We ascend the stairs of an unmarked brownstone. The neon lights of 46th Street splash reds and pinks on the dark sidewalk. As instructed, we open the “big” door without knocking. We know we’re in the right place: Beyond a dark, thick curtain are muffled sounds of conversation and clinking glasses. This is it. Bar Centrale, the word-of-mouth restaurant Leon, a newfound New York friend, told me about.
If you’re going to spend 48 hours in Manhattan, there have to be elements of trust and adventure. On this trip with my traveling partner, David, which started as business and quickly turned to pleasure, we relinquish whatever we know of the city for tips from strangers and acquaintances. Sure, the hotel is booked in advance and a rough itinerary sketched, but as the hours unfold we surrender to new discoveries.
For us, two nights and two days in the Big Apple is a mini-vacation of dining, pictures, theater, friends, and prose. Who needs rest in the city that never sleeps?
We arrive in the afternoon just in time for a business meeting in Chelsea (for me) and a nap (for David). Our hotel, the Soho Grand, is a classic Manhattan-style haven — comfortable, efficient (read: small) rooms, and quiet.
Later a meandering walk around Chelsea Market piques my hunger and gift-giving antennae. There’s the aroma wafting from Jacques Torres Chocolates and the Fat Witch Bakery, known for its decadent brownies. I save my appetite and buy bacon sea salt at The Filling Station.
Before dinner we scurry to McNally Jackson Books, an engaging indie bookstore in SoHo that, this night, is sponsoring a reading with the catchy theme “Shrinks Are Away.” It’s an ode to all the psychologists and psychiatrists who escape the city’s blistering heat in summer.
Dinner later includes my friend Jennifer and fresh tart margaritas at Mayahuel, a cozy Mexican find in the East Village. Jennifer and I had scouted Mayahuel months ago, but couldn’t get in. It’s a first-come, first-served business and we’re lucky tonight. We climb the steep stairs and the three of us squeeze into a banquette and small chairs. The red lights cast a Bohemian glow in the candlelit dining room. The waitress, in a knee-length dress and work boots, upholds the image I have of the East Village, young and rough around the edges. We share what turns out to be some of the best Mexican food we’ve had in a while: moist tamales, paella del mar, and succulent ribs with a hot pineapple habanero-pepper glaze.
David and I wend our way back to the hotel by way of Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. I latch onto his hope of recovering a piece of his childhood. We find a boarded-up section of a building that was his uncle’s clothing store. David talks about his grandmother who fled Poland right before World War II, leaving 12 brothers and a sister. A coolness slips into the evening.
Breakfast is a grand attempt at showing David Balthazar, a Parisian-style bistro on Spring Street that serves café au lait in bowls. The brioche French toast is dry and disappointing, and I lament we should have stuck to the flaky, buttery croissants that Balthazar is known for. After breakfast, we seek art in Midtown.
The International Center of Photography has a way of telling stories in black-and-white (Edward Steichen, Henri Cartier-Bresson) and color prints. “A Short History of Photography” exhibit echoes our WWII conversation and lets us see into lives we would rather not live. On our way to The Paley Center for Media, walking up Sixth Avenue, a stunning mosaic of golds and blues fills me with awe.
At The Paley Center we’re mesmerized by “America’s Teenagers: Growing Up on Television,” a montage of sitcoms and TV shows full of teen angst. The center (the Museum of Television & Radio and the Museum of Broadcasting until it was renamed in 2007) houses more than 150,000 TV and radio shows in all genres from comedy and drama to advertisements, newscasts, and documentaries, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and Paul Sand in “Friends and Lovers,” a 1970s short-lived sitcom about a Boston Symphony Orchestra bass violist, set in Boston.
At some point I slip out to a cafe to check e-mail, and this is where I meet Leon, an actor and medical market researcher living on the Upper West Side. “Where do you go for drinks after the theater,” I ask. He says Bar Centrale is the place to go. It’s above Joe Allen Restaurant and is owned by Allen, but not as well known. “There’s so much to do and see here,” says Leon. “You make it your home.”
For the remaining 12 hours we do just that. First, we take in “The Book of Mormon.” I adore the one-line zingers and catchy numbers like “Turn It Off.” The show is crass and clever, and I wonder what my minister dad would have thought of it. David and I recount the larger message — acceptance and tolerance and love — on the way to our mystery bar.
Bar Centrale buzzes with couples eating dinner at intimate booths and nursing drinks at the bar. We order red wine and a flatbread, and check the time. We still want to make dinner at Socarrat Paella Bar in Chelsea. With barely 15 minutes to spare before they will take the last order, we jump into a cab and get there just in time. We settle in with Rioja and our lovely late-night dinner of squid ink paella. The long communal table is empty except for a couple sharing a bottle of wine and their native Spanish. We catch a few words, “nada” and “gusto,” and attempt a few of our own.
Our last morning feels like a Sunday, slow and light-filled, with a chill in the air. For breakfast we walk to Petite Abeille. I had read about it on NYC10best
.com. (“Abeille” is honeybee in French.) The place is sweet with a poster of Tintin and Babar books. David’s friend Wally joins us for coffee and Belgian waffles. The waffles are decent, smaller than expected, but the eggs are fantastic.
The three of us share true confessions of literary classics we have not read. For me it is “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.” I’m tempted to swing by McNally Jackson on the way home to assuage my guilt.
But we don’t. And we don’t stop for H&H Bagels either as we head out of town on the West Side Highway. We’re exhausted, but hopeful the bagels — and other unknown treats — will be there next time.
Naomi Kooker can be reached at naomikooker.com.