The day about nothing

Day four:  Thursday March 10th:
I woke up very tired this morning after the late concert last night and I suppose the effects of jet lag still lingering in my body, so I adjusted my morning plans a little.  I had intended on eating breakfast at the “Seinfeld” restaurant – Tom’s up on 112th St – but instead utilised the coffee facilities in the hotel living room and headed on the 1 train from Times Square to Cathedral Parkway to take the “Highlights tour” at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine.  This is something I had only decided on doing in the last week or so of my trip planning after reading about it in the Lonely Planet guide and I’m glad I did.  It’s the largest Anglican cathedral and church in the world (if I remember correctly it is a distance of 600ft from the door to the altar) and the interior is a breathtaking mixture of Roman and Gothic architecture, with design plans having changed partway through construction.  The tour gives a great insight into the history of the building, the story behind how even today it remains unfinished and the damage done by fire in 2001 and points out some of the amazing details in the design.  If you have an interest in history or architecture then this is a very worthwhile tour to take.  You can just turn up to the desk inside the entrance and book yourself on the tour at either 11am or 2pm.

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Tom’s Restaurant on 112th St, famously used as the exterior for “Monk’s” in Seinfeld

From there it was a short walk to Tom’s Restaurant, where I could photograph the iconic exterior which doubled as “Monks” in Seinfeld.  Despite the interior not being used in the show itself I was thrilled to be eating in the restaurant.  The food was very good and the service excellent.  It had a nice old school New York feel to it, and I believe the restaurant is a Greek-American family owned place which has been around a while.  I ate the pastrami omelette and sweet potato fries, which proved delicious and filling.

Back to Midtown for the first of three Free Tours By Foot on this trip.  The NYC Subway Art tour met at the McDonald’s on 50th St at Broadway and was led by Darryl, whose mannerisms and phrasings really cracked me up.  He was a captivating guide who showed a real enthusiasm for this hidden gem of an experience.  The tour examined a small sample of some of the art which decorates some 280 of New York’s Subway stations.  Apparently the only criteria that the official artists have to follow when creating pieces for the subway is that their work must relate in some way to the station in which it’s being placed.  So there are some colourful murals of revellers celebrating the New Year at Times Square; toys decorate the passages at 23rd St; bronze sculptures of bureaucrats are strewn throughout 14th St.  Also at Union Square is a touching, apparently anonymous, display of labels displaying the names of each of the victims of 9/11.  It’s fascinating to note how even regular New Yorkers who are rushing through these stations on their day-to-day business are often oblivious to most of these works.  There was an instance at 14th St where Daryll was pointing out one of the bronze sculptures at the foot of a woman who initially took offence that he was accusing her of being a fare dodger who was being arrested by the police – only for her to look down and realise that there was actually a piece of art at her feet!  Loved this tour and the whole concept of Free Tours By Foot, which would more accurately be termed “pay what you wish”.

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Alice in Wonderland pulling back the velvet curtain at the 50th St subway station.

I had dinner reservations for Keen’s at 9.30 on this night, so I had a few hours spare following the end of the tour.  I went back to my hotel to refresh and cool down – this was another high temperature March day – before heading down to Bleecker St for a couple of drinks.  A weird choice considering the location of Keen’s, but I really enjoyed Peculier Pub last year and was eager to see if the barmaid who made it such an enjoyable place was still there.  She wasn’t (at least not on Thursday), but I enjoyed a couple of beers – the Ithica Flower Power was one I remembered fondly from my last trip – and took the F train from W 4th St to Herald Square for my dinner at Keen’s.

All I can say is this:  there are no words for how good that steak was at Keen’s.  I hadn’t eaten since the brunch at Tom’s, so I was REALLY looking forward to this meal.  Unfortunately that led me to devour the basket of bread and the celery sticks as soon as they arrived at the table, and if there is one tip I could offer for Keen’s it would be to NOT eat the bread (not because it isn’t good – it is – but because it is quite filling.  I wish I had the foresight of the gentleman at the table next to me who refused the bread when it was placed in front of him.  He’s obviously eaten here before!)  I ate the fillet – medium rare – and a side of fries, and it was cooked to perfection.  Just thinking about it now is making my mouth water.  It was an absolute delight.  A couple of beers and the meal set me back less than $100, which I felt was great value.  It was the one “big” meal I ate in New York and it was worth every cent and more.

