Lots of folks claim to know where to get the best food in New York City. It's a point of pride for many locals to bring friends over to their neighborhood falafel stand, which is, of course, the best on the entire East Coast. But very few people have actually scoured the whole city for the finest places to eat. Truth be told, they probably couldn't even tell Ray's Deli from Famous Original Ray's Pizza.
They are not Famous Fat Dave. Born David Freedenberg in Silver Spring, Maryland, Famous Fat Dave, age 29, is a taxi driver who has parlayed years of recommendations from passengers into a full-fledged five-borough eating tour. The culinary expedition, in which Dave takes his passengers to his favorite restaurants all over the city, takes place in a pimped-out Checker Cab. Passengers have the option of doing a themed tourlike his Italian food "Boot of the Bronx"or the standard "Famous Fat Dave's Faves." Despite their steep price-tagfour-hour, five-person tours in the taxi run $700, though Dave picks up all the restaurant tabsDave's tours have attracted locals and tourists alike.
"I'm one of those observant Jews who believes the commandment to enjoy life trumps the rule of not mixing meat and dairy or eating pork or shellfish."
He's working toward a masters in public administration at Columbia University, but it's clear where Freedenberg's heart is. He is a man who considers himself, above all things, "a pickle man." In the interview below, he tells Gelf what it's like to go up against a competitive eater, what happened to all the Checker cabs, and, most importantly, where to eat in New York City. You can hear Freedenberg, along with fellow taxi driver Melissa Plaut, at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series event on Thursday, July 24, in New York's Lower East Side. (The following interview was conducted mostly through email, and edited for clarity.)
Gelf Magazine: It's too bad your cab is in the shop and we can't do a food tour. Tell me what I'm missing out on.
Dave Freedenberg: Well, actually, I can still do food tours without the cab in my '97 Maxima that fits four, and I also take larger groups in a rented Dodge Caravan. But I'll answer anyhow. You're missing out on at least four hours of gluttony, driving around the boroughs from eatery to eatery in my classic white Checker. It's really fun in the Checker because everyone smiles and waves when they see us rolling down the street. I just bought the cab last month, so I'm just putting the final touches on heradding a roof that says "Famous"; adding the black and white checkers down the side; and maybe adding jump seats that function as retractable tables instead of actual seats. She should be ready to roll by the time this goes to press.
GM: What's your most popular themed tour?
DF: Most people just say, "I'm in your hands," and expect me to take them to a bunch of mind-blowing eating experiences in a row. I call it the "Famous Fat Dave's Faves Tour." In terms of specifically themed tours, I'd say the "Best of Brooklyn Tour" is the most popular for first-timers. And the "Boot of the Boroughs Italian Food Tour" is the most popular culinary theme.
GM: Sounds delicious, but I'm a pretty strictly observant Jew. Do you have any kosher tours?
DF: My Kosher Eating Tour is killer! Forest Hills, Brighton Beach, the Lower East Side, bagels, bialys, white fish, pickles, pastrami, salami, egg creams, chopped liver I can go on. Myself? I'm one of those observant Jews who believes the commandment to enjoy life trumps the rule of not mixing meat and dairy or eating pork or shellfish. But I still love kosher foods and my Kosher Tour reflects that. It's not hard to find great kosher food in New York City.
GM: So much of Judaism revolves around food. Do you think your religious background has anything to do with your passion for it?
DF: Well, being Jewish has helped nourish my passion for food, because everything is centered on food in Jewish life. My family talks about what's for dinner during lunch the way I know a lot of Jewish families do. But if I were Italian or Indian or Greek or Mexican, I think I'd still have the same passion for food. I just might not like gefilte fish as much as do.
GM: Do you function as a regular cabbie as well?
"I'm a food lover, not a critic."DF: I have had my hack license since the end of '01. I used to work much more often, but it's a really terrible job so I only work every once in a while these days. They told us in Taxi Academy that it's the most dangerous job in America, aside from being a deep-sea fisherman off the coast of Alaska.
GM: The theme of this month's Non-Motivational Speaker series is Taxi Driver Confessions. Do you have any crazy cab-driver stories?
