Making the Most of a New York City Weekend

Making the Most of a Long Weekend in NYC  Along the ‘last minute’ spectrum, this trip was simultaneously part of a long-range plan and thrown together with no prep or foresight.  Threats to get together with an old friend had been hollow for years, the right time or occasion failing to materialize, and best efforts to find a date never adequate to win out over the supposed urgency of our work schedules. 

So it finally happened… “Next weekend? Yes, that will work!”

Day One - Friday   We chose The Plaza Hotel because of its new affiliation with Fairmont Hotels and now part of Fairmont’s loyalty program. It didn’t disappoint, and was everything you’d expect of a grande dame Central Park hotel.                                                

Plaza Main EntranceLobby

Rose arrangement at the Palm Court entrance

Champagne  Lobby Bar

Champagne Bar at The Plaza

Once hailed as the most luxurious hotel in New York, it now has an elegance that belongs to another era, in spit of some modernization, renovation and redecorating over the years. ‘Quaint charm’?

 While the rooms and public areas were generally first rate and as you’d expect in a 5 star hotel, the mezzanine bar overlooking the lobby is in dire need of a facelift, with threadbare furniture, exposed springs, and an overall dingy feel.  We happened to come across some real estate listings for residences at The Plaza in the adjoining tower - the largest penthouse listed at $50 million!

Roof with a view  Although in somewhat regular contact over the years, Chris and I  hadn’t actually seen each in the 40ish years since college together in Boston, have never met each other’s spouses, and wondered what the new dynamic would be.  Between booking Toronto - Laguardia flights and a nice Central Park Hotel, we exchanged email volleys on finding a restaurant, what we/SO’s would/wouldn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t eat, and ultimately deferring to their local knowledge of mid-town Manhattan restaurants.   After all the correspondence about restaurants, Chris and Jen surprised us, insisting they cook for us at their pied-a-terre, and dine on their roof-top terrace.  (I later learned Chris is the author of two cookbooks, and they are both are excellent cooks.) 
The evening unfolded with taking in the sunset over the Hudson to our West, the history of Hell’s Kitchen, the neighborhood moratorium on high-rise building and the seven story restriction, and the juxtaposition of wooden water towers atop the low rise buildings against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline to the East behind us. Next, wonderful food and wine, gracious hosts and erasing decades of separate lives in separate countries, and replacing them with newer and stronger intersecting rings of careers, families, interests and life in general.  

Day Two - Saturday
Broadway becomes a pedestrian mall lined with hundreds of street vendors on summer Saturdays, starting a few blocks south of Central Park and continuing down past Times Square.  

A stroll  here is a wonderful opportunity to observe the interactions between New Yorkers and global tourists, as vendors/buyers, caleche drivers/passengers, servers/customers.  None of the stereotypical NY native behavior here… I read a quote describing NYC people as having, ‘cool friendliness’, but I’d characterize it more as ‘cautious friendliness’. It is pleasant and slightly uncomfortable at the same time, and it’s not hard to imagine that when unrestrained by the tacit requirement to be ambassadors for the ‘I Love NY’ campaign, they’d be louder, more boisterous, ruder, more fun and friendlier in their own way, when comfortable amongst themselves.

 6 Yards of Separation We didn’t want to commit to a lengthy dinner before show time, and stumbled on Blue Seafood Bar  for lighter fare, raw bar, decent wine and cocktail list and relaxed, comfortable and cultured ambiance at 9th Ave and 56th St W, walking in on a whim. 

Good variety of beautifully presented oysters, attractive and expertly curated charcuterie and tapas selections were perfect for our appetite and timing.  24 hours later we discovered Chris and Jen were standing outside Blue Seafood Bar thinking of going in while we were already inside, at the exact same time! At the last second they opted for another restaurant a half block away.  In a city of >20 million, after a separation of 4 decades, bumping into each other there would have been a story for the ages! Now we have an ‘almost’ story nearly as remarkable. 

   A 9/12 Story Who’d a thunk a predominantly Canadian production , Come From Away, (story, producers, cast, etc) would be the hot ticket and most talked about show on Broadway! We were fortunate to find good seats for the Saturday night show, and settled in not knowing what to expect. 100 minutes, no intermission, so the bartender wisely suggests buying a logoed plastic sippy-cup tumbler full of wine. I approve of this shameless merchandising and we buy all colors available (one filled with red and one with white - somehow patriotically Canadian as well).
Once the show starts, I realize immediately I have no words to describe the experience. Days later I struggle with finding a simile to put this entertainment event into context. I’ve been fortunate to have been in intimate small venue live performances  by people I worshiped , over the top live concerts and many great theatrical/musical shows and plays. Come From Away is exactly like none of the above, and better than all of the above - what I can safely and accurately say is that I’ve never seen anything like it, and I didn’t want it to end. Between the opening and closing bookend punches of ‘Welcome to the Rock’, the story unfolds, weaves, twists the humour and hospitality of the Newfies with the horror and tragedy of the circumstance, circles back, and braids it with strands of hope, despair and confusion of the grounded travelers from all corners of the world - all with 16 actors, a dozens chairs, a table and 5 musicians. Just.See.It.

Day 3 - Sunday

    The Chelsea Market  occupies a full city block in the heart of The Meatpacking District, in the former National Biscuit Company building.  A world-class food hall, reminiscent of a scaled down and gentrified version of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. In addition to excellent bakeries, butchers and fishmarkets, Chelsea also a variety of specialty food shops, small restuarants and eateries. 

