Thank you, friends, for helping us get through the pandemic! And by friends, we mean Monica, Chandler, and the gang from the 1990s’ TV comedy. The antics of this quirky group of BFFs — omnipresent thanks to cable TV — gave us some laughs when we sorely needed them. Never mind that Ross and Rachel’s baby is 18 now, and that babe magnet Joey has gone totally gray in real life: When we heard that a “Friends” reunion special was coming to HBO Max, we were psyched. The show’s 10.6 million Twitter followers went wild. Alas, due to because of COVID, filming was (as Ross would put it) on a break. The special was delayed repeatedly. The actors posted teasing messages on social media, hinting that the reunion show was coming. Rumor has it, the special wrapped in April.
But why wait for that? We decided to step into the “Friends” Zone ourselves, on a tour that included the haunts of these fictional young adults (who could magically afford adorable $5,000-a-month apartments while working at low-paying jobs). We enlisted Charlotte, a fully-vaccinated (like us) New Yorker who shares our fondness for “Friends,” to play tourist with us. Call it “The One with the Friends Tour.”
Normally, for the sake of coolness, we try to avoid touristy things when we come to New York. Not this time! We signed up for the On Location Tours NYC TV & Movie Tour (www.onlocationtours.com), a two-hour tour of spots where famous scenes were shot. Our guide, Amadeo Fusca, is an actor himself, so he made our private tour (because of COVID) fun. “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” and “Sex and the City” are to NYC as “Cheers” is to Boston. “Everybody loves those shows,” Fusca says, “but people get the most excited about ‘Friends.’ ” Even though the last episode of “Friends” aired in 2004, the “Friends” apartment building at Bedford and Grove streets in the West Village draws gawkers daily. In fact, most of the filming occurred on a soundstage in Burbank, Calif., the guide told us; only the establishing shots were filmed in New York. That said, Fusca would make sure we saw lots of them. “‘Friends’ is one of those shows with true New York spirit,” he said.
In the “Friends” zone
As we rode around Manhattan, Fusca pointed out “Friends” hot spots: “Over there is the Pierre Hotel, where Monica and Chandler got married,” he pointed out. And “that’s the Pulitzer Fountain, the inspiration for the one in the show’s opening credits.” We popped out to take some photos. Our Inner Fangirls were delighted to see the Solow Building, where Chandler worked; Saks Fifth Avenue, where Joey was a cologne spritzer; Morton Street, where Phoebe lived, and the Lucille Lortell Theatre, where Joey performed in a play. These locations were pretty fresh to us, as recent “Friends” watchers, but it wouldn’t have mattered: as we cruised the city, Fusca played a video of film and TV clips that corresponded with the sites we were seeing. Our only disappointment: Central Perk, the “Friends” coffee shop, does not exist. (There’s a fake one, but don’t be fooled.)
As movie fans, it was fun to see famous locations from “Men in Black,” “Spider-Man 3,” “Home Alone 2,” the original “Ghostbusters,” and dozens of other made-in-New York classics. “Last week, we saw Denzel shooting a movie in the West Village while on our tour,” Fusca said. If you want to see movie shoots in progress, www.onlocationvacations.com will give you an idea of what’s shooting where, he offered.
New York’s chic West Village is prime territory for celebrity spotting. “I’ve seen John Mulaney walking his dog a million times,” Fusca noted. Residents Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhall, and Nathan Lane are often seen coming and going. In Tribeca, you might encounter Taylor Swift or Billy Crystal. New Yorkers are pretty blasé about this — and we like to think we would be too, if Denzel crossed our path. The tour took us around Greenwich Village, Chelsea, SoHo, Columbus Circle, Midtown, and Tribeca, and past iconic spots like the marble arch at Washington Square Park and the Empire State Building. If you’re a TV or movie buff, it’s a great way to sightsee.
Going Totally Tourist in Times Square
“Being a tourist in your own city is actually kind of fun,” Charlotte confessed. And so, she did something no New Yorker would ever dream of doing — she ventured to Times Square. We were staying at the Moxy Times Square (www.moxytimessquare.com), a lively hotel where it’s possible to get a haircut (at Blind Barber) or a tattoo by artist Jonboy (at Bar Moxy). What attracted us, though, besides the great rates, is the Pink Rose Garden at Magic Hour, Moxy’s rooftop bar and lounge. This pop-up event (running through October) is a frou-frou girl’s dream — bedecked in 10,000 roses, with a rose-themed carousel, and fabulous girly drinks like the Moira Rose’, even pink desserts. Definitely fun, and Instagram-worthy.
