The List: New York City (Part 1)

Posted by SirRon | Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Before kids, my wife and I traveled a few times a year on cultural/foodie/beer-cations. After our first few trips, we became obsessed with creating the perfect itinerary which maximized our time. This quest for perfection often had us repeating destinations (often portions of longer road trips) in order to relive the best moments of previous vacations.

New York is one of our favorite destinations, and not just because it is one of the greatest cities on Earth. Our familiarity stemmed from two separate season long work assignments I had on Long Island. Through this time and from our semi-frequent visits, we compiled a list of favorite things to do on a weekend trip to New York City.

I'm going to lay these out here as recommendations despite the expected disapproval from cranky locals and the dreaded blog commenter "Anonymous." But first, I offer a preface with some qualifiers and explanations...

This article contains our "worth it to go to" places when you only have a few days in the city... I'm leaving off many things that we've done at one time or maybe wanted to do at some point. This is a list based on places that made our personal "must visit to when in NYC" list. For example, I've been up in the Empire State Building, but while some tourists may want to go and say they did it, I would never go back (or recommend it to others who haven't seen it, but I digress).

And for the food... There is a lot of great food to be found in the city. My issue with NYC restaurants (and those in the Northeast in general) is that prices are sometimes way out of whack with respect to quality. I enjoy well presented food, but a lot of time it seems like style is overvalued while substance suffers tremendously (my eating experiences in California are similar). My wife and I have struck out at a lot of eating establishments in the city. You will see from the list that I eventually targeted a lot of "common" foods while crafting my "best of" list, since again there are too many places with overpriced stylish foods (this even includes delis and diner-like places... how do these places survive in Manhattan?). Furthermore, I'm not as impressed when a nice restaurant prepares expensive items and sells it to me for $40+ a plate as I am when someone cuts a potato, puts it in hot oil, and somehow serves it like no other place around. Above all, the "experience" often is the determining factor in overall rating of a particular destination.

If you happen to disagree with me, I'll be happy to debate with you over a pint or I'll just drink and few and type you a response in the comment section.

NOTE: "*" indicates places that I would not miss, even if I only had 2 days in the city.

Recommended Best "Experiences":

Best Hot Dog Experience: Gray's Papaya* When I first heard these hot dogs described as "crispy yet juicy" I laughed at the preposterousness of such a statement. This phrase is now in my vernacular, especially whenever I need to describe something that has the texture of a Gray's Papaya hot dog. Don't mess around here folks... get the Recession Special (2 dogs and a drink for $4.45), prepare your dogs all the way - sauerkraut and that onion sauce stuff), and get the papaya juice. Failure to do so is like getting one chance to go to Pascal's Manale and getting Fried Shrimp instead of the BBQ Shrimp (if you are unfamiliar with the analogy: 1. Trust me here, and 2. Get to New Orleans and enjoy the city for something other than Mardi Gras).

Recommended Gray's Papaya Experience: (assumes you are starting in Midtown) Start this path in the late morning. I like to grab a dog around 10 AM-ish and call it breakfast. Take the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd and you'll see Gray's when you come up to ground level. Order the recession special, squirt a line of that NYC mustard (it is hard to find that stuff in the southwest), eat the dogs standing up (take a moment to sense the crispy *and* juiciness of the dogs), then take off east down 72nd while sipping your papaya juice. When you get to Central Park*, you'll get to see where John Lennon was shot. Say something like "what is wrong with people?", "that really sucks!", or start pondering what you think things would be like if he was alive. Shortly after entering the park and still while you have the Beatles on your mind, you should be able to find Strawberry Fields. From here, try to go mostly straight across to the east and a little north. I always try to just follow the paths and enjoy the Park. If you veer off a bit, correct yourself after you exit the park and get somewhere between 79th and 85th. You'll now be in the shadows of The Met*. Don't try to see the whole thing. The museum is much too big and you'll get bored after a while. Leaving The Met ends my Recommended Gray's Papaya Experience.

Best Pizza: Grimaldi's Pizzaria*
Long before Grimaldi's began franchising itself in your favorite suburbs, I fell in love with this pizzeria located in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Legend (and their website) has it that Patsy Grimaldi learned the art of pizza making from his uncle, which is fortunate because someone named Patsy may have been less successful in football or construction. Patsy's uncle is none other than the man credited with opening the first pizzeria in America, circa 1905. Aside from great ingredients and notable craft, the real secret is in the charred, smoky flavor you get from the coal fired ovens.

This pizza may not be your favorite, but it is probably because you have bad taste in pizza. Alright, I admit, there is plenty to argue about when it comes to what type of pizza is the best... or who makes the best pie... or even just the best pie in New York. In my opinion though, this place is a must stop. I once missed a flight just to get one of these before going home.

