New York City uncovered

The city skyline and streets are loved by locals and visitors alike, but the Big Apple still has its secrets – from floating concert halls to outsider art to organic cocktails.

It’s a city that needs no introduction, its skyline and the streets below loved by locals and visitors alike. But the Big Apple still has secrets – you just need to know who to ask.

The American Folk Art Museum
In an otherwise glossy part of Midtown, just a few doors down from the ever-popular Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), stands the tiny, humble American Folk Art Museum. An eclectic crowd made up of conventional art lovers, edgy artists and craft enthusiasts wanders through, reflecting on an equally diverse collection of exhibits, from 1980s crayon drawings to a towering 19th-century weathervane.

The work here is made by self-taught artists – those who have had no formal training – also called ‘outsider art’ because many of its creators live on the fringes of mainstream society. Self-taught Dwight Mackintosh lived most of his life in mental institutions and painted animals with see-through skin; Judith Scott, an artist with Down’s syndrome, completely covered objects in coloured yarn; a 15,000-page watercolour story about winged beings called ‘Blengigomeneans’ was secretly created by a janitor, Henry Darger.

The work is lauded by some as being more original than the work of artists who follow academic or art-world conventions, and the museum embraces the old as well as the new. On any given day, you might find 18th-century needlework on display, or early American portraits painted by ‘spirit effect’, in which the artist painted according to a mystical vision of a deceased subject. According to Stacy C Hollander, the museum’s chief curator, many artists worked at home in their kitchens, or in secret, or without any intention of ever showing their work. This makes for a very different viewing experience than visitors might have at MoMA. ‘People are very moved when they come here, and even I don’t know what causes that reaction,’ says Hollander. ‘The way that most self-taught art is made, in a face-to-face or intimate way, gives it an immediacy. So when you’re looking at it, it’s as if you’re experiencing the moment of making with the artist.’

New York is good at cocktails. In part that’s because it was good at getting around 1920s Prohibition when, according to Apothéke bartender Chris Marshall, ‘you had a lot of bathtub gin that tasted so horrible you had to add stuff to it to make it drinkable’.

The bar, on a small lane in the Chinatown district, is almost impossible to find, with only tiny hardware-store lettering over the door. (‘Most people don’t find us,’ says Marshall with a smile.) It’s part speakeasy, part laboratory. In line with the ‘apothecary’ theme, most cocktails are made with fresh herbs and a dash of botanicals from the neighbourhood’s traditional medicine shops, and bar staff wear traditional chemists’ whites. The rows of ingredients – vanilla-bean-infused cognac, lavender tea, sugarcane, ‘energy tincture’ – are precisely arranged in old-fashioned jars, bottles and cut-crystal decanters.

With a dull ‘whoomph’ sound, Marshall flambés a mixture of sea salt laced with anise and sambuca, and a small crowd gathers to watch. Today is Saturday, when Apothéke becomes a cocktail academy, and anyone can learn the secrets of the bar’s potent concoctions made with fruit, herbs and even vegetables fresh from the market.

The ‘Deal Closer’, a cucumber-mint gimlet, is a popular lesson: it’s easy, strong, and contains horny-goat-weed tea, an aphrodisiac. ‘But don’t worry,’ Mitchell reassures a student. ‘It’s not like you’re going to rip off your clothes or anything.’

The gathered group roll out limes, infuse herbs into spirits and pound mint leaves with a pestle and mortar, while Mitchell imparts snippets of mixology wisdom. Drinks made with syrup give you worse hangovers than drinks made with fruit (it’s the extra sugar). ‘You can make fresh cocktails using stuff from the farmers’ market,’ he says. ‘You don’t have to be stuck with gin-and-tonics anymore.’ And despite the demise of the Sex on the Beach, cocktails with sexually suggestive names still sell best.

Goat Town
At Goat Town’s ‘Oyster Happy Hour’, East Village regulars sip on the restaurant’s signature Ku-Ku Goat cocktail and throw back fresh oysters while a rock anthem by Journey blares out from the recordplayer behind the bar. The restaurant’s name is a modern English translation of ‘Gotham’ – the Anglo-Saxon nickname given to New York City in the 19th century, and later to Batman’s home town – and the space appears very urban and fashionable, with subway tiles, aged wooden floors and arched tin ceilings. But out the back, Goat Town’s true colours are revealed: an 18-bed garden is filled with organic radishes, escarole, fennel, kale and kohlrabi, among other vegetables. Gerardo, the sous-chef, ducks out in his spare moments to monitor the effects of a new compost mix on his sprouting crops, while the owner, Nicholas Morgenstern, is busy pruning. Goat Town is practically a farm, growing around half of the vegetables they serve.

‘I want to grow things that I can’t buy or that I can’t buy better,’ says Morgenstern. ‘I can’t grow a better tomato than I can buy at an organic farm, but I can’t buy radishes of the quality we can produce. I can’t get good huskberries, so I have to grow them.’

