Oddly, New York City was never a big travel magnet for me. However, when I discovered Alison Moyet was performing at the Manhattan Centre, a whirlwind visit was a no-brainer (especially because she had no Canadian tour dates). Secretly scheming, I knew Kim couldn’t swing enough days off at work to catch Alison Moyet in San Francisco, so, it had to be New York.
Of course, this was all supposed to be a surprise for her birthday, but I completely blew it in a conversation over our space heater. Kim wanted to leave it plugged in as our carriage house and the exposed stone walls make for sub-zero temperatures. I pushed for unplugging it and shutting the door to retain heat in the rest of the house. “Besides, we aren’t having company sleep over until November 16th and we’ll be in New York before that.”
I blurted it out, just like that. The “New” and the “York” and there was no other distraction to confuse the clarity of my sentence. So, then I disclosed it all and gave Kim the new Alison Moyet CD to listen to in her Saab so she’d be primed. Everything else was established. I had researched all our happy hours, pizza joints and scaled back the romantic detours as Kim’s sister would be joining us on the surprise.
Not that it was an intended theme, but, somehow we ended up staying at the oldest operating hotel in New York. We had Rolling Rocks at the oldest gay bar in New York. And, margaritas at Rodeo Bar oldest honky tonk bar—in New York. If it was the oldest _____________(insert anything), it was on the to-do, to-drink, to-eat list.
The Campbell Apartment on Vanderbilt promised “cocktails from another era.” Thirty feet wide, sixty feet long with a twenty-five foot high ceiling, the former speakeasy on the west balcony of Grand Central was a marvel. It didn’t fall into the oldest category, the former office of John W. Campbell, chairman of the board of the Credit Clearing House, served double function. This was no ordinary office—in 1923 decorators were on their backs for months, painting, mellowing and aging the newly timbered ceiling. Furniture was sourced from Italy—and the elaborate pomp of the thirteenth century. By night the office became a reception hall where John Campbell and his wife gathered with like-minded socialites and musicians.
As modern-day socialites we embraced the prohibition hideaway by ordering pints and a stiff $17 Manhattan. It could have killed 56 rats with the booze in it.
There are so many hip gastropubs and bars that we barely made a dent in my list of fifteen options. We had 60 hours to work with—which was not enough time to eat a wild boar and/or buttermilk fried chicken burger(Bareburger), blackened catfish tacos (Rodeo Bar), homemade pretzels stuffed with cheese (Redhead Cafe), a coal-fired pizza at Lombardi’s or to suck back a roasted marshmallow shake at The Stand by Union Square.
However, we did find time and necessity in joining the queue at John’s of Bleecker Street. Keep in mind, I had polled Facebook friends, the Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives site, tripadvisor and random Googles like “Best Pizza Joints in NYC.” I can’t remember who to credit, but, the queue moved quicker than a rollercoaster line-up and soon we were pouring Yuengling (from America’s oldest brewery in Pennsylvania—since 1829). Don’t fret, we drank the local brews too—especially Brooklyn Lager when it was on tap.
John’s is lively, yeasty, cozy and a good sensory rub. Portly staff sling pizzas in an open kitchen and stoke the pizza oven routinely. Fred Flintstone-worthy trays of pizza zip around the room. There’s a wall of graffiti and pics of Johnny Depp and other Hollywooders who have been to John’s. The tabletops, seats and walls are covered in carved initials and messages. It’s semi-like having a pitcher and a pizza in a bathroom stall.
Though our intention was to make our way to the McSorley’s Old Ale House, the oldest Irish pub in NY(1854) on East 7th, we had walked Kim’s sister, Lynne to near death through Central Park, Madison and Fifth Ave. She called a time-out and our closest option besides a street corner hot dog (and, well, we did one of those too, within our 60 hours) was Connoly’s. Irish pubs are nearly as dominant as Starbucks in the city. They consistently have an impressive line-up on their taps and heavy gut-filling fare. The lamb burger with pepper-jack cheese and a sweet curry sauce didn’t disappoint. Lynne’s Turkey Cuban was a gluten torpedo while Kim found solace in cheeseburger quesadillas.
Fuelled, we pushed on.
In 60 hours we took in the staples—hopping on the free ferry to Staten Island (a 25 minute voyage) was optimally planned at sunset. The Statue of Liberty was a mighty silhouette against the blaze of orange. (Curiously, the ferry boat is escorted to the island by a heavily armed coast guard dinghy). Of interest: there is also a free ferry from Wall Street’s Pier 11 to the IKEA’s own Red Hook dock in Brooklyn. “No assembly required.”
Ferries are the best way to catch the city from afar, without the horns and congestion. And, to see the Statue of Liberty up close and personal. We skipped the Rockefeller and Empire State Building figuring our aerial view flying in to La Guardia was close enough to the ‘Top of the Rock’ experience that takes you to the 80th floor of the Rockefeller for $27. And, we’d all seen the Empire observation deck from Sleepless in Seattle.
