On Kindness in a Big City

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There are days when seemingly everyone you encounter is rude. And not rude in a subtle, didn’t-keep-the-door -open-for-those-behind-him kind of way. They’re angry and downright hostile, and it can be difficult to shake off those encounters. This is what city people are like, you start to think. They’re selfish; they’re mean; they’ve lost their humanity.

But then, just as you’ve lost hope, someone does something extraordinarily kind, and you realize it’s not about the city–it’s about how people behave in general. They run the gamut from saintly to evil and here in NYC, you have to deal with all of it. Every single version of a human is on perpetual display; there’s no escape. We can’t seal ourselves off in cars or in large-lot suburban homes. We’re crushed together–often literally–as we make our way through the day.

Some visitors might get annoyed that our faces aren’t always open and smiling, but that’s not how city residents show kindness. In fact, smiling at the thousands of people you pass on the street on a daily basis might make you seem deranged. Being aware of how much space you take up, not bothering people if they look like they want to be left alone–that’s what being nice is in NYC. Rules that make sense elsewhere don’t really make sense here. And no, the bar isn’t lower. The spirit of humanity is still very much on display.

If I slip on a city sidewalk, I often have too many people offer to help me up. When my husband and I have picked up furniture we bought through Craigslist, bystanders have helped us secure the pieces to a car, and different bystanders have helped us carry them up to our fifth-floor walkup, all without being asked. I’ve observed fellow New Yorkers help those in distress, help those who are injured or lost. And just yesterday, I witnessed something that might seem inconsequential to non-city dwellers: three separate subway riders gently touched the arms of their fellow commuters to prevent them from sitting in a puddle of water. Initiated physical contact is almost verboten here, so this tiny bit of interaction seemed almost poignant. The rescued commuters didn’t mind being touched; they were grateful to be saved from the indignity of a wet behind. It’s a delicate rhythm, and we try and learn it and live it as best we can.

None of this is to say that every NYC resident is kind. They’re everything and everyone. They’re humanity at its worst and at its best. There are too many New Yorkers, and we’re all too different, for it to be any other way.

Why It’s Easier to Walk in NYC

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There are days when my husband and I may walk 10 or more miles across the city before we realize how much distance we’ve covered.  If it’s a nice weekend day, walking is the activity, and we might cross all of northern Brooklyn, make our way to Manhattan, and then keep walking until it’s time to go home or meet up with friends. We try to choose routes we’ve never taken and streets we’ve never traversed. After 12 years as NYC residents, we find there’s still so much to see. (Like a historic Jewish cemetery on West 21st we first noticed a few months ago.) We’re not superhuman–we get tired eventually, but it’s usually after we’ve already logged more than 25,000 steps.

Last month, while on vacation in South Carolina, I thought about how much easier it is to walk in the city than elsewhere. My husband and I went for a stroll in our beachside neighborhood. After about 30 minutes, my energy began to wane. The houses were beautiful, but they were similar and, at least per New York City standards, spaced far apart.

It’s about stimuli, I soon realized. In the city, especially in NYC, there is so much to look at. And it’s all different. The stimuli–the variation–of a city streetscape can infuse us with energy. This effect was clearly evident when I walked the 25-block length of a street festival in my neighborhood, then turned down a parallel avenue and walked back home along a residential block. After the visual bombardment of the festival, the walk along the rows of brownstones, especially since it was one I’d made many times, felt like a slog.

And while a city walk may not be as ideal as a nature stroll for those wishing to focus or meditate, it’s a nearly unbeatable activity for those hoping to be inspired–writers, especially.

In an experience that echoes my own, a waitress interviewed by The New York Times in 2009 speaks about how she easily walks 20 miles a day in the city. “It’s different to walk here than it is to walk in the country,” she said. After only 5 miles of walking along a road in rural Pennsylvania, she had to call a cab to pick her up. She was exhausted and couldn’t go on. “There was nothing, just fields.”

 

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.

