Visiting New York and just letting people you meet recommend the next place to go.
On the advice of a New York realtor we met on the plane, the best place to start is at the green core of the Big Apple – Central Park. Get up early, which should be easy given the time difference, and walk through it from south to north. Seven in the morning is the best time, just as the city’s waking up and the joggers are out pounding the most picturesque piece of land for miles. The value of Central Park in terms of real estate is over $500 billion, but it’s there for the whole city, and until you actually walk through, you don’t realise how wooded and beautiful it actually is. Even at this hour, it’s busy, but given the advent of in-ear headsets for mobile phones it’s hard to tell who’s having a serious business conversation while walking through the park and who’s just randomly shouting at the squirrels. Chrisoula, one of the many early-morning power walkers, recommended Tom’s Restaurant (2880 Broadway and 112th St) for breakfast. If you watched Seinfeld, you’ll recognise the exterior, as it was used as the show’s regular meeting place (called Monk’s on TV), and its lumberjack breakfast is a perfect way to load up for a day in New York.
It’s a city synonymous with shopping; in fact a group of four women on our flight were visiting for that reason alone, but shop smart rather than obvious, as famous places like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s sell 80 per cent the same things you can get at malls in the UAE. We asked the coolest-dressed women we could find to recommend some clothes shops and were told to seek out smaller, independent stores like The Good, The Bad & The Ugly (85 Kenmare St at Mulberry St 212 473 3769); Castor & Pollux (238 W. 10th St at Hudson St 212 645 6572); Pixie Market (100 Stanton St 212 253 0953) or Suite Orchard (145A Orchard St 212 533 4115) for some boutique apparel. If you do insist on designer labels, then the massive Century 21 (22 Cortlandt St, 212 227 9092) does a whole load of designer clothing (it’s especially good for suits), with up to 70 per cent off. Gabays (225 First Avenue between 13th and 14th St 212 254 3180) is another great shop for discount designer wear, as they sell the overstock from places like Bendel’s and Bergdorf’s at 50 to 80 per cent off, including brands like Marc Jacobs and Manolo Blahnik.
After heating up the credit cards on the Lower East Side, you’ll need to calm down for a while and on the advice of a girl we met called Amy – who looks like she’d own a lot of Yo La Tengo albums – we went to TeaNY (190 Rivington St, between Orchard and Ludlow Sts; 212 475 9190) the tea room and café owned by the musician Moby. He often hangs out here, and accordingly, it’s all vegan, so no animals will be harmed in the killing of your hunger, but the outstanding brownies make up for the absence of meat. If you want meat, then Katz’s Delicatessen (205 East Houston St, at Ludlow St; 212 254 2246) does the best pastrami sandwich in the world, as recommended to us by Saul, a guy from New Jersey with a classic ‘fro. Yeah, it’s full of tourists who are flocking here because it was featured in When Harry Met Sally, (the ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ scene) but Saul’s right, the food is superb.
If you’re a bit of a sneakerhead, then down the road from Moby’s café is Alfie (158 Rivington St, 212 375 8128). It looks like a gentleman’s private drinking club from the outside, but actually sells the rarest and most sought after trainers in the city. P Diddy shops here, but don’t let that put you off, it’s well worth a visit if only to see shoes you’ll never find elsewhere. If you prefer your shoes to have a big pointy heel rather than three stripes or a swoosh, then Girls Love Shoes (85 Hester St, nr. Orchard St 917 250 3268, only open Thu-Sun, 12 noon-7pm) is nearby and has hundreds of vintage shoes starting at bargain prices.
Now drop off the shopping and get the camera. You’ll already know about the view from the top of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, but avoid the queues and tourists and get a side-on look at Manhattan. At sunset, take the A-train on the subway and get off at the first stop in Brooklyn, then walk back into Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge. The pedestrian walkway is above the road, so you can see (and feel) the traffic flying past underneath you as you walk over one of the most legendary bridges towards one of the most spectacular skylines on earth. And it doesn’t cost a dime.
