Sunday, October 11, 2009

NYC in Autumn 2009

No Shannon
My latest trip to NYC doesn't start well - Shannon Air Traffic Control is apparently down, this means we can't fly anywhere near Ireland, which of course is the standard
route for London to New York.

How to get from right to left avoiding the box?

After much faffing and delay, the genius solution is to... fly round Ireland, which we proceed to do, over the top, and despite a 150 mph headwind, without too much delay. It's raining in New York as we touch down. I should mention - not the royal we, but we as in with Will, or "Broken Wrists Will" as he is known to some!

Public Transport from JFK to Manhatten
The public transport way into town from JFK is to use the Airtrain. This does a free loop of all the terminals then heads off to one of two stations where one can transfer to the subway. It takes about 15 minutes from terminal, depending on which one.

You pay at these two stations (Jamaica or Howard's Beach) rather than at the terminal end, and it's $5. The subway is then a flat rate of $2.25, and you pay for both through the simple MetroCard ticket system.

The optimum route should usually be via Jamaica and the E Line, but if you want downtown it may be worth considering the A line. Also I note that one can take the LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) from Jamaica direct to Penn Station, which apparently gives a JFK to town time of 35 minutes, so if you're anywhere around that part of town (34th Street) then that could be better.

I'd say it's absolutely worth doing this route any time traffic will be busy on the roads or if there's a queue for cabs outside the terminal. You also get into town without having to tip taxi drivers for just doing their job, always a bonus. This weekend however is slightly confusing as there are engineering works, so the E train uses the F track, a concept with which tourists struggle with, but the on-board station information system completely flounders upon.

Staying Central
Staying in the Shoreham Hotel on 55th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is a fabulously central and well-connected spot. Unfortunately as a hotel it is rather less polished than its web-site, having the feel of a boutique hotel that is in need of a refurb. Definitely less impressive than the Chambers one block up, but their rates were too high for us this time. On a positive note it has free wifi, but as breakfast is not included in the rate this benefit is cancelled out. That said, I think this forces you out to visit the fabulous cafes and brunch spots around town, so no bad thing!

Secret Burgers
Will and I head out to find some food. After much dithering, we decide to check out the Burger Joint in the Le Parker Meridien hotel, a few blocks away. This is one of those badly-kept secret spots - an unmarked eaterie tucked away in a hotel. You go in, and just near the check-in desk there is a large curtain. Round the side of this down a corridor one finds a neon picture of a burger. This is the clue!

Down the corridor, one turns through a door to find a tiny classic American diner, with a busy central serving counter and a dozen cramped tables around the edge.

There's a queue, and the sign says that if you haven't decided what you want when you get to the front of the queue you will be sent to the back! Luckily the choices are limited - cheeseburger or hamburger, how well-done you'd like the burger, the topping selection (or a simple "The Works" for everything), whether you want fries or not, and what you'd like to wash it down with - beer, soda or milkshake. The girl behind the till asks me my name as she takes my order, presumably so I will be called when the burgers are ready. The second she repeats my name in confirmation as she makes a note of it, the girl beside her yells "SAAAM?" proffering my burgers! Snappy service! It isn't cheap, but you're paying for good quality meat, in a burger that for once in the US is not over-sized.

Enjoying a good burger

Next up, a beer, in the Whiskey Trader bar on 55th, just a few doors down from the hotel. This is a basement sports bar, with "Happy Hour All Night"! We decide to do the proper American thing and order Bourbon shots, though don't progress to slinging them along the bar to each other.

The rather beefy-looking bouncers would presumably kick us out. After some tequila and a mohito we feel it's getting late and call it a night. Back at the hotel we consider a nightcap at the hotel bar but no, it's sleep time. Only when I tuck myself into bed do I glance at the time on the radio.... 9pm!

Run Club and Brunch

Sunday morning starts with Run Club around Central Park, then off to the Lower East Side for the Clinton Street Baking Company.

Clinton Street Baking Company

This is the top brunch spot that foiled my efforts last time. Surely this time at 9am there would be no problem. About an hour's wait we are told. Check back in 45 minutes. As it turns out, when we return in 45, we end up waiting another 45! So the same delay as last time. We're hungry, so pop in to Schiller's Liquor Bar whilst we wait for a coffee, but unfortunately are induced into ordering the smallest items on their menu, a bagel for me and an obscene pile of waffles fruit and cream for Will.

So much for just a coffee. Back to CSBC, and after the second wait, we are finally seated. Yes, their food is damn good, they're friendly and quick. Is it worth an hour and a half wait? No. That said, their muffins are a bit special, so I'd advise popping in and taking these away. Award winning!

Ice-cream is health food

Needing to walk off the two breakfasts plus muffins, we decide to head over Williamsburg Bridge, though not before we've walked round the neighbourhood to find some suncream for Will for protection from the gentle autumnal sunshine!

Cheeseballs, American-style

It's a bit of a mission to get on to Williamsburg Bridge as a pedestrian, but we manage it, and there's a slight breeze mid-river, which is appreciated as it's getting quite warm now. Plenty of cyclists whizzing across the bridge, good to see!

