I once found a birthday card for my husband in a shop in Soho that had a checklist of everything you say when you get old. Our favorite is “That used to be a…” It’s a phrase you can’t avoid in New York City: Every place here used to be some other place. But when you live in the Big Apple for a while—say, 12 years, like I did—the city performs a magic trick on you. Your favorite restaurants and parks and bars construct an era that doesn’t seem to change, until you decamp for the suburbs, as my husband and I did in 2019. Then the city suddenly surges into the future without you. You’ll visit, and whole blocks that you loved will be unrecognizable. Other people will live inside them, and New York will be their city. There’s something strangely comforting in that idea, though: One day, my 9-month-old son could have his very own New York, the same way I did, and the same way hundreds of millions of people have over the last 400 years. Maybe he will invite me to visit him. When I do, I know the first words that will come out of my mouth: “That used to be a…”
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Classic bagels, a swanky spa, and a legendary watering hole
One of my goals in reporting this story was to find out how New York has changed in the three years since I left—and I’m happy to report that our first destination has not changed in the last 114 years. The Upper West Side’s Barney Greengrass serves, according to both me and Anthony Bourdain, “the best breakfast in the universe.” I always get the same thing here: A bagel with scallion cream cheese and paprika-dusted Pacific sable. Alex (my husband) prefers the sturgeon, which is firmer— the steak of fish. Adrian (my son) is a baby. He has milk.
Next, we’re off to the American Museum of Natural History, another institution that is largely the same as it’s ever been. (If they ever get rid of the 21,000-pound blue whale hanging in the Hall of Ocean Life, I’ll plotz.) There is, however, some new stuff: This May, the oldest gallery, the Northwest Coast Hall, reopened bigger, bluer, and more sensitive to the living indigenous communities it showcases. The Halls of Gems and Minerals, meanwhile, reopened in 2021 and are like a mermaid’s cache of glittering, fluorescent, dizzyingly expensive rocks. I could spend all day in here trying to invent names for the otherworldly colors. Grenadine Sequin? Cosmic Tangelo?
Eventually, my husband has had enough of the color names (Electro-Clam?), and we head south, to a part of town I remember mostly as a perpetual construction zone. Hudson Yards, the largest private mixed-use real estate project in U.S. history, opened in March of 2019, and it’s now a fully operational mini-neighborhood of multimillion-dollar condos, tony restaurants, and stores for people who own private jets. Inside this playground for the ultra-rich is José Andrés’s takeout-friendly food hall, Mercado Little Spain, where we stop to piece together a tapas lunch to go. Is this the first time anyone has ever eaten Manchego and charcuterie, wood-fired paella, and churros with imported chocolate over a parking garage barricade while their son naps? Possibly.
The holy grail of the New York City vacation is the mid-day refresh, and this too can be found in Hudson Yards, where the marble-tinged finance-bro gym chain Equinox opened a wellness-themed hotel in 2019. The spa has a thing called a Wave Table, a glowing waterbed that subtly vibrates while you nap on it beneath a weighted blanket. Leaving Adrian in the hands of my altruistic husband, I don a sweatshirt-style robe, lie on this thing for 30 minutes while spa music plays on a set of headphones, and enjoy the sweet release of sleep.
I could hang out in the relaxation pods overlooking the West Side rail yard all afternoon, but I should probably relieve my husband of baby duty. Adrian’s bedtime is fast approaching, but we still need dinner, so on our way back to the hotel we stop by a new sandwich shop we’ve heard people are “losing their minds over.” (That’s a direct quote from my editor.) All’Antico Vinaio is the first U.S. outpost of a Florence shop famous for fat, juicy, square sandwiches—real two-handers—stuffed with delicately sliced meats (porchetta, salami, mortadella), rich cheeses, and unusual spreads, like truffle and pistachio creams. I live in New Jersey, so I know from Italian sandwiches, and the two we order (L’Inferno, with spicy nduja sausage, and La Favolosa, with salami and pecorino and artichoke spreads) are the stuff of legend.