We Came, We Saw, We Waited in Line*

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The line for Ample Hills Creamery, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, April 2013

If you’ve been to New York City lately, you might have noticed a disconcerting site reminiscent of Soviet Russia. There are lines for food–lots of them: block-long lines for kooky, Insta-ready milkshakes; lines for Play-Doh-esque rainbow bagels; lines for pizza; more lines for pizza. Wait times for well-reviewed items have been a mainstay for years–think Di Fara, Shake Shack and Katz’s–proving that we want to be seen as  “connoisseurs among connoisseurs,” according to New York magazine. Now, however, there seem to be altogether separate motives for wasting, I mean waiting three hours for a milkshake made from supermarket Blue Bunny ice cream and Chips Ahoy! cookies. (But if that’s your thing, you do you.)

I think the explanation is four-fold. First, photo-sharing apps like Instagram have given us the newfound ability to tempt family and friends, in real-time, with photographic evidence of our food adventures. Who cares if the taste was mediocre? The pictures are beautiful! And on that note, which memory is more likely to last–the taste-bud related one or the visual one, which you can revisit any time?

Second, there’s a shared-experience element to the misery of waiting hours for something. You and your fellow line waiters survived that misery together. “Can you believe we did that?” you’ll giddily say to one another once the whole thing is over. “I waited five hours in the cold rain,” you’ll recount to family and friends. The subtext here is: I’m determined and I’m patient and I don’t give up easily. And aren’t those prized virtues in a world where human attention spans have fallen to an average of eight seconds thanks to smartphones?

Third, everyone seems to have FOMO, as the kids call it; the acronym stands for “fear of missing out.” The line itself is reason enough to stand in it, the thinking goes. Why would people wait if there was nothing worth waiting for? My mother used to tell me about an oft-repeated directive in the U.S.S.R.: If you see a line, join first, then ask about what’s at the other end. In a country with constant scarcity, this was smart. In modern-day NYC, it doesn’t make much sense.

Fourth, it’s about making the most of every vacation or outing. Who knows when you’ll be here again? This sentiment points to another acronym, YOLO, “you only live once.” (Is now a good time to start a countdown to a dystopian future where all our communication will be reduced to acronyms?)

I try not to judge all the those waiting in interminable lines around the city. They’re enjoying themselves, I’m sure, and they’re creating lasting memories. I just hope those hours-long waits don’t keep them from experiencing some of the city’s true gems.

My rules for waiting:

-Never in bad weather

-Almost never for brunch

-Not more than 30 minutes or so

-Maybe for the taste, never for the photo, sometimes for the view (ahem, Grand Banks)

-Long restaurant waits are fine if I can leave, and they’ll call or text me when my table’s ready.

What I’ll wait for:

Ample Hills Creamery ice cream. The line moves fairly fast and it’s usually warm out when I crave ice cream.

Katz’s Delicatessen. It’s an institution–a delicious, delectable institution.

Totonno’s. It’s worth a wait, but I’m still only up for it if the line is shorter than four or so parties.

Absolute Bagels. The line is rarely longer than about 15 minutes, and the bagels, my god.

Clinton Street Baking Company. Only during Pancake Month and only for dinnertime pancakes. It’s a years-long tradition with a friend, and I make no excuses.

What foods would you wait for?

*New Yorkers generally use “on line,” but even after nearly a dozen years in the city, I still can’t bring myself to say it. The New York Times wades into the debate.

Sweets I Crave Most

A few months ago, I collected my most frequented pizza spots in one helpful post. Yes, pizza is one of my favorite foods, but a girl can’t live off just one type of simple carb. (That would be unhealthy, obviously.) What of dessert? If you, like me, prefer gluten-based sweets, read on. New York City is swimming, nay, drowning, in exemplary bakeries these days. And these are the treats I choose when I need an afternoon pick-me-up or a post-meal pastry. Best of all, most are under $5.

1. Pretzel croissant at The City Bakery: This original hybrid pastry–introduced nearly 20 years ago–has stood the test of time. Supremely flaky and quite salty, with a pliant, buttery interior, it seems tailor-made for pairing with the bakery’s decadent hot chocolate.

