Travel bites – Manhattan: Lower East Side
Escape to New York
After exactly two years (a time during which quite a lot happened!) I was finally able to return for a long weekend to one of my favourite cities, New York. With the very same bunch of friends of last time, I travelled solo for a few days baby, dog and husband free.
Did I enjoy my time? Of course I did, and I rediscovered the pleasure of being alone too, as well as roaming the streets of the city and finding old and new places.
I had barely prepared for this trip… I only remembered about my ESTA the day before flying, and did not bring my actual camera, hence the iPhone photos.
The 5 days went way too quickly but we managed to pack quite a lot into them! This time, I tried to spend a bit more time in Lower Manhattan, an area I do not know that well and which is pretty fascinating as it is still quite grotty overall, but has some impressive things going on, as well as a diamond in the rough kind of feel to it.
Below my 2018 NYC tips, hoping it’s not that long before I can go back and explore more.
This time around, my friend Sarah and I opted for an apartment, and not wishing particularly to advertise Air bnb, we found a truly beautiful Chelsea flat, which made our stay all the more ‘authentic’. Owned by a musician, it is in an old apartment block on the 4th floor (no lift, but we didn’t mind).
It’s decorated partly middle eastern style (think chunky wooden furniture, lanterns, incense burners) partly 1970’s music theme (vintage record player, an impressive vinyl collection and loads of guitars and musical instruments everywhere, even in the loo!).
Two spacious double bedrooms, a large lounge with exposed bricks and a bathroom heated by those old steam conducts that still steam up and warm up the city; we just loved it and could not recommend it more.
Yet, when we stepped into the stunning Beekman Hotel downtown (123 Nassau Street), we felt a pang of jealousy for those who had picked it as their NY base. This hotel was not opened on our last visit and I had seen photos of its interiors on their Instagram feed and decided I needed to have a look.
It is worth the detour (if detour it is) to the area alone. Past a smart bur fairly regular reception area, the wonders of its atrium are unmissable.
It used to be an office building and was closed and left to rot for more than a decade before being lovingly restored to its former glory by Thompson hotels; the historic landmark building exudes elegance and charm.
Practically everybody in New York has half a mind to write a book — and does. (Groucho Marx)
Look up from the lounge bar area and see the Victorian pyramid glass roof; take a lift to one of the floors and spot the original tiles under the carpet and stairs worn down by decades of foot fall. I immediately fell in love.
Original artworks commissioned specifically to local and up coming artists (with the mission of highlighting the building’s literary past) dot the walls: anyone would be particularly taken by Edgar Allan Poe’s portrait (he used to read his works on the site of the hotel, which during his time, was a local cultural centre and a library).
The hotel has three restaurants and a bar, where a Negroni Sbagliato fits perfectly with the decadent, smart and understated surrounding (although it will set you back $18!).
Eat & Drink
Not much shopping this visit, but of course plenty of food and a little bit of drinks. Here are my highlights.
Breakfast & brunch
In NY, it seems that brunch is mostly a set menu affair, so on my first morning there, on what was the only gorgeous day I had (sunny ,warm, summery) I had my first coffee and a cherry scone sitting at the counter at Mud ( East Village, , since I couldn’t simply order a plate of hot breakfast.
The venue is quirky, a bit grungy, and around 9am was not too busy either. I enjoyed lazying around, checking my social media but unfortunately the coffee was nowhere near as good as what I am used to in London.
That was to be the first of a few caffeine disappointments, in fact. I then walked back into the sunshine and further south, crossing over Houston Street, popping into historic Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery (after the scone, I could not fit a knish!), and then onto Forsyth Street, while the park opposite was coming alive with families and basketball players.
Here I had my second coffee at the modern looking, trendy GEM NYC’s The Living Room deli: the restaurant is owned by a very young chef (he’s 17!) who cooks beautiful looking dishes (sadly not opened mondays which was my one evening open for a fancy dinner).
