Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Food: Stand-alone Diners Parts 4 + 5

Last weekend I finally crossed the last stand-alone diner off my list when I ate at Star on 18 in Chelsea. The week before, I had eaten at no. 4, the Market Diner in Hell's Kitchen. Of the two, the Market Diner was definitely the more interesting (at least aesthetically), although Star on 18 had better food and exceptional service.

The Market Diner is on 11th Ave between 43rd and 44th streets and is open 24 hours. Not only does the Market have outdoor seating (like the Square Diner) but they also have dedicated parking, which is such an odd sight in Manhattan. The inside is also suspiciously spacious and they could probably fit twice as many tables if they squeezed them in like most New York restaurants are so fond of doing.

The decor is part diner, part 60s Howard Johnson and is a little space-agey and a whole lot of orange. They had real flowers on each table, which was a nice touch (no fake dew drops here), and the egg-and-cheese sandwich I had was quite good.

I was totally enamored with the huge 'diner' sign, until I started to walk away, turned around and saw that the opposite side was even better — the beautiful script 'market' and silvery blue, white and red color palette is the stuff all of my diner sign dreams are made of.

Oh, and Ice-T was waiting for a table when we left, which makes it the only diner of the five where I had a bonafide celebrity sighting — I didn't say anything because I'm a super cool and jaded New Yorker now, but I did wait outside for 20 minutes awkwardly staring at him and deciding whether or not I should approach him (because of Law and Order of course, not his rap career).

Star on 18 was the most disappointing of the five diners, architecturally speaking, and if I hadn't been looking for it I would probably have never given it a second glance. Apparently they at least used to have the word 'diner' accompanied by illustrations of traditional diner foods painted on the side of the cement building but it looked as if it had been freshly painted (it also used to be blue).

The inside is loaded with traditional charm, with a counter, stools (with backs!) and rows of booths. The painted windows were a nice spring touch, and from where I sat I had a nice view of the High Line. Our waitress was wonderful and the food was a notch above average diner fare — the eggs weren't greasy, the bacon was crisp and my waffle came with a cup of real, infinitely spreadable butter (no frozen or impossible-to-open packets).

I'm sort of sad that I've eaten at all five of the stand-alone diners on my list already, in the way that I get sad when I finish a good book. I'm also sad in a different way that there are only five stand-alone diners left in Manhattan to begin with, and that there probably won't be anymore opening anytime soon (if ever). Luckily all five are definitely worth revisiting and there are four other boroughs (and a lot more "regular" diners in Manhattan) to keep me in waffles every weekend.

Stand-alone diners: Parts 1 + 2, Part 3

Thursday, April 17, 2014

BBG: Cherry Blossoms

Two years ago this week I saw the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the first time ever. In fact, it was my first time really seeing cherry blossoms en masse and I was instantly enchanted. I wasn't able to see them last year because I was back in Ohio, but I've been looking forward to cherry blossom season ever since.

Well, this year I managed to schedule two back-to-back weekend trips (to Texas, then Ohio) right during what is usually peak blossom season. Thanks to the crazy cold/long winter that we've had the blooms are definitely delayed, and I'm hoping that I can still catch them at peak bloom after I get back. I didn't want to take any chances, however, so I knew I had to find a way to see whatever had started to bloom before I left. I had yesterday (and Tuesday) off work because of Passover (the joys of working for a Jewish cultural institution) and although it was cold — it actually snowed again Tuesday night — it was brilliantly sunny so I went to check on the cherry trees at the BBG.

Not a single tree in the cherry esplanade is in bloom yet, but thankfully a handful of other trees around the garden have gotten an early start. I took so many photos that I was actually fearful of filling up my 32 gb memory card, but I just couldn't stop myself. Every time I walked two feet the view was even better than the previous one and the light was so beautiful that I couldn't put down my camera.

I'm certainly not an expert, but there are at least a few different varieties of cherry trees at the BBG — from white and pale pink to brighter, almost fuchsia blooms. They come in different sizes and configurations, some trees have weeping branches (my favorite) and some have twisty black limbs that contrast with the pale blossoms in the best way.

Especially after the winter we've had this spring feels well-deserved and very much overdo. I can't really even convey how happy it made me to be walking around and under such incredible beauty, but words aren't really necessary or could ever be adequate in situations such as these — good thing I maxed out my computer hard drive with photos documenting nearly every single blossom I came across.

I'm going to try to make a return trip at the beginning of May and hopefully catch the rest of the late bloomers, but I won't feel as if I've missed out if for some reason I can't make it. I doubt they'll be in peak bloom for the Sakura festival next weekend, although that's definitely something I'd like to check out next year.

I'd also like to plan a trip to DC for their cherry blossom festival even if I fear that I might actually die of happiness if I actually make it there during peak bloom season. If I do, just dig a hole, throw my body in and plop a cherry tree on top — I don't know if I believe in reincarnation, but there are way worse things to come back as than a crazy beautiful blossoming cherry tree.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


A few weeks ago I ended up in Washington Square Park during in the middle of a wonderful, wandering Saturday (after eating at the Square Diner and visiting the smallest cemetery) and ended up spending a few hours completely fascinated by a woman making enormous bubbles. I've seen the huge bubble makers before — in Central Park mostly — and I never cease to be amazed at every single bubble.