Over in Brooklyn we hit Atlantic Avenue for the annual "Atlantic Antic" festival, a street party where a long avenue is pedestrianised and lined with shops, food and drink stalls and live bands. To my pleasure, there are Real Ale tents too!

Blues on Atlantic Avenue

We migrate to a pub, then end up back at Andy's place where Tracy cooks crab. Let's just say that they start the evening alive. Chop! After I wind up Will about this being a mirror of last time when I was pick-pocketed on the subway home, we end up taking a car. 35 dollars back in comfort and speed - not more than 15 minute journey, it's definitely worth it.

The Work Week


Monday I manage a bit of shopping, in Anthropologie, which is Lucy's favourite shop, and luckily for her now with a branch in Regent's Street in London. We also manage an obscenely large ice-cream, so I was pleased when Graham arrived and we met in Fifth Avenue for a run. Will has his customary poop in the park, then we rendez-vous in the Waldorf Astoria where Graham is staying for a beer before heading out to eat. The evening's choice? Fatty Crab, which I discovered through a hotdog they do being advertised in BA's High Life magazine.

The restaurant is a Malaysian/Asian fusion place, with a "Asia de Cuba" sharing food ethic, and real ales. Marvellous!

On Tuesday evening we were supposed to have a boat trip on the Spirit, but due to a booking problem we ended up going instead to Wolfgang's Steakhouse (the Tribeca one). I was quite pleased with this switch in all honesty, and was especially happy to enjoy delicious Porterhouse steak, which was a huge slab of meat cooked for sharing, washed down with plenty of decent red wine chosen by Jesco.

Wednesday evening we visited Tao, under a rather crazy contract which they insist on a minimum spend for the group, and charge an incredible amount per half hour if we stay after 11:30pm. Otherwise an interesting place, apparently featuring in Sex and City, with an enormous Buddha in the middle of the large restaurant space.

The food was fairly mediocre Asian fusion, but I guess it's fun for a group - and to people watch. Apparently this is the place that colleagues get suppliers to take them to when it's being paid for!

Thursday evening, Graham and I do Run Club, then after popping in at Macys for a quick shop, go to the Kitano Hotel for a highly-rated Japanese restaurant, Hakubai.

It's never going to win any awards for design, being bright and very typical Japanese, but their full Kaiseki dinner is something special!

The Kobe Beef was marvellous, but the highlight of the dinner was a bizarre fungus soup with cream of yam in it. Sticky, creamy, and very disconcerting, my only thought as I took a mouthful was "spit or swallow"!

As we were leaving, we heard some music upstairs. That's live, I thought, and indeed when we headed up, we found the lovely Kyoko Oyobe playing Jazz Piano with a double bass and drums backing her. Free entry with a minimum drinks charge of 15 dollars, what a bargain!

Kyoko Oyobe

Friday morning I finally locate the famous Hallo Berlin hotdog stand, New York's "Wurst" Fast Food!

There's always a line waiting for his reasonably-priced proper German sausages. This down, it was over to Brooklyn to try Egg, aka "Pig and Egg", one of the top brunch spots in the city. I still wasn't that hungry after the dog, but forced myself to endure "Organic grits and eggs" with bacon. Not bad, not bad at all! In case you're wondering what "grits" is, I don't really know! I was first introduced to it by Travis from Alabama. According to wikipedia it is maize-based porridge.

Back over to Chelsea to visit some galleries, first via Grand Street and the Team Gallery for a small but enjoyable Muntean/Rosenblum exhibition, consisting of large paintings with a variety of scenes, usually with one of the characters in the scene staring out of the canvas at the viewer. Over in Chelsea in West 21st I popped into a number of places, but nothing impressed me that much. What I did greatly enjoy was the High Line.

The High Line
The High Line is a wonderful idea. An old raised railroad running through an extended stretch of Manhattan, disused for some time, has been taken over by the local community and converted into a garden.

High Line promotional map

Access is through any of the stairwells that formerly led up to the line for stations etc. Once up, one finds sleepers now over-run with wild grasses and shrubs. Benches allow people to sit and enjoy the tranquillity mere yards above the busy avenues below.

In development

I walk the current length of it, down to the Meatpacking area. There is a further stretch under development currently - watch this space.



Next, up to MoMA, which has free entry on Fridays between 4 and 8pm. There's a huuuge queue, but it moves fantastically fast and so within a couple of minutes I'm in, and here primarily to see Monet's Waterlilies, which don't impress me that much. A bit wishy-washy in all honesty!

I popped into the Sony Store and after choosing a cheap point-and-click camera and some bassy headphones, ended up there for a full hour as they tried to sort out the receipts for my new laptop which they had apparently entered into the system incorrectly.

In the evening I headed over to Union St station to visit Union Hall, a bar, gig venue and Bocce stadium. Bocce is basically the same as Boules - how cool is that?

They also had some good ales, though downstairs where the live music was to play it was incredibly loud, so we decided to head off for a bite to eat before coming back for the main bands.