DF: Things used to be a little crazier in the cab. Sex, violence, drugs. All that stuff. Since the fare increase in '04 and the general calming of New York City in recent years, it has become a little more mundane. Plus I haven't driven too much lately. Before the fare increase I'd literally have homeless people take my cab sometimes because a short fare could be like $2.60.
GM: Do you ever pick up unsuspecting tourists or locals and whisk them away on an unexpected tour of Manhattan, like a Culinary Cash Cab?
DF: You've really got to be mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared for a Famous Fat Dave Eating Tour. The minimum tour is four hours long, which seems like a lot, but once you get out there and start eating, you realize that you can eat all day. I take people on six- and seven-hour tours all the time. It's not something most people are up to on a whim. I'd be up for it, though, if someone wanted. And I've chowed down with my fares in my regular yellow cab before.
GM: Is yours the last remaining checkered cab in Manhattan? What happened to the rest of them?
DF: Just to clarify, it's not only "checkered" as in having a row of black and white checkers down the side. It's built by the Checker Car Company so it's called a "Checker." The one I bought is the last Checker Marathon A12 ever off the assembly line in 1982. It has basically the same exact frame as the 1961 model. Marathons were the civilian version. There were a bunch of Checker A11s made after the one I have, but they were mostly driven into the ground because they were used as taxis. Mine only has 89,000 miles on it.
There are a few people in New York who still have Checkers. I saw a blue one parked on the Upper West Side recently. Taxi Ray had a yellow one and he'd been driving a cab in New York for decades, but he died behind the wheel of his Checker a couple of weeks ago. The last medallioned Checker (meaning it is allowed by law to pick up street hails) was Earl Johnson's, and he went off the road in 1999. I don't have a medallion, though. Since I don't pick people up off the street, I don't need one.
DF: I didn't sit down and think, "How can I start a business?" I just drive around and eat all kinds of delicious food anyway. It's why I live here. Well, that and the Yankees. I learned my way around by driving the cab and I got a million recommendations from my fares. I built the website and started selling tours because if I didn't charge food tourists to come with me, I'd be doing it for free with my friends, anyway.
GM: I want to play a little game. I'm going to name a food, and you tell me the best place to get it in New York City. Does that sound good?
DF: Sounds good. I've always been one to say that I don't know the best places, I just have my favorites. I'm always hoping that there is something even better out there.
GM: Hot Dogs.
DF: Nathan's Famous on Stillwell and Surf, of course.
DF: Mmmmmmm. Piiiiiiiza. I'm a fan of Patsy's on 118th St. and 1st Ave. in East Harlem for a slice and Totonno's in Coney Island for a pie. But I try to appreciate each pizza place for what it excels at. For instance, favorite crust is Lombardi's, favorite sauce is New Park, favorite thick slice is Spumoni Gardens, favorite sausage is Louie and Ernie's, and favorite rabe grandma slice is Fratelli's. The list goes on. I'm a food lover, not a critic. I just enjoy what's good about all the great pizzerias.
DF: I used to be a pickle man at Guss Pickles on Orchard St. so I'm loyal to them.
GM: Ice Cream.
DF: I like the soft serve at Ray's Deli on Ave A between St. Mark's and 7th even though it's just Columbo. Ray is an icon and the pistachio is so good.
GM: French Fries.
DF: Pommes Frites.
DF: I went to NYU so I'm a Mamoun's man.
GM: What's your ideal meal?
DF: I'm a native Marylander but I'm in love with this town. So I guess I'd want a crab feast with bushels of steaming hot blue crabs and piles of Old Bay seasoning with Maryland fried chicken and Thrasher's fries with apple-cider vinegar followed by a New York bagel, New York pickles, a New York hot dog, a slice of New York pizza, a New York strip steak, and a piece of New York cheesecake.
GM: Does your exhaustive knowledge of food carry over to beer as well?
DF: I'm always driving so I rarely drink.
DF: I'm a big fan of the competitive eaters. Competing with Badlands Booker for the History Channel at Nathan's this year was a dream come trueeven if I did make a fool of myself. Competitive eaters are real athletes. I'm more impressed with Badlands than I am with an NFL lineman.
GM: You seem to have New York down. Any plans to take the eating tour on the road to other cities?
DF: One day there'll be a Famous Fat Eating Tour in every great food town in America.