Budget Guide 2013: Downtown Manhattan

There’s always something new to discover in New York City, and if you’ve always stuck to the landmarks, skyscrapers and overpriced restaurants of midtown, now might be the time to venture south to the wilds of up-and-coming neighborhoods like Chinatown.

Here, the buildings are shorter, the streets are narrower and the Starbucks are less ubiquitous. Chinatown is a gritty neighborhood, with its congested streets, mysterious foreign smells and aggressive fake Rolex vendors. It is also one of the city’s most vibrant ethnic enclaves, with bright fruit stands, bargain foot massage parlors and scores of dingy but delicious eateries.

But the times, they are a-changing. In the past few years, farm-to-table fusion restaurants have started replacing the neighborhood’s traditional Chinese noodle shops. Some trace Chinatown’s renaissance to the opening of Apotheke, a trendy artisanal cocktail bar on Doyers Street. But it was Parisian club Le Baron that sealed the neighborhood’s fate when it selected lower Mulberry Street as the site for its much-hyped New York outpost last year. Real estate developers have descended on the neighborhood, branding the easternmost part of it “Chumbo” – a mash-up of “Chinatown” and “DUMBO,” its trendy Brooklyn counterpart. Costs, in turn, are rising.

However, deals can still be had for the budget traveler. Lower-end hotel chains fill the neighborhood, and cheap eats abound. Plus, Chinatown is a landmark in and of itself – just stepping out the door can yield dozens of classic New York experiences. Catch it while you still can.


Wyndham Garden Chinatown: Opened in late 2012, the Wyndham Garden Chinatown is a bright new addition to Chinatown’s budget hotel scene. The contemporary 106-room property is located right in the heart of the Bowery, one of lower Manhattan’s main thoroughfares. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the hubbub of the neighborhood, while double-paned glass keeps the street noise muffled. All in all, it’s a clean and comfortable option. From $116. http://www.wyndham.com/hotels/new-york/new-york/wyndham-garden-chinatown 93 Bowery

Howard Johnson Manhattan SoHo: Forgive us, that’s “HoJo,” according to Howard Johnson’s youthful new branding campaign. The roadside motor inn has spiffed itself up for its brand new downtown Manhattan location, with pop art on the walls and neon purple track lighting in the lobby. Rooms are small but feature amenities like free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. Early reviews are positive, with raves about comfort and value. From $169. http://www.hojo.com/hotels/new-york/new-york/howard-johnson-manhattan-soho 5 Allen Street

The Nolitan: Splurge on a room at the area’s first luxury boutique hotel, located just above the Chinatown border in trendy Nolita. The 55-room hotel opened in early 2012 and offers modern industrial design from Grzywinski+Pons, the same team behind the Lower East Side’s popular Hotel on Rivington. While prices may hover slightly above the typical budget range, guests can save on the affordable mini bar, free access to nearby 24-Hour Fitness and free bike, skateboard, laptop, iPad and video game system rentals. From $285. http://nolitanhotel.com 30 Kenmare Street

Eat and Drink

Nom Wah Tea Parlor: New York’s oldest dim sum teahouse reopened in 2011 under the energetic Wilson Tang, a former banker and nephew of former owner Wally Tang. Wilson redid the restaurant’s interior but kept vintage touches like the original tea booth, 1920s-style leather seating and newspaper clippings celebrating the teahouse’s 93-year history. Prices for small plates are in the $3-$7 range, while traditional teapots are around $1. Don’t miss the shrimp siu mai and house special pan-fried dumplings; they are superb. http://nomwah.com 13 Doyers Street

Nice Green Bo: Tourists regularly queue up for soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai, but locals in the know tend to prefer nearby Nice Green Bo. The dingy hole-in-the-wall restaurant offers a full menu of Shanghainese specialties, but its main draw is succulent steamed soup dumplings filled with crab and pork. http://nicegreenbo.com 66 Bayard Street

