My New York Is Better Than Yours

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You got a problem with that?

There are 8 million experts in New York City--and counting. Everyone who has ever visited has a different opinion about what's essential.

Some people love the eclectic nightlife at Joe's Pub. Others will only stay at Second Home on Second Avenue. The problem isn't just filtering out what's best, but keeping up with what's new. (Did you know Louis Armstrong's house  is now a museum?) It's an impossible task, even for those of us who live here, but we've become hooked on a website, Manhattan User's Guide (manhattanusersguide.com), which sends out weekday e-mails on everything from the latest hot spots to the most reliable plumbers.

The man behind MUG, Charlie Suisman, agreed to cherry-pick a few places you mustn't miss. Take our advice: Take his. We've had many wonderful meals at Mooncake Foods and Grand Sichuan; we've listened to concerts at Bargemusic; we shop religiously at SSS Sample Sale and the Strand.

New York is a wonderful town. We love it, Charlie and Jorge love it, and whoever is making the T-shirts sold at Pearl River Mart clearly loves it, too. So read on to learn how you'll love it too, on your next visit.  --The Editors

Eats

New York's temples of haute cuisine get so much attention, it's possible to forget that the real pride and joy for locals--who tend to eat out more than other Americans, on average--is the vast array of modestly priced restaurants serving food from all around the globe. We love to eat at Gramercy Tavern and Chanterelle from time to time, but here are some places where you'll find us any night of the week.

Although Chanterelle may be out of the question without a special occasion to justify the price tag, its owners have thoughtfully created Le Zinc, a casual, affordable French bistro. A meal of hanger steak, potato gratin, and tarte tatin for dessert may not be Atkins-friendly, but it's fairly wallet-friendly and delicious.

Hanger steak, as much as we like it, isn't a true New York cut like porterhouse or a New York strip. Peter Luger serves the slabs by which all others are judged, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying The Steakhouse at Fairway--Fairway is a grocery store--where $40 gets you a strip steak plus an appetizer and two sides.

We may be a red-meat town, but we also have a long-standing love affair with the sea. Get your fill of oysters and grilled fish or try a heavenly lobster roll at Mary's Fish Camp, one of the most popular seafood joints in the five boroughs. As a result of that popularity, waits can be long. But in a city that rarely agrees on anything, everyone loves Mary's.

There is no agreement on pizza--fierce battles take place when the question arises of who makes the best. So let's sidestep the entire issue by saying Joe's Pizza does not make the best slice in town. You should go to Joe's anyway, because it may be the most quintessential slice. That means a decently crisp, thin crust, a bright tomato sauce, and plenty of mozzarella (but not too much), served in surroundings that won't encourage you to linger. Anyway, it's very New York to grab a slice and eat it on the run.

You're also not likely to linger at Celeste, an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. It's too noisy and crowded. You'll be glad you joined the throngs, though, waiting for a table (lines are generally short) for marvelous pastas, pizzas, and secondi at extremely reasonable prices. Don't miss the fried artichokes or the cheeses that the owner, uh, personally transports back from Italy.

One of the more unlikely hybrids in recent years has been the gastropub in England. Gastronomy and pub grub were once considered mutually exclusive, but not anymore. The first such restaurant to make a splash here is the Spotted Pig. You may find shepherd's pie on the menu and you'll definitely find hand-drawn cask ale, but April Bloomfield also cooks more sophisticated dishes, such as delectable gnudi--sheep's milk ricotta rolled in semolina flour and sautéed.

Moving eastward, culinarily speaking, Moustache (with both an East Village and a West Village location) serves terrific Middle Eastern fare: falafel, hummus, and what they call "pitzas"--baked pitas with a choice of toppings such as lamb or olive oil, sesame seeds, and herbs.

And so to the Far East. Grand Sichuan cooks up exceptional Chinese food without making you go to Chinatown (there are several locations, though the one at Ninth Ave. and 50th St. is best). Not only are familiar offerings ideally turned out--once you've had their cold noodles with sesame sauce, it's hard to order the dish elsewhere--but they specialize in dishes you don't come across everywhere else. Choose at least one item from the section of the menu called Mao's Home Cooking.

You wouldn't happen upon Mooncake Foods  unless you were walking near the Holland Tunnel for some unaccountable reason. And while it looks like a diner, you won't be eating anything like diner food. Instead, you'll be treated to simple but vibrant Asian cooking, with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai predominating. Just about everything costs less than $10.