We eat those sandwiches in Bryant Park—aka the backyard of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library—while Ephrat Asherie Dance, a contemporary dance troupe with roots in African American and Latinx street styles, performs feats of physical brilliance. It turns out we’ve stumbled upon the park’s weekly Picnic Performances—free dance, opera, music, and plays for people who would rather enjoy their theater under 80-year-old London plane trees than in a stuffy box. People with babies, for example. There are even free blankets you can borrow. What a city.
With that, it’s bedtime. We’ve arranged for childcare tonight through the Baby Sitters’ Guild, which has been in operation since 1940 and provides experienced sitters to travelers, hotels, conferences, and weddings. Our sitter, Marva, arrives promptly, says hello to Adrian, and hangs out in our en suite living room at The Chatwal while we get him to sleep. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have children what it feels like to leave your baby for the evening: a combination of losing your phone and boarding a flight to Europe.
It is in this freewheeling, slightly light-headed spirit that we make the seven-minute walk to Pebble Bar, which is the rare New York City spot that is both exactly what it used to be and something entirely new. Named for a Jack Kerouac line about its location (“the pebble at the hem of the shoe of the immense tall man which is the RCA Building”), the bar is a revival of a classic’s classic, a landmark so New York that its reopening attracted Mark Ronson, Jason Sudeikis, and Pete Davidson as investors. That landmark? An Irish bar called Hurley’s, which opened in 1892 and became so beloved among the NBC staff (Johnny Carson, John Belushi, and David Letterman among them) that the studio had a phone line installed. They nicknamed the bar Studio 1-H. It was basically a Saturday Night Live clubhouse.
Perfectly recreating a place like that is impossible, so Pebble Bar is its own invention. Today, it feels like a tastefully appointed private club, with drinks like the Kerouac daiquiri (two kinds of rum, lime, and demerara, served in a delicate Champagne coupe). There’s a vibe in here: It feels like the sun is always setting over Sixth Avenue, and a finance guy in French cuffs is making some kind of deal at the next table. When you live in the suburbs, this kind of energy is as rare as it is invigorating. I never worked at NBC, but I was on Today once, and I say this place works. Bring back the phone line.
A little island, a big photography museum, and a huge piece of meat
The Chatwal, where we’re staying, is one of New York’s old-guard hotels, a 1905 grande dame that once housed a theatrical guild called the Lambs Club. The location is a half block off a stretch of 44th Street that was once called “club row,” because that’s where you could find the Harvard Club of New York City, the New York Yacht Club, the Penn Club, and the Algonquin Hotel (essentially the New Yorker Club). I’m saying it’s fancy. I’m saying that when we leave for breakfast, the doormen say good morning to Adrian and help us carry the stroller down the stairs.
I’ve been wanting to visit Little Island since the man-made plot of land popped up, mushroom-like, in Hudson River Park in 2021. From afar, it looks like something out of a Studio Ghibli film—like if you got up close you’d find out it was actually animated. I’ve heard that it can get busy in the afternoons, but luckily it’s coffee o’clock in the morning, so we’re off to see it before anyone else is up. We walk south, stopping at Sullivan Street Bakery (open since 1994) in Chelsea for cold brew and bomboloni, airy Italian cream puffs that come filled with silky chocolate or vanilla pastry cream or tangy seasonal jam.
Little Island is small but lives up to its promise, with fairy-tale-worthy glades and meandering stairwells. We stomp on a grid of metal plates called “dance chimes” and take pictures of our bomboloni in front of the skyline before devouring them. Adrian bats at a fern for a while. We change him on a park bench.
Then it’s lunchtime, which means we’re headed back to Hudson Yards. When I first got in touch to ask about bringing a baby to Ci Siamo, I was surprised that the staff was into it: The place is nice—like, European-business-hotel, earth-tone-leather nice—but when we arrive, there’s an adorable mint-colored high chair set out for Adrian. We sit down to the first chic restaurant meal we’ve ever had with the baby: a pair of fried goat cheese gnocchi puffed up to the size of pillows; cavatelli with Maine crab and vermouth, like the best night of summer in a bowl; an amaro cocktail lightly salted so it tastes as round as the letter O. Adrian, incredibly, even tries a tiny bit of the buttery soft tongue tonnato. (His review: “Babababa blpppppppp.”)
