Live like a local: New York

Pop-up restaurants, hidden bars and world cuisine… Adventure comes in all shapes and sizes in this cosmopolitan, be-a-part-of-it city — often when you least expect it

By Juliet Kinsman
Published 11 Oct 2011, 16:08 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:59 BST

We've all gawped at that skyline. If not up close and personal, then vicariously through film, television and literature.

The denizens of New York's five boroughs do things luxuriously one minute, low-key the next; revelling in glamour, then championing grit. While Manhattan's most iconic sights — the epic Empire State Building, the ever-electric Times Square — are as soul-stirring as you'd expect, it's the secret alleys and discrete doorways that lead to memorable moments — and not in the crime-ridden way of the 1970s.

Late-night visits to corner shops have you brushing with dignitaries, dark characters and pet monkeys; the friendly, rude, eccentric — you couldn't encounter a more colourful, diverse cast of characters anywhere else. You'll also hear hundreds of languages in a hub where new 'Little' communities continue to pop up; Queens has Little Ecuador and Little Tibet, and you'll find Little Pakistan in Coney Island and Little Albania on Staten Island.

Barely a day goes by without fanfare for a hot new bar or boutique. Any New Yorker worth their salt likes to keep their fingers firmly on the pulse. Locals flout convention — guiding visitors to the Museum Mile, modern art behemoth MoMA or Fifth Avenue's flagship stores would be too easy. They'd far rather you ogle Himalayan treasures at the Rubin Museum of Art in the East Village. And they'd ensure you skip Broadway in favour of the unusual, such as Punchdrunk's experiential theatre production: Sleep No More, a take on Macbeth staged in a disused Chelsea warehouse done up to look like a 1930s hotel.

Although Manhattan has grown used to taking all the attention, visitors are slowly venturing across the East River to Brooklyn. Wander around gentrified, friendly BoCoCa — a medley of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens — and savour city life at a laid-back pace. Peruse shops such as the charming curios-and-coffee-filled Black Gold, which peddles lattes alongside LPs. Visit Coney Island and shun big-bucks summer sports at world-famous Madison Square Garden for minor league baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones. After the game, stroll Brighton Beach boardwalk and dip into a Russian-speaking enclave where Cyrillic signs and old-school fairground rides are as enlightening as superstar tourist attractions.

Imagination, wit and irreverence are rife in New York, creating a city that can blow the mind at each and every turn.

Food glorious food

Multicultural to its core, New York urges you to eat your way around the globe without straying more than a few blocks. A tiny patch of Nolita tempts diners to French-colonial Morocco by way of cafe cremes in cosy Cafe Gitane, while Tacombi, where the chef works in a converted VW Camper, transports you to a Mexican taqueria, and the Lovely Day cafe is encased in the tang and aromas of Thailand.

Long-standing favourites include Jewish deli Russ & Daughters, whose smoked fish has mingled with the Lower East Side's kaleidoscope of flavours since 1914. In Chinatown, dumpling soups beg to be slurped at Shanghai Joe's (get there by 5pm to avoid a lengthy wait for a table). Ever expanding, this Downtown district has eclipsed much of Little Italy; head to Roberta's in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for calzone — worth queuing round the block for.

The city is a place that likes to eat on the go. Snacking here is an art form. Seek out the South-east Asian tastes from Fatty Cue, such as pork ribs with smoked fish palm glaze and Manila clams with coriander bacon. Fatty Crab, on the other hand, dishes up delicious steamed buns, noodle soups and rice bowls. For a fresh eats, pick up gourmet bites at Chelsea Food Market and hit recently extended river-view park, the High Line — a former elevated railroad on the west edge of the Meatpacking District. Or, if you're after quirky tastes with the beardy, tattooed hipster set, try edgy barbecue joint Fette Sau in Williamsburg for muskrat and raccoon and southern-style pulled pork and zingy baked beans.

In a city committed to change, it's not all comings-and-goings; Keith McNally's modern classics stand firm. At Greenwich Village's Minetta Tavern, diners flock to sample cask ales and gourmet burgers (impossible-to-get reservations only makes it more desirable), while media, finance, fashion and music folk clamour to do lunch at his other eateries: French brasserie Balthazar in SoHo; Pastis in the Meatpacking District, Schiller's on the Lower East Side and pizza joint Pulinos. The best time to devour the city's menus is in bi-annual Restaurant Week: usually in January and the summer, when gourmands can eat out for less.

Places mentioned
Cafe Gitane: 242 Mott Street. T: 00 1 212 334 9552.
Tacombi: 267 Elizabeth St. T: 00 1 917 727 0179.
Lovely Day: 196 Elizabeth St. T: 00 1 212 925 3310.
Russ & Daughters: 179 East Houston Street. T: 00 1 212 475 4880.
Joe's Shanghai: 9 Pell Street. T: 00 1 212 233 8888.
Fatty Cue: 91 South 6th Street Williamsburg.
Fatty Crab: 643 Hudson Street West Village and 2170 Broadway Upper West Side.
Fette Sau: 354 Metropolitan Avenue. T: 00 1 718 963 3404.
Roberta's: 261 Moore Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn. T: 00 1 718 417 1118.
Chelsea Food Market: 75 9th Avenue.
Minetta Tavern: 113 MacDougal Street. T: 00 1 212 475 3850.
Pulinos: 282 Bowery. T: 00 1 212 226 1966.

Party people

From coffees to cocktails, this city takes its drinks very seriously. Baristas at La Colombe keep the army of workaholics caffeinated with creamy, punchy lattes at its NoHo, SoHo or Tribeca outposts. For a good honest beer, the Brooklyn Brewery is much beloved — try its free tours, which include tastings.