A few other food-related tips. If you're passionate about food and want to visit some of the city's ethnic neighborhoods, take a guided tour with NoshWalks. They explore the Indian community and food of Jackson Heights, Queens; the Russian enclave in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; and the Irish section of the Bronx, among others. Most tours are $18.

For noshing on your own, seek out Chelsea Market, a food concourse in the old Nabisco factory building. Highlights include Amy's Bread, Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, and The Green Table, a small, charming restaurant run by a catering company.

Finally, I drop by City Bakery anytime I can. For breakfast, try the superb croissants and rich, smooth coffee. Even if the buffet style doesn't make for a cheap lunch--you're charged by the weight of your plate--you'd be hard-pressed to locate fresher food. Many of the ingredients are from the local greenmarket, which may explain how City Bakery turns vegetables exciting, and there are lovely salads, sandwiches, and a few hot items. Top things off with one of the signature tarts and you just may concede that my New York could, in fact, be better than yours.

  • Gramercy Tavern 42 E. 20th St., 212/477-0777, dinner $72
  • Chanterelle 2 Harrison St., 212/966-6960, dinner $95
  • Le Zinc 139 Duane St., 212/513-0001, hanger steak $23
  • Peter Luger Steak House 178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718/387-7400, steak for two $74
  • The Steakhouse at Fairway 2127 Broadway, 2nd fl., 212/595-1888, appetizer, strip steak, two sides $40
  • Mary's Fish Camp 64 Charles St., 646/486-2185, lobster roll $22
  • Joe's Pizza 233 Bleeker St., 212/366-1182; slice $2.25
  • Celeste 502 Amsterdam Ave., 212/874-4559, ravioli $9.50
  • The Spotted Pig 314 W. 11th St., 212/620-0393, gnudi $11
  • Moustache 90 Bedford St., 212/229-2220; 265 E. 10th St., 212/228-2022; lamb pitza $8
  • Grand Sichuan 745 Ninth Ave., 212/582-2288, cold sesame noodles $3.50
  • Mooncake Foods 28 Watts St., 212/219-8888
  • NoshWalks 212/222-2243, noshwalks.com
  • Amy's Bread 75 Ninth Ave., 212/462-4338, turkey sandwich $6
  • Ronnybrook Farm Dairy 75 Ninth Ave., 212/741-6455
  • The Green Table 75 Ninth Ave., 212/741-6623, sandwich of the day $10
  • City Bakery 3 W. 18th St., 212/366-1414, tart $5
  • Shop

    This is a competitive town, especially when it comes to shopping--we regard it as a sport like any other. Do some warm-up exercises at Century 21 (designer clothes at deep discounts) and J&R Music and Computer World (electronics). Limber up at Broadway Panhandler for kitchenwares. Get your heart rate going at Housing Works Thrift Shop, where the proceeds benefit people with HIV/AIDS. If you're born to shop, though, you'll want to test your game at some of the secret stashes.

    The city is known for its grandes dames of retail, department stores such as Bloomingdale's and Bergdorf Goodman, all of which can be a fine outing. But the Chinese version, beloved Pearl River Mart, is even more fulfilling. It has a quirky selection of housewares (a lamp in the shape of a take-out carton for $19.50), herbal remedies, musical and writing instruments (calligraphy pens, bamboo flutes), and all kinds of goodies that make creative, inexpensive gifts.

    If you're prowling for smart-looking, well-designed objects for your home, it's hard to beat--and equally hard to pronounce--Mxyplyzyk (mix-ee-pliz-ik). It's also hard to say exactly what you'll find there, since the stock changes frequently, and Mxyplyzyk specializes in things that you can't get everywhere else. Suffice it to say, kitchenwares, bags, toys.

    After you've accessorized the rest of your house (or apartment, we New Yorkers being more about the latter) with stuff from Mxyplyzyk, stop by The Bathroom, a store in the West Village with a clear-enough fetish. Savor the fabulous soaps from Europe, as well as towels, skin-care products, and candles, including an alluring cranberry-currant scent from a company called Er'go Candle.

    Kids and sweet-toothed adults must put Dylan's Candy Bar  on their list. A bright, colorful emporium--note the peppermint-swirl bar stools--Dylan's has it all, from old-fashioned Charleston Chews to Dylan's own chocolate truffles. The displays are clever. Order an overflowing gift basket devoted to sugary goodness.

