Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tour on the Wheels of Steel takes passengers on a gastronomic journey through New York City in Freedenberg’s iconic white ’82 Checker Marathon. The customized ride—which entails snacking at an array of eateries—has been profiled in The New York Times, Saveur magazine, and on ABC News to name a few, and his expertise has landed him on every Big Apple episode of Anthony Bourdain’s travel show No Reservations. Freedenberg’s classic cab is especially fitting because it was his taxi driver days that helped him compile a mental Rolodex of food treasures. “People are pretty proud of their little neighborhood secrets, so I just asked every fare that I had,” he says. “At this point it’s literally my life’s work to discover all the best food in New York. ”
The 32-year-old Maryland native fell in love with the city as a student living in the East Village, where he was a regular at Pommes Frites and Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffé. “Some people in college chase girls—I was chasing the food,” he recalls. The first eating tour he ever gave was at NYU as president of the history club—a walk through the Lower East Side that included the legendary Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, and Guss’ Pickles, where Freedenberg was such a big customer that he eventually worked there just so he could eat as many pickles as possible (about 50 per day). He also found work as a bread truck driver, cheese monger, and hot dog vendor at the Brooklyn Cyclones ballpark. “I did those jobs for the food,” he says. “If I was going to do something for the money, I’d go down to Wall Street.”
What started as a hobby in 2002 grew into a full-time business a few years ago after a trip to Cairo where Freedenberg met a boisterous cabbie giving private tours of the pyramids. “I thought, If this guy’s doing it for a living, why don’t I?” he says. The career change proved a natural fit. After all, Freedenberg had long been known for his nearly encyclopedic knowledge of New York meals—and now he could share that with both tourists and locals. Ask for a pizza recommendation and he can rattle off 50 top spots in all five boroughs, as well as the history of the dish.
His tours can be cuisine specific—from sushi to soul food—or chosen by themes such as the Midnight Munchies Cruise or Sweet Tooth Tour, but the most popular is Famous Fat Dave’s Faves. “People don’t know that they want broccoli rabe with sausage and garlic knots—but they do,” he explains. “I try to open people’s minds to food. If you think that you don’t like knishes, maybe you’ve just never had a great knish.”
It’s hard to believe that Famous Fat Dave started out as a picky eater in childhood and was then a provincial college student who didn’t venture north of 11th Street, until he brought his old Toyota Camry from home—a decision that proved fateful. “Once I started driving all over the city I realized I loved every inch of it and that I could spend the rest of my life exploring,” he says.
Freedenberg has done precisely that in the decade since, except today he traverses the urban terrain in a taxi he lovingly named “Sweetness” and outfitted with a roof light that reads EAT. The old-school vehicle attracts a lot of attention: Upon pulling into traffic, a group of girls on the sidewalk smile and wave. Later when the car parks alongside a street sweeper outside Katz’s Deli, the sanitation worker hops out and cracks a joke about needing a ride to Boston. “Driving the Checker around makes New York feel like a small town in the 1950s Midwest, where everyone knows each other,” Freedenberg explains. “It’s a huge city that can feel very anonymous and lonely sometimes, but it’s like all of a sudden I know everybody, so it makes my life here feel very surreal.”
“Some people in college chase girls—I was chasing the food.”