The Been-There-Done-That Guide to NYC

There’s much more to this city than Central Park and a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. (Though both of those things are wonderful.) If you’ve visited a number of times and have exhausted the travel guides, or if you live here but haven’t yet had the chance to really explore, then read on.  I’ve been here 12 years, and I still come across surprises. These are some of my favorites.

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Walk the length of Broadway: Sure, you’ve seen a show on Broadway, but have you walked the entire length of the thoroughfare, starting at 220th street and ending at the Battery? It’s a 13.2 mile walk, so make sure to schedule food and drink stops along the way. Celebrate the finish line with trays of square pepperoni pies at Adrienne’s on Stone Street.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park: Some of the best views of Manhattan are found off the island. Take the tram to Roosevelt Island (view from the tram pictured above), and walk to the southern tip. You’ll pass the former smallpox hospital, one of the most haunting buildings in the city. The park itself is pristine and sprawling. The trees are saplings and don’t provide much shade, so wait for a not-scorching day.

City Island: Eat your way through piles of fried seafood on City Island, a picturesque New England-like village off the coast of the Bronx mainland. In addition to being home to a handful of destination restaurants, the main street, City Island Avenue, is lined with familiar small-town spots, like ice cream and candy shops, art galleries and antique stores. Incredibly, it’s all within city limits.

The Morgan Library: Recently named one of the 50 Most Beautiful Places in America by Condé Nast Traveler magazine, the Morgan is something out of a fairytale. (I’m reminded of Beast’s castle library in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast). This once-personal library of 19th century financier Pierpont Morgan features a trove of rare materials like early children’s books and music manuscripts.

Unisphere and Queens Museum: Visiting the Unisphere in Queens’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, one gets a taste of what it must have felt like to see the structure for the first time at the 1964 World’s Fair. There is a futurist’s optimism to the design; it looks like something from a sci-fi film, one in which all nations work together to conquer challenges. Next door, the Queens Museum is home to the Panorama of the City of New York, a to-scale 9,335 square foot model of the city.

Morbid Anatomy Museum: Was Wednesday Addams always your go-to Halloween costume growing up? Do you obsessively look up strange and obscure medical ailments? Are you still not over that whole 90s witch trend? Have I got the museum for you! The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus features a fascinating collection of obscura in its gift shop, rotating exhibits upstairs and an intriguing lecture series. Oh, and taxidermy classes, if that’s your thing.

Wave Hill: This former estate on the banks of the Hudson River is a schlep to get to if you live south of Midtown, but the pristine gardens and the Jersey-cliff views make up for the out-of-the-way location. I’d venture to say this Bronx park is one of the most beautiful spots in the five boroughs.

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Nargis Cafe: This Uzbek restaurant in Sheepshead Bay has quickly become one of my favorite spots in South Brooklyn. Everything here is delicious, but I especially recommend the plov (rice pilaf with lamb), fried manti (Uzbek dumplings), Tashkent salad (lamb and radish salad), lagman soup (spicy noodle soup), and ALL OF THE KEBABS. It’s BYO whatever, but there’s a $5 corkage fee per bottle, so spring for the larger size and bring a crowd. It’s always lively, especially on weekends.

Villabate Alba: Cannoli, made with ricotta imported from Sicily, is what to get at this Sicilian bakery in prime Bensonhurst. I’m also partial to the lobster tails and to gawking at the brightly colored cakes, cookies, and pastries lining the sprawling display shelves.

Taqueria El Mezcal: The tacos at this tiny Sunset Park shop are flavorful and authentic, but what really won me over was their cemita. Made on a traditional, fluffy, sesame seed-covered sandwich bun with avocado, shredded queso, black beans, and, in my case, moist al pastor pork, it might just be the perfect sandwich.

Coppelia: There’s something very old-school New York about this 24-hour Cuban diner (pictured above) on 14th Street. Past midnight it services a cross-section of nighttime revelers, from those out clubbing in the nearby Meatpacking District to local residents out for a late dinner. Dishes and drinks are inventive and way better than they need to be for a 24-hour joint.

