Travelogue: New York City

Travelogue, New York, New York City, Family trip

Ever since we moved away from New York—seven years ago—we’ve talked about how much we’d like to return with the kids to share with them all of the places and things (and foods!) we loved there. And whenever we would watch a movie that featured the city, and the kids would point out at all the taxis, skyscrapers, and crowds, we’d look at each other and smile: if only they knew! If only Hudson knew, when he was a toddler for example, that he once lived on the 12th floor of a tall building, crib in a closet, across the street from a fire station (with fire trucks!) and down the block from a subway (with trains!) that could whisk him to a museum full of fossils (with dinosaurs!) in an instant. We showed them the movie Enchanted not long before we left and they asked us, almost incredulously, if we’d seen rats in New York. Ha! If only.

So finally we planned a summer return, and it was full of taxis, skyscrapers, crowds, dinosaurs, and yes… even a few rats. But mostly, it was full of food. Here’s what I mean…

We decided we wanted to base ourselves around NoLIta (short for “North of Little Italy”) and ended up in an AirBnB on the southern edge—technically in Chinatown—at the corner of Elizabeth and Kenmare. Aron arrived the day before the kids and I did, so it was nice to be able to pull up early, fresh off of our red-eye flight, and fall back into bed for a bit before setting off for the day.

We packed foldable Razor scooters for the kids (hand-carrying their helmets on the plane) and it turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. I think there was one day we left them behind, and the reality check (how much slower we would have had to move without them) blew our minds! So as soon as we got back out into the Saturday sunshine, we found ourselves walking briskly at their heels past cute coffee shops like Cafe Integral, buzzy brunch faves like Egg Shop and Butcher’s Daughter, and into one of our favorite neighborhoods for shopping.

But we had a very specific first destination in mind: Frankie’s on Hudson Street, which only serves its French Toast (best in the city!) on weekends. In my opinion, it’s the perfect combination for sharing: a plate of French toast with the bacon and egg sandwich, which comes on Sullivan Street Bakery pizza bianca. I added a Negroni Sbagliato to top it off and the kids counted how many dogs passed by—a game that served them well all day long.

This location is just around the corner from the Bleeker Street Playground, so we stopped to let the kids run and climb a bit, picked up a box of Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, and headed for the subway. Unfortunately, the entrance had one of those crazy turn-styles that looks like it might crush a small child if you make a mistake, so Aron put the box of cupcakes down to help Skyler and left $20 worth of butter and sugar behind.

As you can imagine, there were tears, and so when we emerged in the 70s on the Upper West Side, Superhero Aron ran to the UWS Magnolia Bakery and bought another box while the kids and I walked into the park. Looking back, that first painful $40 of bakery items was telling. I’d say the underlying theme of the week was sticker-shock. Even having lived in New York for many years, we were pretty floored by just how expensive everything was—especially now that we were buying for four.

We’d checked the weather forecast a lot leading up to the trip, and every day the chance of rain went up. I remember once noting that it seemed you could always expect rain one out of every four days in the city (sometimes more, sometimes less). In other words, even if the forecast doesn’t include rain when you first look, any stay of more than three days (any time of year) should include the expectation of some precipitation. As it turned out, this Saturday was looking to be our only rain-free day during the week, so we spent almost all of it outside and in the park.

We tried out a few playgrounds (isn’t it amazing how quickly kids can make friends?), walked through Sheep’s Meadow, listened to buskers play under bridges, and headed east for the children’s zoo. We didn’t make it on this trip, but a visit to the Met (and to the Met roof garden) or the Guggenheim pairs nicely with the park, too.

On the list of must-sees for our kids was the 1925-Frederick Roth statue of Balto, the Siberian Husky sled dog who led the final leg of the run to get diphtheria-antitoxin from Anchorage to Nome to combat an outbreak. The inscription reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards…” It has been one of their favorite stories and Hudson gave the dog a hug and whispered “Good dog, Balto. Thank you for saving all of those people!”

Because we weren’t sure if we’d get another clear day, and because it’s nice to start a visit with an overview, we made a last-minute decision to go for one of the best ones: the Top of the Rock. You can buy time-slotted tickets on line, which I highly recommend, and Aron got us some for a window starting in a half-hour from the time we left the park. From there, it’s a crowd-clogged stroll down Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center.

