The first things that came to my mind when I thought about New York City before actually going there included Saturday Night Live; Million Dollar Listing New York; my urban design case study on Battery Park City; Jimmy Fallon; Central Park; the love heart on the Empire State Building at the end of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’; NY slice pizza; Anthony Bourdain reminiscing about ‘old New York’… there are enough references in movies, songs, and television shows to make you feel like you know New York. Well, its all true in some way or another, but its always best to create your own story in a city where so many other stories are made.
Walking Through New York
I love that the urban layout of Manhattan is organised in a numbered grid. It’s impossible to get lost — it’s pretty simple formula of numbered avenues running north-south and numbered streets running east-west. It’s a co-ordinate system. At night, the lights of Times Square and the lights of the Empire State Building are like beacons. The only part that gets confusing is when you get off the grid south of Houston Street (i.e. Katz’s Delicatessen).
Our first day in New York was spent walking Manhattan — from our hotel on West 101st Street all the way down to Tribeca via Central Park, Times Square, Kips Bay, East Village and Chinatown. I thoroughly enjoyed walking through the different neighbourhoods and noticing the transitions between, hearing the sounds and getting excited when we spotted the landmarks (Empire State, Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and also a building or two featured on Million Dollar Listing New York). I found the scale of Manhattan allows you to breathe; the buildings may be sky high, but the width of the streets, particularly the footpaths, are at a scale where street life can still flow (traffic, perhaps not so much). You don’t have to do that awkward pedestrian dodge required of the tight London streets. Or maybe there were less people on the street because it was winter?
When we were in Brooklyn, we walked from our block in Bedford Stuyvesant across the Brooklyn Bridge up to East Village in Manhattan. Our journey took us from the gritty and vibrant streetscape of Broadway under the J and Z line train track to the infamous Myrtle Avenue (known back in the day as “Murder Avenue”), through the ‘projects’ on Park Avenue, to Flushing Avenue where we found amazing coffee at Brooklyn Roasters and Hasidic Jews going about their daily business, the business and grit of Downtown Brooklyn and then over the Bridge with great views to Manhattan.
I guess the only downside to walking around at this time of year was trudging through all the snow and jumping over puddles! The right footwear can make all the difference!
It was our second day in New York when ‘Blizzard 2015’ hit (or didn’t, as the New Yorkers would say). We sat in our Manhattan hotel room watching the news reports about the predicted 3 feet of snow, subway closures, school closures etc. We received a text message from our friend JT about the possibility of power and water cutting out and a suggestion that we should stock up food and water for the night in case. It was alarming, and although as tourists it meant we lost a day in sightseeing, we thought of it as an event in itself. As Aussies who rarely ever see that much snow (if at all), we were pretty excited to see what a blizzard would be like.
Live Taping – The Letterman Show
Before Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman was the man of late night TV shows. When I was in high school I remember staying up late to watch Letterman and told myself that if I ever made it to New York, I would have to go to a taping. Years later I turned my attention to The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, and so when New York became part of our trip itinerary, the first thing I did was look up how to get tickets to Jimmy Fallon. It’s an online reservation process that takes place a month in advance (I logged onto Twitter every day in December and January to make sure I had the right date and time to log on to make a reservation). I set my computer time to show minutes and seconds to make sure I would be logged on at exactly 11:30am New York time to get into the reservation calendar — and when I got into the calendar (first victory!) it took me 10 minutes to figure out that of the three weeks we would be in New York, there would only be 4 tapings we could make it to…and by the time I had figured out the right dates to book, it was too late! The tickets had been booked out! I was devastated! So when we walked past the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway on our first day, we saw a sign on the street that said “Free Tickets to the David Letterman Show”. So we walked into the lobby, signed up to the lottery for free tickets and a few hours later, we found out we scored tickets!
The taping we attended was the day after the so-called blizzard, so David had a fair few jokes about that. When David first appeared, I realised it had been so long since I watched him he looked markedly aged to me. But his energy was still the same, he engaged with the audience with warmth and enthusiasm and kept us laughing. The CBS Orchestra kept us entertained in the breaks and the guests interviewed were Oscar Isaac (the lead actor in ‘A Most Violent Year’) and Whitney Cummings (comedian and actress). Drenge were the musical act…and to David put it best when he said to them “Don’t quit your day job.” Gotta love that humour. It is also worth mentioning that this season will be David Letterman’s final season of the show, so if you are in New York any time soon, I recommend watching him live before The Letterman Show becomes tv history. Good luck in the lottery!