Recommended Eating Under and then Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge Experience: Grimaldi's is located right under the Brooklyn Bridge... on the Brooklyn side. I don't know why, but it doesn't open until 11:30 AM. Usually a line forms on the outside before they open, so plan on arriving a little early. The Grimaldi's Brooklyn location kind of has that "we're connected" type of feeling, with the pictures on the wall to confirm and the potential tax avoiding cash only policy. When you make it in, the host will stuff you somewhere that you assumed there was no possible way of fitting, but the pizza is the payoff here anyway. Now, I'll excuse you if you order your pizza with your preferred topping(s) or decide to go with Grimaldi's excellent white pizza, but I need to pass on my strong recommendation for the sausage, roasted red peppers, and extra sauce. At some point during your lunch, visit the bathrooms*(yes, the bathrooms are *-worthy). The bathrooms of this small eatery are nothing special, but the best part about them is that they are one-holers. Stay with me here. Having to wait in line will give you a chance to get close up to see how a real New York pizza pie is made.After you finish up (with the pizza), head out to the Brooklyn Bridge*. You will have to backtrack a little to get up there. The walk is nice and semi-appropriate after that extra slice or so you crammed down because you didn't want to insult the spirit of Patsy by leaving any at the table. Once across the bridge, I suggest taking the time to swing through SOHO, then make your way to the NYU area, and end up at the landmark Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. If you end up hanging around the area for a while and are feeling snack-y, Pommes Frites is a place you won't find anywhere else. They have the best Belgian fries anywhere and so many dipping sauces that you'll feel you did as a kid when you realized Baskin Robbins would give you as many tiny spoon samples as you wanted, just a mayonnaise version of that experience. Trust me with this suggestion, no matter how tempting those "other" Belgian fry places are around town, try to save yourself for Pommes Frites. The only downside is its location is not in the path of any other real landmarks in the city, so you'll have to veer off a few blocks from the NYU area to get to this gem.

Other Bests:

Best TV Celebrity Chef Restaurant: Esca * (Mario Batali)
One word here: Crudo. For those that have not partaken of this Italian sashimi-like dish, listen up. Crudo is raw fish with oil, sea salt, acidic juices... and at Esca, it's exceptional. In case you are wondering what else to order, I would strongly recommend flipping your menu to the back and ordering the tasting menu paired with Italian wines... and add the extra crudo trays. The menu won't set you back nearly the amount that it sets you forward in memories. If you choose to not heed my strong recommendation, you must at least get the crudo. Not doing this is an act worthy of being put on my "dead to me" list.

I guess I should admit, my lack of an unlimited budget has not afforded me the capacity to name "The Best TV Celebrity Chef Restaurant" in NYC, but I would argue that this place has everything that you would want if you were seeking a celebrity chef owned restaurant. The service is also really good, which is definitely not a given in NYC. It is accessible, meaning the average person can get a table. It is upscale, meaning they will comp you a drink if you have a reservation and your table is not ready. One suggestion: If you find yourself at a bar before dinner, then you order a martini while waiting for your table at Esca, then you proceed to get the tasting menu paired with the wines, just accept the fact you may leave the restaurant acting a fool and potentially scare people coming out of their Broadway shows. Just saying.

Best Burger Joint: Island Burger
(Yes, I have now named the best hot dog, pizza, and burger joints in the biggest city in the United States.) Location and overall experience certainly factor in to the equation, but I can confidently say Island Burger is on my list of all time favorite burger joints. Here is the scoop: Several different types of meats, a half dozen types of bread, and half dozen types of cheese, and some sauce choices… all cooked great! The shakes are awesome, but there are no fries here. The rumor is that there is no room for a fryer. Don't get all caught up on the fries thing, because you should get your fix at Pommes Frites during the "Eating Under and then Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge Experience."

Best Brew Pub: The Chelsea Brewing Company
I wish I had discovered this place when I was working in New York, but I didn't hear about it until a few trips ago. However, it only took one visit for The Chelsea Brewing Company to be in my permanent rotation of places to go while in the city. Super view (the restaurant looks out on the water) and atmosphere (Chelsea Piers). The food is typical brewpub fare, but their award winning beer is outstanding. If you are in the Chelsea Pier area (and are thirsty), this is the place to go. Why would you be in the Chelsea Pier area? Probably just to go here, but it's worth the trip/walk anyway (no subway stops nearby).

Best Wholesome Looking Family Owned Snack Mix and Dip Deli-type Store: William Poll*
We found this place accidentally, but fell in love instantly. New York City is big, so don't just take my word for it. editors describe the place this way: "Fresh, homemade dips and potato chips--made daily--have earned this more than 80-year-old shop culinary cult status." The people in here are super nice too. If you inquire about a few things, you'll not only get some samples, but they'll probably send you home with some free stuff. Oh, and please bring me back some of jalapeno dip and baked chips if you go. Thanks.

