“Inside New York Eateries” Exhibit Explores New Yorker’s Reservations

When I was working in the restaurant industry some odd years ago, I relished the time just before opening. Servers and managers went out back to smoke and bitch and I would stand in the dining room looking out over the polished silverware in the fading afternoon light. The room looked like an empty, half-lit stage just before opening night. Wijnanda Deroo’s third solo exhibit, Inside New York Eateries, presently showing at the Robert Mann Gallery, articulates this moment in a photo series that documents New York’s culinary institutions as they sit empty, before the evening’s cast has taken a seat. Along with views of Milon and the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant—all standing eerily silent—the series also captures beloved, now-shuttered venues.

When I’m out at a restaurant, I barely notice the actual space itself, focusing instead on table conversation, entrees, a famous face a table over, or background music. That’s why it’s surprisingly gripping to see these places void of the energy we use to identify a place, consciously or not. Seeing Deroo’s photo of the now-closed Tavern on the Green is uncanny because of the restaurant’s relationship with the New Yorkers who know its history – and how it came to close.

We’re proud when we see our street corner in a movie scene; we can place ourselves at an empty table in Deroo’s shot of Delmonico’s. It’s both aspirational and territorial—which, in itself, is the magic behind New York’s nightlife at the heart.

Wijnanda Deroo’s Inside New York Eateries will run until January 29th at the Robert Mann gallery. Pop in before your customary dinner reservation.

Photo: The Oak Room, 2009, from Robert Mann Gallery.

NYC: The Best Bars to Entertain Holiday Visitors

The holiday season means higher-than-usual tourist density in New York City, and naturally, that spike in traffic is due in no small part to your own eager friends and family, who descend on the city for an authentic, fairy-lighted experience of the Big Apple in winter. But after a day at Macy’s, an evening at Rockefeller Center, and a dinner somewhere “New York-y,” as per their request, where do you, their trusty tour guide by default, take them for a night on the town? Here are a few crowd-pleasers that will still earn you some street cred, whether that crowd involves your boyfriend’s distant Uncle Larry, Mom and Dad, long-lost friends who’ve emerged from the woodwork, hard-to-impress rubberneckers, or your old high school mates. A comprehensive list of the best yuletide boîtes to celebrate the new year – and the best of NYC.

Bars with Games Good For: Who doesn’t like to indulge in the nostalgia of old-school games, especially this time of year? Whether you’re with a raucous bunch of old friends, have a score to settle with your Mom over ping pong, or need to take the focus off a conversation with relatives you barely know, these bars offer distractions and can make for a festive time. Bar 675: Basement rec room goes for casual chic with Jenga, cards, and board games. Earn extra points from sceney friends, who will be thrilled to tell the folks back home that they hung out in the Meatpacking. The Diamond: Brooklyn bound? Beer makes shuffleboard so much more fun at this Greenpoint joint. SPiN: Table tennis for mom, and the fact that it’s owned by Susan Sarandon will appease cousin Name Drop as well. Barcade: Are your friends from the Midwest looking for “authentic Brooklyn?” Watch their wide-eyed wonder as they take in skinny-jean gangs playing thumb-cramping faves like Frogger and Tetris for an authentic 25¢ a pop. Ace Bar: Skee-Ball bar pleases the kiddies and anyone else who likes bare-bones décor sprinkled with bits of pop-trinket nostalgia from your childhood. V Bar: Siding with the gaming snobs of the world, this spot is best for your Princeton-alum brother (who happens to be a chess genius). Café and wine bar stocked with NYU grad students, chess and Scrabble battles, and a nice selection of beer and wine.

Next: Cozy Fireplaces

Cozy Fireplaces Good For: Catch up time with people who came to really enjoy holiday spirit in the city. Rose Bar: Have friends or family more interested in being around artists than actual art? For example: I once took someone here who fawned over what he thought was a Warhol (he read about it in a city guide) loud enough so that he was sure Neve Campbell, seated a table away, could hear. It was a Haring. Rubber-necking friends aside, the velvety banquettes and giant fireplace are a cozy departure from the winter weather courtesy of Ian Schrager and Julian Schnabel. The Lobby Bar at the Bowery Hotel: Wood paneling, stuffed animal trophies, and twin oils of hunting hounds give off an English-manor-library vibe. Can be a headache to get a good spot, which are usually reserved for “hotel guests,” monied travelers, and pretty hipsters. Try eating at Gemma first and brown nose your server for a spot by the fireplace. The Back Room: Semi-secret spot for those wishing it was still Prohibition. They’ll get a kick out of drinking their $11 cocktail from a mug. Employees Only: High-class weirdness, with a gypsy psychic at the door and stellar mixologists to determine your fate. The smell of the fireplace and the sight of all the handle bar mustaches will really transport your visitors. Highlands: Décor is pub-meets-hunter’s-lodge, with stuffed deer on brick walls and salvaged woods. Cozy, and it exacerbates that whole “New York Melting Pot” idea. Savoy: A townhouse in the middle of Soho with a fireplace as the festive cherry on top. Shoolbred’s: Scottish pub parlor warmed by actual fireplace. Ten brews on tap. Scotch, natch. It’s Highlands for the East Side set, with a low key (NYU students) crowd.

