Landmarks give shape to a city but they don’t define it. The Eiffel Tower. The Colosseum. Big Ben. They serve as icons for destinations whose allure stirs emotions that can only be understood in the curve of an arch or the cut of a spire. They draw you to a place, but they don’t keep you there, they don’t even fully introduce you to your surroundings. It was fitting then, how New York and I truly became acquainted after a week in its limits. After visiting the Natural History Museum my mother stopped to offer me some orange juice. That’s nice enough, but it happened directly in front of the Exit door. Hundreds of people swarmed past, essentially cocooning us in an impossibly fast and faceless mob. I dislike crowds and absolutely hate when strangers touch me, so very narrowly avoiding a panic attack I burst through the cocoon and escaped into snowy Central Park. Only then did I finally feel like I was in the city as opposed to looking at it.
In those minutes I felt like New York was actively conspiring against me and simultaneously comforting. What’s that? You Don’t like it when nine people somehow manage to shoulder check you at once? Here’s some ducks on an icy pond to make you feel better. With a population of 8.5 million people, feeling like the city’s got your back, even for only a few seconds, is pretty much like high fiving the Statue of Liberty.
My boyfriend and I spent the month of February wandering around the streets of New York, watching passersby in black wool coats bite it on the ice. We traipsed around primarily in the West Village, where we stayed in the heart of Greenwich. Months earlier we reserved an Airbnb in the area mostly because it seemed cool and looked cute (priorities, man), without truly realizing where we were staying. Also it dubbed itself a “Pied-a-Terre” on the site, which we liked to say aloud in increasingly annoying “French” accents. “Peeyed Ahh Tiiaare” we’d shout until one of us gave up, like our own version of the Penis Game. Once we arrived, though, it quickly became apparent how historical the area was. We called 114 McDougal our home for the month. Our neighbor 116 McDougal opened it’s doors under the name “The Gaslight Cafe” in 1958, which helped launch the career of Bob Dylan, but closed in 1971. Ya know the stereotype about beatniks snapping their fingers? That may have The Gaslight to thank. Since the venue shared its air shafts with the apartments above, the audience couldn’t applaud in fear of a noise disturbance, so the crowd took to snapping to compensate. Across the street stands Caffee Reggio. Established in 1927, it’s one of the oldest cafes in the city, and the first cafe in the U.S. to serve a cappuccino. It’s full of gorgeous art and even more gorgeous people. Under an oil painting sat the most interesting looking man I’ve ever seen. Wild white hair sprang from his scalp and wrinkles carved his face. He gestured around, papers in hand, holding them to the light and strategically rearranging them. I’m pretty sure he’s a famous author and that I’ve seen his picture before, but googling “older writers in nyc” proved fruitless, because of course it would. I thought I would die there since I never wanted to leave. Next to Reggio is the Comedy Cellar. Nearly every notable American comedian has done stand up in this tiny underground club, and Louie fans will recognize the brick exterior. Crowds will take up the entire sidewalk while they wait in 10 degree weather for almost an hour to get in. Worth it though. Your average comic is usually a writer for SNL or latenight. The guys onstage covered topics ranging from growing up Jewish in New York to living through the zombie apocalypse. The real star was the last comic though. I ran into her in the restroom prior to her set where she complimented my dress. I thought she was a drunk tourist, but it turns out she was a drunk comedian who can kick the shit out of her male companions on stage. Still looking for her name, but she haunts my dreams.
New York doesn’t really have a thriving beer scene. I guess I’ve taken my time on the West Coast for granted beer-wise, since Seattle has about 40 breweries. Here, “Craft Beer Bar” really means, “We have Sam Adams on draft.” A few doors down from our apartment we found the White Rabbit Club though. A dark, cold, underground Belgian beer bar that serves only bottles. We took all of our visiting friends to this place, and one night even drank the place out of Underberg, an herb based liquor sold in tiny bottles. After ordering the shot, a friend and I were straight up given the bottles with no glass and were told to shoot it. Well, the bottles pour essentially like a bottle of tabasco sauce, so we had to patiently wait as each anisey drop would hit our tongues. We even met a new friend at the bar. Sylvan. He had a “tie-a-girl-to-the-train-tracks” villainous kind of mustache and our discussions included topics such as the Great Boston Molasses Flood and his Instagram famous girlfriend.
