Honky Tonkin’ in Nashville

4 02 2010

For the past week I’ve had the same song stuck in my head, and, though I once really liked it, I’m about done with it by now. It’s a goody by GarthThe American Honky Tonk Bar Association—I thought it was made up, “honky tonk,” and then I started planning a trip to Nashville, and I heard it everywhere. That’s really what they call their bars along Broadway. And every time I say the words (or even think them), the song returns. This was not so fun when I was stranded in Philadelphia, nor is it so fun now that I’m back in New York.

But somehow, while in Nashville, that I should have this country anthem floating about my brain seemed fitting, and the phrase “honky tonk” worked for these cool little bars, lined up one after the other, each wallpapered with yellowing photos and album covers featuring some of our country’s greatest musicians. Somehow it just, made sense.

Given my mishaps on Friday and then Saturday, honky tonkin’ was about all I had time for during my 14 hour tour of Nashville, so it’s a good thing I made it count. I touched down around 2:30 Saturday afternoon and hightailed it to the hotel, where Libby and I cranked some music to set the mood (Dixie Chicks, of course) and readied ourselves for what promised to be the long night ahead. Then we trudged through the snow (no, I don’t exaggerate—the good people of Nashville evidently don’t deem it necessary to shovel their sidewalks) down Broadway and wandered into a honky tonk.

The bar was large, rendering it mostly empty save for a lone musician on stage, a few folks listening up front and some locals lining the bar. We found ourselves a table somewhere in between, ordered a few beers, and observed, but not for long. Next thing we knew we were in the midst of a “crew” growing around some dudes from Atlanta who occupied the table in the center of the room. Our little makeshift troop grew to about 12 and we decided to continue the chaos down Broadway, visiting each honky tonk in turn.

Of course with each honkey tonk the music improved, and the moods were sillier, and, well, there was lots of dancing. There was even a little Watermelon Crawling (or something like that). The only unfortunate part of the evening was the poor decision to part from our new friends in order to keep our dinner reservation at an upscale, eco-spot that was a little too upscale for its own good, and far too much for our mood. But we made up for it by returning to Broadway and capping the night off with some dueling pianos at the Big Bang Bar.

The next day, I discovered, with some disappointment (countered by not a little relief, at least on the part of my very tired head) that the Nash Trash tour I’d been looking forward to, led by the (in)famous Jugg Sisters in their big pink bus, had been canceled because the area where they parked their bus had been locked up due to that crazy snow. Instead, we decided to indulge in some yummy southern style food, and treated ourselves to a slew of sides—including some mind-blowing tater tots (yes, tater tots)—at a humble, cozy, down home spot called South Street before heading back to the hotel an hour early because, it seemed, in the overall weekend confusion I was not accounting for my watch being on New York time.

There are no photos to record the chaos (on account of both my camera and phone batteries dying) but there ere indeed misadventures, laughter, and general gaiety. In short, travel bloopers aside, it was a successful weekend. All 24 hours of it.





Bookmark This Bar

27 02 2009

Midtown Manhattan is, for the most part, a no man’s land when it comes to interesting places to dine or drink. I’ve recently, however, discovered Bookmarks, a smart little lounge atop the Library Hotel. I give fair warning now: when I visited this bar the other night the service was not so hot. But what it lacks in character, it makes up for in charm. Some may call the book theme kitchsy, but I, book nerd that I am, adored it. The list of unique (and extra strength) cocktails is long, and all bear the names of literary greats. Dickens has one, as does Hemingway (which, by the way, happens to be misspelled). I actually had my first taste of absinthe in a drink called, appropriately, the Oscar Wilde.

On the one side the mahogany-walled writer’s den has a working fireplace to defrost the brain on those cold winter nights. On the other side, the poetry garden invokes a seaside artist summer home, the type of retreat creative types need for relaxation and fresh ideas, if, of course, by retreat you mean a view up at the big buildings of Midtown. But somehow that is refreshing and idea-sparking in itself.