Next: The Oldest Bars in New York

The Oldest Bars in New York Good For: Skip these precious spots if you’re with a crew that couldn’t care less about anywhere that doesn’t have a VIP list. Otherwise, impress friends and family with the storied, often quirky backgrounds of some of New York’s oldest watering holes. Bridge Café: Opened in 1794, old but not musty. Looks like the site of a nautical murder mystery and is rumored to be haunted by ghosts of sailors and whores, like your parents’ bedroom. Ear Inn: Classic New York-on-the-waterfront feel, minus Marlon Brando, but with plenty of coulda-been contenders. I’ve seen a Soprano in here. McSorley’s: Born in 1854, and perhaps the most renown bar amongst the younger members of the Historical Society, this beer-chugging joint sees tanked fratboys, the cirrhosis crowd, and, after a court order, a few ladies (in other words: no women were allowed until 1970). Sawdusted floors, dust-encrusted wishbones, and loads of cats make this a very special place, indeed. Delmonico’s: Quenching your bloodthirst since ’37 -1837, that is – your parents will appreciate the air of refinement this joint still exudes, not to mention the supposed hauntings. Mahogany wood dining room with glowing chandeliers is the ideal noir-glam setting for steakhouse staples and a bustling bar separate from the dining room.

Next: Mixology Bars

Mixology Bars Good For: The mixology trend is widely known across all towns and townships, so let your slightly underage cousin Timmy learn firsthand just how delightful muddling, zesting, and spicing can be. Just about anyone who doesn’t limit themselves to wine coolers will appreciate the craftsmanship and ambiance. Apotheke: For those who want the back alley as much as they want the absinthe, welcome to Albert Trumer’s quirky school of cocktail science – this former opium den has been transformed into a medieval apothecary by the Austrian mixologist. Bonus: it’s in Chinatown. The interior is antique-sexy, with warm lighting and super-friendly bartenders. PDT: Oh, this is good. Through a hot dog joint you’ll go, and then through a phone booth, where you’ll have to say some secret something-or-other (though they’ve grown lenient in their older age) before you take your dumbfounded guests back to a room with a diagonal slat ceiling, de rigueur taxidermy, and a glowing bar. Note: Make a reservation earlier to get a good seat and smooth entry. Little Branch: By far the most talked-about speakeasy, this West Village spot boasts no signage unless you count the line out the door during peak hours. Retro cocktails served with cool swizzle sticks by tall drinks of water. Go on the early side of a Sunday night to chat up the mixologists and catch some jazz. Mayahuel: The cocktail connoisseurs at Death & Co. built an agave altar. Intimate confessionals, stained glass, and communal pews evoke a Mexican mission. All tequila, all the time, with all the bells and whistles to render previous tequila blow-outs null and void. Death & Co: Dark and polished, this cocktail den packs in a lively crowd. Bartenders in suspenders and vests serve up expert cocktails, and clearly love what they do (they don’t take of their vests when they get home). Great spot for just about anyone who can appreciate such a scene. Cienfuegos: Cuban rum bar from Mayahuel/Death & Co vet seduces with pink couches and sugarcane.

Next: Impressive Hotel Bars

Impressive Hotel Bars Good For: If your guests really “wanna see stuff,” like mine usually do, guiding them to impressively-designed hotel bars around NYC—usually the crown jewels of the hotels themselves—will go over well. Here are a few that leave a lasting impression. Bemelmans Bar: It’s classic New Yawk! Located inside the Carlyle, this timeless upscale New York City bar near Central Park draws bold-faced names, many of whom your out-of-towners could care less about. They will enjoy the classic cocktails and gilded ambiance. Hudson Bar at Hudson Hotel: If your guests approach things like rock music, sushi, and democrats with trepidation, this bar on acid may not be the place for them. Shrek-green lights illuminate the escalator, there’s a chandelier the size of a Volkswagen, the floors glow, the chairs seem to float—except for the tree stumps—and the whole thing makes you feel like you’re living in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s that cool. The Waldorf Astoria: Ah, the sprawling impressiveness of the Waldorf – the stuff salads are named after! Three bars, four restaurants, and Jazz Age overindulgence. A certain spirit abides, especially during the holidays. Jane Hotel and Ballroom: This place is for your visiting sorority sisters – leave the parents at home. Dual bar spaces decked out with Edwardian charm, as befits the hotel’s 1908 origins. Posh couches, leafy palms, tortoise shell ceilings, and an ancient disco bar all made better by the creatively-dressed PYTs. Plunge Rooftop Bar + Lounge at the Gansevoort Park: This hotel bar sort of looks like the New York in the Sex and the City movies. It’s slick and arty, with shinning angles and scrumptious views of the Empire State Building. Stoke your vertigo with windows in the terrace floors that look straight down on distant midtown traffic. Your guests will feel so very modern. The Standard Hotel: So this is the place with all the naked people? Depending who you’re with, I’d say a stroll around the grounds with a stop at the bar in the hotel’s Standard Grill will be enough. Unless you’ve got some young model/socialite family members, why waste family time on rubbernecking at Boom Boom? The Ace Hotel: It has a curious cheeky quality to it without being a tourist magnet. The Lobby Bar is reminiscent of an all-American library, with Ivy League reading-room tables, a bar serving up Old Fashioneds and the cult favorite Porkslap Pale Ale, a vintage-style photobooth, and a massive, tattered American flag on the wall. Bring people—not sheeple.

