I'll drag you there
You said 'no one drags me anywhere'
- Gord Downie
There really is no better city in the world than New York. No matter how many times I go there, I never cease to be amazed by its overwhelming size and vitality. Unlike in Toronto, where you can only find action along the major streets (Bloor, Queen, Dundas, College, Yonge...), it seems as if you can walk down any street in New York City and find it teeming with life; bars, restaurants, tiendas, delis, cafes; and all of it seems so novel, so much the quintessence of what a city is supposed to be that oftentimes the only entertainment you ever need is to walk down the street in the morning and to watch life unfold in that cinematic way that it does only in New York.
It has so much to do with the city's geography (it is an island with limited space) and its near flawless design (every street is lined with buildings containing commercial space and at least 6 stories of living space: the perfect density for creating that city setting - the excellence and efficiency of this design is captured beautifully in David Owen's Green Manhattan). And it also has a great deal to do with the fact that NYC is one of the financial and cultural centres of the world. It has been the cradle and the setting for incalculable works of art, and it continues to evolve and redefine itself to this day. And because of this fluidity and this constant reshaping and renewal, you can travel there a thousand times and always find something new.
Despite the fact that the city is constantly changing, there are still some places that deserve to be visited time and time again. On the occasion of my 10th visit to the world's greatest city, I figured it was time to put together some kind of a list of the best places I've come across over the years.
By no means is this list complete, and by no means am I an expert. But through a combination of research, killer recommendations, and stumble-into-it serendipitous dumb luck, these are what I consider to be some of the must-hit places in New York City. Feel free to think of this list as your incomplete, uncomprehensive, completely biased, and entirely subjective seanmccallum.com clipboard of fun.
I almost always drive to New York. The trip takes about 9 hours, and you can always find free parking in NYC if you're willing to do your homework and you're willing to leave your ride on a busy side street for 3 days. If you're not comfortable driving in big cities, or if the constant blaring of car horns offends you, you may want to look into alternative modes of transportation.
Where to Stay
The rooms are all hardwood and exposed brick, the staff are friendly and helpful, there is free coffee and tea every morning, and the place is hooked up for wireless internet access. But the two major draws of the Sohotel are the neighbourhood (located in Nolita, two blocks from Mulberry Street, two blocks from Lombardi's, two minutes from 2nd Ave. and Houston Street, a five minute walk to Soho, and within walking distance of every conceivable bar you could ever want to hit); and the price (less than $200 per night for double occupancy).
Needless to say, The Sohotel is my go-to accomodations for NYC.
A couple of other great places I've stayed before include:
Second Home on Second Avenue (221 2nd Ave., between 13th and 14th) - Second Home is a funky little Bed and Breakfast, minus the breakfast. It's a boutique hotel with only 7 rooms, each decorated uniquely. Some have private bathrooms, some don't. It's a little bit like staying in a European guest house, except in the East Village (two blocks from Union Square). Rooms range from $105-$220, and you definitely have to have been there before to be able to find it (there is no sign).
East Village Bed and Coffee (110 Ave. C, between 7th and 8th) - EVB&C is the sister hotel to Second Home, so you have the same deal with some shared facilities. The first time I stayed here, Alphabet City was a considerably cooler; though arguably less safe; neighbourhood than it is today. The EVB&C is a converted loft space, and many of the rooms are built up on stilts. Easily one of the coolest hotels I've ever stayed at. Anne, the owner, is one of the coolest people you'll ever meet, but she has a big, scary German Shepherd, so if dogs aren't your thing, you might want to look somewhere else. Rooms range from $105-$160, and reservations are absolutely essential. This place is also impossible to find if you've never been here.
Some other solid budget-minded options that I haven't stayed at:
Off Soho Suites (11 Rivington St. @ The Bowery)
Chelsea Savoy Hotel (204 W. 23rd St. @ 7th Ave.)