I sat looking outside towards the sunny street for a while, chatting to the friendly bar manager about London, about the regeneration currently ongoing in the area, about Flynn the chef and of course about coffee (but once again, feeling let down by the not as good as London quality of the local brews).
The next day was Sunday and my friend Loredana has booked us a table at another Lower East Side brunch spot mentioned in various online gourmet guides: Timna (109 St Marks Pl), a modern Israeli restaurant which also does fix priced brunch (at $39), which includes sharing starters, one main, and one drink which is either a drip coffee or tea (refilled) or an orange juice (god forbid you’d get both).
I really enjoyed my ‘alphabet city benedict’ which consisted of an artery clogging layer of fried potatoes, grilled challah, spinach, cured salmon and a poached egg as well as a condiment of (I guess) hollandaise, but like before in NY, I felt the brunches are way too heavy and rich.
I felt thirsty and full for hours after that. Still, that didn’t stop us from walking a few blocks down to try out a cronut or a bun at trendy, Instagrammable SuperMoon Bakehouse, (120 Rivington St) where we shared a few pretty but actually really tasty bakes and took a few fun shots (so much pink, so much silver!).
Nearby a queue was forming outside hidden trend spot Beauty & Essex (146 Essex Street) a speakeasy style restaurant and bar located behind a jewellery story (which looks more like a pawn store); not far, the famous Jewish deli Russ & Daughters and touristy but historic Katz Delicatessen which I visited in my previous trip.
Sarah and I fared better with our breakfasts near our flat, although the coffee continued to be a tad disappointing. Blue Bottle coffee branch by the Chelsea Market (450 W 15th St) was a little boring, and while we enjoyed a few morsels of decent peanut butter blondie, the coffee was ok and surely not on a part with the original San Francisco blend.
We found perhaps the best flat white of our trip at Gotham Roasters (23 W 19th St,) where we repaired under a major downpour and spent an hour or so pondering what to do with our day while drying off. Their peanut butter mini cookie was spot on too.
For our last breakfast of the holiday we perused the New York Coffee Guide we found in our flat and picked a nearby independent that looked interesting: The Commons Chelsea (128 7th Ave), about 5 minutes walk from our place. We really liked it and, visiting early morning, we had the place to ourselves for a bit until a steady flow of locals started coming in for mainly take aways.
We observed the local life (the elegant elderly lady with the dog, the man in a suit, the joggers) and felt almost like locals ourselves, with a good flat white and a cream cheese bagel (you have to have one when in New York, right?). And by the way… the ‘flat white’ still isn’t quite common in New York… when asking for one, I felt half coffee snob half coffee connoisseur.
Lunch, dinner & drinks
Lunches and dinners were a mixed bag. From a quick, busy but satisfying first night jet lagged dinner at the West Village Tacombi (255 Bleecker Street) to a very civilised and pleasant late evening meal at Corkbuzz within Chelsea Market (75 9th Ave), to an early lunch in wonderful Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop (174 5th Ave) where I had an extremely good Reuben in a memorable, classic retro surrounding. I even ended up having a salad at Pret during one of my work days and a good lunch at office favourite Pain Quotidien.
I’d say the highlight meals were possibly two. First, a dinner at Augustine, one of the restaurants in the Beekman. Run by British born Keith McNally (of Baltazhaar fame), it is a french inspired option in the stunning hotel downtown. It does indeed look the part, makes you feel like you’re stepping into one of those frozen in time Parisian bistro, with the glamour of the belle epoque oozing from each floor tile and bar light.
A truly beautiful setting which proposes decent cuisine, knowledgeable service and prices in line with the location (pricey, but there you go). My steak frites was pretty satisfying.
After dinner, I hopped in a yellow cab for the short journey to Chinatown where I met my friend Loredana in dingy, cool bar Apotheke (9 Doyers Street) which on a Monday night was perfectly half empty. Botanical cocktails, bartenders dressed in medical white gowns and low lights make this dive bar a pretty fun place to stop for a cocktail or two.