Aron and I made it once to the top of the Empire State Building just before moving away, but I actually prefer the views from the Top of the Rock. You get to look out over all of Central Park to the north, and your view to the south includes the Empire State Building. Plus, it seems to draw fewer crowds, and Rockefeller Plaza has some other pleasant attractions—like FAO Schwarz, the Lego Store, and NBC Studios. There’s also a Blue Bottle Coffee on the lower level, along with some not-too-bad food options.

Actually, much of Midtown can be tricky when it comes to food. It’s not that there’s a shortage of it, but there’s a shortage of noteworthy options—and every meal feels precious. I started scouring The Infatuation (one of my favorite NYC where-to-eat references) for “midtown” options, but we decided we’d rather get in a taxi and head for the East Village for another nostalgia hit.

Caracas serves addictive Arepas, a sandwich made by filling a savory grilled or fried cornmeal cake. Our favorite is the La Del Gato,&nbsp: grated Guayanés cheese, sweet plantains, and avocado slices; add plenty of secret-recipe Mango sauce. I also like getting one with just the cheese.

And the little stretch of 7th street where you find them is a gold-mine: it’s right next door to Luke’s Lobster (some of the best Lobster—and shrimp—rolls), and down the block from two great dessert options: Butter Lane Cupcakes and Big Gay Ice Cream. The latter let’s you make custom soft-serve ice cream cones or order combos like my favorite, The Salty Pimp: salt-crusted chocolate shell over vanilla ice cream that’s injected with dulce-de-leche. Delicious! We walked our cones down the block to Thompson Square Park and Aron told the kids stories of having to scare rats away when he’d bring baby Hudson there once upon a time at the crack of dawn. Ah, memories.

The next morning was Father’s Day so, after some cards and snuggles, Skyler and I brought back pastries and coffee from Cafe Integral (including some Doughnut Plant Donuts), and we sent Aron downstairs to one of the many massage spots for a foot massage. One of the benefits, we learned, of staying there was the close proximity to inexpensive massages and we tried to make the most of it! (In fact, after the kids were in bed that night, he went back down for another! It was Father’s Day after, all.)

For brunch, we went back across town (we weren’t the most efficient when it came to zig-zagging around) to the Whitney where Danny Meyer’s Untitled has moved. (By the way, if you’re ever at a loss, it’s hard to go wrong with any Danny Meyer restaurant: the food is always delicious, everyone is so kind no matter the formality of the place, and Meyer really cares about things like staff equity and food sourcing. He’s behind Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern, and Maialino, to name a few.

While we were there, we people-watched through the giant windows: patrons heading into the Whitney Biennial, visitors climbing the steps to the High Line, and two young girls doing a synchronized scooter routine that enthralled Hudson and Skyler. We knew it was only a matter of time until we saw them trying to coordinate some moves.

We didn’t actually go into the exhibit halls this time (we joked that ours was the philistine’s tour of the city), but rather played in the gift shop a bit before heading out to the Hudson River. However, there are Open Studio days for kids at The Whitney on weekends that I’m sure ours would have loved.

When we lived in New York, we would routinely walk all the way south along the Hudson River, often starting from Riverside Park (think You’ve Got Mail), to the waterside picnic tables on the Upper West Side, and the tango dancers around Christopher Street, to Tribeca or even Battery Park. It’s a long way—most easily done on bike—but it’s such a great escape from the grid of the island! It’s one of the main reasons we have a son named Hudson!

This time, starting at Gansevoort Street, we walked south, stopping at playgrounds along the way, until we came to the Battery Park City Shake Shack. We had just learned that a Shake Shack would be opening soon in Sacramento, but it still seemed a shame to pass it up while in New York. My favorite location remains the original in Madison Square Park, if you’ve never been.

We watched kids playing Little League while we ate and then, though we debated continuing for views of The Statue of Liberty, decided to turn back up and cross through Tribeca on our way home.

After all, shopping was something I could tell I was going to have trouble fitting in on a family trip, and there were a few places I really wanted to check out while we were in town.

We decided to go into Steven Alan (which was also conveniently near Billy’s Bakery for more cupcakes—similar to but superior to Magnolia, for sure) and the Roman & Williams Guild. The latter is such a gorgeous design space—but the prices keep it firmly in the realm of inspiration. It’s just off Canal Street, and we tried to explain why everyone was constantly moving around canvas bags of fake designer purses (plus, why someone might want one) whenever the New York Police walked by.