Bookmarks is located on the 14th floor of the Library Hotel, 299 Madison Ave at 41st St, (212) 204-5498





Alfajor Heaven

30 01 2009

In honor of my ongoing nostalgia for last year’s adventures, another flashback. This one I actually found in my drafts: it was started but (for reasons now unknown) never finished, back in Argentina, on (I am guessing) January 14, 2008. My guess is that it was never finished because I was spending a good part of my Luján internet time frantically trying to figure out a way to replace my camera, which had just been stolen in Buenos Aires. At any rate, it finally goes live a year later…

Today, this, the first day of my career as a travel guidebook writer, I am in Luján, quite possibly the closest one gets to a one horse town. It’s quiet and tiny and full of small town charm, including the most beautiful confiteria (sweet shop) I have ever seen.

Villa de Luján is a tiny wood building that looks more like it belongs in Switzerland than in “gaucholand.” We were first attracted to the cartoonish gnomes gracing the outside, but then I saw the menu: dulce de leche galore. My new friend Liz (Note: Liz is now a dear friend and the one with whom I am soon to embark on a very exciting, as yet undisclosed venture) and I  have become, over the past week,  self-declared dulce de leche experts, specializing in the alfajor, a heavenly cookie sandwich filled with the sweet of sweets.

Naturally, Liz and I figured we must give it a try, us being travel writers and this being a a very important spot in the tine town. Entering the tiny cabin was like entering grandmother’s house, complete with flowery tablecloths, and, even better, sweets. The staff consisted of a cheerful older woman and her mother, who both chatted amiably before sitting us at a doily covered table and serving us orange juice in sugar-rimmed glasses, followed by a slice of spongy lemon cake. But the highlight, of course, was the king of alfajorés—a triple-layer cookie filled with one layer vanilla crème and one dulce de leche and surrounded by rich chocolate. Don’t think, full as we were, we didn’t leave without a few for the road.

Villa de Lujan, B Mitre 179, Lujan, Argentina, (02323) 429949





Park-ing

9 01 2009

There is something about having a major, beautiful park that makes a city fantastic. If Central Park is the epitome of this, Golden Gate Park is a close second (though I think perhaps it is on par, and getting better all the time).

Some things to do in Golden Gate Park:

  1. Stop and smell the roses (or other flower of your choice): The stunning glass-domed building, just as amazing as when it first opened in 1979, is just the beginning. Inside the Conservatory of Flowers are nearly 2,000 species of plants, each more amazing and beautiful than the next.
  2. Take Tea: The Japanese Tea Garden is one of the most-visited sights in San Francisco, and for good reason. It is a tranquil oasis within the city, for relaxation, meditation, or just a nice long stroll. All the rest is so amazing, you just have to see for yourself.
  3. Look at Art: After tea in the garden stop in the nearby de Young Fine Arts Museum. In its new modern (and eco-friendly) building since 2005, the museum still houses elements of the original 1921 museum, including the Pool of Enchantment, sphinx sculptures, and the initial palm trees,  ferns, redwood. Plus, of course, a whole lot of beautiful art.
  4. Commune with Nature: Though I’ve not yet been the newly re-opened California Academy of Sciences is a recent obsession. Here a four-story rain forest, an aquarium, a planetarium, and a natural history museum all reside under one living roof. That’s right, the entire building is sustainable, from its radiant sub-floor heating to the tippy-top of its (literally) green roof, created of native vegetation that will capture rainwater and serve as a habitat for wildlife. Incredible just doesn’t seem enough here.
  5. Eat. After all that exploring, head to the historic Beach Chalet, which combines yummy food with lovely views, both inside, where WPA frescoes capture a 1930s San Francisco, and outside, where the Pacific waves crash against Ocean Beach.




Winter at the (North) Beach

6 01 2009

As a continuation of my “I heart SF” week, I present: Beach Blanket Babylon. Though it’s not the first thing that generally comes to mind when one thinks San Francisco, this hilarious song-and-dance with the giant hats has become something of a San Francisco staple, and it should be. It’s been running for 34 years; it’s the longest running musical revue. Ever. Not to mention that the zaniness, the theatricality, and, most importantly, the political plays make it everything we’ve come to know and love (and expect from) San Francisco.

The show began in 1974, a brainchild of Steve Silver and was so popular that it now has a permanent home at North Beach’s Club Fugazi, a tiny nightclub where there are no bad seats.  The story itself is silly to say the least, but it’s filled with upbeat songs, side-splitting jokes (that change based on the current events), and fabulous singing from the likes of BBB star Val Diamond who, celebrating her 30th anniversary with the show this year, has become something of a San Francisco institution in her own right. But man, those hats.