Next: Editor’s Picks

Editor’s Picks Our editors are often tasked with selecting the perfect place for their cousin Sarah’s college roommate’s mother, who’s coming to the city for the first time. Here’s where they like to bring their special holiday guests this time of year. Chris Mohney: Pegu Club. Great place to take any out-of-towner who likes a good drink. Still some of the finest cocktails in the city, and now that it’s been around a while, almost always chill enough to easily find a spot without worrying about crowds. Ben Barna: Fatty Cue. It’s good for anyone, really. Except maybe vegetarians. It’s got the kind of vibe you can only find in Brooklyn, and the kind of unique cuisine you’ll only find in New York. Also, it’s a restaurant meant for sharing, so that’s fun. And the drinks are as good as the food. I’d like to just bring my bros, but it’s expensive, so I take my parents as well. Megan Conway: The Good Fork in Red Hook. I’d like to take my parents to visit this historic, less-trodden waterfront neighborhood. This cozy restaurant offers inspired grub in one of the more unique pockets of the city. Nadeska Alexis: The Dove. It’s a well rounded place that’s chill enough for friends, and I’ve been there with adults and have not been embarrassed. Fun cocktails too. Victor Ozols: Rudy’s. It’s a really lasting, authentic experience that stays with someone. Cayte Grieve: Oyster Bar at Grand Central. For New York newbies and friends and family who haven’t spent a lot of time in the city, the Oyster Bar is one of those bars-slash-attractions that sort of kills two birds with one stone. Grand Central? Check. Getting Grandma drunk? Check. All done with old-style glamour.

Next: Around Rockefeller

Around Rockefeller Good For: Sometimes you just gotta give the people what they want: A Disney-fied version of the most wonderfully commercial time of the year! While your skating, shopping, and taking photos around The Tree, you might as well ease your sensory-overloaded nerves with some family vodka time. Rock Center Café: Tourist magnet, priced accordingly, and you will wait accordingly—yes, even the early birds. Perhaps it’s best to skip the food and opt for a toast instead. Perfect before, during, or after a spin around the rink. Watching wipe-outs with the fam never felt so corporate. The Modern: Danny Meyer’s unabashed flamboyance for air-kissing culture whores. It’s at the MoMa, kids, so take only those who desire such a scene. If you’ve got yourself a crew outfitted in suits and ties longing for a culture cocktail, here’s your promised land. 21 Club: It’s so famous! Free parking if you show up before 6:30pm, if that tells you something about the demographic, but only the locals and culture snobs will take note. Skip the steaks and head for the scotch with the people who’ve read about the place or heard about it in hip-hop songs. Morrell Wine Bar & Cafe: Here’s a cozy place to get warm after running with the masses around Rockefeller. Please remember that other people longing for a night cap will also be directed to this wine bar, which boasts over fifty well-chosen wines by the glass and 2,000 bottle choices on the menu.

In Search of New York’s Lost Oyster Houses

New York does not bury its past; New York erases its past daily. Gone is Dakota Stables; gone is the Paterson Silks store; gone is the Corn Exchange; gone is Astroland; gone is the original Yankee Stadium; gone is the Fulton St. Fish Market, at least as it was. This is a city that never sleeps because it is obsessed with the present, entranced by the future, and only intermittently, if ever, considerate of the past. The loss of each of these landmarks was fairly well publicized and, in every case, a great blow to New York’s character, its history, its je nais se quoi. But, I’d like to add another almost unheralded, almost forgotten, almost ignored icon to the list of New York’s great and gone institutions and edifices: the lowly oyster house.

Thanks to Mark Kurlansky’s 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, the oyster houses of yore have recently resurged in the public consciousness. If you’re not familiar – and especially if you’re a New Yorker – you need to know how entwined the history of the city of New York is with its oysters. When the Dutch arrived at the island that would become Manhattan, the estuary of the lower Hudson River contained, according to Kurlansky, “fully half of the world’s oysters.” Native people ate the succulent bivalves by the bushel and left massive middens of oyster shells that still survive today. Dig deep enough into the substrata of the city and there’s a chance that you’ll strike one of these buried mementos of gluttony and shellfish.

As New York was founded and subsequently grew, its dependence on–not to mention lust for–oysters grew with it. The New York oystermen came to dominate the worldwide oyster market, shipping unfathomable tons of the crusty mollusks North, South, East, and West, not to mention onto Manhattan itself. By 1842, about $6 million worth of oysters was being sold to New Yorkers annually. That same year, the Earl of Carlisle, visiting New York, commented “everyone seems to eat oysters all day long.” It was in this economic environment that the classic New York oyster house was born. Dimly lit, dingy, smelly, reeking of beer and piss and foulness, often located in the crudest and most cramped of basements, the oyster houses of nineteenth century New York were base, bustling, and hedonistic.