Unfortunately after a reasonable trek we were turned away from Piquant, the new opening that looked very cool but was too busy on their first night. Instead we went to Convivium Osteria, a great little Mediterranean place with good food and wines. Unfortunately we enjoyed this so much that we missed the music I wanted to hear, just catching the last band when we came back to Union Hall!

Saturday starts with Schillers Liquor Bar, a fantastic Lower East Side spot where Tracy turns up first. She's not a happy bunny, having had a rather traumatic driving lesson that very morning. When Andy arrives, we get cracking on brunch:

Eggs Benedict

Being rather full, we aren't mad about getting any more food, but after my previous experience, I insist on picking up some take-away muffins from Clinton St Baking Company before we walk over Manhattan Bridge.

Lower East Manhatten

The bridge runs pretty high, and I feel quite tense walking over it until we get back down to street level! Amusingly, some chaps are working on the bridge, on a raised platform. Just looking at them makes me feel a bit queasy!

On the other side is an area called DUMBO that Andy has suggested we visit. DUMBO apparently stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. They like their acronyms here!

A large part of the area seems to be taken up with a Jehovahs Witness complex, but there are also plenty of galleries springing up. It has the feel of an area that will be Williamsburg-like in about 20 years.

In addition to visiting various galleries in the area, we head down to the waterside and enjoy the view looking across to Manhattan as we scoff our muffins from Clinton Street Baking Co.

No art

Before leaving I insist on us visiting the very cool reBar, which has loads of ales and an eclectic "Jewel Bar" style decor. Some dancers appear to be doing a photoshoot there, lots of trendy types sit around with their laptops, a smart function happens in one part, and we just enjoy our beers.

Beer and girl

I realise that it's not just London with engineering work nightmares every weekend - NY suffers from this too, and we end up taking a rather convoluted route back to their place before having marvellous and spicy hotpot.


Tonight we behave and only have limited beer and no vodka (the secret to an evening remaining sensible). I manage to tube it back to Manhattan without getting robbed (hurrah) but am too tired to go out.

The day starts with a panic when at 9am reception calls me. Are you checking out today, they ask? Yes, I say. It's late, they say. What? I suddenly worry that my clock is wrong, but no, it's just the incompetence and illiteracy of the front desk staff not explaining what they mean. I point out that checkout time is mid-day, and that's when I will be checking out. So it's time for my last run of this trip, up to Central Park and around the lake. It's sunny but cool, perfect for running. Today feels a lot less painful than some of the other runs, either I'm getting in the zone or more likely I just set a slower pace than usual :)

Brunch was supposed to be with Kunjal, an old colleague, but whilst waiting for instructions, I went camera shopping, looking for a slide scanner to convert Grandpa Cliff's old slides. The big camera store in NY is B&H, but after a convoluted journey there (weekend subway engineering works), I find the whole shop shut. So not only were they not open on Saturday (Jewish shop - not open on the Sabbath), but it turns out that due to a Jewish holiday it's closed for a couple of weeks, reopening tomorrow! Drat!

Never mind, not too far away is another big store, Adorama. I turn up... to find they're closed too! Why do Jews own all the camera shops in this town?! After a third large store is also closed, I give up, and give up waiting on Kunjal to go for brunch, hitting Rosa Mexicano, a large latino restaurant that does brunch with Mexican variations, so tacos instead of muffins, and for me I went for two poaches eggs on crab cakes. It's not bad, though brownie points lost for a latte style coffee after I specifically asked for it dry!

From here, a nice walk across Union Square through to East Village. The target? Luke's Lobster. But not being hungry yet I need to hang around for a bit. The answer:
Native Bean Coffee Shop, a rather random place filled with tat, fragments of menus on boards all over the place, and free wifi.

When I finally make it to Luke's Lobster, I'm still not hungry, but it has to be done. For about 14 dollars I get the large lobster roll. They bring seafood down from Maine daily.

Luke's Lobster

Lobster Roll

Observations from this Trip

Chain Shops: Compared with the UK, urban life here seems to consist of way less chain shops. I can't say whether this is merely a NYC thing, but here independent shops rule, and it warms my heart to see all these interesting quirky places to visit, compared with Boots, M&S and Wetherspoons which seem to account for 50% of the high street in the UK. I guess part of this is that there doesn't seem to be a separation of residential areas and shopping areas, or at least not to the same extent, so every area has its little row of shops, none of which are probably profitable enough for the big boys to wade in.

Street of independent shops

Less politeness: No one thanks you if you stand aside to let someone pass, which irritates me greatly. That said, if you force people to interract with a hello or similar they respond quite positively.

VAT Reclaim: It seems that it's not possible to claim back VAT on leaving from the airport, supposedly because the tax here is a "sales tax" levied by the state, rather than any kind of national tax. Poor excuse if you ask me, but it's way lower than VAT in the UK anyway, so I suppose I can't complain too much. And if you happened to be lucky enough to hit the city on one of the sales tax free weekends..!

Credit Card Usage: No chip and pin, no checking of signatures, just a mere swipe! Card fraud must be rampant here!

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