Recession Special: Turning Free Samples Into a Midtown Lunch Tasting Menu

I love having guest writers on the site, so when this guy wrote in and asked if he could submit a post about making an entire lunch out of free samples in Midtown, I was like- uh… of course!  Nobody loves free stuff more than me… except maybe this guy.  Meet Jeremy, an employee of a PR agency on 45th & 5th, who has developed the “perfect” free lunch experience. (He may also be related to Profiled: Midtown Lunch’er “Jim”)

Free Bread!  Cosi, Midtown NYC 

Like most of you, I’ve been looking to Midtown Lunch for good cheap food since I started working in Midtown late last year. When I’m feeling flush I head to Ambrosia (on 45th btw. 5+6th) for (runny egg on request) bibimbap, ‘wichcraft for the slow-roasted pork sandwich, or Chiyoda (on 41st btw. Mad+5th) for a taste of the sea. But the New Year brought crippling student loans and totally unreasonable spending habits (this summer I ate at James Beard and WD-50 on two consecutive nights), so naturally, I have started looking for low-cost alternatives.

It’s not that I can’t scrape together five dollars for lunch, or that I can’t cook for myself. As all Midtown Lunch disciples know, one of the few joys of working a serious midtown job is taking your one hour lunch break to walk around the neighborhood, get annoyed by tourists, play chess in Bryant Park, and think about getting on the downtown F train and never coming back.

First I started reducing the size of my meals, beginning with the “Master Cleanse” diet. “It’s about learning restraint, dude.” That ended on day four when I passed out in the shower. Then I limited myself to tiny lunches, like a small plate of kimchi from Cafe Manhattan (on 45th btw. 5+6th.) Incidentally, what’s on display in the cold buffet by the lb. trough is not the Korean staple, but some unfermented imposter. (Ask and you shall receive the real shit.) When it became apparent that my coworkers were starting to feel sorry for me (my supervisor still gives me her hard-boiled eggs, an edible symbol of life itself) I realized I had to create the impression that I was living luxe, but do it on the cheap.

So I devised a cheap Midtown Lunch walking tour: a multi course, totaly free, tasting menu that anybody can do (provided you are not easily embarassed.)  

Amuse Bouche — Your Office

Take five minutes to walk around your office looking for snacks. On bad days a packet of splenda will be tempting (skip it), but I’ve found saltwater taffy from the Candy Baron in San Francisco, fresh fruit from a client breakfast, and even chicken liver pate… hey, I made that!

Free Food NYC Opening Today

Soup — Free Foods, 18 W 45th Street (bet 5th & 6th)

Start off at raw chef Matthew Kenney’s side project, FreeFoods NYC.  We’re not here for the $11 salads or the $6 coconut water (which they actually get by blasting apart coconuts with a machete, by request). Stroll up to the soup counter for a taste of the day’s special- like the chilled pea soup with mint. More adventurous eaters can try their luck at getting a second sample of something warm, like the Bahian lobster stew. Bonus: Sometimes there’s a portioned panino on the counter.

*Note: I should point out that for some people it may be uncomfortable to taste and walk. You’ll get over this. You’re poor and underfed.

Bread — Cosi, (Multiple Locations)

With the pangs of hunger temporarily abated, we’re off toward Cosi for our next course. Fresh bread is always coming out of their faux wood-burning oven, so come with an appetite. White is better than wheat, and make sure it’s salted, but take what you can get and never argue with the bakers. I like to grab a slice of bread on my way in (#1), stare at the menu, nod and ask a few questions about today’s soups. “Oh, chowder today? Wonderful.” (Grab piece #2). Then hit the road with a final piece (#3). At that point, you’re gone- so what can they do?


Fromage — Rock Center Farmer’s Market

It’s only on Weds-Fridays through August, but the Rock Center Farmer’s Market can be a good place for free cheese samples. You can usually get a small taste of one or two of their offerings if you ask nicely, and (this is important) look like you are truly interested in purchasing something. If you were smart enough to save a piece of bread from Cosi, then you’ve really got something.

Plat principal — Nuts4Nuts, 5th Ave @ 48th Street

Turns out finding a main course is trickier than I suspected. Most of the cafeterias in midtown warn against sampling, like the unnamed place next to Johnny Utah’s on 51st Street btw. 6+7th where “No tasting, no nibbling” is the mantra. I even tried to get a sliver of pizza at Sbarro, but these guys are fastidious. Since I use my lunch break to conduct “research,” you can imagine that I get pretty hungry when it doesn’t work out. Each day I dream of finding something new, a succulent morsel hiding among the suits in Rockefeller Center. But on this day I settled for a single, sweet nut from one of those Nuts4Nuts carts. I’m hungry, sweaty, and thinking maybe this isn’t worth it.