More importantly, they were great equalizers. Men from all classes descended into these cellars to slurp down oysters until their stomachs quit. Commoners tucked into oyster pie, oyster stew, baked oysters, along side Charles Dickens and other notables of the day. These were humble, egalitarian, vibrant, gregarious places. But, they were not to last. By the late eighteen hundreds, rampant pollution had so damaged New York’s oyster beds that even the most optimistic lover of the shellfish had to concede that New York, as a producer of oysters, was on its way out. In 1927, the last bed closed and with its passing came, too, the passing of New York’s craze with the oyster. History has taken its course and, in the years since New York’s oyster obsession faded away, oysters have followed the trajectory of lobsters–once a common food for everyone, they are now a rarified luxury for the elite. Though once mostly slung in dingy dens of iniquity, today’s oysters are carefully peddled in upscale restaurants.

That the oyster has become an elite delicacy strikes me as a shame. Beside the sheer romanticism of the bawdy oyster houses of old, it seems to me that oysters, of all foods, deserve more mystery and excitement than a fine dining restaurant can elicit. Is there a more amorous food, a food more worthy of adventure, of risk, of a blessedly non-rarified dining environment, than an oyster? I yearned for the Dickensian oyster cellars and so I set out to find out if, after all these years, there were still any vestiges of the sodden oyster houses of old. image

A whirlwind tour of some of New York’s most well known oyster bars–Docks, Pearl, Aquagrill, and The Mermaid–was first on my schedule. I did not expect to find the spirit I was looking for in these establishments, but wanted to see what the current scene had to offer. So, I stopped by the following restaurants one evening to assess their offerings, décor, and atmosphere. Docks Oyster Bar was the epitome of the upper-crust seafood establishment. A wide open dining room, polished bar, and gorgeous wood floor set the scene for middle-management gluttony. The art-deco ceiling overlooked the multi-tiered dining room and a sumptuous raw bar. Oysters were market price. It was lovely in a not-quite-top-tier sense, but an oyster house it was not. Pearl Oyster Bar, a West Village landmark, was bustling when I arrived in the evening, and packed to the gills. The décor was white on white and the seating was cramped. Oysters were market price and delicious. I spotted their famous lobster roll, but did not sample it.

Aquagrill simply stunned with the variety of oysters it sources. The restaurant offers 25-30 types daily and, on its website, it provides a running list of the 200 varieties of oysters that it has served in the past. Prices vary, but are generally between 2 and 3 dollars per oyster. The dining room was dimly lit and warm. The raw bar was massive. The crowd was polished and well-heeled. The Mermaid Oyster Bar glistened, with a pristinely polished bar, white paint and bright, bright lights. The oyster selection was excellent, with there being about fifteen selections, more or less evenly split from each coast. Pricing was in the 2-3 dollar range. There was no sign of Zach Braff, the restaurant’s famous investor, but high quality shellfish was certainly in abundance. All lovely restaurants, but none of them was an oyster house.

The next morning, I stopped by my local seafood store in Queens. Though not a restaurant, this, I felt, might actually be the closest approximation to the original houses: filthy, smelly, wet, and cramped. The proprietor nodded as I entered and strolled around the shop. Fish, squid, and octopus were on ice, cadaverous. I headed over to a platter of crabs. They had been stripped of their shells, laying the pink flesh and neon yellow roe open to the air. The crabs’ insides were alien, full of feelers and flanges and bizarre feathery bits. I grew a little queasy and crossed over to the oysters. There they were: a tray of delicious, craggy bivalves, bursting with the flavor of the open ocean, their hearts still beating, their livers still functioning, their primitive senses still pulsing away. There is something totally animalistic about eating an oyster, but in the best sense. You are subsuming the oyster into yourself, assimilating something that is, yes, still alive, but only just enough that it signifies something fresh and right and adventurous—the open ocean, the musk of the sea, the primal aqueous environment from which we emerged.

To eat an oyster is to enact a kind of symbolism so potent that it has manifested itself physically. There in your hand is a coarse, studded shell cupping a smooth, buttery and briny little sliver of pink flesh. You put it to your lips and suck. I bought one of the oysters and watched as the proprietor shucked it before handing it over. People edged past me, nearly elbowing it out of my hands, but I steadied myself and slurped it down while standing in the seafood-y muck coating the floor. Delicious, but not a New York oyster from a New York oyster house. I knew, however, where I might find one—the Grand Central Oyster Bar, the oldest (nearly) continually operating oyster bar in New York.