Epistrophy: Vintage furniture and antiquarian knickknacks fill this charming café and wine bar, which serves a reasonably priced selection of wine, coffee and panini. The place shines in the spring, when the windows are left open to welcome in the neighborhood. http://www.epistrophycafe.com 200 Mott Street

Budget Activities

Museum of Chinese in America: This under-the-radar museum excels in its series of quirky and relevant exhibitions. Currently on display are two comic-themed exhibits: “Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986” and “Alt.Comics: Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic.” April will see the unveiling of two fashion-oriented showcases: “Front Row: Chinese American Designers” and “Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910s-40s.” Admission is regularly $10 but free on Thursdays. http://www.mocanyc.org 215 Centre Street

LES Tenement Museum Neighborhood Walks: What better way to explore the neighborhood than by walking it? Learn the history of lower Manhattan’s immigrant communities through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s informative neighborhood walking tours. “Foods of the Lower East Side” is a particularly delicious way to get acquainted. http://www.tenement.org 103 Orchard Street

Pearl River Mart: Bypass the counterfeit handbags of Canal Street and head instead to Pearl River Mart, a massive emporium of cheap, quirky novelty items, like bright kimonos and paper lanterns. It’s the perfect place for souvenir hunting. http://www.pearlriver.com 447 Broadway

Get Around

Downtown Manhattan is relatively accessible from New York’s major airports. From JFK, you take the J subway line from Jamaica Station-Sutphin Boulevard direct to Chinatown’s Canal Street. Public transport from LaGuardia and Newark can be more arduous, with multiple stops and transfers. Google Maps is the best way to compare your transportation options in the city, whether you’re taking a taxi, riding the subway or using your own two feet.

If you’ve previously relied on traditional forms of transportation to get around, prepare yourself for some sticker shock this year. Subway fares are slated to increase from $2.25 to $2.50 per ride this March, following a 17 percent rate spike for taxi fares that occurred last year.

But there is a budget option: the bicycle. New York is to unveil its new Citi Bike Share this May, with 10,000 bikes distributed among 600 stations across Manhattan (and parts of Brooklyn and Queens). A day pass can be purchased at any kiosk for $9.95, while a seven-day pass will cost you $25. The city has made major improvements to its biking infrastructure over the past few years, and a fantastic new path recently opened on Allan Street that connects Chinatown to upper Manhattan.

Budget Tip

Wake up early and go for a stroll through Columbus Park, Chinatown’s largest public park. Historically known as Five Points, this area was once the formidable site of the gang violence depicted in “Gangs of New York.” Today, it’s where Chinatown’s elderly community gathers for early morning tai chi and mah-jongg. Pick up a milk tea and pork bun, grab a bench and pay witness to the last vestiges of a neighborhood in transition.

[Photo credits: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews (top photo) and Andrew Burton/Getty Images]

Photo Of The Day: Williamsburg Bridge

We often forget that Manhattan is an island. That is, until we remember the number of bridges crisscrossing the skyline to connect the New York City borough with the rest of America.

Most people are familiar with the Brooklyn Bridge and the George Washington Bridge. But my personal favorite is the Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I have spent many a late night in a cab over that bridge, and the view of the Manhattan skyline when crossing over from the Brooklyn side never fails to leave me breathless. This view, taken by Flickr user Skylar Grant from the East River waterfront, isn’t too shabby either.

Do you have any beautiful bridge photos? Upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user Skylar Grant]

Video Of The Day: Rickshaw Spider-Man

I was wandering around the Lower East Side last Friday night when I heard screaming and saw New York’s Rickshaw Spider-Man entertaining passengers and pedestrians alike at the street corner. I stood in awe and watched him, Shaun Emerson, as he glided up and down smooth and rough walls alike with abandon – and with his pedicab in tow. My husband took his own video, but this video shows the man at work a bit more clearly. Rickshaw Spider-Man has been spotted regularly in Alphabet City and the Lower East Side in NYC. My biggest regret of the night? Not following him around the corner and asking for a ride.