The second highlight meal was the pre Sleep No More early dinner we had at reopened Empire Diner, (210 10th Ave) one of my favourite places in NY. I am glad it is now opened again, the exterior is just as incredible as it ever was, however inside, despite looking minimalist and modern Nordic style, clean and bright, it has somehow lost a little bit of its appeal as there is less steel and more white tiles and wooden tables.
Still, the food was solid, filling and substantial: I had a massive portion of pretzel coated fried chicken with sweet corn and sweet potato fries, Sarah had a truffle mac ‘n cheese. The place was buzzing even at the earlier evening hour, so I am hoping that the Empire diner is here to stay for the long run.
So this is a new entry this year. While on our last trip Sarah and myself has signed up for the local hype Soul Cycle, this time we thought we’d try something different so we signed up for Classpass and did three classes in three days, and had a huge amount of fun.
Classpass is available in London too, however here I have not one, but two full time gym memberships plus I am a regular user of boutique boxing studio Kobox (which I love), so no need to have something like Classpass yet in NY it worked perfectly.
Basically, with a monthly fee (around $45 and above) you get a number of credits, which you can then use to book sessions at gyms and fitness studios.
There is a huge variety to choose from, from basic gyms to hot yoga, from trendy hiit classes to celebrity PTs… honestly, we loved each night scanning the site to see what we could try the next morning! The jetlag helped in our favour so we were able to do a class first thing in the morning and then have the whole day to enjoy NY.
Here’s what we tried:
This small studio is located near the High Line (336 W 13th St,) and does one type of class, as the name suggest, a core work out. I love strength training and the core is something I also usually train so it was a no brainer for me to pick this place. Our trainer was on his first day and he was great, friendly but not overly enthusiastic, which was good given the time of the morning (8am).
The Kore class wasn’t too busy and we found the workout challenging: using a classic step as a base, it was a mix of press ups, plank, little cardio steps and resistance bands. I’d have liked a mat for the floor work but never mind. The changing rooms, however tiny, were functional and had all amenities necessary, although I can’t image having a shower after a busy class as more than two people in there might be hard to move about!
Monday we had to do a spinning session, a bit of cardio is good plus this is Sarah’s favourite work out. We picked Swerve Flatiron (30 W. 18th Street) among the many cycling studios around us because we liked the sound of it and the time suited us. For someone (me!) who doesn’t really like spinning, this was one of the best classes of this type I have ever done.
You’re split into teams, and your time is up on the screen (team, not individual) so you sort of compete against others. As much as I hated it (and of course, brought the team way down) it is definitely motivating. Jenna, the instructor, was really very good and full of energy once again without being overly pushy.
The studio and the changing rooms were great, and you get an email with your work out scores so you can try to do better next time. Really recommended.
Tuesday: Exhale Barre
I really could have done another strength core class but we couldn’t find a suitable session (I was going to the office that day). So we tried something I had heard about but never felt inclined to try (that’s the beauty of class pass): barre.
Again, loads of options but we settled for Exhale Barre (18 Ninth Avenue). Barre is a is a full-body workout with light weights, planks, push ups, thigh strengthening exercises and ab work paired with ballet-inspired moves to sculpt the arms, lean the legs, chisel the abs and lift the butt.
You do it with socks (which I felt was uncomfortable) and I found it challenging but necessarily in a good way, as some moves put a lot of strain on ankles and knees (in my view). The teacher was really good too, but I am not sure I would do this again. Great changing rooms in this studio but oddly, the only ones actually busy as users do stay here to shower while the other places nobody used the showers.
Nice little touches such as personalised locker, great location but not for us.
Overall, I had a blast in my short but packed 5 days. I cannot wait to visit again of course, and experience more and more of what this fascinating city has to offer.