Speaking of inefficient zig-zagging… after a quick break to drop the scooters off at the apartment, we rode the subway back uptown for look at Times Square. It felt like one of those places they just needed to see, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the crowds and the sounds, and after a few blocks and some talk of Broadway, we ducked back down one of the side streets and returned to Rockefeller Plaza to see FAO Schwarz in its new location. The fun for me would, I anticipated, be in comparing then/now photographs of baby/boy Hudson on the piano, so I showed them the famous Big clip before the trip to drum up a little extra excitement.

The new store feels a lot smaller than the old one, and so lacks a bit of its wow-factor (Aron thought the toy quality had gone down, too), but it still does offer a lot of engagement—yo-yo lessons, magic tricks, and the like—that just can’t be found online. I watched a video about how they hired staff and for the shop and they’re a little like cast members.

Of course we realized that left us once more in the restaurant no-go zone, so we zig-zagged back downtown to our favorite pizza place, Motorino, at its East Village location. Skyler fell asleep in the cab and missed the whole thing, so after he enthusiastically (and perhaps dutifully) agreed it was the best pizza ever, we let Hudson have root beer and his Kindle at the table as we savored each bite.

We never really adjusted to the time, so every morning started fairly late. The kids would usually have banana and peanut butter at the apartment and we would catch up at second breakfast—in this case bagels at Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. Time permitting, the Tenement Museum down there is a great stop. I wanted to at the least show the kids some of the displays on the outside of the museum stops and remind them of the depictions of the neighborhood they’d seen in Annie.

From there, we hailed a taxi to the pedestrian path at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to walk across it.

The Brooklyn Bridge parkway has been completely redeveloped since we left, and I was especially excited to check out Jane’s Carousel and the piers. The park website has a great description of all of the piers and the different activities and events being held on any given day—like summer movies. The first time we ever crossed the bridge with Hudson, they were showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s!

The views of Manhattan from Brooklyn are amazing. The kids practiced their synchro-scooting with all of downtown as their backdrop.

The new Time Out Market (a collection of 21 food stalls) had just opened a few weeks before we arrived, so we decided to stop in for some Pat LaFrieda burgers—he supplies the meat to restaurants like Minetta Tavern and Shake Shack—and take some drinks out to the roof deck. It was not as satisfactory as a meal at a singularly-focused restaurant, but it was a nice setting. Plus, my first job in New York was in the food section of Time Out Magazine!

It’s a long way between each pier, but the kids were motivated by chances to go “into the jungle.” Pier 3 has a giant lawn and a discovery area with features like a walk-in kaleidoscope and an echo game, while Pier 6 is supposedly the most fun of all: the “ultimate playground headquarters for kids and adults alike, where water jets, volleyball courts and jungle gyms surround the largest sandbox in New York,” along with ferries departing for Governor’s Island, and Pilot, a 1924-schooner with a restaurant. But we stopped short. The rain was about to start and so we instead went back to the Brooklyn Bridge pier to catch a ferry to Wall Street across the river.

The sky lifted just long enough for some play at the seaport playground (which honestly skews pretty young), and a coffee stop at Jack’s, before it was time to head back and meet up with the babysitter we’d coordinated for the evening.

Months before our trip, I’d asked for babysitting recommendations on Instagram and I got one especially nice note offering to help. We followed each other on social, Aron talked to her on the phone, and we checked references, so I felt very comfortable that it was going to work out (which it did, two nights in a row). She met us at the apartment and then took the kids to the nearest playground and out to Lombardi’s for pizza—so they still got to have a classic night out before she put them to bed!

Meanwhile, we finally got the chance to browse some shops (like McNally Jackson’s Good for the Study and other favorites in this neighborhood… Love Adorned, Sézane, Clare V, INA, and Warm), before heading further south for dinner on the Lower East Side at Una Pizza Napoletana—a meal a long-time coming.

A little backstory: When we were first living in New York, there was a pizza place that opened in the East Village called Una. The Naple-style pies were hailed as the best in the city and lines were epic. Anthony Mangieri had installed a special oven, perfected a naturally-leavened dough recipe, and would only open for a few days a week and only make pizza until the dough ran out each day.  We always meant to try it, but somehow it never happened. “No pizza for you!” we imagined him saying as if in an episode of Seinfeld. And then he left, soon after opening in San Francisco. In Una’s place came Motorino, which became our favorite and had a much less fussy operating schedule.

