I remember watching an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker years ago, at the height of her Sex and the City fame. She was discussing the show, and she said something to the effect of “Manhattan is the fifth cast member.” Her point was that the city itself has so much life and energy, that it was more than just a backdrop for the show – it acted as another lead character with its own spirit and personality.
There’s just something about this city. I, like so many others around the world, always dreamed of living in New York City. As I wrote in my blog post “Kid-Friendly NYC in the Winter,” I grew up a theater kid who hoped to be on Broadway one day, until I headed off to college and chose a much more “practical” (and less exciting) career. But my chosen career path eventually brought me to NYC for graduate school in my early twenties, and I am forever grateful for the time I got to spend in The City That Never Sleeps.
My husband Jack loves New York just as much as I do, and he surprised me with a four-day jaunt to Manhattan a few weeks ago for my belated birthday (I’m squeezing all the celebrations I can out of my big 3-5!) We flew out on a red-eye on a Wednesday night and came back the following Monday in the early evening. I definitely could have stayed longer, but this was just the right amount of time to see and taste all of the top items on our list.
Jack had enough Virgin America miles for us to fly first class roundtrip from SFO to Newark; this was especially clutch on our departing flight, as we needed to catch as many Z’s as possible. At just a little over five hours, the flight definitely did not give us enough rest to last through the day, but we made it until our hotel check-in. We took a cab from Newark Airport to our hotel, which was astronomically expensive ($110 – our cab driver said this was due to the fact that he was a New Jersey cab driver and could not pick up another fare in New York). We arrived at our hotel at 7am or so, freshened up in the lobby bathroom, then grabbed a tasty breakfast at Friedman’s in Herald Square (31st St between Ave of the Americas and 7th Ave). After that we totally fell asleep on the comfy couches in the rooftop lounge until we got the call that our room was ready at 11am. We then napped until 2pm, when we awoke refreshed and ready to walk to the Lower East Side to meet up with friends.
We stayed at the Gansevoort Park Avenue. Yes, this is where the hated Kardashians stayed in 2011 – I promise we did NOT stay there for this reason (I think we found a good deal on Jetsetter). But the hotel had everything we needed: comfortable room, fitness center, and an amazing rooftop pool and lounge area. The hotel is located on the corner of Park Ave and 29th St, near Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building. This was definitely not our first choice location – I would have preferred to be in Greenwich Village or near Central Park – but we were able to easily walk or take the Subway to all the spots we wanted to visit.
Speaking of the Subway, I just want to emphasize how incredible it is – you can get just about anywhere in the city in a relatively short amount of time. The fare is $2.75 per ride, regardless of how far you are traveling, so you would have to take at least twelve rides to make a 7-day unlimited card ($31) worth it. If you add $5.50 or more to your MetroCard, an 11% bonus is added to your card. The MetroCard itself costs $1 and each card expires after about one year.
Jack had arranged for us to have the tasting menu lunch Friday afternoon at Momofuku Ko, one of several restaurants owned by celebrity chef David Chang (we opted for lunch over dinner, as we could book lunch 28 days in advance vs. 14 days for dinner). Ko is located on the Lower East Side and has a fun, edgy vibe. All of us guests got to sit at the kitchen counter, watching as the chefs prepared various dishes for the 16-course meal. We opted for the wine pairing, which was exquisite – it included wine, beer, sake, and spirits. There were several stand out dishes including a soup of chanterelle with baked egg and dashi, razor clams with pineapple and basil, and a dessert of frozen rhubarb, meringue, and tapioca.
We left Ko feeling full and buzzed, and we headed down the street to one of Jack’s favorite places: the outdoor bar at The Bowery Hotel. It’s a really cool spot with a great covered outdoor space for drinking their amazing cocktails. The Bowery is a popular destination for celebrities; a couple years ago Jack spotted Mad Men‘s Elizabeth Moss there. On this visit I recognized Mark Duplass from Togetherness and The Mindy Project sitting across from me with his wife (I was too nervous to say anything to him, though). We enjoyed our cocktails, then headed back to the hotel for a nap.