Places that look ridiculously cool that I can't afford:
Abingdon Guest House (21 8th Ave. @ 12th St.) - This hotel is located 4 blocks from 66 Perry Street, which is where the scenes for Carrie Bradshaw's apartment were filmed, for those female readers who care about that sort of thing.
Blue Moon Hotel (100 Orchard St. between Broome and Delancey) - A converted tenement on the Lower East Side with huge rooms named after celebrities.
Where to Eat
Shopsin's (120 Essex St. between Rivington and Delancey, in the Essex Street Market) - This hard-to-find East Village institution is bursting at the seams with New York attitude. I honestly thought that I misheard Kenny Shopsin when he took a look at the baby sitting next to us and said: "Whaddaya know? It's a fuckin baby!". After that, the F-bombs were flying like it was going out of style, highlighted by one of the cooks screaming: "WHAT THE FUCK IS WITH ALL THESE FUCKIN PEOPLE??? IT'S FUCKIN RAININ AND IT'S STILL FUCKIN PACKED!!! WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?! PEOPLE ARE SUCH FUCKIN ASSHOLES!!!!!"
But the New York attitude is only half the story. Because the breakfast menu is about the most extensive thing you'll ever see, and despite the fact that breakfast will probably run you $15, the portions are so big you won't need to eat again until dinner time. Most breakfast dishes are named after famous New Yorkers, like the Juju - essentially a Reuben sandwhich on eggs. The Heuvos Rancheros were brilliant (he asks how hot on a scale of 1-10 - I said 7, and was sweating), and the girl beside us had the "Blisters on My Sisters" which looked phenomenal. If you can dig the slew of obscenities (half the fun), this is one of the best breakfast places you'll ever come across, and as you step out into the East Village morning, you'll invariably find yourself shaking your head in disbelief and muttering: "only in New York"
Cafe Habana (229 Elizabeth St. @ Prince St.) - One day, I will sit down to write a magnum opus treatise about the top 100 places to get Huevos Rancheros in the great city of New York. And I'm pretty sure that Cafe Habana will top that list. (The great thing about Huevos Rancheros is that no two places make it the same. It was my breakfast of choice every morning in NYC, and not once did any place make it even remotely similar to any other joint). Unquestionably the best New York breakfast I've ever had. This is a perfect little Nolita diner with great Latin tunes and fantastic servers (my buddy M@ recommended this place and swears he fell in love here once), and sitting by the window on a Monday morning and watching the Soho workers going about their day is one of those quintessential NYC moments that you can't begin to describe.
Bonus: Cafe Habana operates a sister outpost in Brooklyn that is powered entirely by Solar energy. This Fort Greene community gathering place and eco-eatery will most certainly be on my hit list next time around.
Find a Deli. Step inside. Order a Pastrami or a Corned Beef sandwich with a side of pickles. Soak it all in.
For a great burger in the West Village, try The Corner Bistro (331 W. 4th St. @ Bank St.)
Lombardi's (32 Spring St. @ Mott St.) - As sad as this may sound, one of the reasons I continuously choose to go to New York City is so that I can eat at Lombardi's. I consider myself to be a bit of a pizza snob, and without question, this is the best pizza I've ever had. Try to get seated in the older part of the restaurant (it dates back to the turn of the century, and is widely considered America's first pizzeria), order yourself a bottle of the house Cabernet Sauvignon and a large plain pizza (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil), and prepare yourself for a little piece of heaven. The secret is in the crust (some say the secret to the crust is in the New York City tap water). You will never look at pizza the same way again.
The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11th St. @ Greenwich St.) - The Spotted Pig is a Michelin rated restaurant masquerading as a rowdy English pub. There was an hour and a half wait for a table on Saturday night when we got there so we gave them my cell phone number and ducked out to the White Horse Tavern (notorious NYC writer's watering hole) for a couple of Brooklyn Lagers on the patio. They called us an hour later to let us know that our table was ready. You can't beat that.