The sun’s down, it’s time for drinks. On the recommendation of Dave the animator, we slipped into Shebeen (202 Mott St, 212 625 1105) for awesome ginger martinis – perfect to take the edge off a long New York day. It’s a low-lit and laid-back cocktail joint, and while there, the bar staff recommend a ‘secret’ bar called The Back Room (102 Norfolk St between Delancy and Rivington 212-228-5098). The entrance is a gate that says ‘Lower East Side Toy Company’, but head down the steps and through the passage and there’s a great bar (owned by actor Tim Robbins) that’s based on a prohibition era speakeasy. The period decor, drinks served in tea cup, bottled beer covered with brown paper bags, and working candlestick phones make it one of the most memorable places to drink. Look out for the sliding bookcase that reveals a backroom where the likes of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Sean Penn go drinking, but don’t get your hopes up, as it’s tough to get in there. Bobby likes his martinis in peace. No such trouble at Fontana’s (105 Eldridge St at Grand & Broome 212 334 6740), which has live music downstairs, film screenings in the back room and a sizeable front bar that you’ll wish, could be your local.
From here we were recommended the East Side Company Bar (49 Essex St 212 614 7408), which is a smaller spin-off from (the hard to get into) Milk & Honey and then Happy Ending (302 Broome St nr. Forsythe St 212 334 9676), which was once a massage parlour, but is now a two-level drinking den. All are recommended, but at some point you probably should stop for a decent evening meal. There are countless places to eat in the city, but the one place that kept coming up in conversation was Balthazar (80 Spring St 212 965 1414) which had a lot of hype at one point but it’s a top choice for a classy but fun meal. It’s still perpetually busy and with tables crammed into the French-style brasserie you’ll eat elbow-to-elbow will fellow diners. The celebrity quota here is absurdly high, even for New York, so people regularly find themselves next to the likes of Martha Stewart, Johnny Depp, Uma Thurman and so on. Reservations for dinner need to be made in advance, but we walked in for lunch, or you can visit after midnight for a late supper (until 1.30am) and drinks that are served until 4am.
For those who fancy a dose of late-night, old fashioned, pre-gentrification New York then The Mars Bar (25 East 1st St 212 473 9842) and The Vasmay Lounge (269 E. Houston St, at Suffolk St 212 228 0820) should give you your dive bar fix. The former is full of freaks and oddballs, and latter used to be women only, but now welcomes all – it looks like somewhere vampires would party, but the bar staff are super cool and the jukebox is full of great Ramones, Iggy Pop and Johnny Cash records.
You may not want to spend an evening slumming it, but one thing you just can’t leave without doing is having a hot dog. Street vendors are everywhere, but according to many locals, the place to get them is at one of the Gray’s Papaya outlets (2090 Broadway W.71st & W. 72nd Sts is apparently the best one). Get a dog with everything and be warned, you’ll never want to return to shawarmas for late night snacks again.
Speaking of eating, if you’re here at the weekends, then Saturday brunch in New York is a big deal, so do it in style. The Mandarin Oriental (80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, 212 805 8800) does a stunning brunch for under $50-a-head in their Asiate restaurant. Book a seat next to one of the 16-ft high windows and you get one of the best views from any restaurant in the city – the bottom of Central Park to the left, towering skyscrapers to the right and Columbus Circle and right across 60th Street below you. The lobby bar next door is also well worth a visit, but make sure there’s plenty of cast in your wallet.
The best tip from locals, however, was simply ‘just walk down any street and you’ll find somewhere to eat/drink/shop/party.’ And it’s true, you can’t walk more than a couple of blocks without seeing something that’s interesting, exciting or eerily familiar as you’re basically walking through the world’s biggest, living, working TV and film set, so déjà vu hits you at every turn. For example, number 90 at the corner of Bedford and Grove Street, West Village is where the characters from Friends lived; Hook & Ladder Company, 8-14 North Moore Street was the Ghost Busters headquarters; the Holland Tunnel Ventilator Shaft on Battery Place, north of Battery Park, was used as the entrance to the Men In Black’s secret headquarters, and that subway grate at the corner of 52nd and Lexington is the one that famously blew up Marilyn Munroe’s skirt in the film The Seven Year Itch.
If you’re after events or gigs happening during your stay, then pick up a copy of Time Out New York or log on to http://www.timeout.com/newyork, and no matter when you plan on coming, there’s going to be more things to do that you could possible fit in. Spring and autumn are great times to visit, as in summer it can get too hot and clammy to walk the streets, and in winter it can be so cold that even the muggers don’t show up for work, but anyway you look at it, it’s still New York, it still never sleeps and it’s still the coolest city on the planet.
For Time Out, September 2007