San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar: This small, authentic Italian restaurant and sandwich shop is located in an unlikely spot on the Upper East Side. The Neapolitan pies are pretty good, but it’s the panouzzi, sandwich-calzone hybrids made from pizza dough, that are the real standouts.

East Harbor Seafood Palace: Come hungry and with not much money in your pocket to this Bensonhurst dim sum hall with a seafood-inflected menu. It’s the size of a small shopping mall, so while the weekends are busy, the waits are bearable. The shrimp dishes–fried shrimp wrapped in bacon, shrimp dumplings, rice noodle rolls stuffed with shrimp–are winners.

Goa Taco: The pork belly taco as this fusion-y spot on the Lower East Side (with weekend showings at Smorgasburg) was one of my most memorable recent meals. It was perfectly constructed: tender, crispy-skinned pork belly, buttery paratha (an Indian flatbread), red slaw. The entire dish is a master course in how to make fusion cuisine that elevates instead of dilutes.

Wangs: I’m still confused about why this Park Slope takeout spot isn’t a bigger deal. My husband and I have to restrain ourselves every time we walk by, and we’re usually passing by after a filling dinner. Their specialty Korean jumbo fried chicken wings are sticky, crispy, spicy, heavenly. Get them, and the cornbread with salted scallion butter and Thai chili pepper jam, and prepare to fall in love.

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Luckydog: This low-key bar on Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue is a dog- and beer-lovers’ dream. It’s an specially good spot for gawkers who don’t actually have a pet of their own. The adorable back yard is like those dog runs you’re only allowed to observe through a chainlink fence, except here, you’re face-to-face with an array of fluffy puppy butts. On a recent weekend night, the place was filled with as many as a half-dozen pooches, from terriers to Pomeranians to labs. Oh, and the beer list is pretty good, too.

The Double Windsor: I’m a huge fan of this comfortable, airy Windsor Terrace bar, and not just because it’s less than a 20-minute walk from my apartment. It’s the rare spot where one can get an expertly made cocktail, a sought-after beer, and a stellar burger.

Blueprint: “Laid back” and “craft cocktail” aren’t words usually used to describe the same spot. The cocktails at this Park Slope bar are as good if not better than those at more sceney lounges. There’s also a lovely little backyard and a very generous happy hour until 7 p.m.

Covenhoven: There’s absolutely no pretension at this beer nerd’s haven in Prospect Heights. Pick a bottle from their expansive fridge (price vary depending on whether you’re taking out or drinking in) or try something on tap. The backyard, with its small, elevated grassy expanse and iron cafe chairs, is perfect for wiling away summer afternoons.

Ear Inn: Billed as NYC’s oldest bar, this Hudson Square institution has been slinging alcohol continuously since 1817, even during Prohibition. Most out-of-towners go to McSorley’s and miss out on this eccentric spot. Here’s why it’s a can’t-miss: the atmosphere is classic New York, the drinks and food are simple and well-made, and the crowd–a mixture of low-key locals, a post-work crowd, Soho deserters, and a smattering of tourists–is a microcosm of the city.

Red Hook Bait and Tackle: This eclectic Red Hook bar pairs well with a visit to the Morbid Anatomy Museum, mentioned above–the welcoming interior is covered in tchotchkes and an array of taxidermy. It’s not just about the decor, though. It’s also standout for its friendly, laid-back vibe. This bar is the kind of watering hole every neighborhood wishes it had.

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The Official Weekend City Guide, Spring 2013

So you’re coming for the weekend? And you haven’t ever been, or maybe you’ve been just a few times. You want to eat, right? That’s probably the main reason you’re here. Maybe you want to visit some museums and see some unique neighborhoods? You probably want to catch a show, too. And see some only-in-New York things you can tell your friends about. And you’re obviously too cool for over-the-top touristy things. Then read on, dear traveler.