The show runs Wed and Thurs at 8 pm, Fri and Sat at 6:30 pm and 9 pm, and Sun at 2 pm and 5 pm. Ticket prices range from $25 to $78.

If you’re making a night out of it, try Steps of Rome for fantastic Italian (where the eye candy is as yummy as the food) or  L ‘Osteria del forno, a tiny North Beach hideaway with some of the best food in the city. For a nightcap, try Figaro, where dessert is a must or the historic Tosca, a favorite watering hole since the 1920s, complete with red vinyl booths, the famous antique jukebox and seven strong classic cocktails, including the Tosca signature: rich cappuccino flavored with Ghiradelli chocolate and spiked with brandy. You don’t get much more San Francisco than that.





Haunted Haunts

31 10 2008

Halloween is here again. Every year it seems to sneak up on me, and every year it finds me with neither the costume nor the will to come up with one. Perhaps it stems from growing up, when my mother, who also never had the drive or passion for creating costumes, always “nudged” me toward costumes that were easy for her to create: the PG&E linesman (my father could get the hard hat from work), the cheerleader (my sister wasn’t wearing that uniform any more), and even Jane Fonda (yes. Jane Fonda). Somehow, save for the year I wreaked havoc on the house by insisting on being a pumpkin, I was amenable to her suggestions, however odd or non-age-appropriate (what other six year old was Jane Fonda?).

Anyhow, to this day my Halloween costumes typically involve minimal creativity and minimal effort, and I’m just fine with that. However, I do enjoy the holiday. Who wouldn’t love a holiday that’s based around candy? And here in New York, I love it even more for the ghostly aspect of it. Being obsessed with history as I am, I am fond of ghost stories and their ability to transmit our past and keep it alive in the future. And so, without further ado, a list of some of my favorite New York “haunts,” in no particular order:

  • Bridge Cafe. (279 Water St) The building itself dates back to 1794 and is said to have been home to Irish prostitutes. It’s been a bar since 1847, making it New York’s oldest continually running bar, haunted, they say, by pirates who frequented the place before the Brooklyn Bridge (in whose shadow it lies) was even a thought.
  • The Chelsea Hotel. (222 W. 23rd St.) Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was living at the hotel when accused of his girlfriend’s murder and overdosed before his trial ended. He can still sometimes be seen near the elevator doors.
  • Ear Inn. (326 Spring St.) This place has a long history, starting as the home of James Brown, aide to Washington in the Revolution. Since then it’s had various incarnations, from brewery to speakeasy, to boarding house and brothel. It is haunted by Mickey, a sailor who died out front.
  • White Horse Tavern. (567 Hudson St.) This place dates from the 19th Century but it’s more famous for being the place where bohemian writer Dylan Thomas drank himself to death (read: 18 beers) in 1953 and is still said to return from time to time.
  • Algonquin Hotel. (59 West 44th St.) This elegant hotel was the regular lunch spot where Dorothy Parker held court for the Round Table, her 1920s group of literati, who joined her for lunch and literature. Parker seems to come back for a visit from time to time…
  • St. Mark’s Church. (131 E 10th St.) The historic church was erected in 1799, and before that it was the private “Bouwerie Chapel” of early New York leader, Peter Stuyvesant. Though the church itself was built after Stuyvesant’s death, it is considered one of the most haunted places in the city, mainly by Peg-leg Peter, Stuyvesant’s ghost, whose distinct wooden leg footsteps can sometimes be heard wandering the grounds.




Where the Internet Is

7 08 2008

As a freelance writer who gets a little stir crazy at home, one of the biggest challenges is finding new and appealing places where I can settle in and log on to get work done.

My usual go-to joint is Gramstand, a fantastic little tea place just blocks from home, where the internet is free, the people are nice, and the great tea drinks abound. Not only that, but I can settle in and work for hours, or a whole day without being bothered. (I just discovered this week, too, that the Stand, as I like to call it, is connected with a “Coworking” group, Coobric, whose mission it is to link up freelancers like myself so they don’t feel as alone in the world (enter warm and fuzzies), which makes me feel even better about hanging out there all day every day.

But lately Granstand’s basement, where I typically camp out, has felt a little stuffy. It’s still great for settling in to a quiet workspace, complete with big tables that allow me to spread out and friendly seeming people, but in the balmy days of summer in New York, a basement with no AC gets to be a bit of a stuffy, sometimes stinky place. Not to mention that being without daylight can sometimes take its toll on a girl.

