Upper West Side
between W. 80th/81st Sts.
Zabar's is a New York institution. The store is unmatched for its deli and smoked fish, and its cheese, bread and coffee selections are superb. Its produce section is small, but if you only want to make one grocery stop you can at least buy the basics. Prices range from reasonable to expensive but the overall quality is always superb. Be prepared for crowds at almost any time or any day.
The have what is probably the best cheese counter in NYC. You often have to take a number but it's worth the wait and the people who help you are knowledgeable cheese mongers. And its deli and appetizer selection, especially smoked fish, is legendary. The coffee selection is extensive and well-priced (buy more than you need and freeze it). Zabar's is also a place to look for hard-to-find and imported ingredients including artisanal pastas, jams and jellies, olive oils and vinegars, and teas.
If you're not cooking, their prepared food selection is large and very good (I'm partial to their roasted artichoke hearts). And their strudel, made in several flavors, is worthy of a grand prize, as is their rye bread.
What to avoid:
On Sunday mornings it can seem like everyone who lives on the Upper West Side is in the store to buy bagels and lox so try to go early. It's also almost unbearably crowded the days before any Jewish holidays. During the week, because the store closes so early (at 7:30 pm Monday through Friday, Saturday until 8:00 pm, and Sundays until 6:00 pm), it's also crowded with shoppers stopping by after work.
What to know:
Although it's a very limited selection, they sell fresh fish, meat and poultry. Zabar's upstairs cookware store has an excellent selection of small appliances, pots and pans (including most major brands), kitchen gadgets, baking tools, and replacements for necessities like water and coffee filters.
Hours of operation are not very friendly for the city that never sleeps. They simply should stay open later. Then again, most of the people who work there look happy so maybe having reasonable hours has something to do with that.
If you don't live in NYC, they ship everywhere. See their website for all the details.