After we rested up and watched half of the Warriors-Cavs Finals game, we headed out in search of a great burger. Jack is on a burger kick right now and likes to find a great burger in every American city we visit. A friend of mine who lives in NYC suggested we check out the new list of hot burgers from NY Eater. This was how we discovered Covina, which was just down the street from our hotel. We headed over for a late night “snack” at 10:30pm. We shared a Caesar salad and a large beer, then each had our own burger with fries. Everything was delicious, and the burger was juicy and flavorful, with a great bun and a fast food flavor profile like the burger at Café du Nord.
On Saturday we met up with friends in Sheep Meadow in Central Park for a picnic. This is one of my favorite pastimes in NYC: meeting up with good people, consuming wine and delicious snacks, all while being surrounded by nature and the city. I had sent an email out to our New York friends a few weeks earlier and told them when and where we’d be in the park, and to stop by any time. I figured this plan would work well for our friends with kids (meeting up at a bar doesn’t work for everyone anymore…) The weather prediction called for thunderstorms, but we decided to chance it and we lucked out for the most part (I felt a few raindrops). We asked our friends who live near the park to bring a blanket, cups, and utensils (they also surprised us with wine and incredible cookies from the famous Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side – the dark chocolate peanut butter chip cookie was Jack and my favorite!). On our way to the park, we picked up snacks at the Midtown East Whole Foods Market on 57th St between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Keep in mind that supermarkets in New York state are not allowed to sell wine, so we had to stop by a wine store to pick up our rosé. We posted up near Le Pain Quotidien at the north end of Sheep Meadow, which gave us easy access to the public restrooms. Throughout the day various friends of ours came and went, we ate and drank well, and we soaked up the energy of the city.
After spending many hours at the park, we were ready for our next meal. We walked to the south end of the park, quickly used the restrooms at The Plaza (there’s a large food court area in the basement with public restrooms), then hopped in an Uber to the East Village for dinner. I was craving some classic New York pizza, and our friends recommended Motorino. I’m a bit partial to John’s Pizzeria in the West Village (that’s where I used to go when I lived in Manhattan), but Motorino was a delicious alternative. We started with a fennel salad (which was lovely), then shared three pizzas between the four of us: the special of the day (Margherita with meatballs), a Brussels sprouts pizza, and a mushroom pizza. The special pizza was definitely the crowd favorite. We washed it down with what the restaurants called “the perfect pizza wine,” an effervescent red wine. It really was the perfect wine to drink with pizza!
On Sunday we headed to the new Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. The original museum was founded in 1931 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and focuses on 20th and 21st Century American art. From 1966-2014, the museum was located on the Upper East Side, where you can still find several of the city’s most prominent museums (the Guggenheim, the Met). The Whitney reopened in its new location in May of last year. (Coincidentally, I watched the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper on my flight home – I had no idea Mrs. Whitney was Anderson Cooper’s great aunt!)
We decided to walk from our hotel to the museum, a distance of just under two miles. Jack and I love to explore new cities on foot, especially cities that are FLAT (being from San Francisco and all…) We decided to stop at The Grey Dog in Chelsea for brunch on our way. This restaurant holds a special place in my heart, as I used to get coffee and granola at their West Village location before my lunch shift at the now-closed Deborah: Life, Love, Food restaurant. I forgot what a hipster haven Grey Dog is! Jack and I always say that hipsters LOVE to stand in line, and this place is no exception. We arrived to find a ridiculously long line to order food at the counter; however, we were impressed by their efficient system of assigning tables using different colored handkerchiefs – once we finished ordering, we knew we had a table waiting for us. We both opted for a healthy arugula salad with smoked salmon and poached eggs (oh, and a side of bacon…), as we knew we would be eating a lot later in the day/evening.
Next, we continued our walk to the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District. We actually walked along Gansevoort Street, past the sister hotel to the one in which we were staying. This small neighborhood was packed with people – it is clearly a hot destination right now. We saw some really interesting exhibits in the Whitney and I loved the indoor/outdoor sculpture gardens. It was a beautiful day and we were able to see the incredible Manhattan skyline, as well as look down at the High Line.
After our stroll through the museum, we walked along the High Line. It was very crowded – I can’t handle being stuck behind slow walkers, so we exited after a few blocks. But It was beautifully landscaped and reminded me a lot of the Coulée Verte René-Dumont (Promenade plantée) in Paris.