Speaking of Hollywood, next to the lure of the buttermilk fried chicken burgers, the Bow Bridge in Central Park was something we simply had to do. Luckily we had a double-digit November day and perfect movie set conditions for our stroll. The leaves were still on the turn and many of the pushy vendors and rickshaw operators (that must swarm like mosquitoes in summer) had thinned out. Seeing the bridge where so many famous smooches have happened was a neat moment. As was the Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields—a juxtaposition to our Iceland trip.
In Iceland, the ferry service to Videy Island didn’t jive with our days in Reykjavik. A friend who visited just weeks later was privy to a sing-along at Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower monument to John, with Yoko in person! The tower is only lit from October 9—December 8th, 21-31 December 21-31st, February 18th and 21st until March 18th. It is lit two hours after sunset until midnight each night except on John and Yoko’s birthdays and New Year’s Eve, when it remains lit until sunrise.
John and Yoko lived in the Dakota Apartments adjacent to this area of the park. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was fatally shot walking into his home. Yoko Ono donated $1 million towards the creation of the tear-drop shaped Strawberry Fields area of Central Park. A bronze plaque lists over 120 countries that have planted flowers and donated money to the maintenance of the area.
A walk through Central Park is the polar opposite of Times Square—the gauzy overload of every excess. It’s worthy of a walk-through, but also of a quick exit. Those with corporate claustrophobia will be hyperventilating. However, if you are a M&M fan, you can design custom messages and have them printed on the chocolate candies within 20 minutes at the flagship store here.
Other impressions? In no particular order:
I loved the mobile fruit and vegetable vendors setting up shop on random neighbourhood sidewalks. I loved seeing the urban dog walkers with their motley mutt crews. Hot dogs are cheap–$2.50, but they are a skinny and skimpy knock-off to the condiment-laden greats we had in Iceland.
New York is surprisingly clean—the subways (cheaper than Toronto at $2.50–same price as a hot dog!) are pristine. Unless you’re ordering $17 Manhattans at the fancy pants Campbell Apartment, craft beers are on par and the likes of Rolling Rock go for $3 a bottle at Happy Hour. Lamb burgers, fries and a briny pickle go for $13.
New York is sleepy—even Chinatown didn’t start to hum until 10am. Every storefront is shuttered and bolted until then, with just a few delivery trucks and token fire trucks rambling about.
Go for a reflexology treatment. On the edge of Little Italy there are several to choose from on Mott street– and 20 minutes for $20 is rather cheap, instant euphoria.
Check out Mark Lakin Photography at 750 Greenwich Street (corner of 11th). The gallery space is a showcase of the luxury travel company, Epic Road, that he co-founded with Marc Chaffiian. Wanna honeymoon in the Arctic or Africa? (I guess you could get married twice if you can’t decide). Mark and Marc design tailor-made luxe safaris and expeditions to the Serengeti, the volcanoes of Rwanda—and, Iceland. Lakin’s pictures are stunners.
The air is permeated with the distinct heady smell of roasting chestnuts. All of Little Italy smells like Nonna’s kitchen and bubbling sauces.
The Spotted Pig (West 11th at Greenwich) and its quirky design and menu (potted pickles, deviled eggs, devils on horseback or crispy pig’s ear salad with lemon caper dressing anyone?) make for a boisterous mid-week pitstop. On a Wednesday night it was elbow to elbow at the bar rail.
New York City is very black and white, culturally speaking. There is a definite absence of Asians, Indians and Middle Easterns compared to Toronto. Though there is a Little Italy and Chinatown, I failed to notice an obvious Little Korea, Little India or Little Portugal or Greektown.
Crash at the Sohotel—the oldest operating hotel in the Bowery district. It has funkadelic down pat with the Victorian-zebra print cross-over furnishings and exposed brick walls. On the edge of Little Italy, it’s boutique, industrial and a unique sleep. Sidebar: The staff all sport purple checked shirts and purple converse.
Maybe I am immune to masses of people, sirens and horns after visiting the madness of Cairo and living in Toronto, but, I was expecting New York to be jammed with people. I expected it to be taller (skyline wise). Really, it is Toronto, but with more girth and less pigeons.
D’espresso (317 Madison). Just step inside. Books printed on tiles—on the walls, on the floors. Drink enough espresso and you will feel like the walls and shelves are closing in on you.
Though we ran out of hours, our next visit will require a beeline to the High Line. As I mentioned, we had walked Lynne’s legs off in Central Park, and asking if she’d like to walk another 1.45 miles along the High Line was out of the question. The High Line is part of the New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line, a linear park built on the elevated rail that runs from Gansevoort near West 13th and splits the Chelsea district to West 30th. Next time—and after jaunt we’ll have gourmet peanut butter sandwiches at the Peanut Butter and Co. (between West 3rd and Bleecker). I’ve already decided on “The Elvis”—peanut butter, banana, bacon and honey. Yep.
And, that’s 60 hours in New York City.
Plus a plate of fries with truffle oil, rosemary and parmesean with a Smuttynose Stout at Slip Mahoney’s at La Guardia before departing.