Technically I am home now but I have a series of posts that developed in my head while I was in New York City so we will continue the travelogue for the next few posts…
Almost twenty years ago I made my first visit to Alphabet City. Alphabet City refers to the avenues in the Lower East Side named by alphabet (i.e. Avenue A, B, C…). Not that many years before I had seen a movie (Mixed Blood) about the rampant drug dealing in Alphabet City and how they used underage kids because they couldn’t be prosecuted. But, by the mid 90s, Alphabet City was being gentrified and it was the latest cool place to hang out.
I wouldn’t have been brave enough to venture down there on my own with the images in my head of packages of drugs being lowered on ropes out of tenement windows but I was hanging out with my friend David from Australia who was fearless. We connected with my friend Despina and then met up with her sister on Avenue B. Her sister lived in the neighbourhood so knew what was OK for tourists.
It was still pretty edgy at that time, though, and gave me a little bit of street cred. Or so I thought, possibly delusionally 🙂 It definitely inspired me to continue further exploration in that part of the city.
Each time I come to New York I try to stay somewhere different. I started doing this years ago because it just seemed the right approach to the city. I go to Paris to escape into the past and explore history. I go to New York to see what all the rest of us will be doing next 😉
A couple of visits ago I decided to up the ante a little and not just stay in a new hotel but also start staying in new neighbourhoods so that I could expand my knowledge and experience of the city. My friend Sarah has recently moved to New York and is living in the Lower East Side. I had already thought I would likely stay there on my next visit so that sealed the deal.
I stayed at the Thompson LES and would definitely give it a thumbs up. The price was really reasonable for New York, I wasn’t looking into a wall, a parking lot or someone else’s room, and there were some great amenities inside and right outside the hotel.
The trip started off on a great note. I got some sage advice from Daniel and got a drink and some excellent food at the Stanton Social Club. My server was wonderful – and remembered me when I took Sarah back there the next night.
I was planning to just go back to the hotel and get some sleep after that but I was intrigued by a venue right next to the hotel where a live band was playing to an enthusiastic crowd. The bouncer seemed not so enthusiastic but consented to let me in. The band on stage was really good and I was disappointed to learn that they had almost finished their set.
Because I had only caught a couple of songs, I went up to the lead singer and asked if I could buy a CD. I figured I could at least listen to their music even if it wasn’t the same as a live show. He didn’t have any change so I got 2 CDs – and an invitation to join them for a drink in the backstage lounge.
He had a whole entourage so I wasn’t expecting him to remember me but I know it’s always fun to have a little adventure when one travels… He was a really gracious guy so I met some members of the band, some of his friends, his girlfriend… and the chance to say I hung out with the band after the show 🙂
Just in case anyone is coming to New York, the venue is called the Rockwood Music Hall. I ended up there every night for a short while after my friends had gone home. There was an eclectic line up of musical talent but universally talented musicians. And I didn’t even need to take a coat with me!
You might also want to check out the Jamie McLean Band. He is apparently from Connecticut but spent lots of time in New Orleans so his accent and his music have a definite southern flair. And we agreed – as a musician, it just sounds better if you come from New Orleans…
The neighbourhood offered lots of opportunities for distraction 🙂 Saturday night I also hit the nightclub on the 7th floor of the hotel and proved I could actually dance in my new 5 inch heels! You definitely want to stay pretty sober though when you are walking in shoes like that. But 60% off at the temple to shoes that is the Saks Fifth Avenue shoe department is pretty hard to resist… it is so large it has its own zipcode! And the shoes are Nicolas Kirkwood red sequined platform heels so I am sure I will get lots of Wizard of Oz references from strangers…
The coolest part of buying the shoes was the chat Sarah and I had with the shoe salesman. I am of course a little shoe obsessed so chatting with shoes salesmen about how Nicolas Kirkwood shoes are better designed than Jimmy Choos… and how Christain Louboutins used to better… and my addiction to Rodolphe Menudier… it’s just natural but it started a lovely conversation about the effects of Hurricane Sandy, some restaurant recommendations for my friend Sarah… He said we’d made his day. He certainly made ours. I am always energized by random conversations with strangers in this impersonal, wireless world of ours.
