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Phil’s Travels – New York City, USA (12.23)


Phil’s Travels – New York City, USA (12.23)

Although my wonderful wife has been a frequent visitor, this was to be my first visit to NYC in over 10 years. London was grey and miserable, and Heathrow T5 was congested and gearing up for the holiday exodus. We had a rushed Ramsey lunch (well not worth £103 for 2x burgers and a small Cesar, and especially poor value as not even any fries included with any of the dishes). Some of the most expensive paltry plates of food ever conceived.

The outbound was full (not helped by the fact that most of the plane was configured for First, Business and Premium). Cattle class had the smallest number of seats I have ever seen. We chased the sunset all afternoon, enjoying amazing kaleidoscopic-coloured skies for hour after hour (seven to be precise). After landing at JFK, we spent nearly as long as the entire duration of the flight on the tarmac waiting to cross a busy runway before being able to taxi to T8. Why are airports configured so poorly in this modern age? Passport control was slow and the drive in NYC was even slower (it took over 90 minutes to reach our Midtown hotel) – and everyone says NYC is a fast-paced place. Go figure.

Our hotel was of the old school (built in the 1930s and retaining many original features and decorated in keeping with its heritage). Our room was large by European standards and furnished with 2x double beds to sleep the four of us. Where the room and wardrobe were large, the bathroom was kiddie sized. Not only small but the bathtub and WC were barely ankle high. How do larger-than-life Americans cope with such miniaturisation? Overall though, our room was the worst on property. It was located next to the lift shaft on the fourth floor at the bottom of a narrow light well (more appropriately a ‘lightless well’, as light does not travel 30 floors down a narrow gap) where a huge piece of equipment buzzed all day and all night, and it showed as the smallest room on the floor on the fire plan. We had a ball in that room. Fond memories.

On the first night we were only three and too exhausted to explore our surroundings so late in the evening. So, we popped into my wonderful wife’s local pizza parlour and took away a large Ray’s Special to eat in our room. The kids had formulated a gastronomic itinerary for NYC and most meals were accounted for and venues pre-identified (with some semblance of geographic logic to match what we wanted to visit and when).

The following day our super son landed (after having nearly missed his flight because he left his passport on the self-check-in terminal at Heathrow) and we headed into the Village for a Smashed Burger (delicious and cheaper than Ramsey and served with fries) and a walk around Washington Square Park (smiled at the speed-chess players, busy sledging their victims and the backdrop for the movie, I am Legend). In the Village, we passed by a building being photographed by many and realised it was the building used in Friends for the outside shots. We shot too for posterity.

Day 2 we took the Subway to Penn Station and caught an early NJ Transit (with such dirty windows we could not tell if it was night or day, let alone watch America go by, at least in Europe trains get a wash and blow dry on occasion) to Hamilton, near Washington Crossing (where George snuck over the Delaware to defeat the Brits and thereby secured independence from his namesake crazy George III), to spend the day with my wonderful wife’s eternal friend. From Hamilton, we drove to Washington Crossing proper for morning coffee, then Yardley for a train to Temple University in dangerous north Philadelphia (passing another train 250-cargo cars long, that’s right, I counted them).

After a reminiscing walk about my wonderful wife and her eternal friend’s alma mater Uni, we caught the Phili Subway to City Hall. Now, the New York Subway was grim, utilitarian, industrial, dark, dingey and bland, but Phili Subway was on another level. It was all those things and way more disgusting, especially in the city centre, where the endless corridors were decorated with drooling druggies and regular deposits of perfect excrement, and we saw a man standing on the footplate between two carriages smoking a spliff as the train left the station. A truly colourful place. When faced with public conveyances and transportation system in such a parlous state, it is no wonder that Americans’ love for their cars is so enduring and that NYC is in constant gridlock (maybe the advent of Congestion Charging in May 2024 will change a few minds and allow MTA some funds to invest on finishing the Subway).

After a walk around the City Hall area (wonderful Xmas atmosphere and only a few feet above the grotty Subway system), we decided the Rocky Steps had to be stepped upon. I am sure last time we visited, 30 years ago, that the statue of the Champion was at the top of the steps. It has since been moved to a nearby garden and the top of the steps were marked more discreetly with footprints and the word ‘Rocky’ in the ground. Champion photos were shot, naturally.

In Phili, we ate pizza (not so good as NYC), Phili Cheesesteaks (as good I remember from 30 years ago) and a hoagie (not as good as I remember). At the end of our day trip, we considered how best to return to NYC. The two train options were either 3 hours and $150 or 1.5 hours and $500! So, we looked into Uber and for $200 and a 2-hour drive we too went native and reverted to the car. After 2.5 hours we were just about island-side of the Lincoln Tunnel and stuck in traffic, again. We told the driver to drop us off and head home. We walked the 20 or so blocks from there back to our hotel, via a bouncing Times Square.

