New York City, March 2000

There's probably no point in writing my usual sort of travel notes, because this was not a typical trip for us. We were visiting a place that was relatively familiar, culturally, though we had not been there for ten years (and the kids, seven and four at the time, had never been there); other family members who lived on the East Coast joined us for part of our stay, with their toddlers; and we could only visit for the week of our children's March Break 2000, plus parts of the bracketing weekend. Even gauged against our former visits to New York, it was unusual; it was not summer, we went to no small galleries or alternative spaces, and saw no live performances. So, rather than describe our activities day-by-day, I will record some impressions that may or may not help other visitors to New York.

I was born in NYC, and constructed a vague and overly romantic personal mythology around the place, which we visited more or less yearly during my childhood. But after going to graduate school on the West Coast, and finding a partner who had family there, my focus shifted to the San Francisco Bay Area. Somehow NYC dropped off the radar screen, especially after having children; it was too crowded, too dirty, too expensive. When an opportunity to go to a conference in the city (which meant that our airfare and hotel would be subsidized) arose in the fall of 1999, we discussed the idea at length. But it was an awkward time in terms of our teaching commitments, and the children would miss school and activities, so we decided to go at a more convenient time, and spend our own money.

We stayed at the Beacon Hotel on the Upper West Side (Broadway near 75th). Our room, booked months in advance, was about the size of a standard double in a typical Hilton or Sheraton, but came equipped with a small kitchenette. It cost us $195/night plus taxes (and there are numerous hotel taxes in NYC). I understand this is a relatively good deal;the room was quite pleasant, and we had no troubles at all, once we changed from our initial placement, which was right opposite the elevator. Other family members booked into the nearby Amsterdam Inn (Amsterdam at 76th), which was much cheaper, but after one's reservation was lost (necessitating an emergency stay at the West Side Y, which does not accept reservations on their single rooms) and others spent a night in a room above a noisy bar with two single beds and the baby on the floor, they decamped and lucked into a one-bedroom suite at the Beacon (Sunday through Wednesday) for the same price.

Though we have a habit of renting apartments on European travels so that I could cook evening meals, I didn't do any cooking at the Beacon, apart from heating water for coffee. There were many excellent food sources nearby. Across the street was Fairway Market, which attempts to marry the funky, chaotic style of the West Coast grocery chain Trader Joe's with extensive meat, seafood, cheese, and prepared food counters. On the same block was Citarella, a more upscale, European-style emporium; and five blocks north was the famous Zabar's, with amazing smoked fish, cheese, prepared foods, and bakery counters, a good selection of "gourmet" products, and a large housewares department on the second floor.

Between these choices, breakfasts were easy. The raisin bagels were good at H&H, but the Columbia Hot Bagels at Zabar's were better for their smoked fish. Citarella had the best morning pastries, though Zabar's had better croissants.

The downside of being on the Upper West Side was that the restaurant scene was unexceptional. The number of children we had to deal with meant that when we ate dinners out, we tended to go to places near the hotel, and go on the early side. I had already decided not to eat the way we do in San Francisco or Berkeley, because it seemed it would cost at least half again as much. The Mad Monk's Guide to NYC, a book through which I flipped in a store, had a nice quote, which I'll paraphrase: "You may have heard that New York is a food town. This is incorrect. San Francisco is a food town. New York is a money town with a lot of places to eat."

We had no outstanding meals in NYC, but no dreadful ones, either. For sushi, we went to Haru, and later had takeout from Kitaro (both on Amsterdam Avenue), after failing to find a Midtown sushi place open for Saturday lunch, and deciding not to brave the lineup at Tomoe Sushi in the Village. A pan-Asian place called Rain was the most upscale meal we had, but we'd tasted better executions of the concept on the West Coast. The noodles at Republic (Union Square) were surprisingly good. Chinese food -- Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown, and Grand Sichuan in Chelsea -- was decent, but somehow lacked real spark. We visited two locations of Gabriela's for Mexican food (not Tex-Mex tacos and burritos); the rotisseried Yucatan chicken was the best deal, but the pozole, tacos al pastor, and tamales were also quite good. We ate twice at Pintaille's Pizza just around the corner from the Cooper-Hewitt and Guggenheim Museums on the Upper East Side, as it seemed to be the only affordable food in the vicinity, but there's only so much you can do with reheated pizza by the slice, even with "wild mushrooms sauteed in Chablis" on it. Jin Dal Lae was a decent attempt to tame Korean food for the Upper West Side, though without the intensity and heat of the mysterious places we frequented when we lived in Toronto's Koreatown. Cafe Con Leche had tasty Cuban food, including lambi (conch), which I hadn't had since visiting Guadeloupe several years previous.

Ironically, an article about San Francisco in the Travel section of the New York Times on the day we left NYC said something to the effect that the writer didn't have a food experience they couldn't recreate in New York. I suppose it depends on your point of view. I have the feeling that the standards of the average diner in the Bay Area are higher, and there is more of a sense of culinary excitement at smaller, less pretentious places.