Walking into Grand Central Oyster Bar, echoes of the old New York oyster scene were evident despite all efforts to scrub them away. You are very conscious of being deep underground and the lights reflecting off the dramatically arched and tiled ceilings give what I imagine is the appropriate vibe. But this is very much an upscale eatery. The Grand Central Oyster Bar opened in 1913, along with the rest of Grand Central Terminal. It pumped out oysters until 1972, when famous restaurateur Jerome Brody bought Grand Central and transformed it into a world class seafood restaurant. Today, mindful viewers will spot Grand Central Oyster Bar in the opening credits for Saturday Night Live. I spoke to Sandy Ingber, executive chef, partner, and 20 year employee of the restaurant, to ascertain whether there was any trace of the days of yore remaining at the restaurant.

Mr. Ingber was polite, professional, and charming, reeling off stunning figures about how many oysters Grand Central sells in a day–5,000, for your information–and speaking freely about the restaurant’s history. Unfortunately, it was immediately evident that I would not find much of the old spirit left in Grand Central. The restaurant purchases 90% of its oysters directly from farms in the US or Canada. Occasionally, they ship from Mexico. In the summer, they even get oysters from New Zealand. When I asked Mr. Ingber if Grand Central made any effort to pay tribute to or maintain its history or the history of oysters in New York, his answer was a surprised and decided no. Grand Central is a fantastic establishment, to be sure, and a stunning little piece of history, but an oyster house it is not. I left with Sandy’s recommendation for his favorite oysters—wild belon from Maine—and I was off to an establishment I had been told might better fit my criteria for an old school oyster house.

I stepped into Salt Bar on the Lower East Side and instantly felt that I had finally hit upon what I was looking for—thick wood everything. Thick wood bar, thick wood chairs, thick wood tables, and an evocative (if very interior decorator-y) collection of pots and pans hanging on the wall. I could imagine Dickens scrabbling for oysters with the riff raff in there. I sat down and the woman behind the bar greeted me and cheerfully began discussing the establishment. Salt Bar, it seemed, sold $1 Blue Points to entice the neighborhood drinkers. I liked the sound of that, so I ordered an oyster. The shucker carefully prepared my bivalve and slid it across the bar to me on a round, creamy white plate. I took the shell in my hand, squirted lemon liberally over the feisty little creature, and sucked it into my mouth. Fresh. Briny. Tangy. Prepared as simply as possible, and not a white table cloth in sight. There was a very faux dinginess to the joint, but I felt that I had found my approximation. Here was a dark, rambunctious, unpretentious pub squeezed into a side street on lower Manhattan that shucked oysters by the boatload and sold them cheaply. I smiled. An oyster house in New York, or as close an approximation as I was going to find.

New York has always burned its historical bridges and the oyster houses of old are no exception. The past rolls over, the future goes on, and New York pulls itself a bit further from the sea that birthed it. Luckily, there are still facsimiles to be found and, sitting there in the dimly lit Salt Bar, still savoring an oyster that had cost me less than a subway ride, I felt that I had come close. One can eat great oysters in New York and one can eat them cheaply, with gusto and without pretension. I recommend that you do so.

The Tourist Trap Escape: New York’s Alternative Agenda

Friday’s – yeah, that Friday’s – is coming to Union Square, and we’re scared. For us, yeah, but especially for tourists: every year, hundreds of thousands pour into New York, and hit the same, godawful places everyone else does, or worse, the ones they could hit at home. You can’t (entirely) blame them: they don’t know any better, besides which, doing touristy things in New York isn’t the worst way to see this city! Some things – like hitting up a deli, roaming New York’s parks, trying to get a good view of the urban landscape, or taking in the epicenter of the action in midtown – really aren’t to be missed, or begrudged. But why waste away at the same spots, doing the same things that’ve been done time and time again? They’re generally mediocre experiences. We polled our staff panel of self-proclaimed Manhattanites, and came up with a list of alternatives to the turns many a tourist takes wrong. We’ve consciously omitted Brooklyn and Queens, who deserve their own list; for now, here’re your 2009 New York Tourist Trap Alternatives.

Financial District Excursions

Overrated: South Street Seaport. Glorified mall and chain restaurants on Pier 17 overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge have a nice view, but are the same things you can get anywhere else. Take pictures with the big boat and leave. Though the cobblestone on Fulton Street may at first appear quaint, the tweens regurgitated from the mouth of a nearby Abercrombie and Fitch are dealbreakers. Overpriced food, drinks, and tourist friendly boat trips are as disingenuous and quintessentially New York as, I don’t know, Tyra Banks.

Underrated: Staten Island Ferry. 25-minute boat trip services the daily commute for Staten Island residents, and also provides awesome views of the New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. Turn around and get back on as soon as you get to the other side for a total of 50 minutes of fun. And thanks to our egregiously high taxes, tourists, you get to ride this moving bar for free. Yes, they sell beer, along with a few snacks, as well. Take it at Sunset: it’s one of the most underrated experiences you can have (and creative dates you can take someone on) in New York.

image The best booze cruise in town. Just don’t get marooned on the other side.

Manhattan’s Best View

Overrated: The Empire State Building. $20, average waiting/trip time is two hours. The Observatory is on the 86th floor, where the views look just about the same as they would from any midtown office complex, except you have a giant, grated gate in front of you. Final verdict: anticlimactic. And if you’re going to go to the top of an annoying building, at least make it Rockefeller Center.