    No points for decor at the next two spots, but there are treasures within if you're a book, record, or CD collector. Footlight Records  specializes in original cast recordings, soundtracks, vocalists, and spoken word. So whether you're clamoring for Rodgers and Hart rarities or an Ennio Morricone film score, this is the place to go. The Strand now proudly boasts "18 miles of books," on every conceivable subject. The basement is the best: In a fairly organized fashion--surprising, since the Strand isn't known for its organizational abilities--are reviewers' copies of new fiction and nonfiction at about half the retail price.

    And now, a place that even most New Yorkers haven't heard of: On the third floor of an office building, the decidedly low-key 17th Street Photo is better than the better-known B&H Photo. A friendly staff offers great prices on cameras (both film and digital), video cameras, photo printers, and binoculars.

    If what you're really interested in is clothing, you've come to the right place. New York is full of fashion bargains. The very best way to score designer duds at gentle prices is to hit the sample sales that are held daily. Originally, sample sales consisted of the pieces used in a designer's showroom or on the runway, but the definition has expanded over the years to include a wide range of never-worn merchandise priced to move. Some sample sales are big, well-planned affairs, others are a mess, and merchandise quality varies. But with a little patience and homework--check New York or Time Out New York magazines the week you're visiting for current listings--you can save over 90 percent off retail. One place that hosts sales almost every week is called SSS Sample Sale --it's always worth scoping out.

    Another terrific source for clothing deals is vintage or consignment stores. Take the word vintage with a grain of salt: You may indeed snag a '60s Dior dress or an even earlier couture piece, but only after looking at lots of clothes from as recently as last year. I like browsing the racks at Fisch for the Hip  (the name comes from owner Terriann Fischer), a consignment shop for men and women, because Fischer seems to take in especially sharp pieces, including the usual suspects--Prada, Gucci, et al. Should your purchases need a little extra sizzle, M & J Trimming , in the Garment District, has endless choices of rhinestones, ribbons, buttons, and trim.

    One last stop before you head home. Flight 001 stocks anything you need to take some of the sting out of travel: onboard amenity kits, games, sleeping masks, luggage, totes, CD players, and noise-canceling earphones. It's almost enough to make flying out of JFK bearable.

  • Century 21 22 Cortlandt St., 212/227-9092
  • J&R Music and Computer World Park Row, 212/238-9000
  • Broadway Panhandler 477 Broome St., 212/966-3434
  • Housing Works 143 West 17th St., 212/366-0820; 306 Columbus Ave., 212/579-7566; 202 E. 77th St., 212/772-8461; 157 E. 23rd St., 212/529-5955
  • Bloomingdale's  59th St. and Lexington Ave., 212/705-2000
  • Bergdorf Goodman Fifth Ave. at 59th St., 800/558-1855
  • Pearl River Mart 477 Broadway, 212/431-4770
  • Mxyplyzyk 125 Greenwich Ave., 212/989-4300
  • The Bathroom 94 Charles St., 800/856-9223
  • Dylan's Candy Bar 1011 Third Ave., 646/735-0078
  • Footlight Records 113 E. 12th St., 212/533-1572
  • Strand Book Store 828 Broadway, 212/473-1452
  • 17th Street Photo 34 W. 17th St., 3rd fl., 212/366-9870
  • B&H Photo 420 Ninth Ave., 212/444-6615
  • SSS Sample Sale 261 W. 36th St., 2nd fl., 212/947-8748
  • Fisch for the Hip 153 W. 18th St., 212/633-9053
  • M & J Trimming 1008 Sixth Ave., 212/391-9072
  • Flight 001 96 Greenwich Ave., 212/691-1001
  • Play

    Start with an unbeatable art world doubleheader--a visit to the Frick Collection followed by a jaunt through the Chelsea gallery district. Inside Henry Clay Frick's beaux arts mansion, 18 galleries of Western art are home to three works by Vermeer, as well as paintings by Degas, Rembrandt, and Gainsborough; then there's what I think of as the "Fun With Fragonard" room. It's a compact, heady spin through the masters.

    A world away, though only on the other side of the island, is the headquarters for contemporary art in New York: Galleries by the score have made their homes over the last few years on the less and less gritty blocks of far west Chelsea. There are major galleries, including Gagosian, Matthew Marks, Sonnabend, and Paula Cooper, but rather than seek out particular ones, I like to wander through the byways. That means exploring vertically--many galleries are tucked upstairs in nondescript buildings.