I rounded off the night with a couple of drinks at The Ginger Man, which is in the shadow of the Empire State Building.  This is a bar I enjoyed last year, but something about it felt a little “off” this time.  Good selection of beers, but I felt out of place here.  I couldn’t put my finger on why.  Maybe I was simply stuffed from the tremendous meal I had just enjoyed or maybe The Ginger Man just wasn’t what I remembered it to be, I don’t know.  It felt a little pretentious, which some “craft beer” bars can by nature, but this wasn’t an endearing pretentious.

Best tip today:  Besides “don’t eat the bread!” – the NYC Subway Art tour was one of the highlights of my trip.  Really interesting and it was great having some of the beautiful pieces of art which I would otherwise have been oblivious to pointed out to me.

A day in NYC’s Flatiron District

Day three:  Wednesday March 9th:
I had heard a local in Alewife on Monday night say that there would be record temperatures for March this week, but I didn’t know what that meant and put it down to drunken bar talk.  Today I would find out that not all drunken bar talk is fallacy.

Tonight I had tickets booked to see Brian Fallon (formerly of The Gaslight Anthem) play Irving Plaza, so I planned a simple light day in anticipation of a heavy night and following yesterday’s busy day.  I started with a great coffee and pastry at Birch Coffee on E29th before setting out to explore the Flatiron District, following the route suggested on Trip Advisor by another poster (again, apologies, I forgot the name!)  The architecture between 27th & around 18th on Fifth and Sixth Ave is just magnificent.  Last year I came here just for the Flatiron Building, but there is so much more of interest to see throughout this neighbourhood.  The cast iron buildings are special.  I continued through Madison Square Park – which was absolutely teeming with people because, as anyone who was in the city this particular week will know, the drunk guy in Alewife was right and the city was baking in spring sun – and over onto Park and down to Gramercy Park.  I’m so glad that I knew to look out for the Chrysler Building through the gates of the private park here – I loved photographing that building from all angles.

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The impressive Flatiron Building

I continued down to Union Square, where again the knowledge I had acquired from my first visit paid off and I was able to see some sites I had missed last year, such as the Metronome clock and some of the statues around the square.  It is here that I witnessed probably the most incredible and bizarre thing during my time in New York.  To the naked eye what I saw was a bunch of colourfully/oddly dressed men and women screaming and chanting and writhing on the pavement, singing and dancing and everything in between.  It was equally interesting as it was utterly bizarre.  A plea for information on Facebook led to an event named “Looping For Democracy” and it eventually became clear that they were trying to encourage people to register to vote.  And here was I thinking that the searing heat had gotten to them.

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“Looping For Democracy” in Union Square

Along the way I enjoyed one of my favourite lunches in New York at City Bakery.  Their cakes and cookies looked very appetising too, and if they were anywhere near as good as the food on offer then I’m sure they were wonderful.

My hunt for good wings took me to the Old Town Bar prior to the concert at Irving Plaza.  Very good, sticky Buffalo Wings, although behind Alewife in that particular pecking order.  This was a busy wee place with a very old-fashioned traditional feel.  The service could have been a little faster, but you do feel like you are genuinely drinking in the footsteps of history in this place.  A little across the street sideBAR was useful for Irving Plaza but it wasn’t particularly my scene.

Irving Plaza as a venue reminded me a little of the Barrowlands in Glasgow, one of my favourite gig venues.  The stairway up to the main hall, the layout of the bar, the tight intimate atmosphere.  Seeing Brian Fallon play here, in what was pretty close to a hometown show for the New Jersey native with a good portion of the crowd seemingly having made the trip across the river, was a tremendously fun experience.  The sold out audience was super into the performance and the new songs from his forthcoming album were almost instantly old favourites.

Best tip today:  It’s a good idea to have at least one day where you can be loose with your plans.  While I had an outline of what I wanted to see on this day I wasn’t bound by times and schedules like yesterday or future days.  It’s nice to be able to take things leisurely and explore anything interesting which may come up – like that Looping For Democracy thing.

