New York City Travel Guide, Summer 2015

Planning a first-ever trip to any city can be daunting. In New York City, especially, the options can seem endless. To make things a tad easier, I’ve highlighted some of the best restaurants, drinks spots, snack destinations and attractions in this manageable guide (updated and reinvented since I last posted in 2013), which can be used as a resource for first-time visitors. It will also probably be useful to those coming for the second, third and fourth time. Have I left off more than a few favorites for the sake of brevity? Absolutely. I’m pretty sure, however, that if you utilize this post–and have at least a few days of sunshine–you’ll enjoy a pretty good, if not a downright amazing time in The Wonder City.

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Totonno’s: Recently named “Best Pizza in America” by The Food Network, this Coney Island family joint has been churning out perfectly charred NYC-style pies for over 90 years. (pictured above)

Mighty Quinn’s Barbecue: This mini chain is great ambassador for the city’s barbecue revolution. The brisket never disappoints.

Ivan Ramen: New-fangled ramen meets a creative apps menu at this Lower East Side restaurant.

Katz’s Delicatessen: Don’t even think about ordering anything other than a pastrami sandwich at this New York institution.

Al di la Trattoria: As popular as ever, this Park Slope, Brooklyn restaurant does rustic Italian right. If the wait is long, check out the sister wine bar next door, which features the same menu.

Comodo: The eclectic menu at this homey-yet-upscale Soho eatery features dishes influenced by the cuisines of Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia.

Decoy: Snag a reservation at this subterranean West Village restaurant for the best prix fixe Peking duck dinner of your life.

Rose Water: Unlike most eateries, where the brunch menu is an afterthought, this Park Slope, Brooklyn greenmarket-centric restaurant gives the spliced meal the respect it deserves.

Grand Banks: Yes, this boat-restaurant docked at a pier in Lower Manhattan is sceney, but the food and drinks are legit and the vistas can’t be beat.

Pok Pok NY: This popular spot slings authentic, expertly spiced Thai (try the wings!) in Brooklyn’s Columbia Waterfront District.

J.G. Melon: This pub with plenty of character offers thick, griddle-cooked burgers on the Upper East Side. Though a second recently opened location in the Village has worked hard to translate the original’s charm, it’s still worth it to trek Uptown.

Cherche Midi: The steaks and burger are the stars at this expansive upscale bistro on the Bowery, but save room for equally rich apps and sides like pot de fromage and roasted cauliflower.

Fu Run: Take the 7 train to Flushing, Queens for inventive Northern Chinese cuisine popular with neighborhood locals.

Upland: Fresh California cuisine has made this large, airy restaurant on Park Avenue South the talk of the town.

Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter: Sweet tea-marinated fried chicken satisfies hungry diners on the cheap in the far East Village.

Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna: Eating fresh porgy at this Astoria, Queens taverna is the second-best option to hopping a not-so-quick flight to the Greek Isles.

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Leyenda: An inventive menu of pastel-colored tequila and rum cocktails have made this Cobble Hill, Brooklyn watering hole one of the most hyped bars of the summer.

Hotel Delmano: Mingle with nouveau Brooklyn bohemians at this dimly lit, romantic cocktail bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Met Roof Café and Martini Bar: If you’re already going to be at the Met, take an elevator to the roof for a glass of Cava and a stunning view of the city skyline surrounding Central Park.

Spuyten Duyvil: There’s a serious beer menu at this low-key Williamsburg, Brooklyn bar with expansive backyard.

Maison Premiere: The $1 and $1.25 oyster happy hour here is amazing (get there before 5 p.m. to snag a seat!), as is the lush outdoor garden. The complex cocktails, at a relatively affordable price, make this Williamsburg, Brooklyn spot as a must-try.

Weather Up: An upscale Prospect Heights, Brooklyn cocktail den that somehow manages to be as cozy as any neighborhood bar. (pictured above)

Mayahuel: Mezcal is the star at this moody East Village duplex bar.

Marshall Stack: A no-frills Lower East Side drinks spot with a varied beer selection and tasty bites.

International Bar: An often-crowded East Village institution where people from all walks of life mingle over cheap drinks.

June: A perfect date night post, this Cobble Hill, Brooklyn natural wine bar offers eclectic pours and small plates in a beautiful setting.

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Russ & Daughters: This Lower East Side temple to appetizing has been churning out the best smoked fish in NYC for 100 years.

Absolute Bagels: A perfect crust and a chewy interior make the bagels at this Morningside Heights joint the best in the city. (pictured above)

Gray’s Papaya: Cheap grilled hot dogs with plenty of snap and fresh papaya drinks are the draw at this all-night Upper West Side institution.

El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette: This Lower East Side spot is the place to catch model-types filling up on healthy-but-inovative dishes like charred radicchio with ricotta, hazelnut and mint.

Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream: A draw for adventurous dessert eaters, this Lower East Side ice cream bar features flavors like durian banana and Black Strap rum.

Joe’s Pizza: This quintessential New York slice at this no-frills West Village stomping ground is beloved by celebrities and locals alike.

Taïm: The falafel at this West Village matchbook-size shop is amazing, but so is the sabich sandwich–a pita filled with charred eggplant, hard boiled egg, Israeli salad and other healthful toppings. A second location in SoHo offers the same menu.

Sullivan St. Bakery: Fresh sandwiches, salads, breads, pizzas and delicious desserts (get a bombolino!) keep the Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen locations hopping all day long.

Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Drool-inducing pie flavors like strawberry balsamic and chocolate chess make this super popular Gowanus, Brooklyn destination a believe-the-hype kind of spot.

Doughnut Plant: I’ve written plenty about these doughnuts because they really are that good. The crème brûlée-filled doughseed and the peanut butter-and-banana cream yeast doughnut are a few of my favorites at the Lower East Side flagship.

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One World Observatory: The recently opened One World Trade Center skyscraper features the city’s newest observatory, where you can marvel at the country’s most impressive skyline from tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Central Park: Manicured lawns, rolling hills, sun-strewn vistas–you could spend an entire day wandering around this urban oasis. (pictured above)

Whitney: The museum’s inaugural exhibit at its new Meatpacking District location features a survey of their permanent America art collection, and is not to be missed. The outdoor spaces on each level provide bird’s-eye views of the neighborhood and the harbor.

Coney Island: It’s not summer without at least one visit to this historic urban beach in Brooklyn, which features great people watching, boardwalk eats, an amusement park and minor league baseball.

Broadway show: Seeing a show is a quintessential NYC experience. Hamilton is the production of the season, if you’re able to score tickets.

Colin Huggins at Washington Square Park: If you’re a piano lover, you shouldn’t miss busker Colin Huggins’ free performances of classical piano pieces on an east-side walkway in Washington Square Park. He’s there most weekends. Tip generously!

MoMA or Met: These NYC museums (in Midtown and on the Upper East Side, respectively) are world class. If you’re here for a short visit, pick one–are you a classics person or a modern art person?–and explore for at least two hours.

The High Line: One of my favorite places in NYC, this far west Chelsea train track-turned-elevated park is perfect for an evening stroll. Some of the best examples of modern architecture surround the walkway, and more gawk-worthy buildings have sprouted since the park’s first section opened in 2009.

Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge Park: Gazing at the skylines of both Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn as you meander across the Brooklyn Bridge has been a guidebook must-do for a long time. (For obvious reasons). Pair the walk with a visit to Brooklyn’s expansive and impressive new park on the East River.

East River Ferry or New York Water Taxi: You haven’t seen this city until you’ve seen it from the water. The former lets you zip from Midtown East to Long Island City, Queens to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn and finally, to Wall Street as you take in the views and topography of the city. The latter lets you cruise around Lower Manhattan and to a few stops in Brooklyn. Hop on and hop off for a self-guided food tour; stellar eats can be had just a few blocks from each of the stops.

Yankees or Mets game: Cheer on the boys of summer in the Bronx or Queens. Both stadiums are relatively new and feature updated amenities and next-level dining options.

Tenement Museum: Relive the harrowing stories and tight living quarters of 19th- and turn-of-the-20th century immigrants through guided tours and recreated apartments at this unique Lower East Side museum.

Hudson River Park: I’m rarely more in love with NYC than when I’m strolling along the varied waterfront that makes up this diverse park. For a true adventure, start at 59th St. and walk all the way to Battery Park at the tip of the island.

(Check out my archived New York posts for more ideas!)

The Sweet Life in Rome

The past in Rome is like a living organism tethered to the city. It’s literally ever-present. Hidden behind nearly every turn is a thousands-year-old monument, a visual testament to the city’s eternal grandeur and complicated legacy. It’s easy to marvel at the feats of the ancient engineers of the Colosseum, but then you remember the bloodshed and the horror. You envision the fear in the gladiators’ eyes, the murderous glee in those of the spectators. But “it’s so beautiful,” you think, and so inescapably modern. There are grand lessons to be learned from this, I’m sure. Something about humanity’s dual nature. Why were we–still are–capable of such violence? Big questions. Complicated answers. The city is more than a history lesson, though. There’s life here. It pulses through every winding curve and swims among the cobblestones. It’s alive in the Romans themselves, whose passion for their city informs everything about it. There’s a magic here that’s hard to put into words. It’s most evident at night, when the bright green ivy bristles on the ochre stucco of the ancient neighborhoods and the fountains glow holy in the piazzas. The wine is cheap, the food indulgent and unpretentious. It hooks you. After we returned from our trip, a relative, now in her eighties, said the following wonderfully poignant thing: “We thought we’d see the world, but we kept going back to Rome.”