Underrated: The Cloisters. Medieval Branch of the Met in Fort Tryon Park in Northern Manhattan. Recommended donation, so admission price is up to you (i.e. free…for assholes) and getting there is straightforward: you must take the A train. The monastery gardens are straight out of some majestic childhood story about a girl in a secret garden and a handsome prince, or something. Either way, it’s an incredible Metropolitan Medieval Museum with a terrace offering unparalleled views of the Hudson and city below it.

The Midtown Epicenter Experience

Overrated: Times Square. Ah, Times Square: hell. Yes, it looks exactly the same as it does in every cheesy chick flick you’ve ever seen it in. No real Manhattanite ventures into the Times Square perimeter unless (A) you got comped a pair of Broadway tickets, (B) in-laws are visiting from Wisconsin or (C) you’re a Summer Intern, lost on your way to the Conde Nast building. Tourists walk slow, the food uniformly sucks, and people are wearing fanny packs. Fan. Ny. Packs. ‘Nuff said.

Underrated: Grand Central. Campbell Apartment and Oyster Bar are valid destinations on their own. New York’s main train depot is also one of the city’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces. The towering, vaulted ceilings of the terminal hold more prestige than the first episode of Gossip Girl gave up. Campbell Apartment has décor of a Florentine palace, even when full to capacity, feels like a hideaway. Oyster Bar boasts an incredible oyster roast, a great place to get clam chowder on a rainy day, and some of the city’s freshest bivalves. Don’t forget to find the “whispering gallery“, where you can talk into one of the curved walls and have the sound go directly to one of your friends, on the opposite side of the room: one of many of Grand Central’s nice little secrets.

image Yeah, dude. We’re sick of this Broadway shit, too. Tell Mom they have Bas-kee-aht at Rose Bar. She’ll be down.

Luxe Manhattan Boozing Spot

Overrated: Hudson Bar at Hudson Hotel. The design’s one part David Lynch, two parts Alice in Wonderland. Though the space might be worth a look, the overall effect gets sullied by a cheesy Euro-crowd, Heather Locklear doubles, and “ballin” popped collars. Uncomfortable chairs, and awkward seating arrangements also detract from this Ian Schrager “gem.” You can do much better.

Underrated: Rose Bar & Jade Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Concession: yes, it gets the celebrity crowd. Yes, the doormen, after a certain hour, turn into Bridge Trolls. And yes: the drinks are pricy. But hands down, no question, the better Schrager alternative is farther downtown, as is everything else these days. Here, the unfaltering velvet sex appeal makes Hudson Bar look like a bad acid-trip. Go before 10 to get a glimpse of the big art (Basquiat, Twombly, and…Schnabel), and why no one gets past the velvet rope thereafter.

Downtown Park Experience

Overrated: Union Square. The history of Union Square is unquestionable: just steps from its bad teenage skateboarders, and its incredible greenmarket, Andy Warhol once kept his factory. Unfortunately, the remnants of this culture dissolved into touristy, bland, and “faux” downtown restaurants like Blue Water Grill and the Ford Model farm team that is Coffee Shop. Shopping, like Babies ‘R’ Us, Whole Foods, and Barnes and Noble make this place no better than your average suburban strip mall. Pile that all on an excess of never-ending construction, the fact that you can barely get on the grass, and the rats running rampant through the parts you can walk? You have absolutely every reason to avoid it.

Underrated: Madison Square Park. Less than ten blocks north of said terrible tourist pit, Madison Square Park sprawls in unmatched serenity, and brims with culinary attraction. Comfortable lawns are cared for, though not overly manicured. The classic New York 45 minute-wait-for-lowbrow-food experience – Shake Shack – supplies afternoons with perfect park bench meals, even at night. For an upgrade, the recently four-starred Eleven Madison Park, Danny Meyer’s haute Indian cuisine destination Tabla, and one of New York’s best BBQ experiences, Hill Country, are just steps from the quiet park.

image If you think this is great, wait until we show you Cherry Tavern. Seriously.

Romantic Central Park Date

Overrated: Horse-buggy rides. It’s a cruel practice, horses smell, they’re expensive, locals will stare at you, it’s cliche, it’s not exciting, and you might as well just take a taxi and tell him to drive slow. Or walk. Also, karma could come around, and one day, those horses might be taking a human-buggy ride. Wouldn’t that suck?

Underrated: Rowboats on the Central Park Lake. It’s cheap, for one thing: $12 for the first hour, $10 for every hour after that, and a refundable $20 deposit, assuming you’re not stupid enough to capsize the boat. You can bring booze (and other assorted libations), and drink them (or smoke them) in the middle of the lake, or under a tree in a “cove.” It’s beautiful, and you can explore parts of Central Park you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. You’re in control, and have you ever been on a rowboat? It’s fun! Go during the week and you won’t experience a wait (unlike every other tourist trap in the city). This is also the best way to catch some sun in the park not on the otherwise overcrowded Sheep’s Meadow. And if you really want to go all out, have their resident Italian take out a Gondola for you: $30 every half hour, but he’ll serenade you in Italian if you ask nicely.