Lady Liberty and the view from Jersey City

Day two:  Tuesday March 8th:
Being familiar with the harrowing effects of jetlag I scheduled the Statue of Liberty for my first morning on my itinerary, knowing that this would almost certainly be the earliest I would be awake.  I grabbed a quick coffee and bagel from Zaro’s Bakery in Grand Central  – not the best bagel, but it was convenient – and I was off on the 4 train to Bowling Green, arriving for around 8.20am.  I timed it right, as there were only a handful of people ahead of me on the reserved line, but the place quickly filled by 9am when the ticket booths opened.

I didn’t have any interest in visiting Liberty Island last year and was happy to see the statue from the river, and to be honest my interest this year wasn’t much greater – but who goes to New York City twice and doesn’t go see Lady Liberty?  So really I visited the Statue of Liberty only as a means of preventing many future conversations questioning why I visited New York and didn’t go to the statue.

The lines are the most frustrating part of the experience.  It feels like there is a lot of time waiting around here, but once you finally make it off the ferry the view across the Hudson is your postcard shot of Manhattan.  Though the haze of another sunny spring day created what I can only describe as a “muggy” look across the city.  It was like looking at Lower Manhattan through the bottom of a dirty beer glass.

I had reserved Crown tickets and made my way up there immediately.  The climb up isn’t too bad.  The staircase is very narrow, but it’s manageable.  I found going down took a lot out of my knees, though, and they ached for days afterwards (no doubt combined with the magnitude of walking I’d done elsewhere).  Bearing in mind that I had little interest in visiting the statue anyway, I find it hard to say that going up to the crown is worth the effort unless it is a “bucket list” item for you.  It’s kind of cool getting a good look at the book, and I’m happy that I can now tell people that I’ve been inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty, but the pedestal and the museum – which is very good – are more than enough.  I found myself thinking a lot of the Jackie Wilson song and the scene from Ghostbusters 2 where the ectoplasm brings Lady Liberty to life and she wades across the river to help save the city.  Now THAT would have made the crown access worthwhile!

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The Statue of Liberty

I decided to skip Ellis Island as I had much grander plans on my itinerary.  After returning to Battery Park and taking a brisk walk up Broadway through Wall Street and all of the associated sights I arrived at the Woolworth Building for my 2pm tour of the lobby.  This is such a grand old building and the quirks of the architecture are truly outstanding.  Frank Woolworth certainly had some eccentric wishes for this place.  The guide was extremely knowledgeable and informative and she didn’t hide her incredulity at some of the recent changes to the building.

Following a much needed coffee break at Blue Spoon on Chambers St I made my way down to the newly opened World Trade Center PATH station (what a building!) for the train to Hoboken.  Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the Trip Advisor poster who had posted the route along the Jersey side of the Hudson River, but I followed it from Hoboken all the way down to Exchange Place as the sun was setting (after taking an inordinate amount of time to figure out that I had to go through Hoboken train station to continue on the walkway) and it was a really beautiful walk.  The view of Lower Manhattan is just sublime and One World Trade Center really sparkles like a jewellery store window display across the water as the sun sets.

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The view of Lower Manhattan from Jersey City

I took the PATH back to World Trade Center and managed to do something I had failed to do on two sorry attempts last year – I found the Ghostbusters fire station!  This is where the experience of a second trip paid off:  Last time I made the mistake of believing that taking the A train, for example, to Chambers St would be the same as taking the 1 train, but they take you to completely different places.  No wonder I couldn’t find the Hook and Ladder 8 on North Moore St!  So this time I stuck to my directions from Google Maps and took the 1 train to Franklin St.  As it turns out the subway is virtually in the shadow of the fire station.  Unfortunately it is undergoing renovations at the moment, but I still got to see that iconic red door and that’s all I needed.

I had planned on eating at Distilled across the street, but it was absolutely packed so I thought on my feet and decided to return to one of my favourite bars from last year.  I took the train to Times Square and legged it over towards 10th Ave, grabbing a slice of pizza and a beer from Rudy’s along the way to The Pony Bar on W45th.  I absolutely love this place.  They have a huge selection of beers and whoever is in charge of the music has impeccable taste.  I took the (giant) pretzels with beer mustard to compliment the drinks and rounded out the night.

