Mid-December in NY. Cold. Windy. Millions of tourists on top of millions of locals and day-trippers doing their holiday shopping. Add some human right protests, whatever other parades are going on, the SantaCon (more on that later) and you get something resembling a scene from any apocalyptic movie.
No sane person would want to be in the middle of all that. But how else would one experience the “true” essence of Christmas if not “live”? [ok… “the holidays” to be politically correct… and ok… more like the “commercialized” essence of it… but I digress] Adding another person (or three) to the aforementioned mayhem falls under “negligible volume”. I’m sure NY didn’t even notice we were there ;-)
But under that pretext, the Big Apple is still a great place to “feel” Christmas approaching, if not THE greatest (in the US, at least). The iconic tree at the Rockefeller Center, the Rockettes just around the corner, ice-skating in Central Park, window displays at all the big retailers, holiday markets in the major parks, and a handful of other attractions make this a magnet for suckers like us that still believe in that Christmas spirit… And despite the craziness, the tourist-induced hubbub, and the perpetual swarm, this city does not disappoint.
So let’s go.
One way or the other, you’ll inadvertently be drawn to Times Square at least once; and although very touristy, I can’t remember ever being in NY without at least passing by. If you’re a morning person, you may even get on TV, with GMA, but this place should really be experienced at night. What shocked me this time around was the absolutely humongous screen that’s now covering the entire façade of the Marriott. Giant is a major understatement: eight stories tall, almost as long as a football field (it covers the entire block) and Google tells me it has 24 million LED pixels (that’s higher resolution than most TVs) and it costs $2.5 million for a 4-week ads campaign. The current advertiser: yep, Google.
First timers would probably spend some time here. Wide eyes. Ooohs and aaahs. Pictures with all the “characters”. Shopping in all the overpriced stores. Or dining in the mediocre restaurants (in a city like NY, where great restaurants are so plentiful, it’s beyond me why anyone would eat anywhere near these tourist traps; venture out, people; you’ll thank me for it!)
Repeat visitors will still walk through, just to get a dose of the overpowering visual show on display. But they will do so ever briefly, then totally avoid the area. Unless they have tickets to a show, or a dancing daughter who has to stop by the Capezio or Yumiko stores, in which case is unavoidable.
I love theater on Broadway. I’ve also seen a lot of plays in Atlanta, whenever the major productions go on tour, but it’s not the same. In a big theatre (like the Fox) the “live” aspect gets a bit lost, diluted if you will, in the vastness of the venue. On Broadway – where most theaters are older, smaller, more intimate – the experience is a lot more “natural”. You feel each gesture, sense each facial expression, and live each line. And the smaller audience gives you somehow a sense of exclusiveness. Yes, it’s expensive, but if you’re flexible, the tkts booths (here in Times Square, but also the less busy locations in Brooklyn or the South Street seaport) can offer real bargains for some of the shows that have not sold out for the day. Don’t expect too much availability during the busy holiday season, but keep the info in your back pocket.
On this occasion, we saw Kinky Boots. Best show of 2013. 13 nominations and 6 wins last year. Great cast. Billy Porter was phenomenal (Tony winner for this role last year). And the Cindy Lauper music…. Loved it!
In staying with the crowded-venues theme (and again, one that’s better after dark) head over to the Rockefeller Center. This year’s tree - an 85-footer Norway spruce (something that’s been a tradition since 1931, although that first one was only 20 feet high) is a sight to behold. And it attracts people [literally] like moths to a flame! Good luck taking a picture without another hand-full of strangers in frame… If ice skating is your thing, fork over about $30, wait in line an hour or two, then scratch that off your bucket list. Or, go over to Bryant Park, where there’s barely any wait, or of-course, the big one in Central Park. Trump has stamped his name on that one!