The Speakeasy  Our turn to host dinner on Sunday, and meet at their choice of bar for drinks beforehand - an unmarked walk-up on Irving Place called ‘Dear Irving’.  A coolish, head tilted, ‘Can I help you?’ from the hostess at the tiny desk at the top of the stairs morphs to a big smile and a ‘right this way!’ when I say we’re there to meet Chris. Pulling back the curtain and ushering us in, we step into the 1920’s in a large beautifully decorated room with a dozen or two tables of the era, but move through it past a post-modern bar and then a few decades further into a darker and smaller room with sofas, armchairs and wooden tables. Arriving at our table, we have a view through a large archway into another high ceiling room dripping with chandeliers, gilded millwork and the finest fabric wall-coverings surrounding French Provincial furnishings.  Greeted by our friends and settling in, we learn that the wait staff won’t be around to take drink orders - we have to push the button on the wall beside the table and the staff will be silently and discreetly summoned to take the orders.  The drink menu makes it clear they are serious about mixology with both traditional and new and adventurous cocktails.  Certainly checks all the boxes to create the illusion of being in private enclave in mid-town Manhattan, with nods to prohibition and other by-gone days.  The odd decor with rooms from vastly different eras was interesting and puzzling. Wanting to learn more, I found Dear Irving has a website, but curiously one of the only websites I’ve been to that has not one photograph, and precious little in the way of ‘about us’ boilerplate.  I did, however, find my way to a review and photo gallery titled ‘Drink In Style At Dear Irving, The Most Gorgeous Bar In Manhattan’ via a link from their site. In it Jen Carlson of Gothamist explains the four rooms as being based on Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris, including Marie Antoinette’s Parlor, the ‘60’s vibe JFK room, the Gatsby Room and the Abraham Lincoln room.   Apparently these hidden gem bars are a ‘thing’ in mid-town.  Word of mouth is the primary method of promotion, and, reminiscent of Yogi Bera’s quip, ‘Nobody goes there anymore - it’s always too crowded’, apparently once a spot becomes ‘too’ popular and no longer a secret only you can share, the masses (or in this case the smallish but influential group of those in the know) migrate to greener and harder to find pastures. Links to pics and reviews here.

   Know any good restaurants?  When we started talking about the trip and meeting for dinner, my friend Chris said the choices are overwhelming, and it would take a lifetime to try every restaurant in the city once. Nick Hines at VinePair quotes research done by Open Table saying it would take 22.7 years to eat at every NYC. This doesn’t take into consideration places that aren’t listed in Open Table, or your age or health condition, fatal allergies, self/bus collision interruptions, etc. at the start of the challenge, so I like Chris’s ‘lifetime’ better than a mathematically defined period.  Also mentioned on Nick Hine’s site, and consistent with Pareto and business history in general, 80% of new businesses fail in the first 5 years, so there is significant churn of restaurants coming and going in the dining world.  Apparently Iron Chef’s aren’t immune to this, and one of our first choices was struck from the list when we learned Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain in Manhattan had closed.  

We landed on Gramercy Tavern.  Maybe the days of knowing the maitre’d, or a well-placed $100, while definitely not gone, have been supplemented by knowing the right web sites to check for reservations. (I’ve recently heard from a couple of traveler friends of phone calls to restaurants and hotels where the answer was, ‘sorry, nothing available’, but an online reservation made immediately after the call was honored with open arms. Hmmm…) So we made our Open Table rez on short notice, and were greeted with open arms, and presented table options depending on how we felt about the AC breeze.  The Gramercy is divided into a bar area ( The Tavern) and dining room, and while the bar is a favourite spot for our friends to drop in for a drink and a bite, they’d never eaten in the dining room.  The tavern offers an a la carte menu, and the dining room has beautiful prix fixe and tasting menus, with wine pairings if you choose. Narrowing the field to fewer than a half- dozen or so of the chef’s selected dishes on each of the courses worked well for all of us, and especially so for my wife, who often gets overwhelmed and indecisive when confronted with too many delicious choices! 

Day 4 - Monday

    A 9/11 Story  It seemed appropriate to visit the World Trade Center memorial and museum before leaving New York, especially after having just seen Come from Away, and made sure it was a key part of our agenda.  Reaching the site by subway was quick and easy, with a few different route options to get there 

‘Reflecting Absence’  Two one-acre pools within the outline of where the towers stood, engraved in bronze around the edges with the names of all who lost their lives that day, and during the 1993 attack,  are at the heart of the tree-lined Memorial Plaza. They contain the largest man-made waterfalls in the United States, cascading onto a reflecting shelf, then into a seemingly endless chasm in the center of each pool.
The design was chosen from over 5,000 entries into a 2003 design competition. 

Found on the Memorial Plaza website, here is an except from the winning design statement of 9/11 Memorial architects Michael Arad and Peter Walker:  Surrounding the pools on bronze parapets are the names. The enormity of this space and the multitude of names underscore the vast scope of the destruction. Standing there at the water’s edge, looking at a pool of water that is flowing away into an abyss, a visitor to the site can sense that what is beyond this parapet edge is inaccessible. 

The museum, 70’ below the street level plaza, displays artifacts recovered from the towers, a vast tribute wall, and a multi-media collection of exhibits illustrating the events leading up to the attacks and the aftermath.

The Last Column This column, part of the core structure of the South Tower was covered in markings, messages, tributes, and missing person photos by workers during the recovery effort. At the end of the 9 month recovery period, the column was removed from the site for conservation, then returned to ground zero in the museum. 

Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning’  This art installation contains  2,983 individual tile drawings, commemorating the victims of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. Each square is a different shade of blue, based on the artist Spencer Finch’s attempt to remember the color of the sky on the morning of 9/11.  The letters of the Virgil quotation were forged from metal recovered from the towers by blacksmith Tom Joyce of New Mexico.