There are imperfections, too. Rome doesn’t have the picturesque elegance of Paris or the renovated facade of Madrid. It’s just a tad rough around the edges, especially outside the touristy areas. Locals complain about basic services. Pedestrians fight with Fiats and Vespas for street dominance. But the undeniable beauty of Rome, my god. And the permanence afforded to it by its history. It feels truly eternal. A place that was, is, will forever be.

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From top: Chicory fettuccine and bucatini all’amatriciana; the Pantheon at night; the streets of Trastevere; the Colosseum; the Roman Forum; rigatoni carbonara at Perilli in Testaccio; ruins and Il Vittoriano; a view of Il Vittoriano from the American Bar at the Hotel Forum; steep steps; the Spanish Steps from above; charcuterie and wine dinner near Piazza Navona; Campo d’Fiori; anchovy and zucchini blossom pizza at Dar Poeta in Trastevere; Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere; a Kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto; beautiful streets; cheese and anchovy-stuffed fried zucchini blossoms in the Jewish Ghetto; the Great Synagogue; the Pantheon oculus; Villa Borghese, Rome’s main park; drinking wine on our roof; the view from our rooftop; cheap, delicious gelato all over Rome; St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from the gardens of the Vatican; Roman streetscape; Pizzarium near the Vatican; a bookstore with an amazing selection of vintage Italian posters, around the corner from Pizza Navona; the lovely, winding streets of Rome

An Ode to the Tourist

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Image via THOR, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license

What do you get when you distill travel to its essence? Is it experiencing new cultures? Or, getting outside of yourself and your routine? Or maybe, is it, at its core, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes? Travel can be life-affirming in the best possible way: sweeping vistas and exotic foods–a new breeze under a new sun. Those are the ideals of travel. The reality, while often still pleasurable and picturesque, can also be frustrating and rage-inducing. It’s trying to figure out what a gate agent is saying when there’s been a flight delay or accidentally ending up in the wrong part of the city after you’ve misread a map. (Actually, the latter can be quite serendipitous if you don’t have elsewhere to be.) It’s tempting to think it’s just us Americans who stick out so prominently when abroad. But everyone, no matter how cultured or worldly, is a tourist when they’re away from home.

The idea of tourism as shared experience is heartening and can be, at times, liberating. Once you realize you’re in the same boat as all other travelers, your insecurities can melt away. On a recent trip to Italy I saw a group of hip young French girls eating at a cozy trattoria, a supersize Lonely Planet guide unabashedly propped on their table. I often try to read guidebooks inconspicuously so my husband and I aren’t branded *TOURISTS* without being given a chance to ingratiate with the local culture, but seeing theirs so prominently displayed made me say “who cares?” On a day trip to Florence, we spotted another young French traveler who was flummoxed by the Italian word for “check.” She had thought she said it correctly, but the waiter was confused. I felt for her as I had, on our first day in the country, said muy bueno (“very good” in Spanish) instead of molto bene (“very good” in Italian) when asked how a certain dish tasted. It was a slip of the tongue for which I have no explanation. This is what travel is, though–it’s bumbling, self-effacing, humbling. So much of travel writing is devoted to telling us how to blend in with the locals, either by way of what we’re wearing or how we speak or which places we choose to dine. But this “blending in” tends to be ineffective no matter how hard we try. Every expertly pronounced request to a taxi driver to take us to, say, Trastevere (pronounced tras-TEH-ve-ray) or Termini (pronounced TAIR-mee-nee) was coupled with a sense of pride followed by an immediate reality check when he inevitably followed up with an Italian phrase I couldn’t quite decipher.

My husband and I are American; we’re not, nor will we probably ever be, Italian (or French or Spanish). We’re respectful and we’re kind and we’re curious when we travel, but no matter how polished our demeanor, we’ll eventually be found out as tourists (is it the shoes? the haircuts? our excessive smiling?). We are visitors, after all. And it’s okay if they know. Maybe better, even. At a cozy charcuterie spot near Piazza Navona in Rome, we met a waitress who was enamored of New York City. She visited once a year and told us about all of her favorite spots. I was thankful she had asked where were from and we were able to answer honestly.

Maybe the essence of travel has something to do with cross-cultural pollination; them learning as much from you as you are from them. As we fumbled through our interactions in Italy, we discovered a lot more about this place we chose to call home for just a little while. We let the ancient Roman ruins and the swaying ivy seep into our bones, the memories settle into our brains as a catalog of our lives. At the end, we were still tourists, yes, but we were more at ease with the city; it was now an acquaintance as opposed to a stranger.