Once we ended up on the West Coast, I kept thinking: we should try Una! Finally, I went to look up hours for a daytrip and I discovered he’d gone back to New York! Then, in the week before our trip, The New York Times published a glowing review, saying “When Anthony Mangieri is making pizza, the right number of empty seats is zero,” and suddenly every table was booked! But long story short, I checked back each day and lo and behold a table opened up, and we finally got to watch Mangieri make his pizzas! And it was, we agreed, the best Margherita we’ve had stateside.

The night still felt young when we finished, so we strolled over to Freeman’s Alley for cocktails in the candle-lit bar.

And then, even though we were no longer hungry, we walked up to Momofuku Ssam Bar for pork buns at a much brighter one.

The plan was to end somewhere else for dessert—so in a final push of gluttony we followed one of our favorite routes through Stuyvesant park, up Irving, and past Gramercy park to Gramercy Tavern for a third try at barstools, but as soon as we sat down we realized that if we stayed, someone would have had to roll us home. It was time to call it a night.

The next day we traveled to Grand Central Station to meet my best friend Teryn’s train. It was also a good chance to show the kids the gorgeous station itself and wow them in the Whisper Gallery.

Teryn and I worked at a publishing house together—she was my managing editor—and we would go out for lunch together virtually every day. Most of the time we ended up at one of the many wonderful South Indian restaurants on Lexington (like Saravana Bhavan), but a few times we traveled up to the old Whitney location, a landmarked building in the Brutalist style (now the Met Breur) for lunch at what was then Untitled. So it seemed perfect to go back there and try its replacement, Flora Bar, the third restaurant from chef Ignacio Mattos.

It’s a lot more high-end than Untitled, but everything was so good. And Ruth Reichl was seated a few tables away (perhaps having some rye?), so I knew we’d done well!

It was pouring when we finished lunch and said goodbye to Teryn so, even though we’d tried to avoid going to the American Museum of Natural History on a rainy day (notoriously the most crowded), it seemed inevitably the best option. There were huge lines at both entrances, but we had a stroke of good luck when someone gave us some extra tickets. Otherwise, we should have reserved tickets ahead of time.

We spent a few hours looking in the exhibit halls, occasionally pointing out familiar icons from Night at the Museum, and could have easily stayed even longer. My friend Leigh once wrote a great post of tips for visiting, if you’re interested. (There’s also another fun Hudson then/now comparison by the Caribou.)

From AMNH we made an obligatory detour for Levain Bakery Cookies—the heaviest, best chocolate-chocolate chip cookies ever—before heading back for another night of babysitting.

We’d made reservations at Diner in Williamsburg for late enough to watch the sun set while we walked over the Williamsburg bridge. Unfortunately the rain would seem to put an, er, damper on that. But if we waited a little longer to set out, we might at least get a dry crossing. So we first grabbed drinks and appetizers at Estela (same chef as Flora Bar) on Houston before crossing into Brooklyn. If Diner hadn’t been so important to us, I might have been tempted to stay put. Estela was so good—we went early and were able to get seats at the bar without reservations and it the few things we had were outstanding. It had a nice, date-night atmosphere, too.

Diner, however, was an important stop—to which we did get to walk across the river. Aron first went there when he was visiting Columbia to check out their medical school back (18 years ago, perhaps?) and then talked about it on and off until we moved there and started eating together at the little spot under the Williamsburg Bridge and its compatriot, Marlow & Sons. Aron wrote about our excitement over becoming “regulars” back in 2009, and we made sure to say hello when Tarlow came out to California for his book release a few years back. The restaurant is just one of those reliably great places with good ambiance and good food. Every night the menu changes and is written on the table, with the exception of the burger—which is always there. We always think of it as the fallback burger in case the other mains aren’t calling out, but it’s better than a fallback. It’s more like the best friend in a romantic comedy that you know they should end up with. Try it medium-rare, with cheese, mayo, and pickled onions.

We got home in time for half-hour foot massages, so we went to see which of the places around us were still open. We found a few, but only one seemed a good fit. There were definitely some other kinds of massages one might be getting that late at night; it took being shooed away from one for us to realize.

Ess-a-bagel on 1st Avenue had always been our favorite bagel destination, and they’ve opened up some new locations around the city. We started at one near Macy’s at Herald Square and were so shocked: they will toast the bagels. Anyone familiar with the old Ess-a knows that you do not ask them to toast your bagel. You can ask what’s hot, but that’s it. Any other special requests and you might get sent back to the end of the line. We still went with what was hot—which fortunately was the Everything bagel.