Is Eddie Huang The Next Anthony Bourdain? Watch And Find Out

If the name Eddie Huang isn’t familiar, it may soon be, if the folks at VICE.tv have their way. The Washington, D.C., native is a chef, former lawyer and, according to his website, a former “hustler and street wear designer” born to Taiwanese immigrants – a background that led him to become the force behind Manhattan’s popular Baohaus restaurant.

Huang’s new VICE video series, “Fresh Off the Boat,” premiered online on October 15. According to VICE’s website, the show is “Eddie Huang’s genre-bending venture into subculture through the lens of food.” That’s one way to describe it.

Huang has been positioning himself as a chef-turned-media-personality in the vein of Anthony Bourdain or David Chang for a while now. As in, he’s street smart, opinionated, and doesn’t appear to give a rat’s ass what people think of his renegade ways. Ostensibly, it’s a great fit for VICE, which is known for its edgy exposés and other content.

Here we hit the first divergence among FOTB and the canon of travel series. Regardless of how you feel about them, Bourdain and Chang are still, respectively, articulate, intelligent commentators of what’s been called “food anthropology.” Huang is obviously a savvy businessman, and thus, one must assume, not lacking in brain cells. But he isn’t as likable. Unlike Chang, a mad genius, he’s not so outrageously batshit that he’s funny. He’s not particularly charming, witty, or aesthetically appealing, and he comes off more wannabe-Bourdain and imposter street thug than informative host and armchair travel guide.

In the premiere, Huang takes viewers on a backwoods tour of the Bay Area, starting with a visit to Oakland’s East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club.

We’re briefly introduced to Rats president Trevor Latham, and next thing we know Huang and Latham are armed with rifles and wandering Latham’s Livermore ranch in search of rabbits. Says, Latham, an avid hunter, “People that eat meat and aren’t willing to kill an animal are fucking pussies, and fuck them.”

Of note, the below video is fairly graphic.

For his part, Huang appears suitably humbled, although I have to wonder why a chef of his standing and ethnic and familial background (his father is also a restaurateur) doesn’t appear to have been exposed to animal slaughter before. Still, he gets bonus points for trying to disseminate what should have been the primary message.

Says Huang in the final scene, “Every time I eat meat now, I have to be conscious that…I am choosing to enable someone to kill an animal and create a market demand for slaughter. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Just be conscious of the choices you make.”

Well done. I just wish the rest of the episode carried that levity.

“Fresh Off the Boat airs Mondays; future episodes will include San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles, and Taiwan.

[Photo credit: Eddie Huang, Youtube ; rabbits, Flickr user Robobobobo]

The Wandering Writer: A Tour Through Manhattan’s East Village With Tony Perrottet

Tony Perrottet won’t talk to me. When I call him from the lobby he picks up his phone but doesn’t utter a word. Rules dictate that he can’t speak in the Writers Room, the shared workspace where he churns out articles and books, and the first stop on our walking tour of Perrottet’s favorite neighborhood spots. Five silent seconds pass, then ten.

“Oh heeeeyyy, Rachel,” he says finally, his Australian accent infused with a Bob Dylan-esque twang. “I’ll be right down.”

Silver-haired and wearing dark blue jeans and collared shirt under a soft green sweater, a college-professor-on-sabbatical look, Perrottet ushers me into the elevator. When we reach the Room, I can see why he’s a stickler for cellphone protocol. The large loft is quiet as a coffin except for the rhythmic tapping of keyboards – and the twenty or so writers present seem cognizant of doing even that as softly as their productive fingers can manage. Back to back desks are occupied by whoever has shown up for the day, faces obscured by dividing screens. There’s a kitchen for lunch breaks and a nap room in case you need to rest up before returning to the Muses. You can come here any day of the week, any time of the day, and stay as long as you like.