Bed Stuy – The ‘Real New York’
Cam had been to New York in the summer a few years back and he stayed in Kips Bay. This time around, he thought it would be great to stay in Brooklyn to see another side of the city. Originally we had booked our Airbnb apartment in Williamsburg, but it had fallen through so we ended up in Bedford Stuyvesant (or “Bed-Stuy” as the locals call it) with a really friendly and informative host Jillian and her adorable little son David. We didn’t know much about Bed-Stuy until we got there and spoke to other New Yorkers about it. When we told them that we were staying in Bedford-Stuyvesant, they’d say “Oh, Bed-Stuy! That’s the real New York!”. With so much changing in Brooklyn (a good example would be the gentrification of Williamsburg and the new Barclays Centre), Bed-Stuy would seem to be the next cab off the rank. Previously known as one of New York’s most dangerous neighbourhoods (we heard that back in the day, it was not uncommon to hear gun shots every so often), there is a lot of interest and investment in the area due to the quality of the beautiful, family friendly residential buildings known as ‘brownstones’. These days it’s perfectly safe to walk around during the day (as we did) but we were still recommended by locals not to walk around late at night (so we caught cabs). It was really nice to be immersed in a more suburban environment and to be surrounded by locals rather than selfie stick-toting tourists.
The Food and the Bars
It goes without saying that New York offers some great food choices and places to drink. I’ve been told that it would take you 2 years to go to every single restaurant in New York! Before arriving, I listed all these places Bourdain had been to and recommended, but that list went out the window when we realised how easy it is to find good everywhere. Here are some of our top choices:
The pastrami on rye sandwich is legendary; but it was the Rueben sandwich (corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye bread) that we enjoyed the most.
This was the first time we tried Szechuan cuisine and I really liked the numbing effect of the Szechuan pepper. Perhaps the best dish we had were the Dan Dan noodles, followed by the Cumin Style Lamb. Spicy Crispy Cucumber and the Wontons In Chilli Oil were great and the Dry Pot Chicken and Mapo tofu were nice too. It was so good Cam kept leaving the restaurant for fresh air breaks…
You can’t beat the Shack Stack burger — its a cheeseburger with a crumbed, deep-fried portobello mushroom filled with muenster and cheddar cheese. Greasy, oozy, crunchy goodness. I had a Banana and Salted Caramel Shake, equally as good, to go with it.
Sapore Di Italia, Brooklyn
The best spaghetti meatballs we’ve ever had. The spaghetti was handmade egg spaghetti, drenched with a delicious tomato sauce with two fist-sized meatballs. My guess was that the meatballs were made with pork or veal, with fennel, oregano and probably some other herbs and spices. Absolutely delicious!
New York Slice Pizza – Various Locations
Who can turn down a New York pizza slice? Huge portions, light and crispy base, and simple ingredients topped with chilli flakes and dried oregano. I was most surprised to see broccolli on pizza…so I tried it and loved it!
Westside Market, Upper West Side, Manhattan
This is where we bought our ‘rations’ in preparation for ‘Blizzard 2015’. (See image in the section about the Blizzard). It’s worth checking out their prepared food section — really tasty, fresh salads, loads of cooked meals including meats and pastas and a great deli section. We opted for Buffalo Wings, Hot and Spicy Wings, Brazillian Chicken, Kale Salad and a Caesar Salad. Perhaps the freshest and best quality supermarket food we’ve had on our trip (goes right up there with the pre-made meals in Japan).
Biscolatte, Hells Kitchen, Manhattan
We discovered this place after our initial visit to the Chinese Consulate. I found it interesting that this cafe was expressly a no-wifi, no-mobile phone zone, with a focus on enjoying food, coffee and company. They offer a unique variety of biscotti, as well as healthy, hearty soups, delicious risotto and steel-cut oats. Cam had the Tuscan Vegetable Soup, I had the Porcini Mushroom Risotto and for dessert I tried the White Chocolate and Lavender Biscotti (so good!).
Brooklyn Roasting Company, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
We came across this cafe on the way to Brooklyn Bridge. Great coffee and a little bit hipster. Loads of creative looking people with Macbooks, and their iPhones on the multiple charging stations along the bench seating with views to the street. It would seem the future of cafe design is as much about accommodating working freelancers as it is about providing places for people to gather and talk over a cup of coffee.
As for bars, I can’t remember all of them, but here some that come to mind:
The Lodge at Gallow Green, Upper West Side, Manhattan
The coolest ‘concept’ bar I’ve been to so far – not really a speakeasy, but definitely hard to find unless you knew about it. The place looks and feels like a cabin in the woods, complete with bunk beds, hot water bottles, stuffed animal heads, wooden furniture and the like. Visit the smoking area even if you don’t smoke – its like a pine forest with seating and a hearth.
Woodwork, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
We found this place on our walk back from Prospect Park and what caught Cam’s eye was a little sign on the corner of the window saying ‘Highbury Park’. Lo and behold, Woodwork is home to Arsenal supporters in New York! The bar staff were really friendly and knowledgable and told us stories about how Jay Z, Beyonce and Justin Timberlake once spent a night there after a basketball game at the nearby Barclays Centre.