On our last day in Rome, I spotted a young American family standing on a bridge on the Tiber river. The mom was wearing a cute sundress, while the dad was outfitted like an American traveler caricature–safari hat, cargo shorts, tube socks and white running shoes. Their bright-eyed children were smiling widely at the dad’s pointed camera. When he was done taking pictures, the dad looked out over the rooftops of the Eternal City. The day was bright and bursting with potential. His contentment was palpable. Here he was, on the trip of a lifetime, with a wife and kids who were just excited as he was. Does it get any better? Were they going to be dining at the grimy, off-the-beaten-path trattorias or spending time with working class locals at suburban markets? Probably not. But they were away from home. And there was beauty to experience. And for them, I think that was enough.

Best Spots for Backyard Cocktails

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Though I’m fairly confident in my NYC expert status, I do have a blind spot: bars. I’m not a big bar hopper. I’m not always aware of the coolest dive bar with the just-surly-enough bartenders or the latest microbrewery bar with the 3 dozen beer taps. I do love well-made cocktails, though. And, I love drinking them outdoors in snazzy backyards come summertime. It’s a quintessential New York warm weather experience. Below, a list of places to check out.

Weather Up: A moody upscale bar in Prospect Heights with delicious, well-priced cocktails. The drinks take a while (a good sign, I think?), but you can wait in the string bulb-lit, verdant backyard, which has ample seating. Thanks to the vegetation and the Brooklyn humidity, it can get muggy back here. Take advantage of the bug spray at the yard’s entrance!

June: This Cobble Hill newcomer is winning fans all over the city. The thoughtful interior is downright beautiful, the small plates are delicious, and the natural wines are unique. The cocktails, which feature uncommon ingredients (just ask and the waitress will explain), are strong and tasty. Did I mention the prices are reasonable? The backyard, which wasn’t completed when things first started to warm up, is now ready for the spotlight.

Leyenda: Cobble Hill seems like the place to drink this summer. This new bar on Smith Street from cocktail maven Julie Rainer and aptly named partner and rising star Ivy Mix, has all the makings of a summer hotspot: an extensive list of creative Latin American-inspired cocktails and punches, tasty small plates from acclaimed chef Sue Torres, and a bare-bones, but pretty backyard perfect for a friend date.

Blueprint: A cozy, low-key place to grab a backyard cocktail in Park Slope. There’s a varied cocktail list with agreeable prices and small plates for soaking up the booze. A comfortable, dates-heavy garden space makes this a very adult, very 30-something place to imbibe. (Park Slope dope!)

Tooker Alley: They take their drinks very seriously at this Prospect Heights watering hole (binder menu, orchid garnishes), but the bar, especially on weekdays is void of pretension. The retro outdoor space with green plastic chair and twinkling lights amps up the casual factor.

Huckleberry Bar: The lush yard at this East Williamsburg cocktail bar is a haven in a not-very-tree-filled part of Brooklyn. They’ve been open for 8 years, so they’ve had some time to hone their craft. Unlike similar establishments that close their yards before midnight, this yard stays open until 1 a.m.

The Raines Law Room: This Flatiron destination is best avoided on weekends, when waits can be cruel. Weekday evenings, though, it’s great for an expertly made, albeit very pricey, cocktail with a friend or date. The back garden is teeny, but lovely.

Maison Premiere: With unique cocktails and the most extensive $1 oyster happy hour in the city, this Williamsburg bar/restaurant fills up fast on weekday afternoons. Get here early, by 5 p.m., to guarantee a spot. The outdoor space, with its pergolas, greenery and white wrought iron tables and chairs is transportive. (Fair warning: mosquitos abound.)

Lavender Lake: Ah, the Gowanus–the polluted waterway that’s attracting loads of development along its banks (only in New York?). What the area does provide is space, and there’s loads of it at this chill, expansive bar. Come early to snag a table with an umbrella and wile away the afternoon with a refreshing cocktail and some fried brussel sprouts.

Beloved: This mohagony-heavy Greenpoint cocktail den is all things to all people. Plenty of seating in the back, unfussy service, strong drinks, gentle prices and even a dance party commencing at 11 p.m. on weekends.

Mulberry Project: If Maison Premiere transports you to seaside France, the backyard (named La Isla Escondida) at this Little Italy lounge makes you feel as though you’ve hopped a super quick flight to coastal Mexico. Graphic murals, bright green artificial turf, multicolored tile and straw thatch couple with fuchsia and lime-hued cocktails to create a vibe that’s anywhere but NYC.

