Exploring Classic New York by Harriet White
The Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps. The Center of the Universe.
Although there are many names for this majestic city, the feeling of being in New York is pretty inexplicable. If I could try to put it to words, it would be the sublime mixture of feeling on top of the world but while also feeling like one spec in a million among the great and grandiose population. New York is tradition. New York is stylish. New York is the freedom and “confidence of living in the center of the universe.”
But what would I know? I am, by definition, a New York transplant, soaking in every bit of the city and still standing in awe of the Empire State Building’s gleaming authority over the Manhattan skyline. So to get to know New York better, and I mean, the real, classic New York, I decided to explore the timeless experiences and landmarks that make this city tick. And reading New York Magazine‘s “Classic New York” article, this transplant had a perfect idea of where to start…
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1. A Drink at the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t drinking martinis but to kick off my exploration of classic New York, I decided to grab a quick drink at what I suspect would be Don Draper’s watering hole: Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side.
As an art nouveau, old-money bar, Bemelmans typifies the Upper East Side atmosphere: elegant, exclusive and quite highbrow. Dimly lit, the walls of Bemelmans are adorned with classic Madeline illustrations and the sound of Sinatra tunes flow brightly throughout the room, making the atmosphere feel more like a scene out of Paris than anything else. Named after the illustrator of the Madeline series, Ludwig Bemelmans, the Caryle Hotel, and in turn, Bemelmans Bar, are New York institutions, described as “a favorite haunt for New Yorkers for years” and “a civilized bar with white-jacketed waiters, a little Gershwin in the background and ice-cold Martinis” according to New York Magazine and Forbes.com.
As one would suspect, I strutted into Bemelmans with confidence, steering my nose high and barely pouting my lips; let’s just say I tried my best to channel Grace Kelly. Sipping on martinis and appearing as indifferent as ever, the crowd at Bemelmans was the creme-de-la-creme of New York from wealthy socialites to business tycoons. Paying $15 dollars to simply sit in the bar, it was clear Bemelmans was a place to see and be seen. Overhearing conversations of society parties, business plans and scheduled surgeries at Lenox Hill, I got a small glimpse into New York’s upper crust. And sipping on a $20 glass Pinot Grigio at the bar, I felt pretty much a part of the elegance and exclusivity.
In the scheme of classic New York, Bemelmans represents the New York elite; the exclusive, society crowd that stays quite north of 40th street, lunches at Fred’s at Barney’s and attends the Met gala. This was the glamorous New York I often dreamed about when I was younger, and I finally got a real taste of what it felt like to be one of the lucky ones, at least for an hour. And I have to say, Frank, I liked it quite a bit.
2. Top of the Empire State Building
“I want you to meet me on the top of the Empire State Building”
These are the classic words we often remember when thinking about New York. Whether Cary Grant or Tom Hanks claimed these lines, a whimsical reunion at the top of Manhattan is the ultimate New York image. With this, I decided one of my classic experiences had to be sitting in awe of Manhattan from the top of the Empire State. And who knows, maybe Cary Grant would meet me there.
Although the top of the Empire State Building can be considered quite a tourist trap, I visited the landmark with the understanding of figuring out why it is such a classic image rather than a tourist location. And may I say, at first, that was quite hard, as my first classic New York feeling was scorn for tourists.
What they don’t tell you in the movies is that you have to wait quite a bit of time in line before you can reach the 86th floor. Feeling like herded cattle amongst a bevy of Midwestern tourists and foreigners, I thought to myself often throughout the line: Did Meg Ryan have to wait when she met Tom Hanks up here on Valentine’s Day?
But despite how I got there, I finally reached the magical top of Manhattan. And yes, it was just as magical as I thought it would be, so much so that you could hardly hear people talk on the deck as they stared in awe of New York City from the tip of the island all the way to Washington Heights.
Erected in 1931, the Empire State Building characterizes old New York, the pre-World War II era where men clad in full suits strolled the streets in top hats and New York was still The Wonder City. Sitting at the top of the Empire State, I felt a combination of nostalgia for that era and a sentimental feeling of being at a place where great “cinema” men had performed their grand romantic gestures.
