Live in one neighborhood in New York City long enough and other neighborhoods begin to feel like foreign countries. As with countries, there are some you want to visit and some you don’t. The Upper East Side has long been one of the lands I wanted to visit. But I’ve been a Brooklyn boy for more than 20 years, so trips to that far northerly region have not always been convenient.
Recently, however, my girlfriend moved into an apartment on East 85th Street between Second and Third Avenues. Frequent trips up the Lexington Avenue line and, later, the new Second Avenue subway, followed. In short time, that neighborhood slowly began to reveal some of its secrets and charms, and a long interborough holiday of sorts commenced.
The reader, at this point, may wonder why, of all New York neighborhoods, the Upper East Side held a fascination for me. A fair question. Despite all its museums, stately architecture and polished thoroughfares — or perhaps because of them — the Upper East Side’s reputation is as a stuffy, cushioned cloister of the wealthy and unadventurous. I can see that. But I can also see an area that has held on to its manners and personality while other locales — its neighbor across the park, the Upper West Side, say — have been pruned and vacuumed by the Big Bad Homogenization Machine, which sucks up bookstores and butchers and spits out Rite Aids and Chase banks. I’ve long nursed the pet theory that the Upper East Side has retained its old profile precisely because it is a redoubt of the well-heeled. The affluent are conservative and move slowly. They don’t like change and they are powerful enough to resist it.
An example: A hundred yards from my partner’s new address, to my giddy delight, sat Schaller & Weber and Heidelberg Restaurant — side by side, the twin totems of what was once the mighty German-American stronghold of Yorkville. (When I mentioned to people that my girlfriend had moved to Yorkville, many asked “What’s that?” The name doesn’t enjoy the currency it once did.) I patronized the white-clad meat men at Schaller & Weber as often as I could, buying long wieners and thin, tiny Nurberger bratwurst; all manner of house-made pates; spaetzle, both fresh and dried; obscure German mustards; Black Forest ham; prepared goulash; and those little square Ice Cube chocolates that taste like, yes, chocolate ice cubes, and that you can only seem to find in German establishments. When in a hurry, I’d grab a landjäger, rip it open and gnaw on it on the way to the subway.
Heidelberg, in contrast, isn’t the kind of place you can patronize often. Those titanic steins of beer and plate-sized weinerschnitzel will send you into a coma. A coma of deep satisfaction, but a coma still. The lunch service, however, I discovered, was an affordable and easygoing delight. Both the Reuben schnitzel sandwich (just what you think) and the Andy’s Special Sandwich (chicken or pork schnitzel on a French baguette with Swiss cheese, bacon, lettuce, mayo and sauerkraut) were surprisingly light. I was able to walk out of the restaurant rather than lie down on the floor.
A few blocks away, on First Avenue and 87th Street, was Glaser’s Bake Shop, another relic of Teutonic Yorkville. The floor still testifies, in blue and white tile, that it was opened by John Glaser back in 1902. The store remains in the family. They’re known for their black and white cookies. But that is a local treat the appeal of which I have never and never will understand. So I went for the strudel and turnovers. I took care never to be in a hurry. The workers are as slow as molasses, making time, which seems to stand still at Glaser’s, move even more slowly. I didn’t mind that much. It’s good to slow down. (Glaser’s will bake its last black and white on July 1. The owners have decided to close up shop.)
Once done with the Germans, I moved onto the Italians. My girlfriend lived just two blocks from Erminia, a local treasure about the size of a walk-in-closet I’d long wanted to visit. (I write about food and drink. That my interests lean heavily toward the consumable cannot be helped.) Erminia is not a place you eat at alone. The cozy, timbered room exists in a permanent state of imperishable romance. And, so, as a twosome, we went, and were tucked into a corner table in the back. Everyone looked like a regular, at home. Soon, we did, too.
Ticking Erminia off my to-do list felt good. When my girlfriend asked if there were other items left on my Gotham bucket list, I paused. There weren’t many. Write an article for The New Yorker. See Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. Get a table at Rao’s.
Mission accepted. After some quick research, she learned from her sister, a longtime Upper East Side resident, that you can enjoy a drink at Rao’s small bar even if you don’t have one of those impossible-to-get reservations. This I did not know. A plan was born.
The next Monday (actually, Halloween), we ventured into the Upper East Side’s northerly neighbor, East Harlem. At Rao’s bar, over bucket-size Manhattans served by a man in a T-shirt, we struck up a conversation with an older man who poured himself Campari and soda after Campari and soda. He said he drank it because it was low in alcohol and he could keep his head about him. Rum was what he really liked.
