market, while certainly not the first or the biggest, is my favorite. This market was the inspiration for my very first publicly offered food tours. And every year, I can be found on opening day, like a kid in a candy store—with an empty belly and my camera and note pad in hand. I get to try all the new vendors and mourn the previous ones who’ve not returned for another year. And this years added bonus was that they’ve managed to get an outdoor liquor permit for a section of the market! Now we can toast in the open to our favorite season! Of course, with over 20 stalls serving food and drink to the holiday shoppers, it can feel a little overwhelming to know where to go to get the best grub. So, while I think you’d fare even better if you just hopped onto one of my tours, I’m still going to give you a recap of the food that’s out there—so you don’t have to spend days filling you belly with deliciously unhealthy eats like I already did! I’m starting with the perimeter stalls and then working in.
Leave it to the French to come up with the name of a company that it comedically rude. This purpose of this stall is clear—to get you to enjoy Loire Valley chocolate truffles the proper way—without chewing them! You are to let them melt in your mouth so that every receptor from your tongue to your nostrils can take in the glory of these rich treats. The generous souls here regularly put out samples of their truffles for you to enjoy, which you can obviously purchase to bring home with you, but the real decadence comes from a cup of their hot chocolate, which is made with milk—not water, and then for a good-til-the-last-drop finish they toss a truffle into your cup. Cheers! This has been a delightful mainstay on my tour for years.
So much chocolate, I know! But ‘tis the season, honey! If you’ve been in NYC for a while then I hope you’ve had some Raaka in your life, as they’ve been pumping out their virgin chocolates from Red Hook since 2010. I’ve even been to their factory for a mini-tour and tasting there—perks of being a tour guide! So, you might wonder why, if I can find these guys all year ‘round, would I bother stopping by their stall every time I find myself in the market. Free samples of limited flavors, baby! Raaka likes to get experimental, so they have a subscription service called first dibs where they debut new possible flavors to those subscribers. They also put out limited editions like their Ginger Snap flavor—and guess what makes it to the market?! Ugh thinking about it right now makes me want to hop on the one train to pick up some bars.
A name that just rolls of the tongue…or stays there lingering like a chocolate truffle maybe? Either way, it’s easy to remember what you want to get from here as it starts with the same letter. Also, it’s pretty much the only thing they sell. The specialty here is a traditional German holiday treat known as Lebkuchen. And here they have a couple of varieties—literally a couple. They have the classic, which is decorated with almonds to celebrate the nut flour used in the recipe. They have chocolate, which is my personal favorite, and then they have the mini lebkuchen which is the same but smaller. Aside from pairing this with some gluehwine, which I will get to in just a minute, I suggest you pick up one of the beautifully decorated tins—whether they’re a gift to yourself or someone else, they make great holiday containers once you’ve gotten through all the cookies!
So new they don’t even seem to have a working website, but you can still tag them on the insta! We’ve got more imports from Europe here that are covered in chocolate, and some in coconuts, and nuts, and cookie crumbles and on and on. These treats are like overgrown kisses as we know them, except rather than being solidly chocolate, they contain an aerated vanilla cream that’s an upgrade from a marshmallow. Now, I don’t want to tell you how many of these you should consume in one sitting, but I will say they are sold in singles as well as 6 and 12-packs. So, if you can’t decide between milk, dark, white chocolate and the various toppings they offer, then go for a variety—they’ll happily box up one of each for you. Then you can decide whether to share or not.
Generally speaking I love California Street Food. However, when the temperatures drop, as they do in December, I don’t often find myself craving tacos. But perhaps I would go for some loaded fries and a tamale, which they do have here. What makes this a worthy stop in your consumption tour is that with the new booze permissions, they’ve created a large list of adult beverages that may just make your kids jealous. OK, fine, they offer non-alcoholic options as well! While I would skip the cider from this stall, as you should get your apple-forward drinks from New Yorkers who know better, I wouldn’t be mad at you for getting one of their other specialty holiday cocktails, like the S’mores, Peppermint Oreo, or Winter Wonderland Hot Chocolate. But if it’s Cali tastes you’re craving then I would stick to the Margaritas. More specifically, La Madre de Dragones Margarita, which tastes great AND gives you a little Game of Thrones courage!
Here are some brand new kids on the block and they’re serving up some family recipe homemade Ukrainian food. While I honestly don’t think you can go wrong with anything here, the Piggies in a a Blanket are super popular as the saltiness of the sausage pairs well with the sweet wrapped pastry. The borscht is a perfect vegan option for those who are looking for a hearty flavorful soup to warm them up, and the pierogis to me are the star of the show—especially the angry crab ones—which are a unique spin on these traditional Eastern European dumplings.