From there it was a short trip west to the new Hudson Yards—a shopping and dining complex with a giant interactive artwork with 154 interconnecting flights of stairs called The Vessel. You need tickets, but they’re free and it seems like there are usually plenty on the day-of. We were assigned a time slot just a touch beyond when we arrived—just long enough to do some shopping in the Muji store.

I wasn’t sure what we’d make of it, but it was really cool. We’d lose each other and then find each other again, all while silhouetted against views of the river or the city. The kids were giddy with the freedom of choosing their own paths, as they climbed this way and that.

Back in Hudson Yards, there’s another market hall concept called Mercado Little Spain featuring Spanish food from Chef José Andrés and the Adría Brothers. We shared a plate of Jamon and some churros con chocolate and then set out to walk along the high line.

We intentionally avoided the weekends, as the High Line can get maddeningly crowded, but it was still pretty full of people in the narrow sections. Actually, the newest extension at the top end—at Hudson Yards—felt the most open. It remains such an interesting example of how public spaces shape neighborhoods.

(Oh my goodness, we took these photos here nearly eight years ago! And soon they’ll really be that tall!)

At the end of the High Line, Aron and the kids opted to head back for a break at the apartment, while I chose—in spite of the rain—to walk back through the Meatpacking district, West Village, and SoHo, so as to do a little window-shopping. Looking at shops continues to be one of the less-fun things to try and do with the kids, so it’s nice to get to break off for at least an hour or two.

I had just made it to Sézane, back in Nolita, when the family caught back up to me—ready to eat again.

We spent our last dinner at Il Buco Alimentari on Great Jones Street. The little Italian market in front opens up to a bustling restaurant in back, and the food is wonderful. Even if you only stop in for their house-made salumi to go, you’ll still be very happy. Reservations are recommended, though they were able to seat us early.

Finally, for dessert, we introduced the kids to the wonder of cereal-milk flavored soft serve at Milk Bar (with cereal topping, of course) before bed.

We had hoped we might get one more sunny day before leaving, but we were a little unlucky with the wet week. It sure did feel lush and green everywhere, though—the parks were filled with flowers and the rains did keep the temperature very comfortable. Washington Square Park, for example, looked especially lovely.

We spent our last morning sampling pastries from Dominique Ansel, picking up a pretzel croissant from City Bakery, and getting some hazelnut spread to take home from le Pain Quotidiene. We thought about trying something new, but realized the only thing we really still wanted more of was… pizza. In the end, after all that, it’s still the thing that we really miss the most. Pizza and bagels. What is it that makes it so amazing?! Is it really the water?

Whatever it is, we all agree: it’s magic. So one last time to Motorino we went!

It was time to go. Aron picked up the rental car while the kids and I packed up the apartment and got ready for the drive onto Long Island.

On the drive, we talked a lot about what we’d loved about the week and what we didn’t, and whether or not we will be in a hurry to come back. I think a lot of it came down to this:

There’s so much to see and do in New York that it feels impossible to even try. I’m glad we revisited so many of our favorites, even if it surely meant missing out on plenty of wonderful new things. And so it sounds counter-intuitive, but in the end, we probably could have actually cut our visit a little shorter.

The days were exhilarating, but—and especially with kids—exhausting and expensive, too. (Hudson would add that it was loud.) I think the first couple of days could have given us the flavors we miss. Perhaps I’m saying this because the move to the beach felt so restorative and easy by contrast, or perhaps because the weather wasn’t totally on our side. But we both agreed that the cost of everything—every coffee, cocktail, cupcake, cab-ride… it was distracting. Of course we could have chosen to make more use of the apartment, or we could have gone to less expensive places—or just done less!—but this was the impression we came away with after spending the days in a way that felt just right. It left us asking, for the amount of money it costs to stay in and enjoy New York for a week, what else might one choose to do?

Still it was a wonderful family week—I absolutely loved watching my kids zip about on scooters all over the city, seeing and tasting it all through their eyes. New York is a city with no other place quite like it! And a city that I do hope I continue to make memories in with these wonderful fellow travelers.

Thank you to all of you who sent in recommendations for New York! I’d love to gather more if, after this, you think of something others should not miss!

P.S. More U.S. travelogues. And Montauk to come soon…

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