Our weekend in New York City, May 2012: Brooklyn flea markets, an East Village speakeasy, Art galleries in Soho, cannolis in Little Italy, Ground Zero Memorial, and dinner at Les Halles
A visit to Keith, one of my oldest and dearest friends in New York City was long overdue. So we decided to stop off in New York for a weekend visit on our way to Ireland in May 2012.
Keith is a New York native, and the two of us met as American exchange students in Denmark back in 1997. He grew up in upstate New York and now lives in Brooklyn. I had visited him in New York once back in college when we were 19, and we took a couple day trips to NYC during the visit. Being dirt poor college kids who were too young to go to bars and too poor to go to them even if we could, we spent our time in the city visiting all the standard New York tourist attractions: The Empire State Building (with an hour long line to the viewing deck), the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Chinatown, etc.
This time around as an adult, I was looking forward to seeing the real New York City (or as much as we could in two days). Paddy had never been to New York but was perfectly okay bypassing most of the tourist traps and letting our now New York City local tour guide lead the way. Keith gave us the best possible tour anyone could have given us in the short amount of time we had, and left us wanting to return and spend some more time in the future.
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We flew to New York on Jetblue, which is now our favorite domestic airline. The flight was non-stop, the service was excellent, personal entertainment screens were available and the snacks were unique and delicious. We arrived in the afternoon on Friday, and Keith met us at the JFK subway station to take us back to his place in BedStuy, Brooklyn, only a few minutes away on the subway.
After we were settled and refreshed, we were ready to head into Manhattan to start the evening. Keith took us to the East Village and showed us Japantown, where we poked around in funky punk rock thirft shops and ate some delicious $3.00 falafel gyros from Mamoun’s. I was hoping to go back later that night for round two at the weird and extremely enticing Japadog, but alas we didn’t make it back. Next time.
We bought some beers at a 7-11 and Keith took us to his work building in Chelsea where we took the elevator to his office and then climbed up the fire escape to the roof. The fire escape ended up being a bit more terrifying than I expected, as you can see right through the steps to the dizzying drop to the alley below.
We hung out and drank beers and looked out at the city. The Empire State Building lit up bright blue in the distance, and roof top water tanks were in our line of sight for miles on top of all the old buildings.
After a couple beers we carefully climbed back down the fire escape and walked around the corner to catch a glimpse of the famous Chelsea Hotel, where Sid stabbed Nancy and a whole slew of artists and musicians lived in the 1960’s and 1970’s, including Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and Leonard Cohen. The hotel was under renovations so we didn’t get the best photos, but I took a few anyway.
Finally, we thought we’d at least take a moment to visit Times Square. I suppose it’s worth a looksie, but we didn’t stay long. It’s a pretty huge tourist trap. Lots of flashing electronic billboards, street performers and people in costumes looking to pose with tourists for photos to get tips, TGI Friday’s, Red Robin, and all that American processed chain restaurant grossness. We stopped for a photo op for approximately 10 minutes.
**Note: When in Times Square, watch (and hold onto) your purse or bag. It’s a common spot for purse thieves and pick pockets to prey on tourists who are dazzled by their surroundings and not paying attention.
We called it a night after that and headed back to Keith’s apartment in Brooklyn.
Saturday morning, we slept in a bit and then Keith took us to one of his favorite brunch spots in the Ft. Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, Chez Oskar. Delicious eggs benedicts, crepes, and bloody marys.
After brunch, Keith took us to a nearby flea market where you could find art, furniture, vintage toys and Star Wars collectibles, clothes and random odds and ends.
Above: Brooklyn flea market
Next, we hopped on the subway into Manhattan for some sightseeing. I couldn’t help but notice that there seem to be very few fat people in New York. I’m pretty sure that can be attributed to the fact that there are no escalators or elevators in the subways–you have to go up and down multiple sets of stairs to get to the trains, and also to the amount of walking New Yorkers do. Driving and parking anywhere is expensive and ridiculous, so most people walk, take the subway, or take a cab. The subway is an extremely efficient way to get around and trains run very frequently.
First, we walked around the upscale SoHo neighborhood and looked at a couple art galleries and one very fancy expensive guitar store (Paddy had to stop and drool for a minute or two).
After that, we made our way to Little Italy and Chinatown. It was 80 degrees out and we were getting a little hot and tired, so we stopped in for some refreshments at Cha Cha’s in Little Italy. It’s the kind of kitschy Italian place with celebrity photos on the wall– small, cute, and intimate. I had some refreshing peach sorbetto and Paddy and Keith had some outstanding homemade cannolis.
Little Italy is almost entirely engulfed by Chinatown these days, but there’s at least a block or two left and it’s worth a visit.