Since I mentioned Bryant Park, it’s one of the few spots in the city where a “Holiday” market (the smallest perhaps) pops up during this time of the year. Incidentally, they’re called Christmas Markets in most of Europe, because that’s what they’ve been traditionally intended for. Here, whether it’s the need for inclusiveness, political correctness, or “wussification” (as some call it) we’ve adopted the more generic “holiday” term. And gotten away from the real meaning of Christmas (apparent by the lack of a nativity scene, for example). I was actually somewhat surprised to notice that despite all the other surrounding area decorations (around Rockefeller Plaza and 5th Avenue, for example) St. Patrick’s Cathedral (looking great after a recent facelift) displayed zero signs of celebrating the birth of Christ!
But let’s drop that and keep moving…
Further south, Union Square has a pretty sizable “Holiday” Market and on select days you can also catch the Green (farmers) Market as well. An equally nice one (this time with a nice food court as well – where we introduced Sophia to finger-licking bratwurst) is at Columbus Circle. There might be others as well (I’m sure Brooklyn would have one) but these were the ones we experienced first-hand. They do tend to take you back to a happy place.
Back on the retail circuit, Harold Square – with the 8-stories block-wide Macys – is a mandatory stop. The famous Santaland (13,000 square feet of North Pole village, complete with live elves) is free to visit (pictures with the old guy are a different story) and the lines are always long… but in tune with any other amusement park, they offer “express lane” packages. Santa’s gotta live ;-)
The rest of the shopping mecca is up on 5th, with every retailer and their mother fighting hard for that holiday dollar. And the supply-demand works in their favor, so don’t expect many bargains here either…
For the kid in you (or with you) stop in FAO Schwarz, the oldest toy store in the states (1862). Now owned by Toys “R” Us, this flagship location will give you the true meaning of the phrase “kid in a candy store”! And they do have a lot of unique stuff you won’t find in most toy stores…
Across the street, the Plaza hotel is worth a visit, but around the holiday they will check for room key at the entrance, so you may have a hard time getting in ;-) Just step over to Central Park, admire the festive horse-drawn carriages (take one for a ride if you wish) and stroll across The Pond to the aforementioned Trup ice skating rink, ending with a bite and a cup of hot cider at the Columbus Circle Christmas Market, on the other corner of the park.
We didn’t venture all the way to the Financial Center this time around. Partially because we’ve been there recently and partially because there was some “civil rights” demonstration going on, which would have been clashing with the spirit of this trip. Also, the One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower), although operational, is not yet open to visitors. I hear it will be some time in 2015… so we’ll have something to look forward to next time. For anything in this area check out my earlier NY entry…
But other spots in the city were included in the itinerary…
Little Italy (after a nice breakfast of freshly baked artisanal bagels at the Black Seed) is more and more a letdown. Same decorations from 20 years ago, and the neighborhood (except for some restaurants) is full of anything but “Italians”. I reckon they all moved by now to Brooklyn, Long Island, or across the Hudson, to New Jersey…
Chinatown (aside for a handful of half-decent/authentic restaurants) also has nothing to offer. Aside from cheap trinkets on Canal, there’s really nothing there. I hear the new Chinatown in Queens is now “it”; makes sense, since Manhattan real estate prices and clientele are really pushing out the one on Canal Street…
But just north of Canal, SoHo is another place to shop. That is, if money is no object. Again, don’t expect discounts here. These flagship store cater to big checkbooks and their prices keep the “plebs” away. The benefit of that: it’s quieter, compared to the other shopping areas mentioned above. But window-shopping is probably all most of us would do here ;-). The highlight of this area this time around: a Chobani store that offers a somewhat different (albeit delicious, not to mention healthy) take on breakfast (or snacking).
The West Village is always a colorful place. We quickly skipped through, mainly because the highly inebriated “santas” (SantaCon, remember) were a bit too much for my taste. I know Manhattan is not really (or for the most part) a kid-friendly town, but I would imagine many a tot would be a little scarred by those “Santa” incarnations ;-)
So it’s off to the Chelsea Market from here. Nice place, seemingly, but overcrowded. Which totally ruined the experience. Had to come up for “fresh air” and enjoyed a little evening stroll up the High Line instead. Amazing how they transformed an otherwise abandoned and rusting suspended railroad track into “green” space. Loved it! And if you like the area, one of the new sky-rise condos can be yours for a mere $2 million. Or $20 if you prefer the penthouse!