While we’re devouring a caramelized onion torta that tastes like someone waved a wand over French onion soup and made it bread, chef Hillary Sterling swings by our table. We learn why the food is so incredible, and also why Adrian is so welcome: Sterling is obsessed with live-fire Italian cooking… and she has a 5-week-old son. Having recently had a 5-week-old son myself, I tell Sterling she looks surprisingly chipper for having a brand-new baby. “By the time I get home, I’ve got two hours until the first wake-up,” she says, smiling that very specific parental smile of both love and utter exhaustion. “But my wife and I managed to get away to Long Island recently for oysters and beers.”
I make a mental note that oysters may be the secret to curing weariness. (I’ll try anything.) For now, though, it’s time for art. We board an Uber with a car seat for the 15-minute drive to Fotografiska, a photography museum imported from Sweden that opened at the end of 2019. Executive director Sophie Wright is waiting for us in the lobby café/gift shop when we arrive. She recently moved from London to New York, and she clearly still has that new arrival’s awe about the city. That excitement extends to Fotografiska itself, which is located in the rambling 1890s Church Missions House and is as much a community center as it is a museum. “It’s sort of a 360 experience,” Wright says. “We have the café where people come and meet in the mornings. We’ve got evening events upstairs. You can have wine here before going to the exhibitions.” The idea is that photography is a living art, and you’ve got to enjoy it that way.
Each of Fotografiska’s exhibition floors hosts a single show. Each is also a world unto itself, with lighting and music selected in collaboration with the artists: Silence is the soundtrack for a devastating selection of war photography by James Nachtwey. Black Venus, which examines the representation of the black female body, meanwhile, has a 1920s Josephine Baker vibe; it’s inspiring.
Freshly stimulated, we’re off across the East River to the new Ace Hotel Brooklyn, which opened in 2021 in an area near the borough’s downtown that used to be home mostly to chain stores and Barclays Center traffic. The hotel is an ode to the Brooklyn of a very specific era (cough, the mid-aughts) that hits me right in the old nostalgia bits. If I didn’t have any responsibilities, I would buy a vintage velvet dress and refuse to leave the lobby bar until someone named a drink after me… but I have a family now, which means I put on pants and usher in another babysitter, so Alex and I can visit another refurbished classic’s classic. (I’m noticing a trend.) This time, it’s Gage & Tollner, a clubby steak and chop house that first opened in 1879 and ultimately closed in 2004. The space did time as an Arby’s and a TGI Fridays before restaurateur St. John Frizell and his partners lovingly resuscitated it last year.
“The last time I had seen it, it was a clothing store, almost like a flea market,” Frizell says of the dining room. “All of the woodwork and beautiful mirrors were hidden behind these false walls.”
Now, Gage & Tollner is back to being a convivial fin-de-siècle dining destination, as opulent as the Grand Central Oyster Bar. As at all great chop houses, the food is indulgent in the best way: We start with crispy hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and luscious chicken liver pâté, then order martinis off a list mined entirely from G&T’s 125 years of menus. Alex and I feel as revitalized as the luminous dining room, drinking martinis and slurping oysters under the original Victorian-era light fixtures.
“Can you believe we used to go out like this whenever we wanted?” I say, over a monster pork shank with grits and fermented cranberry jam that neither of us cooked, and which neither of us will clean up. “No,” Alex says, wistfully. We stare off into space for a minute, appreciating the peace of our earlier lives. Then we open our phones and watch videos of Adrian giggling.
Breakfast burritos, artsy birdhouses, and old-school Thai food
A strange thing happened during this year’s James Beard awards: The judges nominated a New Mexican breakfast burrito joint in Brooklyn as one of the best new restaurants in the country. In a town where an in-demand reservation can require the sale of one’s first-born, this is sacrilege. It is also the best thing to happen to foodie parents since the sandwich. There is a line when we arrive at Ursula in Crown Heights, but it moves quickly, and we soon have our hands on two chewy burritos, their exteriors toasted to a light crunch, their interiors stuffed with fluffy eggs and hash browns plus bacon and New Mexico’s famous green chile sauce (for me) and chorizo and New Mexico’s famous red chile sauce (for Alex).
