The Meaning-Seeker’s Guide to NYC

There’s a reason the night sky plays such an active role in nearly every culture dating back millennia. It is our tether to the scope of everything. Without the stars, we lose our footing and forget that we are, in fact, part of something vast and glorious and, well, magical.

When we look for meaning, it’s not just about understanding why we’re here, in the very practical sense of why consciousness exists. It’s also about feeling a part of something, a great human tableau that seems to have a collective soul of its own.

We matter, just for the simple reason that we exist alongside each other, and here are some places in the city that help remind us of that.


Central Park bench plaques: When I need to feel especially attuned to cosmic interconnectedness, I trudge to Central Park and take my time strolling around and reading the plaques attached to the benches. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, these plaques are used as a fundraiser, and at $10,000 a piece they endow the important work of the Central Park Conservancy. More than 4,100 plaques have been added to 9,000 of the park’s benches. The inscribed messages range from marriage proposals to thoughtful obituaries to musings on the beauty of the park. Each is a tiny but intimate window into the life of a New Yorker or New York lover. I’m usually in tears a few plaques in. (There are lots of obits.) Pro tip: Go now, when you’ll have plenty of empty benches to peruse, as opposed to in summer, when they’re all full of weary park goers.


Chuck Close subway mosaics: Art can make us feel spiritually fulfilled. Something about the way in which it captures us—our moods, our moments, our likeness—and reflects it all back in a way that makes things a tad more comprehendible. Recently, one of the installations that moved me most was not in a museum. It was public art, part of the 86th station on the newly opened 2nd Avenue subway. The station is filled with 12 large-scale Chuck Close mosaic portraits in a variety of styles, featuring tiny glass pieces, large painted tile, realistic rendering, Close’s signature circle mosaics and more. The massive scale makes each portrait especially poignant. 


Scales of the Universe exhibit: I’m of two minds about the universe and how its scope relates to our own philosophy of relevance. On the one hand, it seems we matter less if we’re so infinitesimally small in relation to what’s out there. On the other hand, we have the power to learn and understand the “bigness” of what’s out there, so maybe we really do matter after all. Come face to face with these grand questions inside the striking Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The Scales of the Universe exhibit circles the Planetarium, using the sphere as a scale of reference for the macro and micro measurements of our world. It starts as a representation of the observable universe and ends as a representation of rhinovirus, so you can try to understand both the universe’s enormous expanse as well as its precision. 


Sunset Park overlook: There are boastful views. You know the kind. They’re grand, and they know they’re grand. These include views from places like Top of the Rock and One World Observatory. Sometimes, though, it’s more low-key perches that invite a literal and figurative change in perspective. Take this view of Manhattan from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. It feels almost like a discovery, like you’re one of the few people who’ve come upon it. The unexpectedness of it makes it that much more impactful. In a way, it’s a subtle reminder of the power of a different angle. 


Lady M crêpe cake: Some people say that the meaning of life can’t be found on a plate. To these people, I say: you haven’t had Lady M’s signature crêpe cake. There’s no way for me to praise this dessert without coming off as melodramatic. It is a soft, delicate flower after a warm, spring rain. It is a first kiss with your first crush. It is the reason why the universe exists. Wait, did I go too far there? Excuse my sensationalism, I was mid-bite. This dessert’s perfection stems from its simplicity—20 thin crêpes, delicate cream, a crème brûléed top. It’ll help make you a believer. 


Favorite Things Lately, Volume 7

1 The Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Terminal: Stand in the corner of the domed chamber outside the entrance to Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, diagonally across from a friend a loved one. Whisper a question. Listen as they answer back, their voice traveling across the ceiling through the power of reflected sound waves. It’s a magician’s parlor trick rooted in the science of physics. The gallery hosts a steady stream of people, whispering to one another, looking up and smiling.


2. The park bench plaques in Central Park: Whenever I find myself alone in Central Park, I like to wander around and read the engraved plaques that decorate many of the benches. Mostly, they speak of loved ones lost and the deceased’s appreciation for this most beautiful of city attractions. I imagine the immortalized taking the same steps I’m taking. Did they love to people watch as much as I do? Did they find the park loveliest in the spring or the fall? What stories could they tell? Central Park’s Adopt-A-Bench program was born in 1986, and currently, a plaque will set you back $7,500 ($10,000 starting Jan. 1). The endowment is used to maintain the benches and conserve the landscape.


