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.

Taking stock of 2015’s “smaller” memories

We’re prone to remembering a specific year as it relates to capital “E” Events: weddings, funerals, new jobs, and new homes. For me, this past year was filled with these sorts of moments–the kind of memories that are solid, unshakable, impossible to forget.

When I took mental stock of my year, other memories pulsed too. Floating, fleeting images of beautiful vistas, honest conversations, important realizations, and carefree nights out in the city. They were swaying and scattered, but these memories also felt heavy and resonant. They begged for permanence, for me to assign them a degree of importance.

I remembered an intense realization from the fall. It came on suddenly, as I stared absentmindedly out the window of my office after a particularly defeating day. I work in a large downtown skyscraper, and from my perch, I have a view of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and parts of eastern New Jersey. The sun had recently lowered itself behind the horizon, and the sky was an inky blue-black streaked with the remnants of a citrusy sunset. I looked out over the clouds above Newark and saw nearly half a dozen twinkling lights lined up in formation near the city. These were planes waiting to land at Newark airport; I’d seen them dozens of times. Today was different, though. I can’t quite explain why, but the sight of these planes–all perfectly arranged in a row, exhibiting the artistry of the modern ballet that is air travel–felt like a metaphor for the possibility of life. Hundreds of people on those 6 planes alone were coming from cities as divergent as Stockholm and Dubai and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands more were circumnavigating the globe at that exact moment, their airplanes dotting the earth like a swarm of bees around a hive. These travelers were seeing relatives, lovers, flying to new jobs, to vacation destinations, to a new home. They represented movement, and newness, and change, and discovery. They were flying over the North Pole, over treacherous terrain in the Yukon and Siberia–unforgiving landscapes which had bested explorers only a century earlier. 100 years! A yoctosecond in the eyes of the universe, and look how far we’ve come. The planes’ rote lineup took on a sudden miraculousness in my eyes. And did I mention I really REALLY hate to fly?

Granted, this wasn’t a particularly profound realization by any means, but I let the spiritedness of it carry me away. I was a part of this new humanity, this new complexity, and that put an annoying workday into perspective. I know it’s not a wedding or a funeral, but I hope that, many years from now, I can remember that day in the office and what it felt like to be my age, living in this city at this moment in time.

A thought that could have been fleeting was transformed into “memory currency.”

In the spirit of giving weight to these “smaller”, but no-less-important memories, I’ve compiled a list of New York specific-moments that helped shape my year.

Bourbon free-for-all at the closing of Char No. 4: When beloved restaurant Char No. 4 sent out an email that they were closing AND selling off all of their rare and top-shelf bourbon for $6 a pour, the city’s entire bourbon-loving community converged on their bar within the hour. People were sad to see them go, but I’d also never witnessed such earnest giddiness from adults. The bartenders, ready to empty stock, were pouring generously, from bottles that retail for hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars. Customers were ordering 2, 4 pours at a time, sampling bourbon they’d probably never again be able to savor. Everyone was trading tips and calling out favorites, lending the place a sense of intimacy rare for a bar in NYC. “It’s better than Christmas,” the preppy dude next to me and my husband said. He, like everyone else, was grinning like a toddler.

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Perfect summer day in Brooklyn: I’m not sure how one makes a carefree summer Saturday stick out among the rest. It’s just that sometimes, everything falls into place. It helps if you haven’t made elaborate plans with too-high-to-meet expectations. This particular day wasn’t all that unique, but it included a delicious brunch at Rose Water, a relaxing visit to the Brooklyn Museum, a stroll in Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a nighttime rock concert in Prospect Park. Every single destination was within a 10-15 minute walk from our apartment. It’s a cliche to say so in this era of worldwide Brooklyn obsessiveness, but the borough can be pretty fucking incredible.

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Afterwork walks on the water: It’s hard to remember now, in the dead of winter, but there was a time when this city was warm and sunny and when walks in Hudson River Park were an integral part of my commute. If I left work at just the right time, I could see a heavy blazing sun extend out over the river and blanket the city in the softest, most heavenly light. Everything and everyone caught in it looked glowing, hazy, and magical. It was a lovely dichotomy, of which New York has many: the heaviness and grandeur of these tall buildings of industry fronted by the breezy landscape of the light and the water. Soft, sensual edges and a heart of steel and stone.

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Christmas Eve in the city: We started with soup dumplings, pork shoulder and lo mein at Shanghai Cafe Deluxe, moved on to a few relaxed beers at Randolph Beer Bar nearby, walked across town to Washington Square Park for holiday revelry and Christmas carols (and a Neil Patrick Harris sighting), and then on to famed piano bar Marie’s Crisis for three hours of Broadway, Disney and Christmas sing-alongs and ended with a mezcal-and-tres-leches-cake nightcap at 24-hour Cuban diner, Coppelia. The city pulsed with a restrained, almost small-town buzz on Christmas Eve. It felt slightly off-kilter, but in way where you feel as though something out of the ordinary might happen. People were out, but they were reveling in the low-keyness of the streets. The city was almost ours that night; most nights we share it with the world. Inside Marie’s Crisis, we and an eclectic cast of characters (off-duty Broadway types, fashion and culture writers, bedecked songstresses) belted out favorites like “Suddenly Seamore” and “Seasons of Love” as though we were all fast friends who’d decided to share one large karaoke room. At Coppelia, an equally eclectic (but in a different way) crowd dug into piles of modern Latin comfort food. Some were having Christmas Eve dinner, others were on dates. The music was blaring. It was past midnight. On the subway home, the car was packed with Orthodox and Hasidic Jews–women included–frayed from a night out. They wore neon-colored club entrance wristbands. The city was theirs for a night too.

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