We got seated in a surprisingly intimate corner of the upstairs while the party raged on in the rest of the place. They have a couple of Brooklyn cask beers on tap that are out of this world, and the perfect accompaniment for a gourmet meal. We started off with pan-seared Boston Mackeral with mint, and it was some of the best fish I've ever had. For a main course, I had the housemade Faggots (You read that correctly. And if you think ordering a plate of faggots from a gay waiter at a restaurant in New York is difficult, well, you're correct); a concoction made up of various parts of the pig's head that was easily the most delicious pork I've ever eaten. It was so good, in fact, that I enthusiastically recommended it to the guy that sat at the table next to us. Of course, when he tasted his plate he almost vomitted, and had to wash what little he could stomach down with multiple diet Cokes. To say that it was extremely awkward to sit there and watch him dry-heave on my recommendation would be a vast understatement, proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.
(Now that I think of it, that recommendation to order the faggots could wind up being a metaphor for this entire piece, so please, proceed with caution).
Regardless of the inherent risks in making recommendations, factoring the quality of the fare (spectacular), the setting (pretention's antithesis), the service (outstanding), the neighbourhood (where the celebrities hang), and the price (the entire meal with drinks, dessert, and tip came to less than $150), I would recommend The Spotted Pig to anyone travelling to New York. It is officially on the must-hit list from here on in.
The list of places in which to imbibe in "the city that never sleeps" is virtually endless. Here are a few of my favourites:
McSorley's Old Ale House (15 E. 7th St. @ 3rd Ave.) - One of the oldest bars in this fair city opened its doors in 1857--but women weren't allowed in until the 1970s. Today, this East Village institution still has sawdust on the floor, almost 150 years of history on the walls and only two kinds of beer--McSorley's Light and McSorley's Dark. (taken from Citysearch.com)
No visit to NYC would be complete without a pint or twelve at McSorley's. I've been going there since I was old enough to drink, and the experience never tires. They literally throw mugs of beer at you (the dark is far better than the light), and yer man who works the back section has been there forever and is as much a part of the New York City landscape as the Empire State Building and the yellow cabs. It is virtually impossible to walk out of Mcsorley's sober, as many a time I have gone in telling myself that I'm only stopping in for a quick one, only to walk out many hours later completely legless.
The bathrooms often make the latrines at Sneaky Dees feel like the Ritz-Carlton by comparison, and one of the great highlights is watching neophyte females drunkenly mistaken the men's room for the ladies (the women's washroom was added in the '70's as an afterthought and the door looks like it leads to a broom closet). If you show up with a small group, chances are you'll be seated at a table with a bunch of strangers, and within no time you'll be the best of friends. It's just that kind of place.
Some of the other highlights include a ridiculous amount of history on the walls, a pet cat who will rub its weary back against your leg as you sit and swill, and a dusty chandelier with wishbones hanging from it (if it's quiet enough in there, ask the barman the story behind it. One of the most touching things I've ever heard). McSorley's is an absolute must on any trip to NYC.
Zinc Bar (90 W. Houston St. @ La Guardia Place) - Nestled in an easy-to-miss nook on Houston Street, Zinc Bar ushers guests through plush red velvet curtains to a cramped yet cozy front room that throbs with the band's every beat. Should it be romance you're looking for, the back room is an airy oasis where the music is muted and speaking above a whisper is akin to blasphemy. (taken from Citysearch.com)
We showed up here just after 1am on a Friday night and found a seat near the eight piece African jazz band (Kofo the Wonderman). Despite the fact that nobody really had any idea what the lead singer was singing about, the entire bar was completely captivated from the first note onward. Another one of those quintessential New York experiences that you simply can't find anywhere else. Their set only consisted of 3 songs, but each song was a twenty-minute session with Kofo working the talking drum to perfection. Just a magical experience. Apparently every Friday night is African Jazz night at Zinc. If you're in town on a Friday, do everything you can to get there.