'Secret' bars are what it's all about, though. Underground and undetectable (unless you're in the know), you'd never guess their whereabouts; which is just how the locals like it, as it keeps the out-of-towners clueless to their existence. In this city that never sleeps, knowing about the latest drinking den to open behind a graffitied door, phone booth or hot dog stand is a badge of honour.

Apotheke is a dark, sexy cocktailerie with a deceptive Chinatown-restaurant facade. Neon-signed La Esquina, meanwhile, looks every inch a tacky taco take-away on the outside, and yet remains the coolest tequila bar in the city. Hibiscus-rose margarita and a steak, coriander and salsa machaca, anyone?

Late-night drinks in a speakeasy are de rigeur, and the Mulberry Project is the bar of choice in a town where hipsters blacklist places suspected of harbouring B&Ters: 'bridge and tunnel' suburbanites who cross bridges or take tunnels into town at weekends.

The club scene has turned inside-out since its decadent early-1980s heyday; it's more about catching a band at perennially popular venues Music Hall of Williamsburg or The Bowery Ballroom than glamming it up Studio 54-style. If you insist on dressing up for the night, they still do that too; slink over to Madame Wong, a red-lanterned Chinese restaurant which moonlights as a sultry dance club. But beware: you may need a password to get in. Well, this is New York…

Places mentioned
Apotheke: According to the website at the time of going to print, it's moved from 9 Doyers Street to a new, secret location.
La Esquina: 114 Kenmare Street, at the junction with Cleveland.
La Colombe: 319 Church Street, 270 Lafayette Street, 400 Lafayette Street.
Mulberry Project: 149 Mulberry Street. T: 00 1 646 448 4536.
Brooklyn Brewery: 79 North 11th Street, Williamsburg. T: 00 1 718 486 7422.
Music Hall of Williamsburg: 66 North 6th Street. T: 00 1 718 486 5400.
Bowery Ballroom: 6 Delancey Street. T: 00 1 212 533 2111.
Madame Wong: 3 Howard St.

Pile of style

Edgy creativity is as celebrated in the US' fashion capital as sophisticated couture. Retail giants are as compelling as quirky indies — if you know which ones to go to. Winter wear is best at Lord & Taylor, an old-school department store often unjustly overlooked in favour of better-known big boys Macy's and Bloomingdale's. While it's not as fashion-forward as Barneys or Bergdorf Goodman, it's less crowded, with great Columbus Day and Thanksgiving promotions.

Bypass uptown Madison Avenue for more unusual shopping experiences. Step inside John Varvatos and peruse rock-star menswear in the birthplace of punk (the old CBGBs site in the once-seedy Bowery). Sharp suits from the one-time Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein designer are cheaper here than at his Harvey Nicks concession.

For designer boutiques such as Stella McCartney and Diane von Furstenberg, head to the former warehouses around Gansevoort Market in the Meatpacking District. And for fashion one-offs, hit gallery-like SoHo spaces such as tri-levelled Opening Ceremony.

Secret-doorbell-type emporia were once the hottest thing in Manhattan, but now even the snootiest Statesiders prefer to bag a bargain. Gabay's Outlet stocks cut-price labels, such as latest-season Louboutins, while a trip to Century 21 is a must — brave the crowds at this Ground Zero-side department store for jumble sale-esque rummaging for European labels such as Antik Batik and Paul & Joe going for a steal.

For a typically NY experience, pore over reworked homewares, vintage clothes and artisanal tucker at Brooklyn Flea, from April to November. Folks flock to Fort Greene in Brooklyn for treasures, such as vinyl fashioned into jewellery, lobster rolls, and kimchi hotdogs. Its food-focused offshoot, Smorgasburg, at its Williamsburg Waterfront site, is as good a reason to visit the market as any, with vendors serving everything from Mexican cemita sandwiches to banana-ricotta spring rolls. In winter, it runs the Gifted Holiday Market, with quirky gift ideas in an art deco space, formerly the Williamsburg Savings Bank.

Places mentioned
Lord & Taylor: 424 Fifth Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets. T: 00 1 212 391 3344.
John Varvatos: 315 Bowery between 2nd and 3rd. T: 00 1 212 358 0315.
Opening Ceremony: 35 Howard Street between Broadway and Crosby. T: 00 1 212 219 2688.
Gabay's Outlet: 225 First Avenue between 13th and 14th. T: 00 1 212 254 3180.
Century 21: 22 Cortlandt Street. T: 00 1 212 227 9092.
Brooklyn Flea (April to November): Saturdays: 176 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene; Sundays: East River Waterfront, Williamsburg. From November: weekends at Skylight One Hanson at 1 Hanson Place, Fort Greene.

Top 10 local tips

1 The free Staten Island Ferry provides an eyeful of the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbour.

2 Slurp oysters in the vaulted cellar of Grand Central Terminal.

3 Hear compelling tales at The Moth's live storytelling.

4 To tip decent service, a quick Manhattan calculation is to double the tax on your bill; if it's great, tip a little more to take it to 20%.

5 Stargaze at the High Line on Tuesday evenings.

6 Coax out inner artists at Drink 'n' Draw classes at Brooklyn's 3rd Ward Studios.

7 Eat lobster at one of the seafood restaurants on City Island in the Bronx.

8 Take a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge as opposed to Central Park.

9 Treat yourself to a tip-top mani-pedi at a Korean-run salon from just $20 (£12).

10 Hit the Metropolitan Museum's roof terrace for panoramic views over skyscraper-framed Central Park.

More info

City-pick New York. RRP: £9.99.
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. RRP: £8.99.

Essential tour:
The Lower East Side's Tenement Museum, runs walking tours, with restored tenements evoking the life of immigrant families. Tours from $20 (£12). Look out for free hosted talks with authors, too. 108 Orchard Street. T: 00 1 212 982 8420. 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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