Payard's Patisserie on the Upper East Side was a slavish recreation of a Parisian bakery and bistro, though they poured on the attitude in a fashion we don't remember even from Laduree on the Rue Royale. The pastries (macarons, caneles) were quite good, though expensive even for takeout. City Bakery just off Union Square was funkier, and their tarts (lemon, chocolate custard, creme brulee) were a better deal. We ate them in the park. The filled-to-order cannoli at Rocco's in the Village had nice crisp crusts, but the filling was a bit runny for my tastes, though this could be a result of having just been filled. Ecce Panis, with several locations in town, seems to provide simple, not too challenging breads and baked desserts. They were a nice reward for tired and hungry children, but I wouldn't go out of my way.

Possibly the best food we had in NYC was the smoked fish from Zabar's: sliced-while-you-watch nova and double-smoked Scotch-cured smoked salmon, sable, and sturgeon. While at Zabar's, I happened across a great deal on Swiss Kuhn-Rikon pressure cookers: a 2-quart and 5-quart duo, list price $299, Zabar's regular discount $180, on sale for $119. I also picked up some Wusthof-Trident Classic Knives on deep discount, and drooled over the ECM Giotto espresso machine.

Kalustyan's near Madison Square seems to be less crowded and more organized than it was when I spent what seemed like hours there as a child while my parents shopped; it has a great selection of rice, though for the more standard varieties you could get a better deal at places like Fairway. But where else to find Calasperra, Chinese black rice, and Bhutanese red rice? Kitchen Market in Chelsea appears to be a narrow Mexican takeout place, but alerted by a friend, I zeroed in on the shelf of chiles behind the cashier. Not only did I locate the elusive chilhuacle, but there were chiles I'd never even heard of, like pasilla de Oaxaca.

Gourmet Garage, at least the location at 96th and Broadway, seems to be a pale imitation of Fairway. Maybe the main Village location is better. Having been through Balducci's and Dean and Deluca on earlier visits, we had no desire to go back.

Bookstores were, by and large, a disappointment. Barnes and Noble has become just another chain superstore: everything you want, but no discrimination, and much more chaff than wheat. The children's section (this was the Lincoln Centre location) was awful. We had somewhat better luck at the children's specialist Books of Wonder downtown, though their nonfiction section was meagre. particularly awful. The Strand, the last of the great used bookstores I used to troll though as an adolescent, has reasonable discounts on just about every new book in the store. But I couldn't find anything I really wanted in the used sections, their cookbook section is chaotic, and the children's section is really pathetic. It's interesting to see so many review copies at half price, but I'd never heard of most of them. Kitchen Arts and Letters is a nice cookbook store on the Upper West Side, run by people who really seem to know what they are doing. But none of these places compare to Green Apple Books in San Francisco, or Cody's or Moe's in Berkeley.

The weekly transit pass is worth the $17 we paid for it, though it's not the bargain that the Parisian Carte Orange is (about the same price, better geographical coverage). The subway seems quite efficient, if you avoid rush hours, though the express/local distinction takes some getting used to. Its north-south orientation is also a bit of a problem, as crosstown buses seemed to take forever to arrive. I understand this is not a new problem.

We visited the "big" museums, sometimes more than once: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and the American Museum of Natural History. It would be fatuous of me to "review" these, especially as we missed the Whitney Biennial by a week (only one floor was open when we went), caught half of each of two shows at MOMA due to staged openings and closings, and saw a nearly unrecognizable Guggenheim with Nam June Paik's video and laser installations. I will confine myself to noting that the recently remodelled sections of the Natural History Museum were a mixed bag (Earth and Space too glitzy, dinosaur and extinct mammal sections with nice layered presentations of information) and the older sections with musty dioramas and cheesy replicas were quite missable. The Met has a nice formula of curated shows largely drawing on their permanent collection, and although there is less on display than at the Louvre, this is ultimately to their advantage.

We'd read a lot about the effects of Mayor Giuliani's authoritarian policies, and it's hard to say how much these affected our expectations, but the city did seem cleaner and calmer. There was no graffiti on the subway trains, the arch in Washington Square was pristine, there was almost no dogshit on the streets, very few panhandlers, no visibly homeless people, and our children were repeatedly offered seats on the subway. We encountered almost no rudeness and frequent friendliness. On the other hand, some of the excitement from the near-bankruptcy, proto-rap days of the 70's is gone. Is this a perverse form of nostalgia? Is it significant that "edgy" doesn't mean anxious and nervous anymore, but means "trying to be innovative"?

It was a strange trip, because we'd fallen into a pattern on recent European visits of going to places with great food, loads of Renaissance art, new cultural nuances to discover, and pleasant cityscapes redolent with classic architecture through which one could spend days just strolling. NYC doesn't really fit that mold, and that might be what made the trip feel awkward. We'll be back, and having gone through both positive and negative myth, perhaps next time we can finally meet the place on mutually acceptable terms.