As a side note, this place; as were many of the other places on this list; was recommended to me by my Unkle Mike. The next day, while talking about how amazing a performance we'd seen, I found myself wondering how a 50-year old man could be so cool. I wish I knew the answer.
Doc Holliday's (141 Ave. A @ 9th St.) - Nothing epitomizes the gentrification of Alphabet City more than the fact that there are now patrons frequenting Doc's wearing striped shirts and blazers. Now, don't get me wrong: I have nothing against people who wear striped shirts and blazers. In fact, I would say that about 35% of my friends own a go-to blazer that they'll don when heading out for a night on the town. But under no circumstances should the type of person who wears a social blazer be found inside one of the all-time dive bars. We're talking about a place that serves Pabst Blue Ribbon in a can ($2), and has Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in the jukebox. There was a time when this place smelled of stale beer and urine, and your shoes would stick to the floor no matter what the time of day or night. But alas, this once pre-eminent watering hole has gone the way of the rest of the neighbourhood, meaning that frat boys in striped shirts and blazers are free to walk the streets without the fear of being shivved at any given moment. How I long for the good ol' days.
But even with that all being said, you can still get a can of Rolling Rock for $3, and the juke box still blasts whatever you want to hear (Etta James, Steve Earle, Loretta Lynn). I just wish the floors were stickier.
Ludlow Street - There are about 20 bars lining Ludlow Street between Houston and Delancey. I wish we'd gotten a chance to hit some of them because they looked ridiculous (particularly Pianos at 158 Ludlow St.)
Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette St. between E. 4th St. and Astor Pl.) - The pre-eminent place to see live music in NYC. Always check to see who's on the bill when you're in town.
So of course it was just my luck that I happened to have been dating a former theatre school student at the time, who liked nothing more than to catch a Broadway Musical. So there we were, sitting on the plane, going through the listings, trying to find a musical that I might be able to tolerate. Jersey Boys was intriguing because what's not to like about The Four Seasons, but it sounded way too much like a musical revue in the traditoin of Mamma Mia. Spring Awakening had the words "raging" and "hormones" in the revue, so I probably could have gone for that one. But then we came across this play called In The Heights that was supposed to take place in Washington Heights. What can I say? I'm a sucker for gritty neighbourhood scripts.
We lined up at 5:30 and entered our names into the ticket lottery (they draw names at 6 o'clock to see who will get to sit in the front row for $25 - price of remaining tickets? $110. I think every sports team and rock concert should do the same). Miraculously, we somehow won the lottery, which meant that we'd be sitting front row centre for the most anticipated Friday night show in quite some time (it was nominated for 13 Tony awards earlier in the week, and we had America Ferrera of Ugly Betty fame sitting behind us. Yep, we're that big-time.) Despite all of the buzz, I was still completely skeptical. Because really: how good could a musical really be? The answer? Apparently, a musical can be really good.
I was absolutely blown away. And sure, it probably has something to do with the fact that we were sitting in the front row and could see the spit flying everywhere (the conductor who stands there with his head popping up should really be wearing a rain-slicker), but this was far and away one of the best theatrical experiences I've ever had the privilege of witnessing. The play was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda; who plays the lead role of Usnavi to perfection; during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University (it should be noted that during my sophomore year at University I was getting my ass kicked at Beirut and sleeping in the library), and the entire production is filled with that raw emotion and enthusiasm that you only ever get out of an artist's first work. The music is a mix of rap, hip hop, salsa, samba, meringue, cha cha, and jazz, and the singing at times verges on freestyle and spoken word, which for my money was where Miranda was at his best (when he's describing his street corner in the morning near the end of the play, it is one of the most evocative and poetic scenes I've ever come across).
I am not ashamed to say that there were times during this play that I was on the verge of tears. That's how powerful the acting is, and how moving the story.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you're in New York and you feel the need to hit up a musical, I would go with In the Heights in a heartbeat. So good was it, in fact, that I'd consider going again, even if I wasn't being dragged there.