We grabbed a couple drinks in the neighborhood with friends, then we walked to Chelsea Market on 9th Ave between 15th and 16th Streets for a light lunch. It was super crowded (and I got a little stressed out looking at the bathroom line), but we had done some Yelp research ahead of time and had our hearts set on the lobster rolls at C&P Galley in The Lobster Place. They were the perfect size for a light lunch and included “fresh claw and knuckle meat, celery, scallions, lemon & mayo, on a toasted top-split bun” with a side of chips. Yum!
We walked back to our hotel with Jack’s buddy from college and shared a few drinks at the rooftop bar. Then Jack and I retreated for a quick rest before getting all gussied up for our 10pm fancy birthday dinner at Eleven Madison Park.
Eleven Madison Park has three Michelin stars and currently sits at the #3 spot on S. Pellegrino’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Jack and I love to visit these types of places when we are traveling – it is an experience that feels a bit like “dinner and a show,” where the “show” is the dinner. The food, ambiance, and service were exquisite (pretty much everyone who served us wished me Happy Birthday). The menu is a set tasting menu, but we were offered a choice of two different dishes for some of the courses. We opted for the wine pairing (we chose the more affordable option which included some Old World wines, as well as many delicious local wines from New York State). We really enjoyed each and every dish, but the standouts were the starter of Widow’s Hole oyster with caviar, morel with rye crisp, Peekytoe crab salad, and fava bean croquette, the caviar Benedict with corn and ham, and the butter-poached lobster with citrus, daikon, and fava beans (I almost chose the halibut because I’d had lobster for lunch, and I’m so glad I changed my mind!)
We had some time to kill on Monday before our flight home, so we took the subway to my old neighborhood near Columbia University and picked up a couple bagels at Absolute Bagels, the first place I ever had a “real” New York Bagel. I’ll never forget the look on the owner’s face 13 years ago when I asked to have my bagel toasted; I didn’t realize that New York bagels have such an incredible crusty texture that they do not need to be toasted. In the time since I lived in NYC (I moved to San Francisco in 2006), Absolute Bagels has become a very popular spot on weekends, often with long lines down the block (more hipsters?) So it worked out well that we stopped in on a Monday morning, as there was just a short wait. I opted for my old standby: an everything bagel with sun-dried tomato cream cheese. We walked across the street to eat at Straus Park (which is more of a “parklet”), which I later learned was named after Ida and Isidor Straus, husband and wife (he a U.S. congressman and co-owner of Macy’s) who died together on the Titanic. I lived right by it for two and a half years and I never knew!
After our delicious and affordable breakfast in the park, we walked over a few blocks to Central Park. It was a beautiful early afternoon, and we strolled through the park fantasizing about living in NYC some day (probably not going to happen!) We walked past the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the popped out on the east side of the park near the Guggenheim Museum and the Metopolitan Museum of Art. We eventually hopped on the subway in the 70’s and made our way back to our hotel to grab our bags and head home.
Jack and I fell in love with NYC all over again on this trip. We walked through various neighborhoods, ate incredible food, took in the manicured parks and art, and caught up with old friends. We made a pact that we would visit more frequently – next time we hope to spend some time in the boroughs besides Manhattan. There’s just so much to see and do in this energetic and stimulating city.
Here are some other restaurants and activities that we’ve enjoyed in the past, but didn’t have time to fit into this trip:
Hearth: great spot in the East Village. The potato gnocchi with Parmesan is to die for.
John’s Pizzeria of Bleecker Street: When I was first accepted to graduate school in New York, a friend of mine in LA (who was originally from Manhattan) told me about John’s and described it as “the best pizza in NYC.” It was my first experience with New York style pizza and it’s still one of my favs.
Grimaldi’s: Located in Brooklyn. A fun activity that my friend Jessica introduced me to is to walk across Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, then reward yourself with pizza at Grimaldi’s. It’s a classic New York joint. In Manhattan, go to Chambers St Subway stop, walk east, turn right at Hall Park Centre St/Park Row. When nearing end of bridge, take stairs in center of bridge downward; when at ground level, walk toward Manhattan).
Union Square Greenmarket: I love this farmer’s market, especially in the summertime. I still dream of the sour cherry jam I purchased here years ago. The produce is incredible and the location is quintessential New York.
What other restaurants, sites, and activities do you enjoy in New York City?