At this 30-year-old institution, Perrottet has rubbed elbows with literary celebrities like Jay McInerney, as well as the famous aspiring to the literary, like Molly Ringwald and Brooke Shields. But despite the many well-known authors who work here, Perrottet says it’s actually very democratic. “They’ll let anyone in as long as you’re serious about your writing.”

And membership isn’t too hard on a writer’s often-measly budget. “It’s around $100 a month and they give you free coffee so you could actually make a profit if you had a cup every day,” he says. It’s a pretty good sales pitch, especially in a place like New York, where we cram ourselves into apartments people in other parts of the country would assign to kitchens or particularly roomy bathrooms.“Working from home would be a fiasco anywhere, but in New York there’s a particular madness because of the claustrophobia,” he says. “I couldn’t exist without this space.”

The transplanted Aussie seems to revolve around places that make life in this chaotic city bearable. He’s set up “little refuges” all over the East Village where he can go depending on his mood or work needs. After touring the Writers Room, we set off for one of them: the Italian cafe Taralluci E Vino. It’s just after 4 p.m., the perfect time for an afternoon cappuccino.

We walk east, eventually winding up on 10th Street between First and Second Avenues. Perrottet has lived on this block for over two decades in the same rent-controlled apartment, a holy grail for an artist in costly Manhattan, where so many have moved to Brooklyn or Queens or Harlem.

“Back then this was the big drug block,” he tells me. “This was in the early 1990s. Now it’s like ancient history, some fantasy world. Back then it was lined with 20 or 30 Colombian guys selling stuff. And these limousines would go by, Wall Streeters getting their cocaine.” There was a red door and blue door, one for soft drugs and one for hard drugs. The newly arrived Perrottet found the whole thing exotic – and the block was actually very safe because the Colombians didn’t want any trouble. But then the neighborhood association started making plans with the mayor and police to revamp 10th Street. In the end, the whole area was sealed off and a police car would drive back and forth all night. “The idea was to break the association that New Yorkers had with this block and drugs,” he says. “It worked. They all moved to 11th Street.”

No more than 100 yards from his apartment, we find an outdoor table at Tarallucci E Vino. As we sit, I catch a glimpse of the sugary pastries inside the café: buttery croissants, chocolate-tipped biscotti, mouth-watering miniature muffins. Perrottet strategically orders the check at the same time we request coffees. If not, he warns, it could be hours until our waitress drops in on us again. “This really is like visiting Rome because it’s totally incompetent,” he laughs. “It’s a complete mess. I like it.”

Today we’re here for the coffee, but Perrottet sometimes stops in around 6 for the aperitivo session. “For $6,” he tells me conspiratorially, “you can get this really nice glass of Lambrusco and they give you some little nibbles.” Any Manhattan writer worth his byline knows his neighborhood happy hours and it seems Perrottet is no exception.

But before we partake in one of our own, we need to pop into an East Village antique shop Perrottet frequents. Spirit and Matter is a tiny incense-heavy place stocked with tribal pieces ranging from war clubs to wooden jewelry to an intricately decorated paddle once used in courting rituals in Micronesia.

Perrottet, recognized by the bald, baritone owner, inquires if any erotic relics have recently arrived. He’s on the hunt for one for a TV show he’s involved with. The owner hasn’t got anything but suggests trying Obscura. “I hear they’ve got a mummified penis over there,” he says, as intriguing a lead as any.

It turns out Perrottet, who has stumbled upon many a story idea through casual conversations like this with locals, has already heard the rumor. And in fact he’s already seen just such an artifact.

“I’ve seen Napoleon’s.” He pauses while I consider the rather unpleasant mental image. “Allegedly.”

Still, one can never see too many mummified penises, so we push off for Obscura. The name still fits the shop’s content but not its character these days, since Obscura is the star of a Science Channel reality TV show called “Oddities.” Inside it’s a quirky collector’s dream, all statues and skeletons and strange souvenirs.