Wrought iron chairs and twinkling lights at Weather Up; courtesy of Weather Up, Brooklyn

Wrought iron chairs and twinkling lights at Weather Up; courtesy of Weather Up, Brooklyn

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Low-key vibe and inventive drinks at Leyenda

A retro feel at Tookey Alley

A throwback feel at Tookey Alley

Courtesy of Maison Premiere

Lush greenery at Maison Premiere; courtesy of Maison Premiere

Courtesy of Mulberry Project

An eternal summer vibe at La Isla Escondida; Courtesy of Mulberry Project

Tried and True: Doughnut Plant

In a city that seems obsessed with chasing all that is new and buzzy, a long-running, successful business is almost an anomaly. A business that has been around a while but manages to stay relevant and innovative is nothing short of a miracle. Doughnut Plant Founder Mark Israel first started delivering doughnuts inspired by his grandfather’s recipe to coffee shops around town in 1994. Back then, the doughnuts were made in the middle of the night in a basement bakery and delivered by bicycle, but Mark’s vision was clear: use natural, high quality ingredients to elevate the lowly doughnut to new heights. His burgeoning company became one of the pioneers of the ingredient-obsessed food movement that engulfed NYC in the aughts. (Think: Smorgasburg, food trucks selling natural slushies, fancy hot dogs and nearly every single doughnut place that’s opened since.) The first brick-and-mortar store opened in 2000 on the Lower East Side to long lines and media acclaim. There were no Technicolor glazes or saccharine sprinkles. Mark used fresh fruit sourced from Union Square’s greenmarket and elsewhere, which resulted in unique, artfully prepared doughnuts, like a yeast doughnut smothered in a soft pink glaze made from fresh raspberries, with no artificial colors or flavors. You can actually see chunks of the fruit in the glaze.

Many doughnuts are seasonal, like the strawberry, which is only available for a little while longer while strawberries are still in season. What’s amazing is how well Doughnut Plant is able to execute both yeast and cake doughnuts–two very different pastries that happen to share the same name and well, shape. The Brooklyn Blackout cake doughnut, for example, manages to be both dense and incredibly moist while maintaining a deep, nuanced dark chocolate flavor. It’s filled with fresh chocolate pudding and topped with a heavy hand of chocolate crumbs. On the yeast end of things, the square PB&J doughnut is filled with freshly made jam and coated in a glaze that incorporates large chunks of salty peanuts. The creme brûlée yeast doughnut, the shop’s best-seller, has a vanilla bean cream center and a crackling sugar shell overlaid on a fluffy yeast doughnut hole. You can see the care and thought with which these doughnuts were developed and made. In a sea of copycats and “next best things,” Doughnut Plant is surging forward, with new locations and envelope-pushing innovation (um, hello mole chocolate doughnut). Never change, Doughnut Plant. Never change.

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Courtesy of Doughnut Plant

Favorite Things Lately, Volume 8

1 Stick With Me bonbons: They say when you eat, you engage all of your senses. Prepare for your vision to kick into overdrive. These glossy creations from the pocket Soho confectionary run by a Per Se pastry alum are painted and splattered like mini Jackson Pollocks (if Pollock preferred pastels and skewed toward minimalism). Flavors like crème fraîche strawberry and speculoos s’more ensure your taste buds don’t feel left out. The treats are packaged in adorable book-like boxes. At $3.40 per bonbon, they’re an I-really-REALLY-like-you-so-money’s-no-object gift idea. (Thanks, Kev!)

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2. This ricotta gnocchi recipe: Time-consuming weeknight dinners are for Type A perfectionists and masochists. The rest of us want something simple-ish, fairly healthy, and if possible, delicious. Enter this indulgent ricotta gnocchi recipe from Serious Eats that’s fit for a Sunday feast, but quick enough for a Tuesday night. It takes longer than the 10 minutes touted by the website; it took us about 35 minutes from start to sitting down, bowls in hand. Still, it was a fairly quick prep considering the caliber of the dish. The resulting gnocchi is dreamy–like tasty, buoyant little clouds. The sauce is a key element, so spring for the good stuff, like Rao’s. There you go: simple, delicious, and uh…not super unhealthy? “Not super unhealthy” is my personal food philosophy anyway.

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3. Carpe Donut cider doughnuts: We all know the deal with apple cider doughnuts. You pick them up at the farmer’s market when you want something sweet, and they’re usually tasty but never revelatory. I was prepared for more of the same when I grabbed one of these around 4 p.m. as I felt some “hanger” pangs coming on. Forget everything you thought you knew! These fresh-from-the-fryer doughnuts are moist and chewy–an amazing accomplishment considering the perpetual dryness and crumbliness of most cake doughnuts. The outside has an appealing crispness, putting the limp, soggy exterior of most cider doughnuts to shame.

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4. Spring!: It’s here! It’s finally here. And I’m so happy. The trees have turned the most intensely pigmented shade of lemony green. The cherry blossom trees have flowered and blanketed the pavement in romantic little petals. Did I mention that the temperature has been perfect? Mid-70s with clear skies and light winds. I realize these days are fleeting, that before I know it, the penetrating heat and throat-clogging humidity will descend like a dense fog. For now, though, let’s enjoy it, this minuscule, short-lived little season that, for a few brief weeks, turns NYC into the most beautiful city in the world.