Other great beer experiences includeThe Blind Tiger, Fools Gold, and Upright, which have the best draft lists we found. For a truly special experience though, go to Other Half brewing in Brooklyn. You’ll find it under a bridge and the Gowanus Expressway, with no sign proclaiming its existence. The only way we found it was because our Brooklyn-based friend whom we were meeting was smoking outside. Inside are some gems though. Smokescreens and Oilslicks was the smoothest imperial stout I’ve had in a while and their Veldrijden Love is a truly funktastic farmhouse. Our friend knew the brewers so we were able to forego the crowded tasting room and drink in the attached garage amongst barrels and backhoes.
First up was McSorley’s, a bar women weren’t permitted in until 1970. E.E. Cummings penned a poem beginning with the line “I was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.” Clearly the man loved it here and so did I. Sawdust covers the floor, there are two house drafts — light and dark — and you have to order two at once.. You want one beer? Tough, now you have two. The servers have a median age of 60 and love nothing more than banging the 12 beers they hold in a single friggin’ hand onto the ancient wooden table in one massive Thwomp. Go there if you don’t believe me, but you should probably go there anyway. Next on the list was the White Horse. One of Jack Kerouac and Dylan Thomas’s favorite watering holes. Legend tells of a “Jack Go Home” sign that hung in the men’s room during the beats’ heyday, but bigger legend tells of Mr. Thomas’s final stop here. His last words were “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies….I think that’s the record.” Guess where he had those whiskies? Nowadays the establishment is full of neon signs and a jukebox playing PassionPit. To me it exists only in terms of “back in the day” and “once was”, but there must have been magic here, because I’m pretty sure 18 whiskies is the record.
Last stop: Minetta Tavern. A fancy-ass, Michelin-starred, best-burger-in-Manhattan kinda place. The first occasion my boyfriend went here was with a Philadelphia friend (both “un-fancy”) and essentially got heckled by a woman at the bar in a fur vest (“fancy”). Hemingway did love it here though, and when he wasn’t drinking the Keys dry or fighting in Spanish bars he was a regular. As was Ezra Pound and our friend Dylan Thomas. The cocktails, seriously, are amazing. I felt mildly obligated to get the “Old Man and the Sea” cocktail, but with Ilegal Mezcal Reposado, sherry, bitters, and sea salt I really didn’t mind. The burger was great but not the greatest ever; go to the Spotted Pig for a burger experience you’ll never come back from. Go for the scene though. Nothing screams Old New York like white table cloths and caricatures on the walls. For food, The Spotted Pig is a shoo-in, but for the best meal I had in Manhattan: look no further than the $8.00 Goa Taco. Nestled inside a paratha bread shell are the most insane taco combinations I’ve ever had. A poached turkey breast bahn mi with cilantro and peanuts, smothered in a magic sauce. Chicken chorizo with a brussel sprout slaw and fontina cheese. Honey roasted butternut squash stuffed with kale and pepitas. Goa is run by a small staff, including what I’m guessing are the owners, a young and loveable (Australian? New Zealand?) couple. One “Goa Taco” is roughly the size of two tacos, or, according to the owners, the size of “a small mans face.” He’s the taco king, she’s the queen, and boy do they know how to hold the place up. She’d go up to the patrons and ask the age old question “Want a churro?” and the answer would be an overwhelming yes. Goa Taco ruined my life because it’s 2500 miles from my apartment, but my stomach pretty much never left.
Moving on from history, let’s go into a deliciously contrived era. It’s poetry brothel time. And it’s exactly what it sounds like, except completely wholesome. Once a month in a lush and velvety speakeasy you can buy a pretty young poet, take them into a dim, candlelit, back room and… have them read you poetry. But it’s their poetry, and even though it’s so fun and lighthearted in the mainroom, it’s so deliciously personal in the back. Or maybe it’s because we had the pleasure of buying the beautiful Keegan Lester, who, because we were the last ones of the night, gave us the poems he read from that evening. I’m still swooning. Burlesque Bonus: Two lovely brunettes put on an outstanding show throughout the evening, but we had the absolute privilege of watching a woman in a monkey suit widdle down to almost nothing. The premise? Let Koko dance!