Downtown Punk Dive.

Overrated: Max Fish. Who the hell goes to Max Fish? So many people. Again: who? We don’t know when everyone decided this place was punk, or who they heard it from (Vice, like, four years ago?), but they need to know better: this place is about as pedestrian as the Lower East Side gets. Jersey’s second-rate hipster imports afraid to make their way to Billyburg mix in with kids on teen tours with good fake I.D’s. The pool table’s occupied by LES sleaze trying to take home some of the fresh meat. We’re having none of it.

Underrated: Cherry Tavern. You want sleaze? How about a jukebox that doesn’t even pretend to be remotely interesting (The Strokes, Taking Back Sunday, The Cars, Talking Heads) or drink deals (a $6 Tecate and shot of bottom shelf tequila: the famous Tijuana Special) concieved with the intention of possibly killing the shithead patrons who dare step in here. Bankers, lawyers, punks, assholes, pool sharks, cokefiends, deliquents, outlaws: for some reason, the Cherry Tavern’s managed to keep attracting one of the worst – and most interesting – crowds in town. The later you stay, the younger (and brasher) it gets, so stick around until the wee hours, especially on weekends. Oh, and: on the off chance you’re drunk enough to get a number here, write it down somewhere safe, and make sure you never call it, unless you’re fishing for STDs.

image You are what you eat. Or sometimes, who you’re served by. In this case: bad tongue and dicks.

The Great New York Deli

Overrated: Carnegie Deli or Stage Deli. The service is awful: old New Yorkers who think dishing out contrived attitudes bigger than their deli’s respective tastes? Bullshit. Same goes for the crowds, who enjoy being bossed around by the fake attitude, and the bush-league, overpriced preparations that sold their souls long ago to keep paying the rent and maintaining the brand. Avoid at all costs.

Underrated: Katz’s Delicatessen. In a classically Jewish neighborhood, a classically Jewish deli, one based around ritual and almost pathological habit, where none of the attitude is contrived, the meats are hand-sliced, the Cel-Ray flows freely, and fake orgasms alchemize into epiphanies. Grab a pink ticket at the door, know what you’re going to order at the counter when you get there so you don’t get growled at. Speak it loudly, be confident, and get the only thing – and seriously, the only thing – you really should order: pastrami on rye. Don’t balk when they offer you a taste of the meat on a plate as they slide it down the counter, and when they ask you what kind of pickles you want, you’ll take both, thanks. Get some Cel-Ray, sit down, make sure you don’t lose that ticket, tip graciously, and pad out into the Lower East Side. Breathe that fresh air: you’re still surrounded by tourists, but at least the fanny pack wearing families are far removed from some of the excellent bars in proximity. Hit them, and drink away the New York you wish you knew, and – against all odds – are still trying to find.

[Reporting by Eiseley Tauginas, Cayte Grieve, and Foster Kamer.]

Backstage at Bonnaroo: Yeasayer & Girl Talk

We spent a pleasant Saturday at the ‘Roo under blue skies and only a moderate amount of mud and standing water. Right in the middle of some dedicated people-watching, when we thought life couldn’t possibly get any better, we snagged a few treasured minutes with Chris Keating, lead singer of Brooklyn-based band Yeasayer, and Gregg Gillis, the sometimes controversial mash-up DJ known as Girl Talk. Gregg attracted a monstrous crowd for his 2:30 a.m. set on Friday night, and Yeasayer, directly followed by MGMT, filled the house and killed it at their late-night Saturday show. Luckily for those in attendance, they threw in a few very catchy tracks from their soon-to-be-released album. MGMT followed suit, and although every single one of the festival’s pseudo hippies/wannabe hipsters was there to pay tribute, no one was feeling their new tunes.

What types of venues are better for your music? Chris Keating: Festivals can be really great because obviously the energy can be amazing from so many people, but I don’t like it when people are 40 feet back. We played Lollapalooza, and there were so many people, they went on forever, but you couldn’t really see anyone. They were so far away. We also did this whole summer of festivals in Europe, and the one show I really remember was when we played at a bar with 100 kids in Zurich. It was right in between all of these festivals. We just stopped at this bar, played a show. It was so good even with the crappy sound system, being sweaty, we couldn’t even all fit on the stage.

You’ve called your music “Middle Eastern psych snap gospel.” Help us with this one. CK: You just have to write definitions sometimes, and people run with it. That’s it. I’m never going to say it again. I was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music at the time; I like gospel music; I like Jermaine Dupri southern snap. It’s hard to define our music. It’s better than “Contemporary Brooklyn.” If anyone calls us “Freak Folk,” I’ll be really pissed off.

Are you playing with any new gadgets? CK: We have two new drummers. We have a percussionist names Ahmed who was born in Sudan and has played with Of Montreal before. Now he’s part of our band for the next touring cycle. We have a whole new thing going.