Best tip today:  The 90-minute Woolworth Lobby tour is a MUST.  It seems like a long time (there are shorter tours available) but it flies by.  The interior is absolutely gorgeous and it feels like a real treat to be taken into parts of the building that ordinary members of the public will never see.

Arrival day in New York City

Monday March 7th
The boring details out of the way first.  I flew out of Glasgow airport on the 9am United flight to Newark.  The flight was comfortable and flawless, landing around 11.20 EST – a good half an hour earlier than scheduled.  Went through passport control in under ten minutes and collected my bag.  I was in Penn Station by 1pm – the most awkward part of getting into NYC, in my experience, is the NJ Transit train.  They’re very narrow and difficult to negotiate with a large suitcase.  But I still can’t imagine that there is an easier way of making it from Newark to the city.  A 2 train to Times Square to change for the 7 to Grand Central and I was ready to check into the Club Quarters hotel on E45th by 1.30.

I cannot speak highly enough of this hotel.  It is perfectly located for trains anywhere in the city, whether from Grand Central or via the shuttle to Times Square.  It’s probably fair to say that it is better suited for the business traveller who is only in the city for a few days – the rooms are small and don’t have a great deal of closet space, but as a solo traveller with a limited sense of fashion and a compact collection of flannel shirts and jeans that wasn’t an issue for me.  There is no safe in the room, though a luggage lock works just as well if there are any valuable you prefer kept out of sight.  There is free wifi throughout the hotel and coffee in the rooms – a rarity in NYC hotels, I believe.  Each floor has access to chilled purified water and there is a great lounge area on the 27th floor with free coffee, snacks and wireless printing, as well as a great terrace looking onto the Chrysler Building.  It took me a few days to notice that my room on the 26th floor had the exact same view!

Unpacked and refreshed with a shower and use of that in-room coffee and I was ready to begin exploring.  One of my biggest aims for this return trip was to get some great photographs of the city.  I’m by no means a great photographer, but I love taking pictures and I wanted to find new and interesting angles from last year.  So I took the 7 train one stop from Grand Central to Vernon Blvd-Jackson Ave to discover Gantry Plaza State Park.  After initial difficulty navigating the streets of Long Island City I made it to the waterfront, which was bathed in exquisite spring sunshine.  This wasn’t the New York in early March I was expecting:  there were squadrons of kids eating ice cream and playing sports, a plethora of runners and dog walkers, everyone basking in a warm glow.  The view of Midtown from out here is spectacular as dusk descends on the city.  The Chrysler Building, I feel, is its true jewel.  But you’ll see as far down as the Williamsburg Bridge and, in the distance, the World Trade Center.

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The glorious view of Midtown from Gantry Plaza State Park
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Alewife NYC, 5-14 51st Ave Long Island City

I spent a good few hours here happily snapping photographs and soaking in the early spring atmosphere, before heading up 51st Ave to the first craft beer bar on my list – Alewife NYC.  I loved it here and spent more time than I had intended, considering I had been up since 6am UK time.  They have a range of around 20 beers on draft and numerous bottles and cans.  And it so happened that this was $5 Monday.  The Hoppy Ending IPA quickly became my favourite and I believe the wings here were the best I had in the city.  The barmaid Jess was very friendly and welcoming – even moreso after getting over the embarrassment of initially mistaking my accent for being Irish; all of which combined to convince me that I would have to make room to come back here later in the trip.

I left around 10pm, drunk, tired and very happy (hoppy?) to be back in this great city I so love.

Best tip today:  Gantry Plaza State Park didn’t even cross my radar on my first visit to NYC, yet it’s only one subway stop from Manhattan and easily rivals the views from the Brooklyn Promenade.  Midtown sparkles as the sun sets and there are plentiful vantage points along the shore to relax and enjoy the view.  And with Alewife NYC a short walk away you have the ideal location to unwind with a cold beer and a snack from their exciting gastro menu.