Next day, the kids and I went in search of a Sports Bar so as to ensure the Red Men retained their top of the table status for Xmas. Did not happen. A very boring draw ensued. However, we did get to walk around Bowery and Alphabet City in search of said Sports Bar. We passed by Katz’s Deli, but the round-the-block queue put us off sampling its consumables and we made for a Dominican restaurant instead (as per the gastro agenda). Food was OK. Kids loved their massive fried chicken sandwiches. Whilst we had slummed it Downtown watching a boring football game, my wonderful Uptown wife had had a champagne brunch with friends in the Village and was downing Margheritas when we joined up again in the afternoon. We walked north a few blocks to help the digestion and that evening we enjoyed a Greek pre-birthday meal at nearby Souvlaki.

On the day of the birthday, we left the hotel early so as to get some decent photos of us at the famous Rockefeller Xmas tree (Home Alone 2, leave it too late and you can’t get anywhere close). We brunched in a nearby café, browsed in Bloomingdales, then Macy’s and had the best meal of our visit in a nearby bagel joint (their Reuben Bagel was 10/10). We walked back north, walked around the perimeter of Central Park Zoo (Madagascar, all we saw was a single cow and a pack of rats gorging on loose rubbish) and enjoyed the lovely sunset view behind the towering skyscrapers of W 59th Street. The special dinner was a multi-Subway lines journey into the heart of Brooklyn, where a very reasonable steak dinner was savoured and devoured. Happy Birthday!

The following day was a mixed bag. Good for me and my super son, but not so good for my wonderful wife and darling daughter (who dropped with a cold that morning). So, whilst the ladies stayed in the hotel and visited a local doctor, the men jumped on the unsavoury Subway yet again and headed south to explore. We disembarked at City Hall (much cleaner than the one in Phili by the way) and walked over Brooklyn Bridge (Godzilla) to find some kicking barbeque. The bridge was a delight to walk, however, I never realised how commercialised it was, nor that the walkway was a very careful forethought in its original design. The pedestrian path runs up the middle of the bridge above the roadways on either side (thus very safe) and was lined with Lookie-Lookie Men selling all kinds of kitchie, touristy stuff. The path was busy enough already without narrowing it further. The same happened on the sidewalks (pavements in English) of Midtown. The streets were packed with tourists, shoppers and workers, and yet the sidewalks were sclerotically tightened by endless rows of Lookie-Lookie Men making walking almost as impossible as driving.

We fought our way across the bridge to, eventually, walked down to Brooklyn Bridge Park for some photo shooting, had the kicking BBQ in Time Out Market (best BBQ since Zelman purveyed his meats in London’s Soho years ago) and for dessert we shared a Luke’s Lobster Roll (‘The Best in NYC’ – and it was good). Dumbo food was awesome, but no sign of any flying pachyderms. We subwayed to the Meat Packing District for some window shopping, then walked from 14th to 54th, via sports stores and wine shops, to catch up with the ladies again. Not to be tied down, having checked that the ladies were safe and content, the men hot footed it outside again to continue with my super son’s main mission – the search for the ultimate pizza slice. During our time, we must have visited and tried more than 20 different pizza slices. That evening we found one of the clear top two contenders, Sofia Pizza Shoppe. Excellent pie! It had a reputation. It was the only joint to sell a slice for $38! A few days a week, the owner will make a single, ultimate pie, and the consumer can only consume by booking a slice online. His regular pizza was awesome. His $38/slice pizza must be stellar.

Day 5 was a family reunited. Suitably drugged, our darling daughter was sufficiently with it to revisit the Big Apple. We had an early lunch at another pizza place, L’Industrie, in the Village (strong reputation and a big queue before opening at noon). Nearby, I found my 14th state wine, Vermont.

After another excellent pizza, we walked around Battery Park, shot the Statue of Liberty from afar (‘Looks closer in the movies’, complained the little lady), cupped the Charging Bull’s balls, remarked that Wall Street was very small and dark, and admired the stunning and moving 911 Memorial. Lunch was the best fried chicken in Wall Street (according to my super son’s unerring gastro radar) and it was quite good. For pudding, just outside the chicken shop my wife and I embarked on some Wall Street-style roadside negotiations with the lamentable carrier that is British Airways and our NYC hotel.

During that lunch, BA sent us an email advising that our return flight the following evening had been cancelled and Merry Christmas. What! There was no offer of assistance. No rebooking of our flight on the next available. No number to call back on. The email was a ‘Do Not Reply To’. Basically, the onus was on us to go figure it out. My wonderful wife spent over an hour with BA on the Gold Card line. They were so hopeless and helpless. What happens if you are not Gold, nor as forceful? Eventually she managed to reorganise our return whilst I spent 10 minutes on the line with our hotel booking the last available room for the following night (a King-bed, corner suite). I just hope BA will compensate us for the additional expenses (as NYC was hideously expensive, observations below) and inconvenience.