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2. Poppy seed danish at Breads Bakery: Nearly everything at this Jewish-inflected bakery is terrific, but when I crave pastry, few things satisfy more than this airy danish stuffed with poppy seeds. As a Russian and lover of all things poppy, I know to look for the one with the most seeds.

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3. Chocolate chip cookie at Smile To Go: Large discs of Guittard dark chocolate and a hefty sprinkling of sea salt make this chewy CCC one of the best in the city.

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4. Plié au chocolate at Maison Kayser: This monstrous pastry solves the there’s-not-nearly-enough-chocolate-in-this-pain-au-chocolat problem. Featuring pastry dough folded over a very generous sprinkling of chocolate chips and a slather of pastry cream, this concoction will satisfy the neediest sweet tooth.

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5. Any chocolate pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Whether it’s the chocolate julep pie pictured below (chocolate, mint and bourbon), the chocolate chess pie (chocolate custard) or the black-bottom oat pie (chocolate ganache and oats), the chocolate-focused offerings at this demure pie shop on an industrial stretch in Gowanus live up to the media-generated hype. The fillings are luscious, but it’s the buttery, crackly crust that really makes these slices stand out.

 

6. Nutella cookie at Buttermilk Bakeshop: Close your eyes. Are they closed? Okay, good. Now imagine the perfect cookie: an underbaked, super-moist, brownie-like chocolate creation with a large dollop of Nutella and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. No, this isn’t a drug-fueled fantasy. It’s real life.

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7. Chocolate chip pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery: I wrote about this pudding years ago, and I still haven’t wavered in my love. The softened chocolate chip cookie chunks evoke cookies dunked in milk, childhood, home, family and the existential beauty that defines life itself. In summary: it’s really good.

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8. Brooklyn Blackout doughnut at Doughnut Plant: How do I love thee, Doughnut Plant? Let me count that ways. We can start with this sensational chocolate cake doughnut, which is arguably the moistest cake doughnut I’ve ever had. A thin filling of chocolate pudding and a topping of cake crumbs make this dessert suitable for chocolate-craving emergencies.

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9. Signature bars at Mah Ze Dahr Bakery: The namesake treat from this mostly-online bakery (choice items are also sold at Intelligentsia Coffee inside the High Line Hotel; a brick-and-mortar West Village outpost is slated to open any minute) is all about the ingredients. They’re simple–butter, oats, cream, pecans, fleur de sel, semisweet chocolate, brown sugar, flour, vanilla extract–so it’s a testament to their quality and the expert way in which they’re combined when the result is so delicious.

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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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NYC Do’s and Don’ts: A Guide for Visitors

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Do’s

Do: Buy an unlimited ride 7-day MetroCard (good for all subways and non-express busses) if you’re visiting for 4 or more days. At $31 plus a $1 new card fee, it’s more than worth it for ease, convenience, and peace of mind. Check mta.info before you head out so you’re aware of services changes.

Do: Try not to feel flustered if the local subway train starts going express or if your A train starts running on the F line with no prior warning. Being inconvenienced by train troubles unites all of us as New Yorkers. You’re now this much closer to feeling like a local.

Do: Ask strangers for directions. In fact, ask a few people to get a consensus. Some commuters only know their specific route, so they might give inaccurate advice sometimes. I definitely sent a few British tourists to the opposite of where they needed to be my first few weeks in NYC. Whoops, my bad.

Do: Eat a slice of pizza, folded, while standing against a counter. Here are a few places to try.

Do: Get out of Manhattan and visit an ethnic enclave in an outer borough. New York City is composed of 5 distinct boroughs, so make sure to explore outside the postcard-y center of Manhattan in order to see how the city’s 8 million-plus residents really live. Try Asian enclaves in Flushing, Queens or Sunset Park, Brooklyn; the Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; or the Himalayan, Indian, and South American section of Jackson Heights, Queens.