That’s not to say that I’m ruling out the G-stand, but today I just needed a break from “the regular.” In desperate need of daylight, Libby (my freelance buddy) and I decided to pick a good spot in between our respective Upper East and Lower East Side homes, and headed to Bryant Park, where the sunlight, and the wireless, are free. It turned out to be quite the adventure, but proved more conducive to people watching (the lunch crowd there can get quite feisty when fighting over seating, especially on summer Thursdays when Broadway comes to Bryant) than to working. The internet was patchy and there was a bit too much going on for concentration.

But where are there other options for internet in Midtown? We found a great site designating some, but most didn’t work out so well. Until we found SubtleTea, Midtown’s version of G-stand, and a little bit of heaven. Big windows let in lots of daylight, and a long wood table makes for great communal workspace. Plus a great selection of mags means built-in break times. Then there is the tea selection, which is so vast as to be almost overwhelming, though the friendly staff is always on hand to advise—and give samples. Then there are a wide array of yummy frappes, from peanut butter chai to some great green tea concoction, and more tea-inspired tasties than one can possibly imagine. My new favorite place? Possibly…





A Little Bite of Heaven

8 05 2008

As I write this, I have retreated momentarily to the bliss that is the Havanna alfajor.

To explain: a few days ago I got an email from my friend and former EuroCheapo cohort Alex Robertson Textor, with whom I had coffee plans a few days later. All the email said was “What type of alfajor do you prefer, meringue or chocolcate? I will explain later.” Perplexed, but assuming he was writing something about the alfajor and needed my expert opinion, I quickly replied that the chocolate is best by far, because the meringue gets a little crumbly and takes away from the cookie.

Turns out, though, that Alex didn’t need my alfajor expertise, and actually doesn’t even agree with it (turns out he is a meringue fan). He was asking because his sister just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. Bearing gifts. Alex showed up for coffee today and pulled two alfajores from his (new awesome recycled products) bag for me. Chocolate coated.

I simply couldn’t believe my luck (or Alex’s generosity, parting with two of them!), and didn’t wait more than 10 seconds before diving into the first. I gave the second a little time (an hour or so) but I couldn’t let it sit there on the table without wanting to eat it, so here I am, taking another bite of chocolate covered bliss. And I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it’s better than I remembered. The cookie has the perfect balance of a little bit of crunch and a little bit of flake, but it surely doesn’t overpower the star of the show: creamy, sweet dulce de leche. Ah happiness.

So a huge THANK YOU to Alex. And, since I surely haven’t blogged about the alfajor enough, a bit about Havanna, which might just as easily be called, simply, Heaven.

Havanna stores are all over Argentina. In Buenos Aires they are almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in New York. Almost. But they should be. While their main product is the amazing alfajor (covered with meringue, chocolate, or white chocolate), they also sell jars of dulce de leche, candies, and other scrumptious tidbits. Of note is the Havannet: a cone-shaped, chocolate-covered beauty that consists of a small cookie and massive amounts of dulce de leche. In both the Havannet cookie and the alfajor the cookie itself is just slightly infused with lemon, just enough of it.

Then there is the coffee, which comes in tiny cups and and, of course, a cookie. Havanna has the value meal to beat out anything McDonald’s might try. For just a few dollars you get a small coffee, a cookie, and sometimes even a tiny cup of juice, all on a pretty little tray. And did I mention that the coffee drinks are almost as deliciously rich as the cookies themselves? Cappuccino, mocha, white chocolate…

Maybe if I think about it long enough Havanna will come to me. (Oh wait. It already has.)





3 Girls, an Island, and a lot of Pizza

10 04 2008

My very beautiful and very talented friend Tiffany has decided to apply to be a host on Globe Trekker. I know she would be fabulous at the job and have been helping her with her audition tape, which has to be a five minute tour of some place. Living in Brooklyn, she chose her home town. From this experience have come several adventures, the most recent of which was yesterday’s trip to Coney Island.

Yesterday Tiff, Libby, and myself went to frolic on the boardwalk, where, given that it was off-season, there was lots of room to frolic. It was freezing, and after lots of hard work filiming (and goofing off) we found ourselves cold and starving. Tiffany had recently seen a great pizza place on TV, and had subsequently heard rave reviews about it from her friends. We had to wait half an hour in a coffee shop for Totonno‘s to open, but it was well worth the wait.