Surely, you’ve seen Zaro’s in your favorite, or least favorite NY train station before. And if you have, and you’ve tried their black and white cookies, you’ll know that they’re much more like the original style of cookie, which was similar to a cake. If you haven’t tried their black and whites then I suggest you take this opportunity to do so—especially if they’re offering free samples for you. Other than that they’ve got some more holiday themed cookies, but to be honest, I would skip those here. For me, it’s Black & White or bust. They do claim to have invented the thing—so you might as well give it a go!
Owned and operated by a husband and wife team, this tiny little stall delivers big on flavor! It’s truly outstanding what they’re able to accomplish in their little space, but it’s well worth any kind of wait to get a taste of what they have on offer. Their menu’s small so it’s pretty easy to make your choice. Plus, they’ve got a combo deal so you can try two of their dishes without breaking the bank. I suggest you get yourself a bowl of the chicken shitake quinoa porridge to warm you up. They use the dark meat of the bird so that you get the best flavor available. Then, I personally would go for the dumplings because I’m an addict, but if you like spice and want to change things up a little—as so many of the other shops offer foods wrapped in dough, then I would suggest you try the rice cakes. They’re perfectly cooked to give you just the right amount of chew, and they bring the heat without knocking out your senses so you can taste anything else. I also suggest you try their 5-spice hot chocolate. If you like Mexican hot chocolate, this Asian version will be right up your alley.
Enfes has now been at this market for a few years as well and I’ve watched as they’ve evolved into a real, full concept. They even had a brick and mortar shop for a little bit. But they’re back in Columbus Circle again this year with their Turkish eats that cover savory and sweet. I personally like the sweet bites here more than most of the savory options, as I find the gozleme can be inconsistent in quality—sometimes there’s just not enough filling for my liking. But, if you want to try one of their specialty wrap-style sandwiches, I would suggest the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern versions. And if you want to go wild—maybe the Frankfurter version is more to your liking. Just don’t forget to end on some baklava or Turkish delight.
If you’re Gluten Free this stop is for you! You may have seen the Palenque truck rolling through the streets of the city before, but if you haven’t then you should definitely check them out in the markets. Arepas come in many sizes and fashions depending on their origin Venezuelan arepas are different from Colombian ones. And if you’ve had a Mozzarepa at a street fair, then you might be interested in the Arepas de Choclo which is essentially the same idea—two corn cakes with melted cheese in the center. I love that salty and sweet combination. But you can really pick from any of the arepas they have (which are all homemade) and then you pick your toppings. Think of it as a Colombian style mini pizza (and it’s gluten free)! Skip the empanadas here and indulge in the fried versions across the way.
If you want to talk about a country that takes their outdoor holiday markets seriously, then you muse be speaking of Germany. This group has been at the market, I believe, since it’s beginnings. It’s an annual staple, and what’s great is they always have the same familiar faces to grill up your bratwurst and pour you some gluhwein. I would personally save my sausage eating for this stall, as I just love a great German bratwurst hot off the grill, but if that’s not your cup of tea, then I suggest you have a cup of theirs. Gluhwein is called the Christmas drink as it’s generally only served at these kinds of markets. It’s made form fruits, herbs, and spices to warm you up in the winter months, and it can be served with or without alcohol. This year you can get both at the stall for the very first time! It also pairs perfectly with that other German holiday treat I mentioned, lebkuchen. And while you can get imported lebkuchen here—I suggest you pick up Leckerlee’s locally made version instead. Just remember not to serve your kids from the wrong cup! Also—note that they’ve usually run out of the stuff by the last week, so get there today if you want your Gluhwein.
They’ve got cookies, chocolate, and marshmallows. When you put those things together, and add heat, what do you get? S’mores! That’s right, whether you want a little s’more on a stick, or one of their jumbo treats the size of your hand, they’ll toast them to order for you. It’s like your own little holiday car commercial—right there in the market! Mmmm…I can just taste that melty chocolate right now. Just be sure to bring cash as they don’t want your stinking plastic. They’ve also got plenty of options for you to take on the go, like their gingerbread cookie sandwiches or their brownies which are also delicious.
As far as I’m concerned, Wafels and Dinges are now a NYC staple food. What started out as a food truck now has set up in several parks and other markets, plus they’ve got a brick and mortar shop in the East Village. But here, in this festive marketplace, it’s pretty much all sweet waffles—even the bourbon maple bacon—yeah, that sounds good, doesn’t it. Of course, if you don’t want any meat on yours my favorite is the classic Throwdown Wafel, which was the one that beat Bobby Flay a few years ago. The waffles are so good on their own, but if you’ve ever had an addition to the Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter, then you should go for any waffles with their Spekuloos spread, which is their homemade (better) version of that. My mouth is watering just thinking about it—you can also buy the spreads to take home with you.