Where do you hang out in Brooklyn? CK: Madiba in Fort Greene with South African food. I really like the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. I hang out at Glasslands a fair amount. We played a “test show” there before we came out here. No one was allowed to come except our sound guy and the bartenders.

Hype us up about the new album … CK: We really pushed electronics on this new record. We’re trying to mash up some new genres. I was listening to some industrial music that I hadn’t heard before that my wife got me into. We mixed a lot of that with some really pretty sounds to get a little more edge to our music. I’m really, really excited about a lot of the sonic textures. A lot of the songwriting is undeniably dancey. I want some of these songs to be club bangers … as much as Yeasayer would do a club banger. This shit is remix-ripe. I think we matured a lot as we were playing shows over the last couple years, since the last record was so ethereal, this is just very focused and very pop. People may hate, people may like it. But I’m stoked.

How did Bonnaroo act as a forum for your music? Gregg Gillis: The organizers were very relaxed, which was cool. I think it was good that I was going last and went on a bit late and beyond that, I come from a background where I used to play very short sets. For many years I rarely played for more than 20 minutes. Last night, they gave me an hour and a half slot, and typically, I don’t like to play that long. I can accomplish what I want to accomplish in an hour, and it can be very intense, and people can go nuts in that hour. I actually prepared more music than I’ve ever prepared to fill that hour and a half. No one stopped me from playing the full time slot, even though we went on late. We didn’t have much security on stage, and people were climbing over the barricade more than they expected, and it got out of control at the beginning — which is typical at a club, not so much at a festival. I liked that. I don’t want things to end, and I don’t want people to get hurt, but I want some level of chaos and I want it to be a free for all.

During your set, the digital screen kept flashing the phrase, “I’m Not A DJ.” Aren’t you a DJ? GG: For six years when I existed on a much smaller level; I had never, ever gotten an offer to do a DJ gig or play as a DJ. Once things started to pick up a bit, we started getting all these offers like, “Can you play three hours at this place.” And I’d never really played over an hour. I had to keep specifying, even though you think this would be cool, that’s not the style of show I play. With any band, you pick an identity, and you make music within that world. A big effort with Girl Talk, for me, has been keeping people from steering it into this dance club world. I never wanted to be up in a booth, and I never just want to be just playing songs. I want to have stuff that’s going to be transformative. Ideally, even though it’s based on samples, I want people to view it as an original music project. It’s an abstract concept and that’s half the fun. I like to push the way people think about what is original music.

How do you feel aboutfans trying to catalogue every song you play in a set? GG: It raises the bar for me when people are bootlegging shows and keeping track of sample listings. Every show has a million YouTube hits and people get to hear what I play every night. Last night, I played bits and pieces of stuff that I worked on during my layover in the airport. It’s exciting that I can make something in the airport, play it, and then it’s forever documented on YouTube. It definitely puts pressure on myself. I can’t just play a show today that would be completely different from last night. It would take me a really long time to do that. I know that people come out to multiple shows, and I like to be in touch with what they’re thinking as much as possible. It makes me want to work a lot more.
Girl Talk Tickets House Of Blues – Boston Tickets Boston Tickets

Oyster Porn for the Bivalve-Curious

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, award-winning food critic Robb Walsh rolls out a thorough history of oysters. You could say he’s more than just a casual fan — he eats them every morning in a a scrambled-egg dish called Hangtown Fry. Every morning! I love oysters, but they aren’t on my mind when I wake up. Going to bed is another matter, nyuk nyuk. Anyway, Walsh’s Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour is an exhaustive but pleasurable take on five-year global trek in the name of oyster research, from plump Blue Points to briny Chincoteagues. From Texas to London to New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar, Walsh wrings out a definitive primer on the subject while dispelling myths and offering recipes and valuable shucking tips. Plus there’s a whole lot of advice, like what drinks pair well with particular oysters.

Recently, Walsh was asked which combination of oysters and booze did he find most luxurious, most soul-satisfying. “Oysters on the half shell and a gin martini, stirred not shaken, is a London oyster-bar favorite,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “As a martini lover, I find that pairing hard to beat. In Ireland, oysters and Guinness with Irish brown bread is an ancient combination that tastes fabulous for lunch. At home, for breakfast, I like a cup of coffee with oysters cooked with scrambled eggs and bacon.” And if you really, really like the briny suckers, check out Walsh’s oyster porn.

Oyster Frenzy at Grand Central Oyster Bar

The annual Oyster Frenzy is upon us again. This Saturday, join chefs Peter Fu of St. George, Staten Island, and Anthony Walton of The Boathouse in Central Park, as they slurp, shuck and suck oysters at the all day Oyster event in Grand Central Oyster Bar. Hosted by Fine Living’s Stephen Phillips, it will be a veritable cornucopia of oysters: cooking demos, 16 varieties of oysters to taste, and a frenzied Professional Oyster Shucking Contest at 1pm, to be followed with a Beer Shucking Competition at 2:35pm. And for those who like to get sloppy with it, there is a “Slurp-Off,” open to anyone who wants to down a dozen as fast as possible. The prize—12 oysters in your belly.