Dave Freedenberg believes there are two types of people in this world: those who love food and those who don’t. Freedenberg, who is perhaps better known as Famous Fat Dave, is most definitely the former.
For the last several years, he’s led New Yorkers and tourists on unique food tours through tasty eateries in Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs.
And, while there is no shortage of food tours in New York, Famous Fat Dave distinguishes himself by taking passengers around in the “Wheels of Steel,” a white, Checker Marathon taxi.
I first heard about Famous Fat Dave (henceforth referred to as FFD) while researching an article about culinary tours within a day’s drive of my native stomping ground in Providence, R.I., and his tours seemed to be a perfect fit for the unique, offbeat experiences explored by “How Cool is That?”
I recently had the opportunity to chat with him about what exactly he does and how someone gets into such a line of work.
Here’s a bit of what I learned.
Famous Fat Dave Tours
Regardless of what restaurants you visit or your preferred tour length, one thing is for sure when traveling with FFD – you won’t go hungry. Not even close. FFD’s trips include several tastings aimed at leaving tourgoers “pleasantly stuffed.”
“I’m not worried about you not being full; I’m worried about you being too full,” he said.
The tours mirror New York’s diversity with an ever-evolving menu that could include anything from sushi to barbecue to pizza to kosher to Chinese to German and Jamaican, not to mention other appealing treats. A lot of visitors leave the day’s menu up to FFD, but even those who request a theme can expect scrumptious surprises along the way.
“If someone asks for a pizza tour, I usually recommend a mostly-pizza tour. That’s the smartest thing to do. We’ll hit a bunch of pizza places, but why are we going to drive by the best dumplings in Brooklyn?” he said. “You didn’t know you wanted it, but you did.”
The “Wheels of Steel” accommodates groups of four or less. FFD has a minivan for larger parties, and he offers walking tours, too. While walking tours are usually focused on lower Manhattan areas such as SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown, taxi tours extend outside Manhattan into Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, among other areas.
Is It All About The Food?
Not with FFD. Instead of checking out new or trendy places, he prefers to bring guests to popular neighborhood mainstays, the kind of spots where locals will eat two or three times a week their entire lives.
Yes, there will be plenty of food along the way, but the potential for fun interaction with restaurant patrons, cooks and owners provides a long-lasting cultural flavor.
“I try to give people a feel for what it’s like to be a local, like a longshoreman in Red Hook or a recent immigrant in Chinatown,” he said.
“I always tell my customers, if anyone is goofing around or chatting with you, soak that up. People make these tours as memorable, if not more memorable, than the food.”
The History Of Famous Fat Dave
The roots of “Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel,” as it’s officially known, date back to the summer of 2001. FFD had recently graduated from New York University (history major, politics minor) when he started driving a bread truck, the first of several odd jobs. His resume eventually expanded to include time as a pickle man, a cheesemonger and a hot dog vendor at MCU Park, home of the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team on Coney Island.
Perhaps none of these jobs, however, were as critical to FFD’s eventual line of work as a New York City cab driver. The position allowed FFD to expand his knowledge of the city, particularly where local folks like to eat. To this day, asking people about their favorite places is a big part of finding new restaurants.
“It all started driving the yellow cab, asking people, in their neighborhoods, what are the places they live for, and not just where but what to order,” he said.
“People are proud of their neighborhood secrets.”
FFD started giving tours by showing his friends some of those places. He later expanded to paying customers and made it his full-time job in 2009 after finishing graduate studies (public administration with a concentration in international economics) at Columbia University
“It’s a very expensive backup plan,” FFD said.
The idea to pick-up a white Checker cab, purchased from a collector in Ohio, was aimed at appealing to New Yorkers. Folks on the street still regularly try to hail FFD, or, in some cases, simply jump in and shout out a destination.
Not Just New Yorkers Anymore
In most cases, tour requests come from folks who’ve heard of FFD via word-of-mouth, though it’s not the only way. Along with mentions in national publications such as USA Today, FFD has been featured on the BBC, National Public Radio and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.”
His clientele is about one-third New Yorkers, one-third U.S. residents from outside New York, and one-third international visitors from every corner of the globe.
Among these guests, FFD said he takes special pride in connecting New Yorkers with local places they’ve been missing.
Dave’s Favorite Spots
Having visited such an expansive variety of eateries in the New York area, identifying some favorite spots is nearly impossible for FFD.
“I’m a lover not a fighter. I don’t choose. If I had to choose, I’m partial to cannolis, and I’m Jewish, so delis, that’s like my soul food. But if you ask me again in six hours, I’m going to tell you something different,” he said.
What Famous Fat Dave Can’t Find In New York
One tasty bite that continues to elude FFD in his culinary travels around New York is a proper crabcake. A Maryland native, FFD still hasn’t found one that stacks up with those back home, which isn’t exactly surprising to him. Cities across the country all have their own specialties.
Said FFD: “You cannot get a great crabcake outside Maryland just like you can’t get great New York pizza outside New York.”
To learn more about Famous Fat Dave and how to schedule an eating tour with him, visit www.famousfatdave.com.
And while we’re on the topic of food tours, read about our experience on the Slice of Brooklyn pizza tour. For more of the best local foods, see our list of Tastiest Day Trips From NYC. Interested in more tours? See our list of the Top 10 NYC Tours.