Do: Follow subway etiquette. Take off your backpack on a full train (seriously, it hurts when it digs into my back), don’t hog the pole, etc. This is a crowded city so be mindful of everyone’s personal space by trying to take up as little room as possible.

Do: Go on a long walk with no set destination. (Be mindful of your surroundings, obviously.)

Do: Go to a Broadway or an Off-Broadway show. There’s a kinetic energy to the theater scene in New York.

Do: Devote half a day to exploring Central Park, especially if you’re blessed with good weather. It’s the size of a small city, and every section has its own vibe.

Do: Pick a spot to people watch and park yourself there for at least an hour or so. A bench in Washington Square Park or one on the Mall in Central Park are two of my favorite spots.

Do: Find a nice perch for sunset. They may be crowded, but Top of the Rock and One World Observatory offer some of the best views.

Do: Dress up and go out to a nice meal, if it’s in your budget. The dressing up part is key–you’ll feel a part of the only-in-NYC nighttime energy. Here are a few restaurants at which to make a reservation. If a fancy meal is out of reach, try a fancy cocktail at one of these spots.

Do: Chat up your bartender if you’re at a low-key spot. It’s not often easy to engage with strangers in New York (as mentioned above, we’re really into maintaining some semblance of personal space), but there are plenty of moments for connection. These can include a shared smile with a fellow subway rider at something ridiculous, or a quick laugh with your bartender. The latter is why my husband and I love eating at the bar at nice restaurants.

Do: Tip good street performers. NYC is filled with world-class musicians, and you’re by no means obliged to tip, but if you enjoyed the music, why not show your appreciation? Please note that busking on an actual subway car is illegal, so you definitely shouldn’t feel guilty for not tipping there.

Do: Walk with purpose if you’re in a crowded spot like Midtown. You’re allowed to stroll, of course, but if you’re going to walk slowly, please move to the outskirts of the sidewalk.

Do: Keep your eyes open. NYC rewards the observant. There’s a surprise lurking around every corner.

Do: Let yourself fall in love with the city. And you will, I can almost guarantee it. (Unless you’re not a city person, in which case, we’re sorry someone dragged you here.)

Don’ts

Don’t: Take anything that’s offered to you on the street, especially CDs or any kind of “peace” medallions. Better to even ignore those handing out seemingly harmless flyers. The two exceptions are free daily papers and weekly magazines–AM New York is handed out each morning and Time Out New York is distributed on Wednesdays only–and free samples given out by businesses outside their storefronts.

Don’t: Try to see everything that’s on offer at the Met museum in one day. Pick a few sections of particular interest and spend a few hours there. I’m of the mind that no person, unless they’re an aficionado, can look at art for more than three hours or so in a single day without getting art-appreciation fatigue.

Don’t: Assume that ballet or opera tickets are out of reach. I once snagged $10 orchestra seats to a New York City Ballet production. The interiors of the various Lincoln Center theaters are something to behold.

Don’t: Get on a suspiciously uncrowded subway car on an otherwise crowded train. No, you did not luck out; it’s empty for a reason.

Don’t: Stare at people doing strange things. If they’re not a danger to themselves or others, let them be.

Don’t: Stay somewhere or near someone next to whom you feel uncomfortable for the sake of being polite. If that same person doing strange things is making you feel at all uneasy, move elsewhere. Trust your instinct, and if the worst that happens is someone thinks you’re rude, that’s a pretty good outcome.

Don’t: Walk in an isolated corner of a park after dark. For the larger parks, like Central and Prospect, yes, it’s a safety issue, but for all parks it’s a rats issue. There are so many rats. It’s like that rat crypt scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but seriously, it’s gross.

Don’t: Be afraid to leave your comfort zone. Whether it’s trying lengua (tongue) tacos in the back of a Mexican grocery or belting out musical theater tunes at a piano bar like Marie’s Crisis, this city is the place to break free of your inhibitions.

Don’t: Leave without making plans to come back. We’ll miss you. Don’t be a stranger.