We walked through some of Chinatown too. Interesting place, but we’ve been to a lot of Chinatowns in our lifetime, and they are all pretty much the same. (Side note–the best Chinatowns I’ve ever been to are in San Francisco and Victoria B.C.)
By this time we were pretty tired and it was time to head back to Keith’s place and freshen up a bit before dinner.
After we’d changed and gussied up a bit, we took the subway down to Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorial for a visit before dinner.
The first time I visited New York City with Keith was in 2000, before 9/11 changed the city’s skyline forever and New York was left with a wound so deep that for many it will never fully heal. I was prepared to feel something when I went to the memorial museum, but I wasn’t quite prepared for exactly how choked up I got. What got me the most were the photos and possessions of the firefighters, surviving and dead, giving up their lives or their health that day to try and save their fellow New Yorkers.
For dinner I had made an advance reservation at Les Halles, as we are big Anthony Bourdain fans and that was the restaurant he was the head chef at for many years before his career on the Travel Channel. We are also big fans of French food, so we had to try it out. We had the escargot, beet tartare, and pate appetizers, Paddy had the beef bourguignon, Keith had the steak frites, and I had the moules frites in white wine, shallots, and garlic. It was all fantastic.
After dinner, we headed back to the Lower East Side and the East Village to get some drinks. I became aware that I seemed to be the only woman in Manhattan wearing tennis shoes on a Saturday night. Every other lady on the street was limping around in 4-6 inch heels. I pitied their poor feet. The casual, practical Seattlite in me would never be able to conform to New York fashion standards.
The East Village was becoming my favorite neighborhood. Every block had a plethora of tiny, quaint, hole-in-the-wall bars and restaurants you could duck into. New York City in general is the quintessential American cultural melting pot, and you can hear three different languages being spoken in the span of a single block on a regular basis. Buildings are old, the culture is rich, and there is something to see around every corner.
In the Lower East Side, Keith took us to a dark stairwell guarded by a man who for whatever reason approved of us but denied access to some 22 year-olds trying to head down at the same time. We descended the stairs and down a dark, dirty basement corridor to The Back Room, a 1920’s style speakeasy co-owned by actor Tim Robbins. Keith said that they probably denied access to the disappointed kids back on the street due to their age, they like to keep it more of a classy place for people who are a little bit older. Or maybe we were just hot. Who knows. Note: if attempting to get in, go earlier in the evening and dress sharp.
We were there at 9:00, pretty early for a Saturday night. There were a few people in the bar, which had 1920’s style furniture, decor, and dim lighting. The antique couches were all reserved but the waitress said we were welcome to sit there until the reservation party came in at 10:00, which was nice. (To reserve some couches for you and your friends, you have to pre-order a whole 5th of booze for the table area and/or there is a very high beverage minimum. I can’t remember the amount, but it was somewhere between $500-$1000.) We ordered some very tasty albeit very expensive craft cocktails all served in coffee mugs just like they were during prohibition.
Paddy was investigating a suspicious-looking globe near a book case in the corner when it opened and a security guy told him he couldn’t stand over there or touch the globe. There was clearly a secret entrance to a VIP room back there. I can only imagine how much you have to spend to reserve that for your party.
At 10:00 the reservation parties arrived and we paid our bar tab and moved on.
Keith then took us to one of his favorite spots, The KGB Bar in the East Village. The Bar has a Russian communist theme for whatever reason (there is a lengthy explanation on their website that I didn’t have the patience to read all the way), but the atmosphere was cool and the Russian beers were tasty. There wasn’t anything going on that night but their website mentions poetry readings, open mic nights, and burlesque shows. We stayed there until we were ready to call it a night, talking, drinking Russian beer, and people watching.
We woke the next morning very sore from all the walking the day before. Keith wasn’t phased. I think he actually got up and went jogging while we slept in, then came back and made a smoothie. Maybe I should move to New York.
When we were ready to go, we headed over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and got some brunch at a Mexican restaurant (Sorry, I can’t remember what it was called). After brunch, we went to another flea market in Williamsburg in a park with a great view of the Manhattan skyline. Keith bought some antique ceiling tiles to hang as art in his apartment.
We were flying out to Dublin, Ireland that evening so we went back to Keith’s apartment in the afternoon to relax a little and get ready. When it was time to go, we said goodbye to Keith and got on the subway back to JFK airport. What should have been a quick, easy, straight shot to the airport ended up being a long, hot, sweaty, confusing ordeal as they were doing work on the track that day and we were re-directed onto a bus for part of the way in a not-so-great neighborhood. But we made it. Lesson learned though–it’s always good to check the New York subway service advisories.
New York City is an amazing place and we can’t wait to go back for a longer period of time next time. Another friend of mine just moved to Brooklyn as well, so now we have another excuse to visit.