Obscura’s proprietor, like Spirit and Matter’s, knows Tony, and he knows why we’re here. He leads us into a cramped back room where the quested-for object is being housed in a shoe box-like container on packed shelves. If this was an action film starring Nicholas Cage, the thieves would have it all too easy.

The desiccated member is delicately wrapped in tissue paper. As we examine it, I comment on the small tragedy of a man’s most private parts being separated from the rest of his body. Perrottet tells me that women, too, have had pieces removed posthumously.

“The breast of Mary Magdalene is one of the great relics,” he says. “So is the heart of Joan of Arc.”

With our luckily still-beating hearts, and all appendages attached, we thank Obscura’s owner and head out. Perrottet wants to take me to Café Mogador, a Moroccan and Mediterranean restaurant where happy hour has just begun. He treats the friendly spot as his local diner, perfect for eating alone or with a visiting editor or friend. “It’s got space and excellent food and has been around forever,” he says. “The quality is amazing but it’s not expensive. And it’s very comfortable. In the East Village, there aren’t that many comfortable places. You don’t want a place filled with NYU students going nuts, which is basically what you’re fighting against.”

While we sit at the bar with tapas and white wine, a smiling waitress pops over to greet Perrottet. He apologizes on behalf of a boisterous friend he brought in last week, clearly wanting to make sure all is well in one of his chosen refuges. The waitress isn’t fussed in the slightest. “It’s all part of the job,” she says, and tells Perrottet it’s nice to see him.

We can’t stay for long, though. We’ve got a reservation at 6 and have been cautioned to be on time if we want to keep it. PDT, which stands for Please Don’t Tell, is our final stop on the Perrottet peregrinate. It’s the kind of secretive place you bring out-of-town visitors to prove Manhattan’s magic. We enter the small, dark cocktail lounge through a telephone booth. Inside, the nonstop noise of the East Village is muted entirely.

Perrottet likes the speakeasy feel here, the wide-eyed stuffed animals lining the walls, and the fact that you need a reservation. Most importantly, though, he likes the crowd control. “That’s what I’ll pay for,” he says, “a bit of elbow room, a bit of quiet.”

“They tried to get rid of me. We’re the riff raff now”

The payment at PDT comes in the form of expensive cocktails with cute names. Perrottet orders a Tompkins Square, so strong you can smell the whiskey rising off it when the bartender delivers it. I get a gin based drink called The C Cup, which feels like far too easy a joke for such a sophisticated place.

As we sip our concoctions, I ask how the East Village has changed since Perrottet first arrived.

“I’m not one of those nostalgic nuts who say it was always better years ago because there was a lot that was wrong,” he says. “But I like it because thanks to the rent control laws – it’s been gentrified obviously –it’s still like nowhere else in New York. They can’t get rid of all the old Polish guys and the Ukrainian women. They tried to get rid of me. We’re the riff raff now,” he laughs.

It’s as hard to imagine the affable Perrottet as riff raff as it is to picture him living anywhere other than the East Village. He seems not just to live in this neighborhood but to be actively part of it. It’s obvious that Perrottet would know where best to take you at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. And wherever you wound up, they would probably know him, too. There’s something comforting about realizing a person can be part of a small community in a massive city like New York. And Perrottet, an Australian ex-pat who arrived here one mild night in September some 20 years ago, most certainly has found his.

About This Wandering Writer:

Tony Perrottet is the author of four books – a collection of travel stories, “Off the Deep End: Travels in Forgotten Frontiers” (1997); “Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists” (2002); “The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Greek Games” (2004); and “Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped” (2008). His travel stories have been widely anthologized and have been selected four times for the “Best American Travel Writing” series. He is also a regular television guest on the History Channel, where he has spoken about everything from the Crusades to the birth of disco.

[Photo Credits: Lesley Thalander and Rachel Friedman]