Beyond the super-sized chain stores and familiar coffee sellers and quick-serve restaurants in Times Square, there’s a world of creative bars and eateries and quirky attractions to be found.
From Starbucks to Panera and from Adidas to H&M, it’s tough to think of a major retailer that hasn’t staked out a claim in Times Square. The familiar logos gleam so brightly on storefronts and billboards that it’s one of the few places on Earth that astronauts can spot from outer space. But a crop of talented restaurateurs, bartenders, and visionaries have, in the past few years, given Times Square a jolt of indie spirit so exciting that even jaded locals are braving the crowds and dodging selfie sticks to check out these new destinations. Here are a few that might come to define the area in the future the way the masked Marvel characters and super-sized M&M Store do today.
1. Tiki Fantasy: The Polynesian
The Polynesian (thepolynesiantiki.com) is a tropical affair decked out with teak wood floors and doors, rattan chairs, a lava-stone-topped bar, and Polynesian-art-inspired decorative touches. When you’re sitting at this spot in the Times Square Pod Hotel, and the bartender sets your drink aflame in its ceramic skeleton vessel, it’s really hard to believe you’re only one block from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, an enormous, less-than-charming transit hub—the Polynesian makes you think you're on a very different island. Since it opened in May 2018, the Polynesian has become a major destination for rum lovers, cocktail aficionados, and anyone craving a little tropical escape. But lest you think the tiki drinks here are the sticky-sweet party drink of vacation postcards, the cocktails were created by Brian Miller, one of the early pioneers of New York City’s cocktail renaissance in the early 2000s. His obsession with classic tiki culture and culinary artistry inspired him to design drinks that are equal parts playful and subtle. (Case in point: the Reggae Bus, an island interpretation of a Queens Park Swizzle, with rum, yellow Chartreuse, lime juice, mint, saffron syrup, and bitters.) The space is vast, so come with a group and order one of the large-format punches for the table. And if it's summertime, the terrace, which is equipped with its own separate bar, is a must.
2. A Giant World of Miniatures: Gulliver's Gate
Topless sunbathers soak up the rays on fire escapes, an overturned flatbed truck stalls traffic on the street, and cops investigate a suspicious package on a subway platform. These scenes play out on a minuscule scale at Gulliver’s Gate (gulliversgate.com), an attraction that opened in May 2017 (at no small cost—creating it came with a $40 million price tag). It’s not as well-known as the landmark museums throughout the city or some of the smaller, more specialized museums, but it should be. The miniature New York City is rendered in a 1:87 scale and includes plenty of familiar landmarks, like the New York Public Library and One World Trade Center. But it’s the painstaking attention the dozens of artists and craftsmen gave to capturing the details of the city—subway tiling, taxi cab hubcaps, pedestrians’ clothing and accessories—that make a massive impact. The NYC display is certainly the most expansive part of the sweeping museum, but there are also small reproductions of cities in Great Britain, Russia, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, complete with their iconic sites, old and new. (Look for buildings by Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Daniel Libeskind, and other celebrated modern architects.) Reservations required.
3. A Caffeine-Fueled Oasis: Optimistic Cafe
Blink and you’ll miss it: Optimistic café is one of those rare phenomena, a small but mighty café surrounded in every direction by outposts of the major coffee chains. Reasons stop by this hidden treasure are many: matcha lattes, artisan espresso drinks, cold brew on nitro taps, locally baked pastries, avocado toast, poached eggs with Egyptian spices and, if you’re so inclined, a side of halumi. And here’s the best part: Walking into the cheery space on 39th Street, a dense Garment District artery, feels like the moment Dorothy opens the door of her house onto Oz. There’s a lush “green wall,” tables and counters made of thick slabs of wood, colorful mugs, and minimalist design touches that give a Scandinavian accent to the whole affair.
4. Cocktails in the Clouds: Dear Irving on Hudson
Dear Irving on Hudson (dearirving.com/dear-irving-on-hudson), a few blocks south of Times Square, occupies the 40th and 41st floors in the stylish new Alize Hotel, and with floor-to-ceiling windows and terraces for hanging out in warmer weather, you can bet you won’t forget the altitude. The locale is a spinoff of Dear Irving, a swish cocktail lounge that opened in Gramercy Park in 2015. Meaghan Dorman, who created the drink menu there, steps up again to design a selection of cocktails, some of which nod to New York’s classic history and others that pay tribute to the dynamic creativity driving the city today. Take, for instance, the imaginative Vice Versa: Brooklyn-made Dorothy Parker Gin, grapefruit liqueur, Luxardo Bitter, rosé cava, and grapefruit. The décor here is an ode to James Bond-inspired chic, with groovy, colorful furniture and Art Deco touches. So kick back with a Gibson, order a signature burger, and let the twinkle of the skyline inspire you.
5. Mindful Meat: Farm to Burger
There are burger menus, and then there’s the burger menu at Farm to Burger (farmtoburger.com), a farmhouse-chic affair also in the Alize Hotel. In addition to patties with inspired toppings, like onion marmalade and provolone on the Midtown variety, there are options like the Impossible Burger, the headline-making plant-based creation that actually looks and sizzles like beef, and a thoughtful kids’ menu. So that’s the “burger” part of the name. As far as the farm goes, servers will tell you that the all-natural beef they use comes from cows that were pasture-raised at Fossil Farms in New Jersey. There’s also a Kobe beef option if you’re looking for a splurge.