3. Christmas Morning Cereal from Dominique Ansel Bakery: After excitedly munching on this dangerously delicious treat, my husband inquired as to how much it was, since the world-famous bakery is known to be pricey. My expression betrayed me. “$10?” he asked? “$12?!” his face growing more incredulous. “No way it was more than $15!” he said. “$15.50,” I blurted out. So, that’s the major caveat. Here are the positives: this “cereal” is everything I want out of a post-dinner dessert: sweet, salt, crunch, texture. It features a balanced combo of Rice Krispies, caramelized milk chocolate, sugared hazelnuts and mini cinnamon meringues. You only need a handful or two to feel sated. When you look at it that way, it’s almost a bargain, right?


4. Spiked everything: I believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that everything tastes better when spiked with Maker’s Mark. Or was it Socrates? The holiday season is the absolute best time to add alcohol to your favorite foods and drinks. My favorite wintertime beverage is a bourbon-spiked hot chocolate. It has a double-warming effect. Plus, well, there’s chocolate! I also recently added bourbon to this pumpkin cheesecake recipe per the offhand recommendation of a commenter (thanks, stranger!), which gave it added complexity. One of my favorite baking successes is this chocolate pecan pie with bourbon. If it could speak, it would say, “I love winter, the holiday season, and you, sweet friend.”

photo 2

Late Summer Date Idea

I’ve always preferred the astronomical definition of summer, the one where summer doesn’t officially end until the autumnal equinox on September 22nd. This means I can still say “this summer has been lovely so far” and “wow, what a mild summer we’re having.” There are about two weeks left to enjoy the season and cross a few summer-specific activities off the ol’ bucket list.

It’s a time of sublime weather. Mild but still warm days and cool, sweater-required evenings. Why not take advantage with a cute sweets-and-sights date?

This date can be either platonic or romantic. (I opted for the former). Here’s what you do:

Stop by Quality Meats restaurant on 58th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. Go directly to the bar and order one of their divine ice cream cakes to-go. I’ve tried the Take 6 (a variation on the Take 5 candy bar) and the Pie Flight 2013 (pictured below). They were comprised of ice cream, moist cake, cream and, depending on the flavor, chocolate covered pretzels, fruit, chocolate shavings or a mini pie.

Ask for a few utensils and take the ice cream cakes to the pond at the southeast corner of Central Park (pictured below at dusk), a 5 minute walk away. Evening would probably be best time. Then revel in the deliciousness of your dessert and the magic hour-beauty of the park. Be sure to leave before nightfall when this happens.


NYC Oddities: North Woods

If it’s peace and quiet you’re after, the middle of Manhattan is usually not the place you want to be. Except, maybe it is? The North Woods–the lush, green, overgrown 90-acre section of northern Central Park–is filled with rushing waterfalls (I came across three), tight canopies of trees and winding, wooded paths. When you’re in the thick of it, the city’s skyline completely disappears. Originally designed to simulate the Adirondacks, you could imagine yourself anywhere, from central Vermont to rural Shenandoah, except you’re at about 105th Street near Central Park West, mere yards away from some of the liveliest sections of the city. The starkness is highlighted when you finally exit the woods–which I did at the eastern end of the Pool–and you’re greeted by the pleasant din of picnicking tourists and racing bicyclists. The Central Park Conservancy doesn’t meticulously cultivate the area the way they do most of the park; fallen trees are left unmoved unless they are deemed hazardous, lending the woods a pleasant untouched quality. It’s a slice of the rural life tucked inside the world’s busiest urban park.

Below, a walk through the North Woods on a rainy day. I entered from the East Side, near 104th Street, right by the Central Park loop.






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.

Motorino Pizzaria NYC June 2012 - 2

Motorino’s famous pancetta and brussels sprout pie

(Image via andynash,; 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,; 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.


A cocktail at PDT

(Image via jmh’s random shots,; 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.


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,; 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.


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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