Did we do anything other than eat and drink in our time here? Well yes, but it was always a preface to eating and drinking. We did the museum scene hard. Other than the aforementioned Natural History Museum, which we went to two times in two days cause my step dad isn’t “into art”, we went to the Cloisters, the Met, The Frick, and the Tenement Museum. I also went to the Guggenheim hungover on my last day in the city. However, after traveling 80 blocks to get there, I was informed that none of the galleries were open, only the primary walkway. “Did I still want to enter?” I was asked. Well, I’d already come all the way there, so, fuck, I guess so. I spent the next two hours looking at an exhibit of old newspaper clippings and postcards. Knowing I wouldn’t appreciate or truly comprehend the exhibit (hungover) I people watched and took pictures. Apparently you’re not allowed to photograph past the main floor, but since none of the eight attendants I blatantly took pictures next to informed me of this, I have a pretty extensive photo collection of said postcards. Enjoy the assorted museum pics.
Entertainment-wise we also attended two Broadway shows: Wicked — which was baby’s first Broadway outing — and Cabaret. Wicked was amazing, ridiculously elaborate, and I spent the whole show wanting to kiss Glenda on the mouth. However, Cabaret starred Alan Cumming and Sienna Miller and took place in Studio 54. I mean, how could I not see it? Leopard print carpet covers the floors and the disco ball hanging from the ceiling is the size of Pluto (RIP Pluto). Even though Carl’s first Broadway experience was Wicked, this was my first experience purchasing cocktails at a show. One whiskey ginger was $28.00: Sad Emoji: but we got a commemorative cup: Happy Emoji. Going into the show I knew it took place at a cabaret in Berlin which seemed awesome, but I didn’t know what the show was really about: Nazis. My fault though, cause I really should have guessed. I can now say that I’ve been in the same room as Alan Cumming, so Spiceworld era Gracie is super satisfied.
Other notable standouts include: SRO. A pizza speakeasy, which you get to by going into an Spanish restaurant and saying to the host “I want to eat at this other place.” At which point they knock on an invisible door, and allow you to enter pizza heaven. The World Champion Pizzaiolo (yes, that’s a thing) Giulio Adriani himself will turn out a truly memorable margherita pizza. And, Pizza Bonus may even shake your hand at the table. William Barnacle Tavern. An absinthe bar attached to a theatre currently hosting “Bayside the Musical”, a Saved by the Bell inspired parody show. While sipping painstakingly crafted absinthe bevs we watched as the cast would filter in and out. How did we know it was the cast? Because they were decked out in 80’s tastic three-sizes-too-large suits and garishly colored garments. Raines Law Room. A speakeasy where your server is summoned by a button. When first told about this it sounded a bit appauling. Curb Your Enthusiasm came to mind, with Larry wanting to call your server with a bell, leading Michael York to ask, “you want them to answer to a bell, like a dog?”. However, Raines does the button idea very tastefully. Press the button, light comes on, server knows to come over. Otherwise, you’re left alone to sip your manhattans. In one word: Efficient.
New York is a maze. It’s constantly changing and expanding, torn apart and turned anew every day. Your favorite coffee shop could be gone tomorrow, replaced with a gourmet dog food store, and because you really never know what will happen in this metropolis, there’s an urgency here. That’s why we have the “New York Minute”, the need to bustle and push your way through the streets in search of what’s next. For every magical spot you find, you’ve passed 30 other wonders along the way. I’ve made a list of my favorite places I was lucky enough to find, but it’s in no way a “definitive” list. There’s no such thing. Only as you’re leaving does this settle in, as you’re watching the skyline grow hazy in the distance (even the skyline’s been drastically altered recently), do you realize you haven’t even begun to understand the cities mysteries, nuances, and secrets. I have my own map of New York in my mind. That’s something only this city and I will share, and that’s something everyone else who’s been here can say too. The writer and her boyfriend travelled to New York in February of 2015. End Note: After our ridiculously busy month in the city we spent several days at Carl’s (boyfriends) house outside of Pittsburgh. Peaceful, serene, and snowy.