Romancing the Apple
New York City restaurants represent more than just places to grab a bite
I lived in New York City in 1990. For a day. I’d just graduated from the University of Michigan with an English degree. I’d fallen in love with the city the previous summer after a lifelong Manhattanite gave me a proper introduction to the borough, including a restaurant or two. A year later, I was going to take advantage of an offer I’d seen in a newspaper: enroll in a summer class at New York University and get free housing.
I arrived on a hot June day. I took a cab from LaGuardia to the Lower East Side, where my friend Chris lived with other long-haired musicians. Chris had left Michigan a few weeks earlier and found a job at a publishing house, something I was hoping to do after my rent-free summer at NYU.
Once inside Chris’s small apartment, I discovered I’d left one of my bags in the cab; specifically, the bag containing all my toiletries. We promptly went on a mission to replace all my stuff, only to discover that the cab driver had remembered where he’d dropped me off and brought the bag to me. This was the moment I fell in love with New York City.
Rashly, though, I hadn’t investigated how much this class I’d be taking at NYU would cost me, figuring such minor details would work themselves out. I had about $500 in my pocket.
I’d lived my entire life in Michigan and attended an in-state college. Although I knew that out-of-state students at U of M were paying 10 times what I paid as an in-state student, I didn’t consider that I was going to attend a school in New York state. I certainly didn’t think about the fact that NYU is private.
I learned with great disappointment that a single class would cost $1,200. I made my way to Katz’s Deli for an egg bagel with Nova lox and cream cheese to consider my future. I called my parents and told them I would be flying back to Detroit that night.
That fall, my sister started Columbia University’s graduate journalism program, and my father died suddenly. My paradigm shifted, and my desire to live in New York City vanished—but the memories of the people and the varied and authentic foods never faded.
Every day in the 13 years since I lived that one day in New York City, some small part of me has longed to be there. And I’ve traveled from Reno to the Big Apple many times.
My week-long visits include more planning than my entire move in 1990, thanks mostly to the Internet and e-mails from friends and friends of friends.
Airfare and hotel deals come into my in-box plentifully, but sifting through the countless restaurants takes a little more work on my part.
For my most recent trip, I started with the Village Voice’s list of the top 100 inexpensive restaurants in New York City. I’ve learned that I don’t need to go broke visiting New York City; that’s for those people who choose to stay near Times Square, visiting places like the Hard Rock Café and eating at Chevy’s.
On my first night, I dined at Café Mogador, a Moroccan joint in the East Village. A good friend had given me the menu after he dined there a few years ago. I sat outside, so I could watch the people around me. I was fascinated, as always. Distinct accents and languages encircled me. The people all have different hues, different hair textures and nose shapes, different everything—a true mish-mash of America.
I ate the most delicious bowl of couscous ever. Atop the perfect grains were warmly spiced pieces of lamb. On the side was a bowl of chicken broth with turnips, carrots and cabbage, which I poured onto the couscous and lamb to make quite a little stew.
The next night, I went down to XO on Hester Street, an authentic Chinese restaurant with 180 items on the menu. The place was a madhouse. I watched and listened and ordered food based on what those around me were eating, since I couldn’t read the menu. I lucked out, and everything tasted great. (I wasn’t so fortunate on a recent visit to San Francisco when I tried the same trick and wound up with a 1-pound pile of Chinese broccoli, a bowl of vertebrae soup and a plate of fried batter balls.)
Another New York afternoon, I found myself in McSorley’s Ale House. The scent of humanity hit me when I walked in off the street. I saw enough dust on the floor to absorb the 150 years of spills. I sat down and ordered two darks. McSorley’s serves its own beer: light or dark. You get two when you order.
Ancient documents and photographs decorated the walls, illuminating the place’s history. One newspaper article from the early ‘70s informed me that women had not been allowed in the joint until 1970. When I got up to use the bathroom, I discovered just what that meant. There was one unisex bathroom with a window at the back of the pub, so the urinals were in plain sight of half the bar. The stalls were clearly a recently added nicety.
I had a little lunch while I was there: a plate of cheddar cheese, big, fat slices of onion and a sleeve of saltines. Then I got some more beers and a corned beef sandwich. I’m sure I wasn’t the first to walk away from McSorley’s with a smile on my face.
For the coup de grâce, I sat on a stool under the tiled arches at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station and had a pan roast. I watched the oysters, one of at least 25 varieties offered, get shucked. Not only was the food delicious, but I felt like I was sitting in a piece of history.
I think my love affair with New York City is merely a romance with a long-gone time. I can go there and get in touch with those times through the restaurants and the food cooked, served and eaten by people of so many ethnicities. While I’ll probably never live there longer than I did that day in 1990, I can visit and make contact with the unspoken, yet fully acknowledged, significance of it all.