Dessert — Fruit Cart, 6th Ave @ 45th Street

Determined to right my foundering lunch vessel, I will usually approach the fruit cart and asked for damaged fruit, the kind even the seller will say “uh, that you don’t want.” With a nod of understanding, I left with three peaches and a mango. To call the fruit over-ripe would be a misnomer, like calling a corpse “over-lived.” Back at the office I received quizzical looks and the inevitable question from my supervisor: “What’s wrong with you?”

Cafe — Starbucks Coffee, 1166 6th Ave (@45th Street)

Pipe down and pick up a free cup of the eponymous Pike’s Place, the new Starbucks blend named after the Seattle market where the virus started. Ask for a sample and the very friendly staff (at all Midtown locations, I found) will give you a cup of coffee large enough for anyone who wasn’t raised on lethal doses of amphetamine. If coffee isn’t your thing, they’ll probably give you a taste of those terrible new smoothies as well.

Digestif — J. Crew, 347 Madison Ave (@ 44th Street)

Thirsty? Don’t be shy. Jump in line at J.Crew during the warmer months and you’ll be rewarded with a gratis bottle of Poland Spring water. (Who knew?)

Congrats. If you are paid a flat salary at your job then you’ve made out like a dandy, about $6-10 richer than you were an hour ago. Interestingly, if you make an hourly wage, then you’ve probably lost money.  And so it turns out that taking a “free lunch” is actually akin to a regressive tax for low-income lunchers. Whoa.

Wow. Nicely done Jeremy. I’m guessing this only scartches the surface of what is possible in Midtown… so if any lunch’ers would like to add to this list, feel free to do so in the comments.


  • Wayne me old China,it’s whats known as irnony, a pisstake,a wind up.

    There is i grant a slightly disturbing juxtoposition of someone in one of the richest cities on earth having to do this…….is that what upsets you?

    Another day in paradise.As the fat drummer once sang.

  • Cafe Charlie on 39th b/w 5th and Madison has about 6 soups where you can serve yourself samples, and there are so many elements to that place, that you can go through 2 samples while perusing.

  • “stevenp, don’t worry, CockChug will be hear shortly to back you up”

    OMFG, I had better re-think my attitude and opinions if it has come to this!!! 8^0

  • What’s a “China”? Is that cockney rhyming slang? Very funny post. Light on the protein, unless you somehow get multiple cheese samples.

  • ‘China Plate’, Dubbin, slang for ‘Mate’

    Very well done.

  • Actually its the last line of Rudy’s comment that reminded me why I love him, even if he has thrown me over for two lady food bloggers.

  • Nice post, Jeremy! I love it! When I first started my job in midtown–in the dark days before ML, when I spent far too much time and money at Hale & Hearty–I’d always sample several of their higher end soups and then go for the cheapo lentil chili. I admire your chutzpah to sample and walk.

    Other freebies: Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in Rock Center. If you are really lucky and have mastered your “I look like a potential serious customer” game face, you can get a free sample at La Maison du Chocolat that would otherwise set you back 10 bucks.

  • Request: An ‘After-work Drinks’ Recession Special?

  • Well done, Jeremy! But…why do I suddenly feel dirty, yet hungry? Hmmm…

    To the kitchen!

  • If you get something free with nuts on it, and you don’t like or can’t eat nuts, please don’t forget – I will happily bite your nuts off

  • Jeremy, I applaud your efforts. You are an inspiration to us all.

  • nice! i’ve actually done this in union square – the daily freebie from Trader Joe’s, wander around Whole Foods and see what they’re giving away, then hit Tastee DeLite for a sample or two and I’m on my way!

  • It’s fun to find places to get free food. I’m looking forward to going to the New York State Fair, as I do every year. It’s Aug 21-Sept 1 in Syracuse. There, I’ve gotten sample tastings of fudge, ice cream, yogurt, all kinds of cheese, wine, baked potatoes, and more.

  • Such wit as Jeremy displays here is rarely seen in the blogosphere. I expect more stellar writing from him in years to come.

  • Do you need any money ?
    Love, Marcy

  • You are worse then a mouse or a rat on a search for food, in this big city bravo, I tip my hat to you, it maybe be easier if everyone at work brings lunch to share on a daily basis like a pot luck lunch.

  • brilliant piece! there’s a fruit cart on 55th and 6th and that guy is always giving away fruit. not really rotting just spotty. and loose grapes, nothing even wrong with them. also at the Ernest Klein there are often free samples around the store.

  • For main course: I know it’s the embodiment of everything this site is meant to fight, but outside the Cafe Metro on 42nd between 5th and Madison they usually give free samples of pizza. I’m sure you can walk back and forth a few times for a decent course.

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