Friday afternoon/evening

Check in to your hotel (drop your bags on your friend’s couch) and head to MoMA, which is free from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays. If you’re staying fewer than 20 blocks away, walk. New York City’s main attraction is its unfettered energy. A brisk walk among the evening crowds will get you amped for the weekend. And yes, MoMA will be crowded on a free night, but it will still be totally manageable. The outdoor sculpture garden is nice way to enjoy art in warm weather (it’s called multi-tasking).  

After MoMA, walk a few blocks south to Top of the Rock, one of the only super touristy activities I’ll be recommending. If you can catch it at just the right time, and it’s a nice day out, you’ll be treated to a jaw-dropping sunset.

MoMA interior

MoMA interior

For dinner, I’d recommend a  New York classic–either pizza or a pastrami sandwich. For upscale-ish Neapolitan pizza, try Motorino, Co. or Keste. If you only have time for a slice, Joe’s and Bleecker Street Pizza, both in the West Village, are the best slice joints in the city.

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Motorino’s famous pancetta and brussels sprout pie

(Image via andynash, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

For a pastrami sandwich, go to Katz’s. As far as I’m concerned, there are no other options. Just go. Don’t get waiter service. Instead, stand at the counter and then seat yourself so you can instruct the pastrami slicer on which choice pieces you want (also, a $1 tip goes a long way).

Depending on where you are, grab a post-dinner gelato at either Il Laboratorio del Gelato (featuring standard flavors as well as a rotating roster of cooky standouts like beet and five different varieties of fig) or L’Arte del Gelato (I love classic pistachio). If you happen to be in the East Village post-Motorino, one of my favorite desserts in the city is the chocolate chip cookie-and-soft serve sandwich at Dessert Club, Chikalicious. The cookies are buttery, warm and gooey and the vanilla bean soft serve is divine.

Gelato at L'Arte del Gelato

Gelato at L’Arte del Gelato

(Image via stu_spivack, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

How about a post-dinner drink? If you’re into fancy cocktail, attempt to make a reservation at PDT at 3 p.m. day-of (I’ve tried this; it’s nearly impossible, but you could be luckier than I was!) or brave the door at Little Branch or Mayahuel.  Or, if you just want to show up and not have it be a “thing”,  try Elsa, The Summit BarAmor y Amargo, Pouring Ribbons or The Beagle (all in the East Village).  Getting a nice drink before dinner may also be the way to go if you want a more relaxed vibe.

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A cocktail at PDT

(Image via jmh’s random shots, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

There are still plenty of places to unwind if you wouldn’t fathom paying more than $7 for any kind of beverage. I’m not a dive bar person, but there’s just something about International Bar in the East Village, with its eccentric clientele and cheap-ass drinks. They also have a backyard garden to enjoy the newly warm weather. Blind Tiger Ale House, a West Village beer bar, is another great option, though it attracts a bit of a younger crowd.

And, since this is NYC, which means if you can dream it, you can do it, be sure to check out Marie’s Crisis if you’re a musicals junkie. This intimate piano bar is filled with a cadre of regulars who belt out Broadway B-sides. Don’t worry, they’ll get to Les Mis and Rent eventually, after they’re done with Gypsy and Annie Get Your Gun, that is.

Saturday

How about dim sum for brunch? For a more traditional approach, head to Jing Fong. Get there early for the best selection. Or, for a slightly Americanized take, try Nom Wah Tea Parlor. Nom Wah’s egg roll is delicious and resembles a mini deep fried omelet. Also, the decor hasn’t changed much since the restaurant first opened in 1920.

Exterior of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Exterior of Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Or if you’re into a fancy be-seen brunch, try Buvette (French), The Dutch (New American), Locanda Verde (Italian) or Peels (Comfort).

After brunch, walk the High Line, an elevated track-turned-cultivated park that’s become a symbol of urban renewal. If you haven’t yet gotten your fill of modern art, make a pit-stop in the middle of the park at the Chelsea galleries, in the loft buildings between 23rd and 28th Streets, between 10th and 11th Avenues.