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A Memorable Walk

This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature in which New Yorkers described some of their most memorable walks and the stories behind the routes. What emerged was an animated portrait of the nooks and crannies of this city. The streets are the pathways through which life moves; they are the veins of NYC. A walk can be about so many things: routine, comfort, peace, discovery, observation and even memory. Sometimes, a walk can feel like going through a time machine and emerging in an alternate universe–you return to a place you thought you knew but now no longer recognize.

Here’s my story:

My parents were in town on vacation about two years ago, and we’d decided to take a walk through our old neighborhoods in Brooklyn –we’d lived in Midwood and Bensonhurst in the late 80s and early 90s. It was a lovely, breezy late-May day. The sun was shining when we arrived at that first house–an aging Victorian standing defiantly on a nondescript corner Elmwood Avenue. The top floor had been ours for a few months in the fall and winter of 1989. My parents hadn’t seen the home in years, and I could tell they were experiencing a complex cocktail of emotions as we stood in shadow of it. That apartment was dingy and rodent-filled, but it was our first place in the U.S. Months of immigration limbo, of statelessness, of uncertainty, had led to that point. They engaged a man who was standing by the gate near the sidewalk–what of the old couple who had lived here, they asked. The woman was still alive, the man replied, but she doesn’t live here anymore.

We walked across Ocean Parkway to our second apartment, a large studio with a foyer and a window that faced a brick wall. It was where our family of four really acclimated to American life. I became obsessed with Disney movies–The Little Mermaid, specifically. My brother got really into LEGOs. We ate birthday pizzas that would be coveted by anyone outside the tri-state area. Life was starting to make sense. Outside the apartment building was an entrance I knew nearly by heart. Here, my brother and would play tag with friends and hang out on the metal railing (since removed).

We kept walking east, toward Coney Island Avenue. We turned onto the street and walked south. We stopped into various Jewish-owned shops, flipping through Hebrew language children’s books and ogling the hamsa necklaces. As the day wound down we found ourselves across the street from the hasid-run yeshiva for Russian-Jewish immigrants my brother and I attended when we first arrived. My parents insisted we go inside. It was now a bookstore and my parents started a conversation with the man who was manning the one-room library of books. He told us the Russian-born rabbi who had run the yeshiva 25 years back had died. My parents were saddened by the news. He had been so kind. They mentioned I had been a student at the yeshiva. The man then asked me whether I knew the main tenants of being a Jewish woman. I didn’t. Well, not exactly in those term. What did he mean? He asked whether I went to a mikvah. No, never. He’s rolling over in his grave, the man said, referring to the rabbi. We looked at one another knowingly and excused ourselves. This place was no longer ours; our memories of it existed in a parallel realm now, separate from the modern reality of what it had become.

The three of us understood that the man was wrong. We knew the rabbi’s intention–to open the eyes of ignorant immigrants to the concept of Jewish tradition. He had succeeded, and we, with our Passover seders and synagogue outings–even if only for the high holidays, were a testament to that.

We walked on, toward the subway, toward another home that was now a distant memory.

Coney Island Avenue (image via Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

Coney Island Avenue (image via Violette79, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

NYC Oddities: Morbid Anatomy Museum

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Curiosities on sale at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

What is it about the morbid and the disturbing that has fascinated so many throughout time? Is it the mystery of the unknown, of what lurks in the shadows? Is it the desire to push ourselves to the brink of what our minds can endure–a cerebral equivalent of physical death-defying sports like BASE jumping or ice climbing? At its heart, I think, it’s the need to imagine that our world extends behind the purely physical and into a realm we don’t quite know or understand. There’s a spiritual optimism to it, a curiosity that is–at its heart–undeniably human.

The Morbid Anatomy Museum, which opened last year in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, explores this fascination. The ground floor houses a coffee shop and gift shop with items like squirrel tales, unsettling photographs, wax modules of maladies like an ocular horn (do not Google this) and taxidermy everything. The second floor space is devoted to the current exhibition (Do The Spirits Return?: From Dark Arts to Sleight of Hand in Early 20th Century Magic; April 11, 2015 to January 5, 2016) as well as a research library borne of museum founder Joanna Ebenstein’s own collection of books, photographs, art and objects devoted to anatomy, death, medical anomalies and other curiosities.

The museum also offers an intriguing lecture series featuring talks, movie showings, and more by academics and historians discussing such varied topics as “A History of Serial Murder from One Billion, B.C. to the Present” (May 5)  and “Psychedelics and Death: A Brief Introduction” (May 21), both already sold out. Taxidermy classes help participants create animal displays like a two-headed mouse or a squirrel shoulder mount.

What Makes a City Great?