Yankee Stadium - This is the final year for "The House that Ruth Built". Despite the fact that the place has been allowed to deteriorate in its waning years and the lines for the bathroom are absolutely insane (I'm actually amazed that more people just don't piss in their seats), there is something undeniably magical about sitting in Yankee Stadium. The history gives you chills, the fans are as die-hard as they come, and the dimensions of the stadium itself are a constant reminder that they just don't make'em like they used to. The tradition of the bleacher creatures roll call (chanting each player's name at the beginning of the game) is one of the most underrated traditions in sports.
Madison Square Garden - There are few places more electric than a buzzing MSG. If the Knicks or Red Storm ever work their way back to legitimacy, try to check out some hoops at the mecca.
Take a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery. Shop for vintage clothing at The Beacon's Closet (220 5th Ave., Brooklyn), which has a great selection for girls; if you're a guy looking for vintage threads, you might be better off perusing the vintage stores along 7th St. between 2nd Ave. and Ave A on the island. Go through the crates at the various record stores along Bedford Ave. (I managed to score Al Green's Green is Blues and The Meters' self-titled debut). Sip on microbrews and cask beers at the bars lining the streets. A totally different vibe from Manhattan, and worth the trip if you have the time.
Subway Buskers - I was blown away be the level of talent from these guys. On Friday night, we stood and listened to a five piece New Orleans jazz band; complete with tuba, trumpet, and drums; that could have been playing Preservation Hall the night before for all we knew. Let me tell you: the buskers of the NY subways system make Zanta Clause look like a schoolboy.
Century 21 (22 Cortlandt St. between Church St. and Broadway ) - If you like to shop for designer fashions at ridiculous discounts in a Winners-like atmosphere, this place will be heaven for you. If the only thing you despise more than shopping is shopping in a crowded store with the world's slowest checkout staff, either find something else to do for the two hours your better half will invariably spend in this hell hole, or bring along a sharp object with which to repeatedly stab yourself in the eye socket.
Soho (South of Houston Street, North of Canal, roughly between 6th Ave. and The Bowery) - The Cast Iron Historic District is one of my favourite neighbourhoods to stroll. Pop International Galleries (473 W. Broadway, between Houston and Laguardia Pl.) is like a museum for pop culture in the latter half of the 20th Century. When we were there, I spent the better part of an hour perusing the photography of Lawrence Schiller, who captured seemingly every relevent historical moment of the 60's and 70's. The best part about this exhibit is that every photograph has a detailed description of the event depicted and why the shot itself is so relevent. There is an unbelievable shot of Bobby Kennedy sleeping on his plane while campagning only weeks before his assasination, and countless spectacular shots of Marilyn Monroe. My favourite photograph, though, was one of Joe Dimaggio; along with his son; as the Yankee Clipper is on his way to attend the funeral for the love of his life. It was one of the most touching photographs I've ever seen.
The gallery also has some classic sports photography by the likes of Neil Leifer.
Another great place to check out photography in Soho is Morrison Hotel Gallery (124 Prince St. @ Wooster St.). Hands down some of the coolest music photography you'll ever come across. Everything from Jazz Giants and Dylan to Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen with his '60 Corvette. A must-see for any music enthusiast.
For a great place to duck in out of the rain, try the nameless cofee place on Thompson Street between Prince and Spring. Nothing but bags of beans, three tiny tables, and some of the best coffee you'll ever sip.
Some more relevant New York reading:
Street Life: Jerry Shore's New York, by Adam Gopnik
-We see New York, and sometimes, as Henry James asked us to, we “do it”—explore and conquer it—but what we see when we see it is so far unlike what we experience when we’re doing it that the difference itself can become a subject for art.
Brightness Falls (an article based on the week that changed NYC forever), by Jay McInerney
Brightness Falls (the novel), by Jay McInerney
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem