New York diary: six sweet scenes

One of the things I love about travel is the fact that no matter how well I may think I know a place, I always find some new surprises when I re-visit there. Take my trip to New York earlier this month. I’ve been to New York a couple of dozen times over the past few years, but on this last trip, I discovered new delights each day. Here are six that stood out. For those of you who know New York well, many of these will be boringly familiar – but for this out-of-towner, they were sweet slices of the city.

Restless Legs at the Lolita Bar
Early in my visit I was privileged to be one of the speakers at the mostly monthly Restless Legs reading series organized by the indefatigable David Farley. Restless Legs is a terrific idea that Farley launched in July 2008. It’s set in the Lolita Bar, which is a welcoming space with a long curving wooden bar and scattered tables, chairs and stools on the ground floor and a long, narrow meeting room, which Farley has dubbed the Restless Legs Arena, underneath. Before the reading, people congregated convivially at the bar over $3 well drinks and $5 margaritas and mojitos, then at 6:00, everyone filed downstairs and crammed into every square inch of sitting or standing space. There was a microphone at the front of the room and all in all, it was the perfect place for a reading.

The room reminded me of smoky, closet-sized jazz clubs I frequented many decades ago as a wide-eyed student making my first big-city forays (of course, in 21st century New York, the smoke was only in my mind). It also recalled descriptions I’d read of the beatnik poetry reading scene in San Francisco’s North Beach during the 1950s. The Arena is a wonderful space for people to share and celebrate a passion, in this case, a passion for travel and for writing that transports us to other places. After the reading, there was a break to go upstairs and crowd around the bar and down more libations, then we all filed back down, mojitos and Guinness in hand, for a question-and-answer session. It was a simple and magnificent evening shared with fellow travel addicts. Restless Legs at the Lolita Bar – check it out.

Central Park in winter

I arrived in New York on the day that the great blizzard of 2010 dumped two feet of snow and more on the city and surrounds. Two mornings later I went for a walk through Central Park with my daughter, who had taken the train in from grad school studies on Long Island for the Restless Legs reading. Being in the land of seeing-my-daughter-as-a-full-fledged-adult-for-the-first-time was a very new and wonderful place, but that’s not the place I want to write about here.

The other place that was new for me was Central Park in winter, snow-softened and -rounded, icy and white. One hill showed a scene straight out of Norman Rockwell: Kids in puffy oversized coats and big ear-flapped hats dragging sleds up the snow and then swooshing and whooping down, over and over again. The carriage-drawing horses snorted little white clouds and clop-clopped the pavement, a family fashioned a red-scarfed snowman in one corner and kids flung flaky snowballs in another. I have walked through Central Park in spring, summer and fall, but never surrounded by plump white boughs and snowdrifts, and it was a new place with a wintry magic all its own.

Soho House
You have to be a member of Soho House to enter its cushy confines. Or be invited by one. Luckily, a writer friend who happens to be a member invited me for lunch on a Monday, so I gained a new view of the Meatpacking District. On the noon of my visit, Soho House’s Sixth Floor, where the bar and restaurant are located, looked like a cross between an old English gentleman’s club – overstuffed leather sofas and chairs, chandeliers, the kind of place where you feel like pulling out a cigar and ordering a snifter of brandy – and a swanky cyber-café, with creative types bent intently over laptops everywhere, throughout the drawing room, around the bar and even in the dining room.

People were building websites, negotiating screenplays, dissecting books — the very molecules in the air seemed to be tapping laptops. And yet somehow a kind of Old World sheen and calm reigned in the high-ceilinged, converted warehouse setting, with light pouring in over 9th Avenue, chandeliers sparkling and crystal gleaming. The lunch was delicious – we both had what my friend called the “glam chicken sandwich,” a marinated chicken breast with avocado and a piquant mustard on some kind of artisanal bread – but it was the setting that really made the visit for me, so beautifully New York, in its energy and its exclusivity. The annual membership fee is $1,800, but you can always try to find a member to befriend.

The Breslin Bar and Dining Room
On my next to last day in the city, I met a veteran guidebook writer at a place she picked – the Breslin Bar and Dining Room in the Flatiron’s Ace Hotel. When I walked into the lobby, I thought I’d wandered into the NYU library or a computer convention by mistake. Literally every available sitting space was taken by someone with a laptop open; no one was talking, everyone was reading or typing. Digitally disoriented, it took me a while to locate the entrance to the Breslin on the left side of the lobby.

When I did find it and wandered in, I was benumbed and bar-wildered. The place was packed nose to tail with people bellying up to the bar and spilling over, onto and around countertops. My friend had managed to secure one counter and I ordered the $8 Brooklyn IPA East Indian Pale Ale and we yelled at each other for a while. The ale was tasty and everyone around us seemed to be having a frenetically good time. We didn’t try any of the restaurant’s famous meat-centric menu, but we did order chips — and were momentarily flummoxed when instead of the platter of still sizzling thin treats we’d envisioned, the waitress plopped down a plastic bag holding a dozen pre-packaged crisps. What was sweet about the Breslin was simply that it was such a scene. There was a raucous, rowdy, “It”-spot energy to the place – a perfect whiff of eau de courant for this visitor.

Basta Pasta
By a complicated suite of serendipities, I ended up meeting with a longtime friend and part-time New Yorker and his wife. I’d thought he was in India; they’d thought I was in California. And suddenly there we all were, on the sidewalk outside the Ace Hotel. To celebrate this unexpected reunion, they took me to their favorite Flatiron neighborhood restaurant, Basta Pasta. The moment we walked in, I loved the place. There was a joyous buzz and delicious scent in the air, the buzz emanating from the 50 or so satisfied diners at 18 tables, the scent from the open kitchen directly in front of us when we walked in.

My friends described Basta Pasta as an Italian-Japanese fusion restaurant, a concept that might seem strange until you take your first bite of spaghetti with tobiko fish roe and shiso and realize this is one of those intercultural marriages that make the world a better place. For openers, the fresh fish carpaccio was light and delicious and the cartoccio di funghi misti — three kinds of mushrooms baked inside sealed cooking paper with thyme, garlic and olive oil — was ambrosial. For dessert, I’d suggest the Vulcano, a luscious lava pool of melting chocolate inside warm cocoa sponge cake with vanilla gelato and fresh fruit. The service by our Japanese waitress was at once warm and efficient, and the atmosphere was infectiously exuberant, with anniversary and birthday celebrations and general goodwill all around. All in all, Basta Pasta was, in a word, oishissimo!

Idlewild Books
My very last stop before catching a taxi to JFK was, appropriately enough, Idlewild travel bookstore – whose name pays homage to the original New York International Airport (its name was changed from Idlewild to JFK in 1963). My favorite travel bookstore in the world is the incomparable Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, but Idlewild comes as close to that icon as any bookstore I’ve found. A pleasantly airy and expansive space, Idlewild has hundreds of intriguing travel lit titles, from the latest Jan Morris and Paul Theroux to classics like Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and hard-to-find books like The Travels of Marco Polo and Miguel Covarrubias’s Island of Bali. It’s an exceedingly intelligent and stimulating collection, organized geographically, and a half-hour there will surely stoke your wanderlust. Since opening in 2008, the store has also become a favored spot for book events and classes, from travel writing and journaling to foreign languages. I wish I’d had more time to browse – but I’ll be back in June, and I’ll make sure to land at Idlewild then.

So, here’s a very personal serving of six sweet scenes. I’d love to hear your New York favorites too, so I can start a list of serendipities for my June return.