It's quite a simple set up, but of course the bubbles are so unique every single time that it never gets boring. It's also fun to watch people interact with the bubbles, although I do get annoyed that they attract bratty kids who like to pop them immediately after they're made.

I have found, however, that if I wait around long enough I'll eventually see someone get soaked by a popped bubble or if I'm really lucky I'll witness a particularly overzealous kid slipping and falling in the residue, which makes me feel as if there might be a tiny bit of justice/balance in the world (he was totally ok - I'm not THAT much of a monster).

This was also the first time that I'd watched a bubble maker (that sounds weird but they're not bubble blowers because they just sort of let the wind do its thing) since I got my new camera, so I went a little crazy trying to capture the perfect bubble photo. There were a ton of other people trying to do the same thing so I didn't feel too awkward, and I certainly fared better than the guy I saw get totally soaked trying to get a close-up shot.

As far as street/park performers go, the bubble makers are definitely some of my favorite — far less obnoxious than the "IT'S SHOWTIME" guys but still not quite as impressive as the person I saw (also in Washington Square) playing a full-size piano or the guy in Times Square who walks around with a cat on his head. Mozart and I really need to step up our game, but until then I'm content to watch other people's crazy talents and occasionally photograph them (or better still, photograph the people photographing them with their iPads).

Monday, April 14, 2014

BBG Bonsai Museum

A few weekends ago Jim and I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden because I convinced him that the daffodil hill must be in bloom. Well, it was a total fail because only about four daffodils were actually in bloom and I said more than once "yeah but just imagine how beautiful they'll be when they finally do appear." The garden is free from 10 am - noon on Saturdays, so I can't really complain. There's always something interesting to see, even if nature doesn't always cooperate with my expectations.

My favorite part this time was the bonsai museum, which I think was being worked on when I went last year, but now is really fantastic. It's occupies a small space in the conservatory, which is fine because bonsai trees are teeny tiny and completely adorable.

Apparently their collection of about 350 trees is the "second oldest in the country and one of the largest on public display outside Japan, with as many as 30 specimens on exhibit at any given time." Bonsai trees really need no frills in their display to make them interesting, they're totally cool just on their own.

One of the trees on view when we went was almost 300 years old, and another almost 200. The art of Bonsai is just kind of baffling to me and they never cease to blow my mind a little. I have a really hard time actually believing that they're real and the fact that they are just seems impossible to me.

And really it's kind of cheating because everything looks better in miniature. Is there anything cuter in nature than these teeny tiny neon green pine needles growing on this teeny tiny pine tree? Nope.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

First and Third Cemeteries of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue

After I visited the smallest cemetery in Manhattan and noticed that it was called the "second" cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, I did some investigating Googling and discovered that there are actually three separate burial grounds associated with the Congregation of Shearith Israel. Once I also learned that both the first and the third cemeteries were still in existence, I knew I had to "collect all three," and this past weekend I did just that.

All three cemeteries are in Manhattan — the first is at 55 St. James Place near Chinatown, the second is on West 11th in Greenwich Village and the third is on 21st Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Chelsea. The first cemetery dates back to 1656 and is the first Jewish cemetery in the United States (the Congregation is the oldest in North America). It's larger than the second, gated (and locked) like the other two, and raised above sidewalk-level so I had to stand on my tip-toes to get a good look.

The first cemetery is definitely one of the oldest burial grounds that I've ever visited. Although the exact location of the original cemetery is not known, it was established at its current location in 1683 which is still about 200 years older than most of the cemeteries that I've seen. It actually holds the distinction of being the second oldest cemetery in Manhattan, after Trinity Churchyard on Wall Street (and only certain parts of that cemetery are older). Over the years the land has been chiseled away by city expansion and erosion and sadly a lot of the bodies have been disinterred.

The third cemetery was in use from 1829-1851 and is in such a modern/trendy area of town that it definitely looks out of place. There is a Trader Joe's directly across the street, which I'm sure is not what the initial residents had in mind, but being so close to such delicious (and cheap!) food isn't a bad way to spend eternity, if you ask me. It also appears to be the largest of the three, and is the one in the best condition (a plaque on the fence mentions a recent restoration).

The grounds look well-kept, although a lot of the stones are falling or have fallen over and some are in multiple pieces. It was a little hard to see from far away, but it even looks as though one of the pathways in the back is actually just fallen tombstones, lined up one right after the other.

I was kind of annoyed that all three were locked, and I wonder if they're ever really open to the public (from what I have read it seems as if at least the first one is open for a prayer ceremony around Memorial Day). Part of me is thankful that the gates/locks help to preserve the historical sites, but part of me just really loves wandering around cemeteries and looking at the headstones up close. A lot of the stones are worn to the point of being unreadable, some have Hebrew inscriptions and some are separated from the others by miniature fences of their own.

It's still hard for me to believe that I had no idea these three cemeteries even existed until a few weeks ago. I'm constantly surprised by how often I discover something new (to me at least) in this city, especially within the less-than-thirty square miles of Manhattan, alone. I like having a project or a list to complete, so the completionist in me totally loved the thrill of discovering a "set" of cemeteries, and being able to visit them all so easily. Of course just as soon as they had gone on my list I checked them off, but that's the fun of a city like New York — I'm sure there are plenty of other interesting places waiting to be (re)discovered right around the corner.

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