Thursday, August 21, 2008

New York Settlers

As I was riding the subway on my way to work the other morning, a Barnes & Nobles ad caught my eyes. It was a short extract from a book written in 1948 by the American novelist E.B. White entitled "Here is New York".

"There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter - the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last - the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, itsdedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion ..."

The truth of these words, even though they were written exactly 60 years ago, really resonated with me in the light of an email exchange I had with a friend the night before.

He is a born and bread New Yorker and during our conversation he asked me to send him my "Fall in love with New York in 3 days" itinerary which I had mentioned to him before, as he had some family in town. I asked him in exchange to share with me his perfect tour of the City, expecting that he would know so many more places that I hadn't discovered yet or a way to see New York as a native that I just wouldn't know about ... But he didn't and it appears that E.B White was right when he wrote that people who were born elsewhere are more passionate about the City and that we perhaps also experience it in a very different way to native New Yorkers, let alone Commuters.

Therefore, I feel compelled to share here what my itinerary is in its precise details. I do vary the restaurants and sights a little but this is really my ultimate, favourite and fast way to share my love of New York with friends and family from abroad.

Day 1 - Upper West Side/Central Park/Midtown

I live on the Upper West Side so this is where my guests wake up on their first morning in the City. I only offer a light breakfast - mainly because my fridge usually contains nothing more than bread, butter, olives and wine ...

We set off at around 11 am and walk down Columbus Avenue, which has plenty of picturesque boutiques and restaurants, and stop at the Antiques market on 79th & Columbus, right across from the Natural History Museum, as I love it's eclecticness combined with it's genuine neighbourhood atmosphere. You can find anything there from organic vegetables to Moroccan mirrors and Victorian jewelry. A stop at one of my favourite brunch spot, Ocean Grill, is also compulsory to sample the different and delicious varieties of Eggs Benedict they serve.

Slightly dazed and confused from the carbohydrate and fat overdose, I make my guests enter Central Park at 77th Street and we stroll to the Lake and the Boat House, which is level with 74th. After a few minutes of walking inside the Park, you do forget that you are in the middle of the City and I love that feeling, as well as giving my guests a sense of peacefulness before I immerse them into the madness of midtown Manhattan.
If time allows it, a rowing trip on the Lake is a must. If it is during the week, then I will substitute brunch at Ocean Grill with brunch at the Boat House as it's location is idyllic. I would not recommend attempting to get into the Boat House at the weekends as it is packed and you will be turned down at the door. Even on a weekday, you will have to be put on a waiting list and will be given a rather futuristic looking buzzer which will flash uncontrollably once a table has become available, indicating that you should make your way back to the restaurant from whichever part of the Park you ended up strolling to while killing time.
In the event that you have more time in the City than 3 days, I would also highly recommend the Conservatory Gardens and the Zoo - the first for it's romantic and serene atmosphere, the second for the sheer fun of seeing the Penguins walk in a funny way.

From the Boat House, I take my guests down on a walk to 5th Avenue. I love the contrast of the two - going from an almost country-side like experience to New York's most famous and busiest avenue, complete with dizzying skyscrapers.
I'll take 5th Avenue down, stopping at the various shops, from the Apple store to Abercrombie & Fitch (one for the girls as the gorgeous male models in the store are naked from the waist up!). I make sure to stop at the Rockerfeller Center and also in Times Square - both very touristy spots, but they really have to be seen once, especially the latter.

I then turn East at Times Square, taking 42nd Street to Bryant Park - quick stop to marvel at the black tower with gold highlights of the Bryant Park Hotel and also at the Beaux Arts building of the New York Library. But this is only a pit-stop on the way to Grand Central train station, which is probably my favourite New York landmark. Newcomers to New York are always sceptical when I tell them that I am taking them to a train station, but watching their jaws drop in awe once we get inside is priceless. No other building in the City still sends shivers down my spine when I enter it.

By that time, my guests and I are rather tired so I take them to one of my favourite rooftop bars on top of the Library Hotel, just around the corner from the station, for a relaxing and well deserved cocktail while watching the lights of the Empire State Building blink in the evening dusk.

Day 2 - Soho/West Village/Meat Packing

Breakfast on Day 2 usually takes place at Barneys Greengrass, which needs no introduction as I have mentioned it so often in this blog already. We then catch the subway downtown to Soho - if this is my guests' first visit to New York, and therefore first subway experience, I usually provide detailed coaching on the art of successfully swiping a Metrocard through the turnstile, which is no mean feat as it happens - relax your wrist and walk through as you swipe at the precise speed of 2 miles per hour!

We get off at Prince Street and Broadway, one of my favourite corners of the City for its sheer busyness. As I am physically unable to walk around Soho without a Tall Black Americano from Starbucks, I usually make a stop there. The immediate next stop is Dean & Deluca, probably for sentimental reasons on my part. I visited it the first time I went to New York 10 years ago, fell in love with it and proceeded to buy almost everything in the store that could fit in my luggage! I love the perfectly formed and arranged vegetables, the huge varieties of breads and cheeses and the fact that it is the only place in the City where they stock proper Twinnings Earl Grey tea bags.