The rooms, available in several configurations, aren’t huge, but they’re comfortable and playfully designed. Our favorite element: “No Diving” spelled out in tiles in the shower. Dial the in-room phone to hear a bedtime story.
But we were mostly out and about. Times Square is springing to life; even Elmo, Super Mario, and Mickey Mouse are back on the scene in their disheveled costumes, mugging for tourists. Most folks wore masks, even outdoors, and kept their distance indoors.
Polka dots and prosciutto in the Bronx
Given that, we felt confident about visiting a popular exhibit: the Yayoi Kusama show at the New York Botanical Garden (www.nybg.org), located in the Bronx. Exclusively at NYBG, the contemporary Japanese artist reflects her fascination with the natural world (and a childhood spent in her family’s seed nursery) in Kusama: Cosmic Nature, showing through Aug. 1. “It’s so happy and uplifting!” Charlotte said, as we toured the exhibit. “Ascension of Polka Dots on the Trees” is a great introduction, and it only gets better as you encounter “Dancing Pumpkin” and “I Want to Fly to the Universe” (both 2020), making their debut here, and more. This show is a wonderful excuse to visit the 250-acre garden, the largest in the United States, where the daffodils and azaleas were in full bloom, and the peonies were ready to pop. The rainforest gallery was like a visit to the tropics, so heady, we pulled down our masks for a quick second to take deep whiffs of the greenery!
“You know what’s in this neighborhood?” Charlotte said. “The real Little Italy — Arthur Avenue. And the best sandwich place in the city!” Sold! We joined a line that snaked out the door at tiny Casa Della Mozzarella for the stuff that lunchtime dreams are made of, a fat, soft roll stuffed with prosciutto, sun-dried peppers, and a thick pillow of house-made mozzarella with a slick of balsamic glaze. So big was this sandwich, we saved half for dinner. “Definitely in the Hall of Fame of Sandwiches!” she declared. No argument here.
Eating your way around the city is one of the true joys of a New York visit, and this trip was no exception — it was simply more complicated since we wanted to eat outdoors. Thankfully, New York City dining has moved to the sidewalks due to Covid; outdoor tables and dining cabanas (some adorned with plants and fairy lights) are everywhere, lending a Parisian vibe. We’d never spent much time in Chinatown, so we happily joined friends at Nom Wah Tea Parlor (www.nomwah.com), c.1920, the oldest dim sum palace in the city (and one of the few that serves dim sum for dinner.) The pork buns were wondrous, but the real treat was walking around the neighborhood, streets festooned with lanterns and lined with vendors selling an array of gorgeous produce (dragonfruit!) and fresh seafood.
Since this was a girl’s getaway, we knew where our final meal would be: at Melba’s in Harlem, for Melba Wilson’s famous brunch (www.melbasrestaurant.com). Fried chicken and buttermilk waffles with strawberry butter, in a festive cabana on West 114th Street? Perfection. And if you need dessert, an outpost of Levain Bakery (www.levainbakery.com) is just down the street.
Love of “Friends” may have inspired our visit, but the real lesson here is, it’s OK to embrace your touristy side. There’s a reason that people do this stuff — it’s fun. And it definitely helps to have an actual friend along for the ride. Especially one who will watch the “Friends: The Reunion” with you.
If You Go: The drive to New York is never fun, and parking can cost you around $150 for the weekend(!) So public transportation is worth considering. We weren’t keen on buses during the pandemic, so we went with Amtrak (www.amtrak.com), since we could see in real time how crowded the train was likely to be (25 percent booked, when we rode it.) We’d never taken the Acela before, but it was the fastest option, about 3.5 hours, and super comfortable. We read, got work done, and arrived in New York fresh, not frazzled. Book at least two weeks in advance to get the best fare. Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train goes to New York, as well. It makes more stops so it’s a longer ride (around four hours typically), but it’s less expensive. To stay: In the heart of the action, the 612-bedroom Moxy Times Square (www.moxytimessquare.com; from $135) is a fun choice. The hotel has its own restaurants, along with a bazillion eateries just outside the door. And roaming around Times Square is a trip. Not feeling NYC but love “Friends”? On Location Tours (www.onlocationtours.com) has also launched a “Friends” Virtual Tour Package featuring 18 locations. For more things to do and see, visit www.nycgo.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org