On New York’s Upper East Side, we walked up a narrow stairway to reach the restaurant, and then a second, narrower stairway to get to our table. The third-floor dining room, where the hostess had delivered us, was covered by glass, like a greenhouse. Plants thriving in the sunlight hung down from the ceiling.

Two couples with babies chatted about parenthood. At a rustic banquette, three generations of a family lingered over pasta. A young girl colored; her mother looked on wearing pearls. And the food? Wonderful. A spinach salad, a margherita pizza, a simple pasta.

How did my Minnesota family wind up at this place where, it seemed, we were the only tourists? We’d asked a shopkeeper at an Upper East Side designer clothing store for a recommendation.

I can find those clerks intimidating, but I try to keep in mind that they are not fashion designers (though they may aspire to that). They are just hourly employees working the register — and they need a nearby lunch, just like me.

An eye-lined, impeccably dressed 20-something, it turns out, ensures a great lunch at a locals’ hangout more reliably than any crowdsourced Trip­Advisor or Yelp review.

It’s how we wound up perched by giant windows at Serafina Fabulous Pizza at 1022 Madison Av.

The day before, in SoHo, the same approach landed us at a healthful fast-food spot so popular that a line wound out the door (but moved quickly).

Dig Inn, at 70 Prince St., serves up farm-fresh bowls with grain, veggies and a protein in combinations chosen by the diners, an array of SoHo creatures. The menu changes depending on what’s in season; I’d go again in winter just to get the slow-roasted carrots with harissa sauce.

When I asked where we should eat, the clerk at Aritzia gushed, “I eat there whenever I can.” I’m glad I did when I could.


Send your questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.