Wall Street negotiations concluded, we headed back north and popped into the Empire State Building (King Kong, my second favourite in NYC after the Hearst Building) and literally popped out again within a pop after seeing that the fee to go to the Observation Deck was nearly $100 a head! Instead of panorama, back to the hotel and prepared our super son for his evening departure back to London, much to his chagrin. He was very upset that we would be staying an extra day; whilst the ladies were extremely upset and could not wait to leave, so much so, our darling daughter was in hysterics of laughter and simultaneous weeping on Wall Street, not knowing whether to stick or twist during my wife’s painful discussion with BA (probably a common occurrence down in those dark, narrow, financially risky lanes). Having dispatched super son, we headed out to Patsy’s for dinner (as recommended by our hotel concierge). Frank Sinatra (and many other celebs, by the look of the photos on the walls) was a frequent visitor and our table on the 2nd floor (1st in Europe) was beside his shrine (hat, photos, miniature piano, empty wine bottles consumed, etc). It was an old school place, food was ok, service not so good. The Frank memorabilia was fun to see, but otherwise missable.

Next was a packing day and a move to our corner suite – much bigger, with a large bedroom and large lounge area. Super son was not happy to see the Whatsapp survey from London (after his cramped few days with all four of us in the smallest room in the house). We had to store our bags for the day (checkout was at 11.00 and check-in at 15.00), which meant paying $2 per bag for storage with the concierge. They charge for everything in NYC. Soon they will charge for breathable air.

Whilst my wife attended various business meetings, my darling daughter and I toured the nearby hotels of interest: The Peninsula (public areas on many levels, relatively plain furnishings), St Regis (public areas pretty much on one level and larger; grand dining room), The Whitby (lovely throughout, just like Kemp’s London masterpieces). We adventured to and queued for FAO Schwartz (worthy of a queue as was quite busy, but retail space small, range limited, décor nothing; conclusion: no threat to Hamleys) and we queued for the nearby Lego Store (not worthy of any form of queue as store was virtually empty, good range of stuff though). Lunch was taken at Avra (the best Greek food I have had in a long time, if not ever; recommend Avra Chips Tower).

In the afternoon the ladies were feeling the pace and so I headed south into Tribeca alone. I wanted to visit the new Hotel Fouquet’s. A project we nearly funded with a family office back in 2016 (the infamous year of Brexit, Trump’s election and Mme Le Pens’ near rise to power). Needless to say, 2016 was not a good year. I had a good nosey around Fouquet’s ground floor. Very tastefully done. Love the conservatory area and the WCs were stunning. The whole place though was deserted at 15.00. In fact, most of Tribeca was devoid of folk. Very odd, when all around it chaos and confusion reigned. Such peace and serenity was a little disorientating after so many days of hustle and bustle. I nipped over to the Hudson River, shot Jersey City and walked to the busiest stretch of Tribeca, the sidewalk in front of The Greenwich. For those who don’t know, as it does not appear on Google Maps or many places at all, this boutique hotel is owned by no other than the Hollywood legend, Robert De Niro. The sidewalk in front of the entrance was jammed with paparazzi and I could not get in to visit because the security would not allow non-patrons inside. I am sure it is lovely. Maybe Bobby himself was in residence.

After Tribeca, I took the Subway all the way up to 72nd, walked some of those residential blocks (homes look very grubby and architecture pretty dull), entered the Museum of Natural History (Night at the Museum), where the lobby was nothing like in the movie (it is bigger but decorated simply, with three dinosaurs, a mother Brontosaurus protecting her baby from a very bony and therefore clearly very hungry Velociraptor). I walked back to our corner suite through the Park but no sign of the rat pack this time. It was interesting to observe that much of Central Park is actually below street level. Did they build Manhattan on stilts? This means that the foul Subway is barely below ground. I eventually saw quite a bit of Central Park and I have to say I prefer Hyde Park. The former was too rocky, too low, too dark and cut through with too many roads.

For our final, bonus night, our darling daughter stayed in and luxuriated in our corner suite and ate room service, leaving my wonderful wife and I to hit the town solo (or is that coupled?). We had a wonderful last supper at La Grande Boucherie nearby our corner suite and the sommelier was really game for my passion. True to its name, it was big and very befitting of La Grande Pomme.

On our final day we left our darling daughter to keep warm in the hotel lounge (having had to give up our corner suite) and my wonderful wife and I hit Bloomingdales again. Sadly, nothing caught her eye and nada was bought and we left NYC without any Xmas presents for my wonderful travelling companion. It was very interesting to note that department stores in NYC appeared to be going great guns, whereas in London they have become a dying breed. Bergdof Goodman, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Nordstum and Saks were thriving. In London, Debenhams and House of Fraser are no more, and John Lewis and Marks & Spencer want to reduce their retail space and build offices. Maybe Americans have not embraced the online shopping culture quite so addictively as we Brits.  