Being Italian myself, and daughter to a world-class pizza maker, I consider myself something of a connoisseur. I am not usually satisfied with any old pizza, since I can make my own. In fact, when my brother came to visit me in New York we went on the quest for a great slice of NY pizza. We were both sorely disappointed in the city that is supposed to be famous for just that. But Totonno’s is the real thing.

It was established in 1924 and looks it. It’s tiny, a one room pizzeria that seats about 40 max, at small formica tables and booths. The white tin walls are embellished with designs and wallpapered with photos of famous visitors from years past, including Babe Ruth and, oddly, Conni Chung. We somehow found ourselvs under several pictures of the Bush family. Oops.

The waitress, whom we thought might be part of the family, suggested a large and a small pizza for the three of us, claiming that she herself was known to eat a large on her own. Then she gave use topping suggestions. The large would be spilt, half original with cheese and marinara, and half white pie with garlic, peppers and onions. We eagerly agreed to default to the expert and settled down with a few Brooklyn Lagers (including fun varietals like the Winter Ale and the Pennant Ale). Then our waitress went and made our “pie” herself. We watched her work the dough, pile on the toppings and slide it into the huge oven behind the counter.

Then we chatted with the group of older men who were causing a ruckus in the booth behind us. They were all from Brooklyn, complete with thick accents, and visiting Totonno’s on the whim of one of their group who had since relocated to Mississippi, without losing his accent despite 20 years. Their pizza came first and within seconds we were far less interesting than the concoction before them. And when ours came a few minutes later we understood why. it wasn’t just a pizza but a work of art: colorful and oozing gooey cheese, and that was before we even tasted it.

And taste we did, over and over. We devoured the large and decided that the small was still in order. Though the traditional was good (perfectly seasoned marinara and fresh mozzarella) we decided to reprise the white pie for our small. And then we ate it all. I think I ate five slices of pizza yesterday, and then I was in a food coma for about five hours, but it was well worth it. The crust was thin and crispy throughout, the cheese was gooey, and the combination of garlic and sweet onions was fantastic. I promised the girls a pizza party at my house some time soon, but I fear it won’t quite compare.





Distractions

3 04 2008

I’m guilty this week of blog neglect. What have I been doing that’s so important it’s kept me from blogging? Many things, actually. (Cue list…)

  • Freelancing. Yes, freelancing! I’m editing Barcelona hot spot reviews for a soon-to-be-launched website (which for now must remain nameless).
  • Spending time offManhattan. That slick transition really just means more freelancing. offManhattan is a great (green) site that promotes travel and exploration with an eco-friendly bent. My first piece is a review of the Brooklyn restaurant Relish and I’m looking forward to visiting and writing about more places and events in the Tri-State area.
  • Reading several books at once. I’m currently into Their Eyes Were Watching God, Eimi (a recently re-published and formerly out of print E.E. Cummings prose work — woohoo!), and I’m soon to be starting up (again) my 2-women book group on the discussion of Anna Karenina. Is it weird that with all these going on I have a strong urge to dive into Franny and Zooey for the thousandth time?
  • Drinking tea. My new “office” is just five minutes from home. It’s called Gramstand and it’s fabulous. The upstairs is warm and airy with a handful of small tables, but downstairs the basement is converted into a little lounge/office, complete with a few couches, one family table, and several small tables for working or socializing. I’ve been going there several times a week and camping out for the entire day. It’s a good way to work and get out of the house. And their many varietals of tea are all delicious and good for the soul (though my personal fave is the rich, delicious Vanilla Teaccino, or as I like to call it, Heaven in a Cup).
  • Eating. Lent is over and I can have sweets again, but I have yet to order alfajores. My consolation prize was a slice of peanut butter pie at Old Devil Moon. There aren’t words to describe the amazingness of this pie: creamy, peanuty, chocolaty, with a gram cracker crust. I wanted to lick the plate.
  • More reading. On top of all the books I’ve been reading, I’ve been catching up on my magazines too. Currently I’m spending a lot of time sifting through the New York Times Spring Travel Magazine that’s recently come out. I looked at one article and can’t stop looking. I suppose I can write it off as research though…