Bootleg Bar, Bushwick, Brooklyn
Some might call it a hipster bar, but it seemed pretty unpretentious to me. Cool music, eclectic crowd and friendly bar staff. What I liked most about this bar was that it stocked my favourite whiskey — Suntory Yamazaki. They had a bottle of 12 year, so without hesitating I ordered…Cam was not impressed when the lady at the bar said it would be USD$12, but as she poured it to the brim of the glass, he was suitably impressed. It was at least 120mL, which back home would have costed me way more than USD$12. We call that a win!
Union Pool, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
A well known dive bar in Williamsburg that features a Taco Truck. A bottle of Coopers will set you back USD$9 though.
Beer Boutique, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Not really a bar, more of a shop, it offers an impressive selection of beers from around the world. Most notably, they offer ‘growlers’ – their special selection of draft beer poured into plastic bottles then sealed with CO2 so you can take it away or keep it in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. The guy at the counter, I think his name was Cory, was really friendly and knowledgable about the beer and gave us a taste-test of all his beers on tap.
It’s about the People as much as the Place
Our New York experience would not have been the same if it weren’t for our friends, both Aussies and New Yorkers, who we shared our experiences with. There is nothing like being in a foreign city and being with familiar faces.
Our first familiar faces were JT and Jas, friends from back home now living New York. It was with them that we experienced watching our first Superbowl, watched a live basketball game at the Barclays Centre (Brooklyn Nets v LA Clippers) and swapped stories about our experiences at Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel (Note: I highly recommend booking tickets to Sleep No More or any other of Punchdrunk’s immersive theatre experiences. I’m not really into musicals or theatre, but this is truly avant-garde and a unique way to enjoy theatre. Don’t research it – just do it!).
We also caught up with our lovely friend Noriko, who we met in Tokyo back in 2012 through a good friend of mine. It was great to see her, and to meet her sister Mariko, and to hear how they are progressing with their work on an amazing documentary about their late father, Eric Gale, a leading jazz musician back in the day. We spent an unforgettable night with Noriko, her boyfriend and his friends partying to old school house music in a gallery space in Bushwick, ending up in an amazing house in Clinton Hill eating frittata whilst listening to great music from the 80s.
Our last week in New York was spent mostly with our friend Mike, who we had met in and travelled with along the Carribbean coast of Colombia (see my next blog on Colombia). Mike did a great job of taking us to new places to eat and drink, including Han Dynasty (Szechuan cuisine), Minca (Japanese Ramen) and Mona’s (bar with live music). There were so many more places that Mike wanted to take us to, such as Eataly, an Ethiopian restaurant and Fat Cat, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time.
It was through Mike that we met Jessica, a bubbly and incredibly witty lady, who was so kind enough to show us her office — NBC Studios. She took us to her level of the office, where we saw all the graphic designers working on the motion graphics for the news; we strolled through the SNL level with corridors lined with photographs of key episodes throughout the years — at the end of the corridor was the SNL stage which had black curtains drawn as they were doing rehearsals; she took us to another level where walked right through the energy and buzz of guest stars and musicians; and finally we went to the NBC lunch room with the lure of free muffins, but there were none left. The double height space of the lunchroom featured a green wall (that was Jessica’s idea) and had views to Rockefeller Plaza below. Best whirlwind tour I’ve ever!
I have found that experiencing a foreign city with local friends is always more rewarding than going by the guidebooks and online reviews. You can trust your friends to know the kind of things about a city that you will enjoy, and at the same time you get a further glimpse of who they are through the places they enjoy going to. This was certainly the case with New York – it’s so easy to get there and do all the classic touristy things like Central Park, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, the museums, Big Bus Tour etc. and everyone does it, and for good reason. We were fortunate to have our friends to show us around and to take us to places no other tourists would have gone to, which made our New York story so much richer and so much more unforgettable.
Reasons to Return
Even though we spent three weeks in New York, there were still so many things that we didn’t manage to do. For a city like New York, its easy to leave with a sense that many stones were left unturned (much like how we felt upon leaving London). If we do come back one day, then we’d have the following to tick off our list:
- Watch a live taping of Jimmy Fallon
- Attend a Sunday church service to listen to a gospel choir
- Go to Coney Island (probably better in the summertime anyway)
- Visit the culturally-diverse neighbourhoods of Queens
- Watch an ice hockey game at Madison Square Garden
- Visit museums — Solomon. R Guggenheim, Natural History Museum, Jewish War Museum etc.
- Take the Staten Island Ferry
- Experience ‘And Then She Fell’ – another ‘immersive’ theatre experience based on the writings of Lewis Carroll, which is located in Brooklyn
- Degustation meal at Masa
- Spot any of the brokers of Million Dollar Listing New York on the street
- Eat a New York hot dog – I missed out on both Papaya King and Crif Dog
I certainly don’t regret not having done any of the above during our stay; I will just have more reasons to return! (And not to forget to return for May Tolentino’s 40th birthday!)