Another note-worthy adventure – which also involved talking to a lot of random strangers – was our dinner at WD-50. I told Sarah I wanted to take her out for a special dinner and she wanted to support the neighbourhood, which had been through a lot of rough days thanks to Sandy. I had always wanted to go to WD-50 so it wasn’t hard to convince me 🙂
We drank a bottle of fabulous champagne and worked our way through the giant tasting menu. As part of their tenth’s anniversary, the chef changed the menu and it is now two tasting menus – a giant one full of mad scientist culinary creations dreamed up by Wylie or a smaller one that is comprised of some of the greatest hits from the restaurant’s last ten years.
This isn’t really an official foodie blog and I wasn’t taking notes while we dined because I wanted to catch up with Sarah so I would recommend you go yourself to really understand the experience. But how can you not love a meal that involves three desserts? 🙂 And includes pine needles that they made in the kitchen. Like the potato that looks like bone marrow. I didn’t hear the description properly so left it on my plate as I don’t typically chew on bones… but the servers are as fantastic as the food so he wondered why I wasn’t eating my potato… which looked exactly like the bone in bone marrow…
Those of you who know me are familiar with my issues with funghi. So you will understand how wowed I was that they didn’t just leave the mushrooms off my steak; they made me an entirely different – funghi free – dish! As you can tell, I am saying that you should definitely check it out on your next trip to NYC 🙂
Another place to check out is Torrisi Italian Specialities. No molecular gastronomy but the kind of vibe that I think WD-50 had when it first opened. If I have the story straight, it started more as a deli-great-sandwich kind of place (called Parm and now next door) but it was so popular they now have a teeny tiny wonderfully unique experience restaurant.
If you book on-line and have a party under 4, they say they may seat you at the counter. But, since I was booking long distance, I figured I would take the chance. And, having done it, Despina and I would say you might want to sit at the counter! We got to watch the chef and entourage working the magic.
Like WD-50, it’s a very limited menu. It’s written on a chalkboard so I think it changes every day with the whims of the chef and the fresh produce available. You get four compulsory appetizers. Then you get to choose from two pastas and two mains. Since nothing involved mushrooms, we decided to do everything on the menu and divide the two choices down the middle.
It was a fantastic meal! Everything was fresh and wonderfully prepared. The mad scientist element was quite subdued but it was inventive Italian cuisine… not your grandmother’s spaghetti 🙂 And at the end they gave us a box of treats to take home! All wildly delicious. I was really impressed because they actually gave us a second box since we were going to different homes in different countries. The most exotic was a rainbow cake. I’m not even sure how they got all the colours but I am sure no toxic red dye was involved.
I also spent a small amount of time wandering the streets near the hotel and popping into a few shops. They have a Maje and Sandro, faves from Europe. And Sigerson Morrison is still alive and kicking, in a slightly different location. The aesthetic looks the same though and the shoes look like they would be comfortable (I had already bought too many at Saks). When Sigerson Morrison was brand new, I actually got photographed as part of a journalist report on the new brand so have been following them since the beginning…
While the Lower East Side is likely not as squeaky Disney clean as the cleaned up Times Square, I had no problems and saw no heroin being lowered in a basket from a window. It feels fresh and exciting and I would encourage everyone to check it out. I know I will be back for further exploration…
I read on the plane that there is a Standard Hotel Lower East Side in the works… on the site of the old CBGB. As one of the disciples of David Byrne and the Talking Heads, when my friend David excitedly told me his favourite band from Sydney was playing at our first night in New York, there was no question that we would go! And they were awesome. I bought the CD and promoted The Cruel Sea in Canada. One of the tracks even made it onto my iconic 50th birthday soundtrack…
And I had a lot of adventures when I stayed at the Standard in the Meatpacking District. You may well hear about them at some point… but right now we are trying to get you to check out the Lower East Side – and witness the transformation of New York City for yourself…