Other closing NYC observations:

  • Our darling daughter took off from Heathrow at the start of our trip singing ‘Feliz Navidad’ by Jose Faliciano. And we landed with her singing it. Our painful taxi ride to our hotel was also subject to frequent renditions. It thus became her NYC theme tune. So, we when were walking around Washington Square Park and a local chap was cycling round in circles with a boom-box blaring ‘Feliz Navidad’ we realised she would blend in perfectly. In fact, we heard that song repeatedly and not just from our daughter: from the Lookie-Lookie Men, from the rickshaws, in the shops and on the Subway (gracias to a travelling Mariachi band).
  • NYC is known for offering everything big. But such size, it seems to me, may be in many cases wholly unnecessary and even a hindrance to speeding things up. For example, the streets and avenues were in constant gridlock and not just because of the number of vehicles. The size of those vehicles was a major contributor. Why have buses with six wheels when four will do and make the bodies shorter and taller (eg London double-deckers, and if NYC insists on bigger, how about the New York Triple-stacker?). The truck cabs have great snouts that extend the length of the pantechnicon unnecessarily (in Europe the engine goes under the cab and takes up much less room, probably greener too). Net result of such behemoths? Jams and chewed up tarmac (NYC potholes are so big and deep and they will soon provide useful light to the not-so-deep Subway system below, and are probably the cause of all the leaks we had to dodge down there).
  • Other traffic management ideas to consider: timed deliveries and no street level parking. Delivery trucks and mega-vans circulate and halt all day and any time of day, even at the busiest times. Why not limit such activities to the early morning hours? Cars, trucks and all sorts park alongside the streets and avenues at all times, narrowing the arteries and causing the very tension that raises the ire of every New Yorker. No wonder they are always aggressive, angry and shouty. There were off-street parking lots but at $20 for 30 minutes they were ruinously expensive.
  • NYC is far from green-zero. There were no electric charging points for cars (unlike London where every lamp post is a charge point). The bigger vehicles were ancient and dirty and inefficient (most cars are smaller these days and have some efficiency about them at least). The roadside hot dog (and lots more besides these days) stands were powered by small petrol generators and there were thousands of them about town.
  • New Yorkers seem to love a man in uniform. Every hotel, many office buildings and most posh residences had a doorman and often uniformed chaps inside too. The uniform union of New York must be very powerful indeed.
  • I mentioned a few things already above that make NYC somewhat slow, well here are a few more we noted: escalators everywhere were on Valium (the few available in the odd Subway Station, in shops and office buildings); despite multitudes of staff behind the counter, Starbucks was no fast-food service experience; hotel maintenance and housekeeping; doctor’s appointments; and airport check-in.
  • Apart from the crumbling roads, the drain grates were clogged with gunge, there were piles of rubbish everywhere (Rat Pack Heaven). The infrastructure seemed unfinished throughout and the place was in a constant state of repair (not renewal or regeneration, just perpetual catchup works) and shabbiness. Nothing was finished in a harmonious manner together with other things.
  • NYC was a horrendously expensive food city. Case study: a humble plain croissant at Pret a Manger (a British sandwich shop chain) in NYC cost $4.50 + nearly 10% City Tax + 20% tip (yes, tips apply to takeaway as well) = $5.85. In London, the same croissant cost $3.78 (£3.00, including VAT and no tip required) – a 55% premium to eat perhaps the best plain croissant in the world on a NYC avenue! This 50% premium was pretty much throughout all eateries and often higher in the better joints. How do New Yorkers survive? No wonder they are so obsessed with money and status all the time. It must be a perpetual spiral to stress and a breakdown (doctors must make good business there). Just imagine how much more Gordon would charge for his eggs and salad in the Big Apple.
  • The only cheap item we could find was the Subway’s Metrocard. At $34 for unlimited travel on all lines for 7 days, this was cheaper than London’s Underground (at around $64 for the same). However, the Underground is more than twice the Subway experience (clean, simple to understand, does not leak, well lit, lots of artistic merits, pretty, decorated, finished, polished, truly underground, good signage and safe). Whereas the Underground looks the finished article, the Subway looks less than 20% completed.

Our replacement flight left from Newark and like most US airport terminals, ours was quite boring. Virtually no duty free (bizarre in a nation obsessed with money and spending it) and only one dining option. Great views of Manhattan at sunset though. Flight to Heathrow was on time and the taxi ride home was swift and efficient. Good to be back in the land of the civilised, the working, the clean and the quick.

Your correspondent apologises for the over-sized nature of this particular blog, but then New York City is big and deserving of an over-sized write up. New York Baby! Can’t wait to go back.

Feliz Navidad to all!

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