How to Enjoy the Last Few Days of Summer

I see you, girl in brand new trench coat, trying to season jump because you’re ready for fall. Listen, just because you want to show off all those chunky sweaters doesn’t mean summer’s over. Chill, okay? Fall doesn’t technically begin until September 23rd. That’s a whole week away! And have you seen the forecast? Sunny skies and 80-plus degree temps for days. It might as well be August! I’m no fool, though. I know these moments are incredibly short-lived. Cherish them, friends. Remember the carefree days of June, when the season held so much promise? Relive those times with warm-weather treats that’ll have you thinking summer will never end.

1. Ice cream sandwich at Genuine Superette: One of the most memorable desserts I’ve eaten recently–I had it twice in three days–this sandwich from the Little Italy roadside-style take out joint is a feat of engineering. I’ve written about the traditional gelato sandwich before, but this is different somehow. Better. The bread is warm, but the ice cream (from Brooklyn-based OddFellows Ice Cream Co.) stays perfectly cold. The texture of the ice cream–which is slightly creamier than milky gelato–seems to work better with the airiness of the brioche. There are toppings, too! The below had toasted coconut and hot fudge and was paired with a chocolate chunk flavor. My favorite, though, was an extra virgin olive oil ice cream, balsamic caramel and strawberry jam concoction.

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2. Frozen negroni at Alta Linea: Creating a frozen version of a beloved cocktail can be a dangerous proposition. One misstep and you’re in spring-break-overly-sweet-frozen-margarita territory. The folks behind High Line Hotel courtyard eatery Alta Linea nailed it. With help from kings of the gourmet slushie, Kelvin Slush Co., they created a frozen drink every bit as nuanced as the over-ice original. It’s all there: the bitterness of the Campari, the refreshing crispness of the gin, the slight sweetness of the red vermouth and tang of the freshly squeezed orange juice.

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3. Oysters at Grand Banks: You only have until the end of October (weather permitting) to sip cocktails and slurp oysters on a gorgeous wooden schooner like you’re inside your very own Grey Goose commercial. Seriously, look at that setup. It’s almost always crowded, but the operation is efficient and the staff, accommodating. Fall sunsets tend to be some of the year’s prettiest, so I’d advise an early evening visit.

Photographed by Doug Lyle Thompson; courtesy of Grand Banks

Photographed by Doug Lyle Thompson; courtesy of Grand Banks

4. Poke at Seamore’s: This airy new Little Italy seafood spot from the guys behind perpetually popular Meatball Shop turns out a refreshing Hawaiian poke (pronounced “okay”) that’s as transportive as it is delicious. Made with a rotating fish–ours was ahi tuna–avocado, peanuts and sesame seeds, tossed with ponzu and served with tortilla chips, this app is quintessential après-beach fare.

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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!)

Off the Beaten Path: Gowanus

The industrial Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, situated on the Gowanus Canal between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, has been a citywide punchline for years. The canal is so polluted (typhoid, cholera and gonorrhea have all been detected, among many other microbes), the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 2010. There’s a distinct sour garbage odor that wafts from the oil-slicked water in the summer, when the wind blows just so. An ill-fated whale who accidentally swam into the canal in 2007 was nicknamed “Sludgy” for obvious reasons.

There’s more to Gowanus than a smelly, refuse-filled waterway. The area has long been home to a prideful Italian-American community–an extension of nearby Carroll Gardens, some of whom still remain, nestled in the few residential streets surrounding the canal. Artists and musicians moved in at the end of the 20th century, seeking low rents and an off-the grid vibe. The enormous “Batcave,” an abandoned power station, was home to squatters, graffiti artists and impromptu punk rock shows up until a year ago.