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A view of the Richmond, Va. skyline (via Will Fisher, Flickr.com; made available via Creative Commons license)

I’ve always been an urban enthusiast. I love cities. I love exploring them, examining them, studying them. My husband and I have always preferred a new city to a beach as a vacation destination. Even as I enjoy walking around a new place, I can’t help but take stock of what works–on an urban planning level–and what doesn’t.

A few years ago, when I read the seminal modern planning tome “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs, I found myself nodding along with nearly all of Jacobs’ assertions. The book is not at all academic; in fact, it’s conversational and heavily anecdotal. Jacobs makes assertions that seem plainly obvious to a modern reader, but ones that were diametrically opposed to the principles of the early and mid-century planning movement still popular at the time (whose origins can be traced back to de-slumming efforts).

A few of Jacobs’ salient points:

  • Areas should mixed-use, that is: zoned and used for work, living and play, to ensure vibrancy and safety. There should be “eyes on the street” at all hours of the day, from residents, business owners, workers, shoppers and those out on the town. This “diversity of use” creates a sense of community and place.
  • Pedestrian traffic, and in turn, density, is absolutely essential for a healthy city. Too many people, however, decrease sight lines and damage self-policing.
  • Too many tall residential buildings surrounded by unused greens pace–especially in the form of isolated housing projects–create a sense disconnect.
  • Parks should ideally be placed in sunny, well-trafficked areas, not in in isolated courtyards or on the edges of neighborhoods.
  • Architecture should be varied to ensure variety of use and economic diversity (since rent for new construction can often be prohibitively expensive for existing businesses and residents).

This is all well and good for cities like New York and San Francisco and London, with existing infrastructure that allows for revitalization and a heavy concentration of pedestrians.

What of smaller cities, especially in the U.S., whose residents have migrated to the suburbs and whose downtowns, zoned almost entirely for work, stand vacant by 5:01 p.m.? Yes, young people are moving to city centers, but is it enough to counteract nearly 100 years of destructive urban policy?

In my hometown of Richmond, Va., downtown tobacco warehouses were converted into lofts in recent years, but some are, according to what would be Jacobs’ outlook, isolated. Yes, they have river views, and they’re a short walk from a number of good restaurants, but their backs front confined courtyards, vacant green space or parking lots, effectively disconnecting them from the rest of the community and creating safety concerns. The residents’ eyes are diverted away from the street because, well, who’d want to stare at a parking lot? Also, would they want to cross that same empty lot on their own, in the dark, on their way home from a night out?

There’s a mayoral proposal to place a minor league baseball team near this same nightlife area (Shockoe Bottom), which has been the focus of multiple revitalization efforts. The most salient argument against development comes from those who want to preserve the space, which was the site of the second largest slave market in the country. But what to make of the proposal from a revitalization perspective? I haven’t done enough research to see how many visitors a stadium would attract, but it doesn’t seem as though a seasonal attraction–not even an everyday seasonal attraction–is enough to make sure the area meets Jacobs’ diversity of use criteria. Like the current minor league stadium nearby, it’ll stand empty most days and nights, exacerbating the vacant feel of the ‘hood.

What the immediate neighborhood has little of is large-scale office space, though some are trying to change that. There are few people on the streets before 8 p.m. About 1.5 miles across the James River in Manchester, the Corrugated Box Building, a 40,000 square foot loft-style brick building, houses the Richmond-based offices of Tumblr and a bevy of other creative companies. Seems as though similar office space in Shockoe Bottom would greatly increase pedestrian traffic–a hallmark of a healthy city neighborhood–during the middle of the day. Pedestrian traffic tends to initiate a snowball effect–the more pedestrians others witness, the more likely they are to park and walk around themselves. Pedestrian safety is essential, too, and Richmond, as the 20th most dangerous city for walking in the U.S., has a long way to go.

Car culture is ingrained in medium-sized city like Richmond. I was reading a positive Yelp review of a buzzy new restaurant out in the ‘burbs. The reviewer listed his criteria for a great restaurant: unique food, interesting cocktails and…plenty of parking. And I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. How to counteract that? Well, I’m not exactly sure. Side-street, small scale parking decks can help bring in people from the suburbs who are reluctant to troll for street parking. This is especially true for the emerging Broad Street district, where parking can be hard find. Carytown, a quirky nearly mile-long shopping area concentrated along West Cary Street does a good job of hiding small lots and decks off nearby streets. Large lots and decks, which syphon space and character, shouldn’t be an option.

