I'M A NEW YORKER, so it should come as no surprise that I think my city is the greatest city in the world.
I like living in the city where so many of my favorite films take place, where nearly every street corner reminds me of some piece of lurid personal or criminal history. "Crazy Joe Gallo was shot here . . . Big Paul Castellano got whacked there . . . Used to score there . . . That place used to be a speakeasy . . . My old methadone clinic . . . That used to be an after-hours club . . ."
It may not be the most beautiful city. It's not the nicest city (though it is, sadly, getting nicer). And it's certainly not the easiest city to live in.
One minute you're on top of the world, and the nextlike when you wish to light up a smoke at a bar and can'tyou're wallowing in misery and self-pity, unable to decide between murder and suicide.
But it is exactly those famously manic highs and lows that make New York, and Manhattan in particular, like nowhere else. I mean, you can talk London or Paris or Barcelona all you like, but we're open all night: I can pick up the phone around midnight and get just about anything I want delivered to my apartment: Chinese food, Lebanese, sushi, pizza, a video, a bag of seedless hydro, a human head.
I think I know what I'm talking about here. I've been other places. I travel a lotabout eight months out of the year. And while I love London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Melbourne, Hanoi, Salvador, Saint Petersburg, Tokyo, and Saint Sebastian like old friends, I miss my city when I'm away too long. As much as enjoy getting lost, disappearing into another place, another culture, another cuisine, there are places and flavors, sounds, smells, and sights I begin to yearn for after three or four weeks eating fish heads and rice.
When people from other cities, planning a trip to New York (or the city, as we locals are apt to call it), ask me where they should eat, where they should go, where they should drink during their stay, they are often surprised at my answers.
Sure, we have some of the best high-end restaurants in the world here, but that's not what I miss when I'm wiping fermented bean paste off my chin, or trading shots of bear-bile-infused rice whiskey in Asia. When visiting Manhattan one should go for things that we do really well and the rest of the world doesn't.
Example? Deli. We have it; you don't. Even Los Angeles, with no shortage of Jews, can't get it right. For whatever mysterious reasons, no city on the planet can make deli like New York deli and the first thing I start to miss when away from home too long is breakfast at Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King, on Amsterdam Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street.
Sunday breakfast at Barney's is one of those quintessential New York things to do: a crowded, ugly dining room, unchanged for decades; wobbly tables; brusque waiters; generic coffee. But their eggs scrambled with dark, caramelized onions and lox, served with a fresh toasted bagel or bialy, are ethereal, and the home-team crowd of Upper West Siders is about as "genuine New York" as you can get. Grab a copy of the Sunday New York Times and a copy of the Post, and dig in. If your waiter seems indifferent, don't let it bother youhe's like that with everybody.
You can buy some of the legendary smoked sturgeon or Nova Scotia salmon at the counter to take away, but you will surely be committing a sin against God if, after breakfast, you neglect to purchase a pound of what is far and away the best chopped liver on earth. Hand-chopped chicken livers, schmaltz (chicken fat), sauteed onions, and hard-cooked eggs . . . it's the benchmark to which all others should aspire.
No visit to New York is complete without a proper pastrami sandwich, and New Yorkers will argue over who's got the best like they're fighting over Bosnian real estate. But a safe bet is Katz's Deli on East Houston for a nearly-as-big-as-your-head pile of steaming hot pastrami, sliced paper thin and stacked between fresh seeded rye bread. The appropriate beverage is a Dr. Brown's cream soda or Cel-Ray. And be nice to your waitress; chances are she can kick the shit out of you.
Pizza is another subject on which New Yorkers have strong opinions. If you feel like humping out to Brooklyn, to Di Fara's, you can get the best of the best. But I like the white clam pizza at Lombardi's on Spring Street, when I don't feel like getting my passport punched for a pie. They serve only whole pies at Lombardi's, so if you want to master the manly New York art of walking down the street while eating a slice of pizza, you'll have to grab one at any of the ubiquitous mainstream joints. Just remember: feet slightly apart, head tilted forward and away from chest to avoid the bright orange pizza grease that will undoubtedly dribble down. Be aware of the risk of hot, molten "cheese slide," which has been known to cause facial injury and genital scarring.
Everybody has seen Central Park on television, and yes, it is dramatic and beautiful, but I love Riverside Park, which runs right along the Hudson River from Seventy-second Street up to Grant's Tomb. On weekends during warm months, there's a large Dominican and Puerto Rican presence, huge picnics with radios blaring salsa and soca music, large groups of family and friends playing basketball, volleyball, and softball while slow-moving barges and tankers scud by on the river.
Speaking of sports, the West Fourth Street basketball courts on lower Sixth Avenue host some of the best nonprofessional, street basketball in the world. Professionals have been known to drop byand they get a game, much of it elbows and shoulders. A large crowd rings the outer fence three and four deep to watch some of the city's most legendary street players.