Best Lunch Spot That Everyone Knows About Because of the Movie But Is Still A Must Stop IMO: Serendipity3*
Even with careful planning, I bet you'll eat at one or two places that you'll think, "eh, compared to {wherever}, that was just a meal." This is not that place. For me -- Serendipity 3 --is a must see -- and if you go I guarantee -- that you will agree (even just inspired an impromptu rhyme!). Make a reservation though, and do it before your trip! Even for lunch, you won't get in without one. Also, check your calorie counter at the door. The portions are huge and the desserts are print ad perfect and practically cartoon-ish looking. Be sure to order the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate before your meal (it can be shared). Not ordering the Frrrozen Hot Chocolate is like going on a vacation to the beach and hanging out the whole time in the hotel room.

Best Spot to Have Lunch in NYC Like They Do in the Movies: Bergdorf Goodman
I suggest you arrive a little early in order to have lunch at this iconic cafe. If my "must see/eat" list hadn't grown a little long over the years, this would certainly have been a *'ed location. I'm not into the shopping experience or the super high prices, but the boutique layout of Bergies is pretty impressive and is a sight to see if all you are familiar with is the common mall department store.

Best Place to Shop Like a New Yorker (or maybe just the typical New York tourist): 5th Ave

Guys, send your ladies to Tiffany & Co. Ladies, send your man to Niketown. Also don't miss H&M, a mega-sized sort of European-style Gap.

Best Place to Try to Show Up On The Food Network: Chelsea Market
Chelsea Market is one of those places that would be a whole lot better if it was adjacent to some other city attractions, but it's not. Don't let this discourage your from heading over here. While you are there trying to see if a Food Network personality shows up downstairs (unlikely), you can check out the tasty treats at Fat Witch (brownies) or Elini's (hand painted cookies). You would think that a place called Chelsea Market Baskets would be a tourist trap, but I've bought stuff in that store that I actually use in my kitchen. My primary reason to visit Chelsea Market is usually to have breakfast or brunch at 202*. Since discovering this classy but low key half restaurant, half clothing ("lifestyle") store, I have made it a square that must be filled every trip. There aren't too many places in the city where you can dine amongst only a few other people.

Best Place to Wear Your Sunglasses Inside: Trump Tower
Maybe it's a tourist-y thing to do, but going to see the gold tower of power still feels pretty cool in my book.

Best Place to Pretend You Are Tom Hanks Playing a Giant Piano on the Floor: FAO Schwartz

It's more than a toy store... it's an attraction, and you can wait in line with a bunch of kids to hop on that big piano. Yesssssss.

Best Museums to Visit When You Have at Least Half a Day to Lose: The American Museum of Natural Science (simply awesome, maybe more than a half a day needed), The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA... for those that aren't into art, I should mention that modern art probably is not as strange as you are picturing in your head).

...and this ends Part 1 of my travel guide/ode to NYC.

Update: Be sure to check out our contribution to The Session #37 and our Round-up post of all the participants.

My journey to a full-fledged beer enthusiast has gone from having a preference for full flavored beers -- to homebrewer -- to craft beer drinker -- to beer traveler -- to beer collector -- to beer blogger. Over the past few years, I have purchased or been gifted numerous bottles of beers that I subsequently cellared and designated as “to be opened on a special occasion.” My dilemma, however, is matching an occasion with opening a particular bottle in my collection.

Not unlike collectors of other sorts, my behavior has transitioned from exploring diverse offerings to being more acquisitive in manner. Easy fix, right? Pull something out and drink it. But for example, after I enjoyed the complexities of a 750mL bottle of Victory Golden Monkey aged four years, I somehow find it harder to justify opening unique bottles in my collection that I have personally aged. Would it have been even better after five years? What about some of my other friends that did not get to share in the experience?

Finding a drinking occasion that lives up to the reputation of the bottle and the story of its acquisition is not a dreadful struggle to have, but it is a struggle nonetheless. When my good friends are over and we have had a few other beverages, will we still be able to enjoy my cave aged Hennepin that I bought after my tour of the brewery and have cellared for ten years? Will I miss it like I miss that four year old Golden Monkey?

In March, The Ferm has the honor of hosting The Session, a monthly assemblage of beer bloggers to opine on a shared topic. The March 2010 topic is “The Display Shelf: When to Drink the Good Stuff.” The topic is open ended and the rules of The Session are close to nil. You can use your post to be persuasive or therapeutic. You may choose to tell a story of a great bottle you once opened or boast of your own beer collection. Regardless of your approach to the topic, to participate simply publish your post by Friday, March 5, 2010. Afterward, leave a link to your blog in the comment section of this post or email us your link. The following weekend, I will post a round-up with comments and links to all entries. If you do not have a blog, feel free to post your thoughts on the topic in the comment section anyway.

Hopefully this topic will inspire some people, including myself, to break free and open up something special, whether with a friend, family, or even all on their lonesome. Cheers!