This turned out to be one of the owners. I am not gregarious, but my girlfriend is and, somewhere between my second drink and a visit to the bathroom, she had charmed him and extracted an email address. We decamped to nearby Patsy’s Pizzeria, an 85-year-old institution where there was no wait for a table, and inhaled a pie in excited anticipation. Could it happen? Yes it could. Within a week, we had a reservation at the East Harlem icon.
The meal was nothing but surprises. A red sauce joint with an outsize reputation usually means high prices and low quality. We got high quality and low prices. The waiter sat down and we all had a discussion about how we might stuff our faces. The lemon chicken, the meatballs, the orecchiette with sausage and broccoli rabe, the wine — all superb. We thanked the owner and told him we’d bring him some rum. He nodded absent-mindedly. Sure we would.
There were similar evenings. The Upper East Side offers a wealth of old-school restaurants, many of them pocket-size, none of them in a hurry to innovate. Donohue’s Steak House on Lexington, the smallest and coziest restaurant to ever call itself a steak house; Le Veau d’Or, one of the last of Manhattan’s formal French restaurants; J.G. Melon, a corner building packed with regulars eating cheeseburgers and cottage-fried potatoes; Bemelmans Bar, inside the Hotel Carlyle, where snacks come in silver bowls and the patrons come with silver spoons.
One night, starving at 10 p.m., we wandered into Elio’s on Second Avenue near 84th Street. We had passed by many times without curiosity; the place looked like central casting for a New York Restaurant. Turned out Elio was Elio Guaitolini, who worked at Elaine’s until he opened his own joint. Elio’s serves much the same elite clientele Elaine’s once did. I’m sure we had the most modest tax returns of anybody in the place, but we were treated well enough. The Martini I had, which the burly old bartender mixed by throwing it back and forth between two glasses, was unaccountably good.
One Labor Day weekend, we checked in on the Frick Collection to make sure the Vermeers and Whistlers and Sargents were O.K. Reassured, we sat in the Garden Court and tried to imagine the building’s days as a private residence. I posted a picture on Instagram of a tuna fish sandwich I had eaten at the Lexington Candy Shop, an old soda fountain, earlier that day. (Hey: it was a good-looking sandwich.) A bartender who worked at the Bar Pleiades inside Cafe Boulud and who had been after me to stop by, commented, “You’re getting closer.”
Bat signal received! An hour later, we were doing some posh day-drinking at Bar Pleiades. My cocktail featured “Chartreuse snow” and was crowned with juniper berries.
If you want to drink more affordably on the Upper East Side, you can. Just walk away from the park and keep going. Everyday pubs and saloons begin to pop up after Lexington. “Wing Night” (35 cents a wing) at Rathbones, a Second Avenue mainstay for four decades, became a tradition on nights when we couldn’t afford the neighborhood’s other offerings. (That was often, to be honest. As a foreign country, the U.E.S. is Scandinavia, cost-wise) So did Ryan’s Daughter, which has been on East 85th since 1979, and where they scatter free bags of Utz chips along the bar top. More bars need to do this.
By the end of 2017, my girlfriend had decided to move to Brooklyn. Before we left, one task remained. We hadn’t gotten that bottle of rum to the owner of Rao’s. On our final night on the Upper East Side, hooch in hand, we repaired to Rao’s. Drinking at the bar was a bartender I knew from Gallagher’s Steakhouse, making our reservation-free welcome a little smoother. Also at the bar was a barkeep from Bobby Van’s. All the steakhouse bartenders drink at Rao’s, it seems.
The owner drifted into our orbit, Campari and soda in hand. We reminded him who we were, thanked him again for fitting us in, and handed him the promised booze, a bottle of Havana Club rum we had squirreled back from a trip to Cuba. His eyes flickered with dim recognition and he placed the rum aside, as if it was the tenth bottle he had been given that night.
As we had before, we fell back on Patsy’s for sustenance and absorbed another pie. Still no wait. To our surprise (his, too) the bartender from Bobby Van’s was at a neighboring table. He sent over a piece of cheesecake. From there, we went to Brandy’s Piano Bar, a scruffy cabaret that ought to be in Greenwich Village, but that sits incongruously on East 84th Street. It’s the kind of place where the bartenders and servers sing and call out their liquor preferences. We bought the pianist a Jameson and a waitress a vodka, and listened to Berlin, Sondheim, Abba and Billy Joel. (Oh — I got those Joel tickets for Christmas.)
The next day, the move commenced, and my uptown girl became a Brooklynite, just like me. The regular rides along the Q and 4 lines ended as abruptly as they had begun. In fact, that first week, I didn’t use the subway at all. The Upper East Side became a foreign country once again. But at least I’d been there. Nice place, if pricey. I’d like to visit again sometime.
Robert Simonson’s most recent book is “3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon.” He contributes regularly to the Travel section.
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