When I've been home for a while and I need to treat myself to an expensive spirit-lifting experience, I always think sushi. And Yasuda on East Forty-third Street is the place to go for old-school Edo-style sushi and sashimi, the fish servedas it should benear room temperature, the rice still warm and crumbly. I always book the omakase (the tasting menu, literally, "you decide") on a day when Yasuda serves up sublime, tasty bits of screamingly fresh, rare, hard-to-get, flawlessly executed seafood. I can spend a whole afternoon there, eating whatever comes my way, working my way through every available option: mounds of sea urchin roe; top-drawer fatty otoro tuna; sea eel; yellowtail; mackereland the occasional surprise.
On a recent visit I was served some Copper River salmon roe, before season, from the chef's personal stash.
If I find myself in the neighborhood late at night, just across the street, through an anonymous office building lobby, down a flight of fire stairs to a cellar and through a plain door, is Sakagura, a huge, nearly all-Asian late-night joint with a mammoth selection of sakes and accompanying snacks. Guaranteed to inspire exclamations of "How did you find this place?!" among your envious friends.
Sneer at hot dogs all you want. A well-made wiener is a thing of beauty. Actually, even a bad hot dog can be a beautiful thingif you're eating it at Yankee Stadium washed down with a warm, watery beer (as long as the Yanks are winning). I'll go so far as to say you will never understand New York, or New Yorkers, until you've eaten too many bad hot dogs and drunk too much cheap beer at a night game at the stadium. Similarly, Rudy's Bar on Ninth Avenue serves terrible hot dogs too. Free ones.
But ambiance counts for a lot, and after plenty of mid-afternoon drinks (never go at night) listening to their magnificent jukebox, watching the daytime drinkers slump over onto the bar, those lightbulb-warmed weenies suddenly seem like a good idea. If you want a quality hot dog, however, the best by consensus is at the legendary Papaya King on East Eighty-sixth Street.
Be sure to enjoy your dog with their frothy delicious papaya drinkand if you put ketchup on your dog I will fucking kill you.
New York's subway system is certainly not among the best in the world, and I miss the full-length graffiti pieces, the tribal markings that once made the cars so menacing and evocative of classic New York films like Death Wish. But I still love the people-watching late at night on the Number 9 or A train. The sound of people talking, that gorgeous, jazzlike mix of Brooklynese, Spanglish, Noo Yawk; the hard faces New Yorkers put on like masks to get through the day.
There are, once in a great while, magical moments, when united by a shared laugh or outrage, passengers will let the veil drop and actually acknowledge each other with a sardonic smile, a shaken head, a caustic remarkor like one time, when a deranged drunk was harassing a tired-looking woman and the entire car rose up and chased him off the train, a momentary united front.
For late-night bad behavior, I am a devoted regular at Siberia Bar, located on Fortieth Street in Hell's Kitchen, a few doors east of Ninth Avenue. There's no sign. Just look for the unmarked black doors under the single red lightbulband leave your conscience at the door.
If Satan had a rumpus room, it would look a lot like Siberia: squalid, dark, littered with empty beer cartons, the ratty furniture stained with the bodily fluids of many guilty souls. It's my favorite bar on earth; it has a great jukebox of obscure mid-seventies punk classics, and no matter how badly you behave at night, no one will remember the next day. The crowd is dodgy and unpredictable. You never know who's going to be draped over couches upstairs, or listening to live bands in the dungeonlike cellar; rock and rollers, off-duty cops, drunken tabloid journalists, cast and crew from Saturday Night Live, slumming fashionistas, smelly post-work chefs and cooks and floor staff, kinky politicos, out-of-work bone-breakers, or nodding strippers.
If I gotta put on a tie or a jacket, the food better be damn goodand the food at Scott Bryan's Veritas on East Twentieth Street is always worth struggling into a shirt with buttons.
It's also got the best wine list and one of the most knowledgeable sommeliers in New York. (Not that it matters to me; I usually drink vodka.) Scott's a friend, so I often sit at the bar and snack off the appetizer menu, but his braised dishes and seafood mains are always exceptionally good.
Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin on West Fifty-first Street is, in my opinion, the best restaurant in New York, but then Eric is also a pal, so don't trust me. (The Zagats, Michelin, and the New York Times, however, are similarly enthusiastic.)
Le Bernardin is my default special-event destinationeven though Eric busts my balls fiercely every time I dine there: "What are you doing here? You sell-out! This ees not your kind of place! What ees happening to you? You've changed, man. You used to be cool!"
The ultimate New York dining experience, however, may not be in a restaurant at all. For me, it's a rainy, lazy night at home in my apartment.
I'll smoke a fat spliff, lay out some old newspapers on the bed, and call out for Chinese. I'll eat directly out of that classic New York vessel, the white cardboard takeout container, and watch a rented movie from nearby Kim's Video.
Kirn's specializes in hard-to-find exploitation, genre, cult, and art-house favorites, organized by director, so I can say, give me a Dario Argento, an early John Woo, Evil Dead II, The Conformist, or that Truffaut film where the two guys are both fucking Jeanne Moreau.
Food never tastes better.
© Anthony Bourdain, 2006