We then walk around the cobbled streets of Mercer, Wooster and Green before ending up in West Broadway for some serious non-high street shopping in my favourite boutiques. I like to make a stop at the quirky MoMa store on Spring Street too as one can pick up anything low-brow or high-brow there.

Then we head off to Washington Square Park to watch the various street entertainers - from classical pianists to break dancers and surreal interpretive dancers. And also to observe the chess players towards the end of the Park - just don't join them unless you have a few hundred dollars to spare!

From Washington Square, we stroll along West 4th to the West Village and wonder around all the small streets on the way with no particular plan - the streets are so lovely there: tree-lined and filled with small independent shops ranging from seedy sex shops to specialist cigar shop. By that time, a cocktail pit stop is in order and we have one at The Garage, on 7th Avenue and Grove Street, for an Espresso Martini and live Jazz.

Depending on energy levels (and number of Expresso Martinis consumed), I usually like to keep on walking to the Meat Packing district and its cobbled streets and designer stores - if only to drool at shoes with vertiginous heels in the window of the Christian Louboutin shop.

Day 3 - Boat Trip/Lower East Side/East Village

There is no better way to appreciate the City's skyline than from afar and a boat trip is one of my favourite ways to show my guests what a beautilful, lego-like place, I live in.

I usually take them on the New York Sports & Racket Club yacht which leaves from the pier on East 23rd. It goes around most of Manhattan and lasts for over 2 hours. It's a smallish boat which makes it more intimate (do not ever take the free Circle Line ferry unless you enjoy rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other people!), there's a simple buffet lunch and a bar at the top of the boat, usually playing Frank Sinatra classics. The other boat trip I like is operated by Shear Water Sailing, who run sail boat cruises which are even more relaxing. Seeing the city from the water is an absolute must have, regardless of the type of boat. They also always sail past the World Financial Center, where I work, and I secretly enjoy people's envy when they realise my office is located in a beautiful marina and my "local" is a open-air waterfront bar with unbeatable views of the Statue of Liberty ...

After the boat ride, it's off to the Lower East Side. I have a special fondness for it for many reasons - I had no idea it even existed until I actually moved to New York, I have since had memorable nights out there and it is one of the most historic areas of the City. I love the fact that it combines tiny fashion-forward boutiques (some of them require you to ring a bell before allowing you in!) and yet has a raw, slightly unsafe, edge to it. I love walking around Rivington, Ludlow and Stanton and peak inside Economy Candy (corner of Rivington & Essex), an old-fashioned candy store stocking many unusual sugary delights.

A walk along heavily trafficked East Houston is then required until we reach the corner with Bowery. This area used to be incredibly dangerous until a few years ago but now, somehow surprisingly, largely houses a lot of stores selling light fixtures. As we turn left onto Bowery though, we catch a glimpse of the modern structure of the New Museum which sticks out amongst the low-rising tenement buildings. I am not a huge fan of Modern Art but the museum is fun and has a roof terrace offering fantastic views of Lower Manhattan.

My itinerary from there becomes a little fuzzy but involves strolling through Chinatown and Little Italy with no particular purpose other than soaking in the atmosphere.

A taxi ride takes us to the East Village, where I like to be dropped off at the start of St Marks and Astor Place, which marks the beginning of the East Village and Alphabet City (so called because avenues there have letters rather than names). This area has a slight punk vibe to it and I like to laugh at the shops that line the street - selling anything from "I love NY" t-shirts, to 80s style sunglasses, bongs, tattoos and piercings.

Because Larry used to live in the East Village, I discovered that there are many small neighbourhood gardens in that area - literally spaces between walk-up buildings that haven't been built on and that locals have turned into their own urban gardens. They are open to everyone and offer an oasis of green, peace, quiet and slight bohemia (in a "I am growing my own organic vegetables" kind of way). My favourite is on 6th Street and Avenue B because I can walk in there and feel like I am in an endearingly unkept English countryside garden, hardly believing I am in still in the heart of New York.

Day 3 invariably ends with dinner at Cafecito, my favourite Cuban restaurant on 11th Street and Avenue C. I always order Churrasco - thinly sliced flank steak with rice and beans topped with spicy coriander pesto. Oh, and the fabulous tostones (fried slices of plantains) with garlic sauce and deliciously potent and minty Mojitos ...

Are you in love with New York yet?

Saturday, August 2, 2008


You know that you have found your local neighbourhood spot when you sit down and the waiter doesn't even ask what you are going to order as he knows already.

Marie and I have made a tradition of going to Barney Greengrass - my favourite Jewish deli, as mentioned before - for breakfast, usually on Saturday mornings. We live 2 blocks away from each other and Barneys is exactly in between, which is deliciously convenient.

As I have been away, we hadn't been there in weeks until today but the waiter welcomed us back with a cheerful "Hello ladies, the usual?".

Sometimes you want to go somewhere where everybody knows your name ... or in this case, where they know your fondness for sesame seeds bagels, Nova scrambled eggs and bottomless coffee!