Changes are afoot. The Batcave is being turned into an arts center. And, with a scheduled $500 million cleanup starting soon and a bevy of real estate development, the rest of the neighborhood is quickly transforming into a bit of an adult playground. Warehouses are turning into Miami-style shuffleboard palaces and live music venues. The industrial chic Green Building event space, which sits directly adjacent to the canal, is one of the most coveted wedding venues in the borough. It’s so popular, in fact, that sister space 501 Union opened across the street in 2013. My husband jokes that the expansive South Brooklyn Casket Co. warehouse, situated on prime Union Street, is weeks away from selling its space to a generic speakeasy bar, which will be named… “The South Brooklyn Casket Co.,” complete with cocktails like “The Mahogany.” (Too soon?) The ‘hood is still a long way away from turning into the next DUMBO, with plenty of curiosities, industry and grit along the quiet, uncrowded streets.

Below, a few places to check out in the area.

Eat

  • Littleneck: Neighborhood-y seafood centric restaurant with an inventive menu and a killer clam roll
  • The Pines: Well-reviewed high-end restaurant with a seasonal menu
  • Ample Hills Creamery: Two-story ice cream palace with roof deck. Location-specific “It Came From the Gowanus” ice cream flavor pokes fun at the environs.
  • Runner & Stone: Serious bakery with a full lunch and dinner menu. We sometimes make the trek from our apartment for their buckwheat baguette, fresh out of the oven everyday around 4:30 p.m.
  • Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Crazy-good world-renowned bakery with a rotating roster of pies. I love any iteration of berry pie and black-bottom oatmeal pie.
  • Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbeque: Brisket-driven BBQ restaurant
  • The Bahche: Huge cafe with an abundance of seating rare for NYC
  • Two Toms Restaurant: Old School Italian restaurant with indeterminate hours and a classic, red-sauce menu
  • Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: Syracuse-based BBQ temple that attracts patrons from all over the borough. The baked wings and fried green tomatoes are standouts.
  • Monte’s: Another throwback Italian restaurant whose first iteration opened in 1906. Stakes its claim as the oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn.

Drink

  • Canal Bar: A dive bar-lovers bar: good beers, good jukebox, free popcorn and a backyard in the summer
  • Threes Brewing: A brewery and beer hall that brews its offerings onsite. An expansive dining room and event space is packed with locals on weekends. A rotating cast of Brooklyn restaurants like Roberta’s serve a small menu alongside a curated beer list.
  • Haylards: Local’s bar with a pool table, live music, small bites and cocktails
  • Lavender Lake: Cocktail-driven bar with a large backyard popular for birthdays
  • Black Mountain Wine House: Cozy wine bar with a working fireplace

Do

  • Royal Palms Shuffleboard: Huge maybe-ironic (I don’t even know anymore) indoor shuffleboard club with South Florida-style cabanas, tropical drinks and a food truck that parks inside
  • Film Biz Recycling: A warehouse full of quirky film industry prop and set design remnants. Some are available to buy, while stranger items, like gurneys, can be rented by the week. Sixty percent of the materials this non-profit receives are donated to local charities.
  • Brooklyn Brine: The (tiny) storefront of the pickle company whose wares are sold all over the city and beyond
  • School of Rock: Learn to play a musical instrument or hit that high note at this one-stop music learning shop.
  • Brooklyn Boulders: A rock climbing facility with the kind of space big city climbing enthusiasts long for
  • Gowanus Print Lab: A screen printing studio with a variety of classes, including t-shirt printing, stationery and typography
  • The Bell House: A live music and events venue with a crowded calendar. See bands like Crooked Fingers, attend a Little Mermaid sing-along, Brooklyn comedian Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival or a Pat Kiernan-hosted trivia night.
  • Twig: Kooky moss terrariums filled with imaginative worlds in a variety of shapes and sizes. Workshops available for those who want to make their own
  • Whole Foods: A real sign of changing times, this 56,000 square foot Whole Foods features a greenhouse, a rooftop bar and a manicured canal-side walkway.
  • Morbid Anatomy Museum: a gift shop, library, exhibition space and lecture series exploring macabre fascinations.

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From top: Royal Palms Shuffleboard; the Derby pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds (image via Howard Walfish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license); Canal Bar (image via pixonomy, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license; rental items at Film Biz recycling–yes, that’s a prop electric chair; Gowanus location of Ample Hills Creamery

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