Day five: Friday March 11th:
Emboldened by yesterday’s fabulous foodie experience I was up and about early today, eager to discover more of NYC’s culinary offerings. By FAR the best bagel I found in 2015 was from Ess-a-Bagel, right near my hotel between 50th & 51st, and I was determined to eat there at least once on this trip. So I skipped up Lexington Ave and onto Third salivating at the prospect of this breakfast treat…only to encounter a line coughing out the door and halfway down the street! My stomach has no patience for these things and I compromised by heading back over to Lexington and eating at the Fresh & Co next to the Doubletree Hilton. This was a Café Metro last time I visited and I was fond of the bagels last year. This one wasn’t quite as good, but it coffee and a bagel.
I took the E train down to Spring St and began my exploration of SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown. I’d only taken a walking tour of this area last year, so I was keen to do a little further self-exploration. I’d taken a note of Free Tour By Foot’s suggested self-guided walking tour and followed that closely (I constructed a Word document totalling around 25 pages for my trip and had that downloaded on my phone. It was an invaluable source). Here I visited the Earth Room, an art installation on Wooster St which is – quite literally – a room filled with earth. Sometimes books are exactly as they are on the cover.
The architecture in SoHo is truly magnificent. As much as I enjoyed the Flatiron District for architecture porn, this place is something else. The colours, the cast iron, the whole feel of the place is tremendous. I particularly enjoyed finding the floating subway map on Green St and the old Bishop’s Crook lamp posts on Broadway.
From here I entered Little Italy with one thing in mind: the cannoli at Ferrara’s. I sat down outside in the sun with a small coffee and this delicious creamy pastry, and while my sweet tooth isn’t nearly as dominant as the savoury tooth this was a treat. I immediately, however, regretted my decision to wear black jeans as the sugar from the pastry snows everywhere and I imagine it looked quite conspicuous.
I made my way through Little Italy – or at least what remains of it – dodging the restaurant maitre d’s in search of lunchtime trade, unlike the unsuspecting tourists ahead of me, towards Chinatown. I stopped off for a moment at the Church of Most Blessed Blood and admired some of the street art along the way (if I remember rightly it forms part of the L.I.S.A Project (Little Italy Street Art) before becoming enchanted by the many scents and fragrances of Chinatown. Of course, the modern influx of migrants from Asia are spreading to the outer boroughs, but there’s still something a little magical about this place; the fish markets and the sight of customers bartering with the merchants. I took in the iconic postcard scene on Pell St before heading down Mosco for some fried dumplings from the appropriately named “Fried Dumpling”. The guide last year described the woman behind the counter of this place as being like the infamous soup serving character in the Seinfeld episode – “the dumpling Nazi” – and it’s true that she has a very to the point ordering system. You basically walk in, hand over your dollar and get given a plate of five dumplings in exchange. And they are sublime.
I enjoyed my dumplings as I approached Columbus Park, where the Chinese folk musicians were out playing in the afternoon sun, on my way to take the J train from Canal to Essex St. As I had around an hour to spare before my scheduled tour at the Tenement Museum, and because I was in a real foodie mood, I decided to partake in a tourist favourite and eat at Katz’s. The place is absolutely frantic and I was thankful to find myself a little back in the line so I could observe and understand the ordering system before stepping up for my pastrami on rye. It was as good as the reviews suggest. And that bread was so packed full of delicious pastrami that it was straining to stay together in my hands. I was so stuffed that I couldn’t bear to eat another meal on this day.
Having waddled my way to Orchard Street and the Tenement Museum I was ready to take the Irish Outsiders tour. I felt that this justified my earlier decision to skip Ellis Island and provided a very informative and moving account of the history of the early Irish immigrants into New York, and indeed the early formation of the city as a whole.
As it was now approaching five o’clock on Friday I was finding myself in the mood for beer and rock ‘n’ roll, so I headed north on Bowery for a photograph of Joey Ramone Place and the Led Zepplin “Physical Graffiti” building on St Marks Place. I stopped off for a cold one at Proletariat next door. This was a nice bar with an interesting range of beer concoctions – some ranging as expensive as $34 (or $43, I can’t remember!) I continued on to Tompkins Square Park, which had drawn a sizeable crowd to enjoy the last rays of sun of the day, and all the way through E 7th towards the East River Park. I’ll be honest: this little walk is probably the only time I felt unsafe in New York. Not necessarily threatened, just…uncomfortable. But I was committed to experiencing new places and new opportunities for photographing the city and so I carried on through to the park as sunset approached. If you like the Williamsburg Bridge then this is the place for you as there are some great pictures to be taken of the bridge down here; otherwise it probably isn’t worth the effort. I didn’t walk all the way through as I had developed the taste for beer but I don’t imagine the parts I missed could even come close to the several other waterfront parks in NYC.
From here I ventured back up E 7th, stopping at a forgettable dive bar along the way, until I reached Jimmy’s No. 43. The attraction of this place was initially the free bowl of popcorn, but they also had a favourable selection of beers too – including the stylishly named I Hate Myself IPA, which was the source of much amusement (for me at least) any time I ordered it with the barmaid (“that usually comes at the end of the night” etc.) I stayed for two or three before heading across the street to the fascinating McSorley’s Old Ale House. The oldest bar in New York City and boy does it show! Legend has it that there is an invitation to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge somewhere on their walls – and the barman confirmed it to be true – but the place was so busy that it was difficult to get close enough to have a good look. They have two ales on tap – light or dark (after much experimentation I think I favoured the dark) – and you get two mugs for your $5.50. But what truly interested me about McSorley’s was their method of registering sales, or lack thereof. I still can’t figure out how they do it. There is no cash register, nobody appeared to write anything down, and there is literally a PILE of cash in the corner of the bar. Incredible. I finished the night along at Burp Castle, which was an unremarkable bar, before returning fantastically drunk to my hotel via the 6 train from Astor Place.
Best tip today: It has to be McSorley’s! There are no frills here, none of your gastropub nonsense or hipster craft beer menus. Even if you’re not much of a drinker and only come for one (or two, as the case is) it is utterly fascinating to watch what goes on behind the bar, or the servers carrying up to ten mugs at a time to the tables in the back. They apparently take nothing down from their walls, so the bar is literally steeped in history.