Richmond has plenty of attractions, but few attractive hotels. Aside from the 5-star classic Jefferson hotel, most are generic corporate giants on a business-only stretch of Broad Street or off the interstate near office parks. An independent arts-focused hotel (from the owners of Quirk Galleryis planned for Broad Street and is slated to open Fall 2015. I hope its opening will signify a shift in momentum. I’m surprised no enterprising person has erected a boutique hotel in a neighborhood like The Fan, a historic Victorian district with restaurants, bars and easy walking access to Carytown, various parks and the museums of North Boulevard. A modern, low-lying, industrial-style hotel like the Renaissance New Orleans Arts would fit right in on West Main Street, the main commercial thoroughfare.

Visitors can help local businesses thrive, but it’s locals who determine the culture and character of their neighborhood, and effectively, their city. I’m optimistic about Richmond. There are a number of creative, committed people who love the city and want to make it a renowned destination. And there are so many things the city does have going for it: a variety of museums–both large and smallunique eateries and shops, one of the most beautiful city parks in the country, historic architecture and varied neighborhoods. RVA is on the rise.

The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie Roundup

There’s something about a chocolate chip cookie (CCC, for short) that embodies a certain casual American exceptionalism. The French, Kings of Pastry as they deservedly are, take hours to make and assemble the perfect croissant or ideal Paris-Brest or any number of other complex dough-and-cream concoctions. We Americans get to waltz in with our flour and our sugar and our eggs and our chocolate chips and–in 10 minutes flat–create something near Godliness. Hold off on those U-S-A!, U-S-A! cheers, though. In NYC it’s French bakeries, with their supreme attention to detail, that are churning out some of the best versions of the CCC in the city.

For this roundup, I sampled 18 cookies all across NYC. There were plenty of winners, and I found it difficult to whittle down my favorites to a “Top 5” so I went with a “Top 6.” All are exceptional in their own way.

Top 6 (in no particular order)

Smile To Go: This cookie has an intense brown sugar flavor that plays off of the saltiness of large visible flakes (seen below), creating an ideal medley of salty-sweet. The chocolate disks are ideally distributed throughout.

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Maman: If I were to award an official No. 1, this gargantuan cookie would be it. From the cutesy new French bakery in Soho, this CCC is perfectly browned on the edges with an incredibly melty, gooey middle. Also, I’m usually a hater of nuts-in-cookies, but the whole hazelnuts here add great texture.

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The Dessert Club by Chikalicious: This has been one of my favorite CCCs for years (at the sister location in the East Village), and the one at the new spot is just as lovely. It’s slightly underdone with crunchy edges and a chewy interior. They know to warm up the cookie to order for just the right amount of time to achieve optimal softness.

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Levain Bakery: The most famous of the bunch, this French bakery is perpetually mobbed–and with good reason. They churn out large mounds of deliciously under-baked CCCs that are so heavy, you could use them for weight training. Bring a friend and indulge in the cookie dough-like interior. There are walnuts, but they’re not super loud about making their presence known, if you know what I mean.

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Pret a Manger: Yes, it’s a chain, but so what? These cookies can compete with some of the top bakeries on this list. They’re kept under a warming lamp, so they’re toasty and gooey no matter what time of day you purchase one. There’s a crunchiness at the edges that gives them a nice textural balance.

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Épicerie Boulud: Another Frenchy on our list, this cookie has it all. It’s buttery and soft, with a proportional combination of dark chocolate and milk chocolate chips. I’ve only ever had it warm, so in order to experience the magic, it would be worth it to ask if the ones on display are fresh out of the kitchen.

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Honorable Mentions

Blue Ribbon Bakery Market: The smallest (and cheapest, at $1) of the bunch, this cookie has a lovely home-baked quality. It’s soft, crumbly and not overly buttery. A perfect CCC for when you want a cookie all to yourself, but don’t want to consume a 500-calorie sugar bomb.

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Macchiato: A great spot for cookie cravings in Midtown, this European coffee shop stocks perpetually warm cookies with intense chocolate flavor.

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Bouchon Bakery: Yet another French bakery with a great CCC. This cookie is huge–nearly literally the size of one’s head. The edges are crunchy, but take one more bite and you’re in pliant, chewy heaven.

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The City Bakery: This institution has expanded its dessert empire with Birdbath Bakeries all around Manhattan, featuring the original icon’s famous cookies. The CCC here is flat, chewy and just right amount of underdone. It goes well with their exceptional hot chocolate, if you’re looking to spend the subsequent hours in a blissful sugar coma.

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Jacques Torres Chocolate: Jacques knows his customers, and what he knows is they want a warm CCC. They keep some of the cookies on a hot plate all day to ensure the one you receive is warm and soft. Mine may have spent a little too much time on the plate; it was falling apart when I held it up for a photo. Jacques is also the king of chocolate chip layering–a cross section resembles sedimentary rocks, which is perhaps why his chocolate chip cookie recipe is an Internet favorite.

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Other cookies sampled: Amy’s Bread, BKLYN Larder, Milk & Cookies Bakery, Breads Bakery, Baked, Maison Kayser, Roasting Plant.

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