Although the Empire State Building often gets thought over as a tourist spot, I learned from my time at the top that it represents the classic New York that is romantic, old and increasingly nostalgic. And I bet if you stood at the top, cradling the observation binoculars and staring down at the beauty of New York, you’d feel it too.
3. The Wooden Escalators at Macy’s on 34th
Naturally, in my search for classic New York, I visited the iconic Macy’s Department Store, one of the largest in the world. My goal was to finally ride the Macy’s wooden escalators and take a trip back into time.
And back in time, I definitely went. Walking into the department store, I didn’t feel necessarily different or particularly New Yorkish until I reached the wooden escalators. A piece of history stuck in the present, these escalators date back to 1902 when Macy’s moved to Herald Square and were considered quite modern and revolutionary for its time. But let’s just say they certainly don’t sound like it. As you can hear in the video, these antiques makes quite the cracking noise as you ride them, giving them an extra level of charm. They are reminders of what Macy’s used to be: the elegance and excitement of shopping at a department store, taking the modern escalators and possibly visiting the “livestock” floor. They are time capsules of turn-of-the-century New York, an era when New York was beginning to be seen as the “new metropolis” and the seeds of the modern city were beginning to be set with Herald Square and the founding of Times Square.
Like the Empire State Building, Macy’s on 34th street plays to the idea of old New York, to the traditions and to the nostalgia. We think of the holiday season, Miracle on 34th Street, the Thanksgiving Parade and the magically old quality of New York. Or at least that’s what flowed through my mind as I took the escalators up to the 8th floor, closing my eyes to hear perfectly the cracking of the wood as it rotated through its cycle.
Listening to the escalator, I realized instantly that this was New York: the mix of old and new, the nostalgia and the feeling of being somewhere important whether now or in the past. Yep, that’s New York, alright.
4. Oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar
“Before the 20th century, when people thought of New York, they thought of oysters” – Mark Kurlanksy
Despite the glitz and glam of modern New York, the heart of the city is in its status as a great harbor metropolis. And one great mark of this harbor status is New York’s obsession with oysters. Early settlers in New York from the Indians to the Dutch ate oysters found at the estuary of the lower Hudson. With 350 square miles of oyster beds, oysters boomed in the late 19th century, giving New York the title “the Big Oyster.” Learning this, I went in search of oysters, not in the Hudson but at the landmark Grand Central Terminal Oyster Bar.
Nestled deep down in Grand Central, the Oyster Bar, a restaurant described as a New York landmark since its opening in 1913, is the perfect place to get a taste of classic New York; not the apple but the oyster.
As a landmark, you would think the Oyster Bar would be swankier, but it is a simple restaurant/bar with large signs displaying the oysters of the day. It’s clean cut New York, none of the trendiness of that new New York. Having never had an oyster before, I was nervous to try it. But in the name of exploring New York classics, I ordered a duo of Wellfleet, MA oysters, a small oyster perfect enough for an oyster newbie.
Dousing my oyster in cocktail sauce and lemon, I took the plunge and ate the slimy sucker! Fresh as could be, the Wellfleet, MA oyster was delicious with the perfect tart flavor of the lemon and cocktail sauce. From that first plump bite, I could tell why oysters used to represent the wealth and excitement of New York.
Sitting in the basement of the iconic Grand Central terminal and noshing on a couple of oysters, I felt like a quintessential New Yorker, privy to certain knowledge about the city that others didn’t know. I mean, how many people really know that New York used to be called the Big Oyster? It’s the secrets that make New York tick. And the Oyster Bar, hiding deep down in Grand Central, is just one of many New York secrets. I guess the world really is New Yorkers’ oyster…
5. Riding the Cyclone at Coney Island
When I was younger, my grandmother used to tell me about how her mother came to the U.S. from Greece via Ellis Island. Residing in New York for a bit before heading to Chicago, she visited the famous Coney Island during her stay in the 1910s. And it was there that she had her first American hot dog. I grew up listening to this story, thinking of Coney Island fondly and as a landmark.
Except Coney Island is not a classic Manhattan landmark but a classic New York landmark as I’ve come to discover. Nestled in southern Brooklyn, Coney Island represents the old, eccentric, quirky part of New York where hot dogs were a hit and carnivals were still valued. If you can imagine, Coney Island used to be a resort town where people would vacation and walk along the beautiful boardwalk. Although the boardwalk is still beautiful, you get a sense in Coney Island that something beautiful and thriving has faded there. It’s history, not present. Even riding the Cyclone, you feel as if you are stepping back in time and remembering what it must’ve been like for people in the early 20th century to ride this, overlooking the waterfront. Plus, you can feel the history in how the ride jerks you around (Yes, classic New York basically broke my back).
The best quality of Coney Island though is the eccentric quality of it. From the bizarre dancers on the boardwalk to the colorfully old rides, Coney Island feels almost surreal, as if you’ve entered a 19th century circus overlooking the Atlantic. People are allowed to be unusual, the Cyclone can rule, Mermaid Avenue is a street and hot dogs are the staple; this is not reality.
But for not being reality, Coney Island offers a special experience: a glimpse of real New York. Not the trends or Manhattan or the exclusivity of the Upper East Side, but real borough New York. It’s not glamorous, but there’s a real charm to it.
I felt this most when I rode up the first drop of the Cyclone. Going up, I got the perfect view of the crystal clear Atlantic Ocean and behind me the skyline of Manhattan and the view of borough New York. This combination of images showed me just how complex New York is, with so many worlds existing into one. Coney Island just represented a small section of that New York, which is so gritty, surreal and old. Coney Island might be fading, but it is a clear image in the idea of classic New York. You can’t get this experience anywhere else, especially when it comes to the hot dogs. Although my great-grandmother wasn’t a fan, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs were divine, perfectly juicy and the perfect cap off of my trip to the surreal and utterly classic Coney Island.
6. Eating a Pastrami Sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen
Food is deeply embedded in the idea of classic New York. Food makes New York tick. But what makes New York tick even more is a hot pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen. And although I was skeptical, it was one of the most divine meals I’ve had so far in New York.
Pastrami was introduced to New York in the late 19th century by Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side. Although there is a debate about which deli served it first, Katz’s is one of the first delis to serve hot pastrami (and corned beef) on rye. So naturally I went to Katz’s to check out what this sandwich was all about, as nothing is more New York than one of these sandwiches.
Katz’s is a simple deli where you get a ticket, walk up to the counter and order your sandwich. Packed on a Saturday afternoon, I waited in line, feeling anxious about the meal. What even was pastrami? I was convinced I wasn’t going to like it but knew that I couldn’t explore classic New York without a bite of this sizzling sandwich. As I approached the counter, I told the waiter my order, and he began slicing the pastrami, giving me a slice to taste test. Grabbing the meat, I slipped it into my mouth only to realize how absolutely delicious pastrami was! How did I live here three months and not eat this before?
Grabbing the enormous sandwich off the counter, I anticipated the idea of eating at least a pound of this smoky, chewy and absolutely delicious sandwich. Being conservative, I only asked for a bit of mustard to accompany my pastrami and rye. Sitting down, I took the first bite. Trying to attack this monster of a sandwich, I had pieces of pastrami falling out of mouth. Let’s just say it wasn’t an elegant meal. But that’s the thing, it isn’t supposed to be. Katz’s represents a part of classic New York that was built by Jewish immigrants. With parts of the menu written in Yiddish, you get a clear sense of this heritage at Katz’s, which I hadn’t experienced before. This wasn’t elegant or romanticized New York; this was the real roots of New York: the immigrants and the culture they brought with them. They crowned pastrami and corned beef sandwiches as an art form, and Katz’s celebrates this art form. It’s simple deli food, and I can say one of the best meals of my New York experience. I now understand the phrase that there is nothing more classic in New York than a pastrami sandwich; it encompasses a whole subculture that made the real New York what it is today. I didn’t have what she’s having, but I took a true bite of classic New York…
Wrapping it Up
Venturing through the different lenses of classic New York, from elegant to surreal to even the Big Oyster, I got the real sense that nostalgia is the typical feeling of classic New York. Wherever I went from Katz’s to Coney Island to even the Empire State Building, I felt nostalgic, reminiscent of another time and thinking of how I was standing somewhere that was so important both in the present and past. I was surprised to find just how many worlds exist in classic New York, so much so that it is hard to define classic New York. With New York Magazine listing hundreds of random phrases as their compilation of “What is New York,” I understand now that it’s simply indescribable. I guess that’s just what makes it New York.