I feel like most people either love or hate macarons. But, if you’re unsure, this is a great place to find out. The key to a good macaron is to use a delicate hand as the pastry their made from is rather delicate. Because of that, you have to make them in small batches, which becomes rather labor intensive. So, if you’ve ever wondered why a macaron is as expensive as it is—it’s the effort that goes into making them more than just the ingredients. Of course the great thing about them is all of the flavors they come in, and because it’s an aerated cookie, those flavor tend to be pretty well expressed. So when you bite in it’s like getting an explosion of taste!
From the restaurants to your own kitchen, Jimmy’s got a variety of truffle products for every kind of food lover. Whether you want something sweet like their amazing honey—which pairs perfectly with any cheese board, or something more savory like their oil or mustard which are great additions to salads and sandwiches, you can try it all at this little stall. And this year they have the truffle hot sauce to sample, which is my personal favorite—grab yourself a bottle and toss some onto your raclette sandwich for your closer-than-you-imagine alpine escape!
A few years ago my cousin bought me hist first Christmas gift as an adult—and in that gift was a box of these delicious chocolate covered pretzels with various toppings—like sprinkles, cookies and nuts. And it was the perfect gift for a snacking foodie like myself. Now that they’ve got a stall here in the market, I get to sneak in a bite or two every time I pass by on a tour since they always have samples out.
If you read what I wrote about Palenque’s empanadas and how you should skip them to get the fried version across the way—this is that fried empanada I was speaking of. Like the arepas, you can get different kinds of empanadas from different parts of Latin America. These are the ones made for widening your belt buckles. Inside of your crispy fried dough you have a variety of fillings to choose from. I would personally stay away from the seafood options here as I find them to be a little over cooked, which is not the flavor profile I prefer. But, I would suggest going for even more indulgent options like the Ham & Queso or Bacon Mac & Cheese. And if your vegetarian or pork-free, then I would get the mushroom or the mac and cheese. What I’m saying is load up on your carbs and get some paste inside of your dough! It’s the holidays—none of this counts!
More dumplings? Yes. MORE DUMPLINGS! Let’s just go through the list so far—you’ve had boiled pierogis, pan-seared Chinese dumplings, and now you have fried Caribbean dumplings paired with Caribbean style hot sauce. There are a couple other things on the menu, but this place is called Silly Chilly Dumplings, so Dumplings you must get. Now they have a few different flavors to choose from, including Grasshopper Dumplings for those who are more adventurous. And once you’ve picked your poison of dumpling style(s) you’ll have to pick your hot sauce on the side, which range from sweet and mild, to smoky, to HOT. My personal favorite combination were the potato dumplings—which have a Caribbean curry flavoring, paired with the Fresh Mango & Sweet Peppers hot sauce.
You’ve probably seen Casa Toscana around the city as well, as they’ve been in a few different locations, including just below ground from their current location, when they were in the Turnstyle Market. They’re mostly known for their flat breads, which I generally find to be a fine quick bite if I’m in a hurry somewhere, but they’re certainly not destination-worthy in a very crowded market of Italian foods in this city. But, at the holiday market, I would strongly suggest that you grab yourself some of their mulled wine and a beautiful filled doughnut or Bomboloni, if we’re being proper. Then, if you’ve had yourself a few drinks by now I would say it’s a good time to go check out the tent provided by Citi that includes a photo booth for you to let the hilarity ensue!
Like German Delights, Breezy Hill has been serving up holiday goodness since the beginning of the market. Unlike German Delights, this is their first time with two stalls in the same market because they too have gotten into the adult drinking game. And when I said to skip the cider drinks at Jicama, it’s because these are your apple experts. If you’re a farmer’s market regular then you may have seen them around. And if you’ve been to the markets before then you’ve probably noticed their cider, cider doughnuts, AND their comically large gingerbread people. Their apples come from the Hudson Valley and this year you can get some straight up cider without any spiking—or you can try any of their draft ciders, some Wassail, or my favorite: the Boozey Hot Apple Cider. And one of the things that I was sad to see missing from this year was Raclette NYC. But, not to fret, because Breezy Hill has your melty cheese and bread needs covered. I suggest you get their Raclette sandwich with some smoked goose, and roasted chestnuts—pair that with your cider and it’s like a winter dream in your mouth!
If you’re still overwhelmed by all of this food, then I suggest, once again that you book yourself a tour today because in a just a few weeks this all disappears! When you join me for a guided holiday market tour, I’ll do all the hard work of putting together the menu for you, so that you get to try several of the vendors in one shot without feeling like it’s overdone. Then I’ll guide you across the park and give you some of the city’s rich holiday history. We’ll see some of the wonderful windows along 5th avenue and finish it off with a little classic holiday tourism at the Rockefeller Christmas tree. It’s great fun to do whether you’ve lived here your whole life, or you’re just visiting. Don’t forget to use the ILoveUWS discount code when you book!