The nomination couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. While my husband carts Adrian off to explore the tranquil paths of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I stroll down Eastern Parkway to meet Ursula’s juggernaut chef, Eric See, at one of his favorite restaurants. Agi’s Counter is just down the street from the first place I ever lived in the city, and it’s obvious why See likes it: The owner, Jeremy Salamon, is a fellow queer chef, and both restaurateurs named their places for their grandmothers (See’s New Mexican, Salamon’s Hungarian). Also, the food is delicious. While there’s not much room in my stomach after that breakfast burrito, I order speck, egg, and cheddar on a Balkan biscuit called a pogača and eat almost the whole thing. Ditto the deviled eggs with salmon roe and dill that the kitchen sends out when See walks in.
The chef has just come from work—which is true pretty much always these days. See is one of those traditional New York success stories: He came from some smaller town (Albuquerque), worked hard in the back of some kitchen (Locanda Verde), and then blew up so big everyone back home started to hear about it. “Anytime I’m on the local news in Albuquerque, my grandma gets recognized,” he says.
He’s not done yet: In addition to using his success to benefit the LGBTQIA+ food industry community (among his initiatives was a pop-up series in which other queer chefs did short-term kitchen takeovers at Ursula), he also hopes to take a shot at his childhood dream of being a food and travel journalist. He plans to shoot a video for Atlas Obscura in New Mexico this summer, and he’s in talks to do something for one of the big food magazines as well. Whatever he makes, I’ll watch it; the guy’s got screen presence.
I say goodbye to See and head over to the Botanic Garden to meet Alex. The BBG has an exhibition of artsy birdhouses on display, and we check them out while Adrian naps in the stroller. One of our favorites is a birdhouse in the Children’s Garden designed to look like a corner bodega by Brooklyn artist Olalekan Jeyifous.
Once Adrian is awake, we’re off to that well-known place of respite for exhausted parents: a brewery. A 15–minute subway ride from the Botanic Garden, Threes Brewing sits like an oasis in the cracked concrete of Gowanus, and it’s packed with treats for weary parents: A backyard, bathrooms, cheeseburgers, beer. We consider our next move while we pick out a six-pack for later.
My husband has been heroically patient for the last several days, so I think it’s only fair to let him pick our final restaurant. It is no surprise that he goes with Mao Mao, an “old-school Thai” drinking establishment by the JMZ train in Bushwick. (My husband spent all of Day 2 wearing the T-shirt of his now-closed favorite NYC Thai place, Uncle Boons.) Normally, Mao Mao is not all that baby-friendly: The tables have movie theater–style seats, Thai action movies play on a big screen above the subterranean eating area, and I’m told that it gets loud on the weekends. When we arrive right at opening on an off night, however, it is absolutely deserted. Perfect.
This is the kind of place Alex and I used to love before we left Brooklyn. Everything your eye lands on piques your curiosity: Thai movie posters, old soap boxes, twinkle lights. The food is equally enthralling. Squid in ma nao with mint and lettuce is deliriously spicy. Gai saam yang, an old-school Thai drinking snack, is apportioned on the plate like a Cobb salad. When the khao mun gai arrives, we have to ask how to eat the broth that comes with the slow-poached chicken and chicken-fat rice. (Separately, like soup, the waitress says.) A selection of ya dong, infused Thai moonshine, arrives in unlabeled glass bottles with tiny plastic shot glasses. We pass one that has notes of cinnamon back and forth while we get back to dreaming about the future—the official pastime of young people in New York.
“Would you move back one day?” I ask. Alex nods, his mouth full of dumpling, but I already knew the answer. His thirst to see and hear and feel everything the world has to offer is one of the reasons I married him. I assume it’s what drew him to this marvelous city in the first place. It’s certainly why I came.
For now, though, it’s bedtime. We take a car back to the Ace and put Adrian down in his wooden crib. Then we do what all parents do on vacation: Sneak into our pajamas, crack open a couple of beers, and hide in the bathroom.
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