You get the idea, I hope. Soooooooooo much to see and do. Soooooooooo many choices. Most of them good. Which is why soooooooooo many people love Manhattan…
On the cultural front, “it don’t get no better” [underlined pun intended] than NY. I mentioned Broadway, but there’s soooooooooo much more. Museums, galleries, live performances, comedy clubs, TV shows, street “artists”, or simply people-watching (or as my daughter says – “staring at people”). It’s all so “rich”!
I've been to the Fox in Atlanta (even around the holidays) where I've seen people in jeans and casual attire… then we went to the Nutcracker at the Lincoln Center (of course we did; pretty much HAD to!) where cocktail attire was the norm. Great show, and the highlight of Sophia’s trip, who someday hopes to be dancing on that stage. Best of luck, baby girl!
I’m done on the topic of sophistication gap (and self-respect) between the north and south. Years later I still struggle to see any other outcome of that stupid “civil” war…
Aaaaaaaaaaanyway…. Three “tangents” and a bottle of wine later, I’m about to wrap up this blog… Bottom line: go for the fun and the Christmas spirit. Ignore all the rest (although it may not be easy). Spend some money. Make some memories. At some point, it will be all you’re left with!
AND A VERY, VERY HAPPY AND WORRY-FREE NEW YEAR!
PS – for those who know me, I can’t wrap this up without mention of the restaurants included in this trip:
ABC Kitchen is Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s foray into “locavore” organic cooking. The restaurant itself is set within the ABC Carpet & Home department store, and the atmosphere is definitely casual chic in a backdrop that somehow clashes but in a harmonious way. Think Alice in Wonderland tea party, mixed with white modernism, a bit of bare warehouse loft, and a dash of 17th century baroque. Modern, traditionalist, and a bit extremist in a very soothing way. As for the menu, delicious libations, very fresh-tasting ingredients, and well-crafted dishes. But even in superstar restaurants like this, the chef gets it wrong now and then. The veal meatballs pasta dish was floating in an overpowering thick sauce that must have included an extreme amount of peanuts, ginger, and other clashing aromas that didn’t do the dish any favors… Go for lunch to save money, but reserve in advance.
Empellón Cocina, in the East Village is Alex Stupak’s (an acclaimed pastry chef with a stint at Alinea in Chicago) answer to modernist Mexican (with a twist or two). The 2013 Best New Chef’s menu blends traditional Mexican dishes with modernist and micro-gastronomy techniques for results that are uniquely delicious. Oh, and the signature cocktails, the Spicy Cucumber (cimarron blanco, slice of fresh cucumber and jalapeno tincture) has quite a strong kick to it (plus a serving of veggies for those keeping track of nutritious contents) and the Por Que No (espolon blanco, fresh pineapple, serrano chile and cilantro) is equally potent. And spicy! Too bad we had a big lunch earlier…
That big lunch was at Babbo (Batali’s first and still best) where reservations (even for lunch) still require month-in-advance planning. But the guy takes Italian cooking to a whole new level, then some. And then some more still... Years ago (10 or more, maybe), I saved a whole weeks’ per-diem to enjoy dinner at one of the bar seats. Still vividly remember the pasta with rabbit. This time we splurged: silky gnocchi, beef cheek ravioli (freakin’ perfect pasta) grilled octopus (funghi and Chianti vinegar), skirt steak (black truffle vinaigrette) and veal breast (on a celery root fregula) were beyond plate-licking! The olive oil cake and gelato was the last “straw” of an early afternoon where Laura declared her now most favorite restaurant!
Honorable mentions to the Black Seed (according to many the best new bagel shop in the city) and the earlier-mentioned Chobani store. Both worth a re-visit!