Grab a quick lunch or “linner” at Chelsea Market, the avenue-length gourmet food market on the ground floor of an office building between 15th and 16th Streets and 9th and 10th Avenues. There are endless options, but I always gravitate toward the lobster bisque in a bread bowl at newly expanded Lobster Place.

Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market

(Image via Marc_Smith, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license)

You’ve earned a bit of down time. Relax, you’ve got a long night ahead of you. Or, if you’re feeling super energized by spring in the city (Liz Lemon: “I love New York in springtime!”), hop a subway to Central Park, especially if you’ve never seen it. It is really quite lovely this time of year. Take a stroll down The Mall toward Bethesda Terrace. Loop back around toward Conservatory Water, a small pond where you can navigate radio-powered boats, on the east side, or Sheep Meadow, a large lawn with skyscraper views, on the west.

Boats at the Conservatory Waterway

Boats at Conservatory Water

If you’re going to a Broadway show, get dinner after. You don’t want to be rushed. How about a slice of pizza or a Gray’s Papaya dog as a snack? Instead of dinner beforehand, how about a drink? (Sensing a pattern here?) The Rum House, inside the historic Hotel Edison, and Russian Vodka Room are the antithesis of almost every other kitschy pub in Times Square. Both have pianos and the latter features $4 infused vodka shots (horseradish, garlic and dill, pineapple, just to name a few) from 4 to 7 p.m. daily. RVR’s wild mushroom and potatoes with sour cream can also hold you over until after the curtain drops.

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Infused vodkas at Russian Vodka Room

As for what shows to see? I consulted a theater friend and she recommended the following Broadway productions: Matilda, Kinky Boots, Lucky Guy, Macbeth and Orphans. I saw Pippin and loved it. It’s high-energy fun with amazing feats of acrobatics and great acting and singing.

For off-Broadway, she recommends Here Lies Love and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

If you’re not going to a show, see some music. There’s always something at Village Vanguard or if you make reservations early enough, Jazz at Lincoln Center. If you want to see a touring band, pick up a Time Out to see who’s playing that night.

For dinner, head to a place with late-night buzz, like Blue Ribbon Brasserie. Their skate with cubed bacon and potatoes is one of the first gourmet meals I had in NYC, and I still remember it as one of my favorites. The kitchen is open until 4 a.m., so take your time getting there, and enjoy a real city-that-never-sleeps experience.

Or, make dinner the main event. Stand in line with expertly disheveled young things at Mission Chinese Food, opt for some homemade pasta and wood burning oven-duck at Perla, dig into spruced up Mexican at Empellón Cocina, or head to an NYC classic like Gramercy Tavern.

Sunday morning/afternoon

If you’re into coffee, take the morning to seek out some revelatory espresso. I’m no expert, but people love Ninth Street Espresso, AbraçoBlue Bottle Coffee and Café Grumpy. You also can’t leave without getting an authentic bagel. Depending on where you’re staying, Murray’s, Ess-a-Bagel (East Village location) and Absolute are all choice spots. Follow my tips for getting the best possible bagel. If smoked fish is your calling, a lox sandwich at Russ & Daughter’s is a must. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, a sable sandwich! Sidenote: Don’t judge me, but sometimes I’ll walk into the shop just to inhale all of that smoked fish goodness. Best smell on earth.

After breakfast, take a ride on the  4,5,6/N, R, Q to City Hall. Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Somehow it is still under construction (grrr), but remains one of the best walks in NYC, with lovely views of the harbor, the Lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge

Take a stroll around ever-expanding Brooklyn Bridge Park, then head to Smorgasburg for lunch. It’s a Candyland of small-batch vendors making everything from gourmet s’mores to fried anchovies. There may be lines for certain items, but I can almost guarantee the wait will be worth it. Smorgasburg DUMBO routinely features upwards of 80 vendors (more for the Williamsburg location on Saturdays), so if you’re someone who suffers from anxiety induced by an abundance of choices, well, get over it.

Phew. That was pretty fun, right? We’ve enjoyed having you. Come back soon!

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