    The city has always enthusiastically put out the welcome mat for musicians, and few have been more welcome than Louis Armstrong. Since last fall, Armstrong's Corona, Queens, home has been open to the public. He and his wife, Lucille, lived there for decades and you'll find original furnishings, his reel-to-reel recorder, and one of his gold-plated trumpets, all suffused with Satchmo spirit.

    Spirit of an entirely different sort is in evidence nightly at Don't Tell Mama, a piano bar and cabaret in the Theater District. There's no telling what to expect--a musical revue, a cabaret singer, or a Judy Garland impersonator. Joe's Pub, adjacent to the Public Theater in the East Village, is named for the theater's late founder, Joseph Papp. Joe's has perhaps the most exciting roster of singers, musicians, comedians, and assorted offbeat acts anywhere in the city.

    Crazy ideas somehow work in New York, and listening to chamber music on a barge on the East River is among the craziest. Yet Bargemusic is an absolute treat! Audiences listen with rapt attention to world-class musicians while staring out the window at a view of the Manhattan skyline; as music fills the room, the old barge sways and creaks.

    After such subtle sophistication, the new Times Square is a sensory overload. Take in a Broadway show by all means, but don't overlook the more intimate off-Broadway theaters. Playwrights Horizons (which sent I Am My Own Wife over to Broadway, winning the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play and Best Actor) always seems to be up to something interesting. You may catch a work from a rising star playwright or even a musical. The first preview of each production has a limited number of pay-what-you-can seats.

    If you have children in tow, Broadway shows may be too expensive, too long, and not geared to their ages. That's where the New Victory Theater comes in. All shows are meant for kids and their families, running times tend to be on the short side, and the top price is $30. Best of all, productions are generally first-rate. Kids will also have a blast at the American Museum of the Moving Image, in Astoria, Queens. Despite the fancy name, this is a fun place for all ages. There are interactive exhibits, screenings, and a collection of costumes and props that includes the chariot from Ben-Hur.

    Central Park, which turned 150 in 2003, has never been more beautiful, and it maintains its considerable charms in all seasons. But the big news comes from the string of parks that have sprouted up  along the Hudson River  in the past few years. They start at the southern tip of Manhattan with Wagner Park--from which you can admire the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island--and continue northward, jutting occasionally onto reclaimed piers. It's still a work in progress, but eventually the parks will extend all the way to Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. Walking along the Hudson, you'll see people of all shapes, sizes, and colors enjoying the city we've all come to appreciate ever more ardently.

    Going to Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers stood, is a pilgrimage for many visitors. The rebuilding is now under way and visible from the viewing area, but also be sure to stop into St. Paul's Chapel--miraculously unharmed in the tragedy--directly across from the WTC site. In the weeks following the disaster, rescue workers and cleanup squads found refuge at the chapel. A permanent exhibit recounts those days.

    A stroll away, in Battery Park City, is the Skyscraper Museum . It's a fascinating exhibit, irresistible to anyone who loves cities. Even if we all know that no city can possibly compare with this one.

  • The Frick Collection 1 E. 70th St., 212/288-0700, frick.org, $12
  • Gagosian Gallery 555 W. 24th St., 212/741-1111, gagosian.com, free
  • Matthew Marks Gallery 523 W. 24th St., 212/243-0200, matthewmarks.com, free
  • Sonnabend Gallery 536 W. 22nd St., 212/627-1018, free
  • Paula Cooper Gallery 534 W. 21st St., 212/255-1105, free
  • Louis Armstrong House 34-56 107th St., Corona, Queens, 718/478-8274, satchmo.net, $8, kids $6
  • Don't Tell Mama 343 W. 46th St., 212/757-0788, donttellmama.com
  • Joe's Pub 425 Lafayette St., 212/539-8778, joespub.com
  • Bargemusic Fulton Ferry Landing, Dumbo, Brooklyn, 718/624-4061, bargemusic.org
  • Playwrights Horizons 416 W. 42nd St., 212/564-1235, playwrightshorizons.org
  • New Victory Theater 209 W. 42nd St., 646/223-3020, newvictory.org
  • American Museum of the Moving Image 35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria, Queens, 718/784-0077, movingimage.us, $10, kids $5
  • St. Paul's Chapel 209 Broadway, 212/233-4164, saintpaulschapel.org
  • The Skyscraper Museum 39 Battery Pl., 212/968-1961, skyscraper.org, $5
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