‘It’s like night and day, working with stuff right from the ground compared with store-bought,’ says chef Kelly Hughett. ‘Take kohlrabi. When you order from suppliers, it sits around and gets woody. When you get it super-fresh, it has such a delicate texture and so much more flavour.’ The garden and the menu are planned together, and vegetables star in the dishes, from rocket pappardelle with carrots, fennel and goat’s cheese, to kale salad with apples, roasted shallot and red wine vinaigrette.

It’s all about the taste, of course, but this is New York, so fashion also comes into it: farming is considered ‘in’ at the moment, as are certain ‘superfood’ crops. ‘Kale,’ Nick says, ‘is the ‘it’ vegetable in New York right now.’

Top of the Strand
When the elevator doors open on the 21st-floor Top of the Strand rooftop bar, the Empire State Building thrusts itself into view, looking close enough to touch and even taller than its 102 storeys. Its lights – and those of all the many buildings around it – are just starting to glow in a dusky lilac sky. Tonight, the bar is crowded with workers from the neighbouring Garment District, sipping Prosecco and cocktails made with tequila and cardamom. Many of them have shed their brightly coloured stilettos, which sit in pairs on the floor. Others have discarded their jackets to feel the cool spring breeze.

Until the World Trade Center was completed in 1972, the Empire State Building reigned as New York’s tallest for 52 years, and still seems to tower from its site, just four blocks away from The Strand. Its flood lighting casts a glow over the bar like a private illumination show, changing with holidays (green for St Patrick’s Day), sports events (tennis-ball yellow for the US Open) and memorials (blue to commemorate Frank Sinatra – aka Ol’ Blue Eyes).

The bar has a glass enclosure that keeps the place warm in winter without obstructing the view. But it really shines in spring and summer, when New Yorkers are obsessional about rooftop parties. Rooftops have long been a refuge from the city’s steamy summers, and the number of such bars in Manhattan is growing. Few of them, however, have the Strand’s prime spot at the foot of the Empire State Building. ‘I’m here so often,’ says waiter Kevin Lewis as he wanders by with a trayful of cocktails, ‘but that view still gets me every time.’

The pianist’s fingers run delicately over the keys as he plays Beethoven’s Sonata No. 22 in F Major. Behind him, seagulls fly past the picture window, tugboat horns sing, and the sun sets, casting a lavender glow over the shifting waters of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge above. Watching the performance, a studious woman reads the score on her iPad; others play air piano on their knees. A young musician in high-waisted corduroys closes her eyes – later she will swear that the barge rocked in perfect rhythm with the music.

Bargemusic is a small, floating concert hall docked at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s the brainchild of Olga Bloom, who searched for years for the perfect vessel before finding and then renovating a barge in 1977. Today, it’s considered among New York’s best chamber music venues.

‘Beethoven’s sonatas were written for intimate spaces, so this is really how they’re supposed to be played,’ says pianist Jeffrey Swann. ‘But it’s easier to play Carnegie Hall than to play the Barge. At Carnegie, you have all those footlights so you can’t see anyone. Here, the audience is sitting five feet from you, so it’s a constant conversation.’ And the East River’s waves can also cause problems. ‘The only technique for playing through the rocking is to concentrate like mad,’ Swann says.

Bloom passed away in 2011, but Bargemusic continues to put on about 220 concerts a year. Artistic director Mark Peskanov admits the venue does have unique challenges. ‘During Hurricane Sandy,’ he says, ‘everyone thought we would float away, but the barge was the only thing that survived. We were like the Noah’s Ark of chamber music.’

As he talks, Peskanov idly plays short sections of Bach or gesticulates with his bow. ‘With music, some days you just love it so much, but you know what? Some days it loves you, too,’ he says. ‘When I’m deciding on the barge’s programme, I think about which pieces the audience would enjoy. But I also think about which music will love them back.’

Speakeasy Dollhouse
In 1935, the grandfather of New York artist and playwright Cynthia Von Buhler was shot, and no culprit was ever charged. Learning of the story decades later, Von Buhler sought answers in old police records, and using an old criminology method, she made tiny dioramas of the murder, complete with dollhouse versions of New York just after the Prohibition era, to work out what happened. ‘It helped,’ she says, but to get inside the heads of the characters, ‘I realised I needed real people.’

The result is a unique interactive play, which tells the known facts about the murder and seeks to solve the mystery. Twice a month, the sprawling Back Room bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side transforms into a speakeasy, where gin is served in coffee cups and key scenes are played out around the building.

The basement becomes a bakery, where a character called John Guerrieri talks about how he doesn’t see his wife enough. Upstairs, a burlesque show takes place, and outside in the alleyway Frank Spano is finally murdered – audience members are drafted in as pallbearers. Gangsters, burlesque dancers, politicians, floozies, an accordionist and homing pigeons (‘Everyone used pigeons then,’ says Von Buhler) all play some part in the murder story.

The action is free-flowing. Audience members can wander where they like and talk to cast members in order to garner clues. To facilitate the immersion, some evidence is sent out by email beforehand, and everyone is given a role. The suggestion to dress in 1930s style is studiously followed: theatregoers mill about in sequined headbands, fascinators and suspenders. One wears a sailor suit.

It all makes for great theatre, but Von Buhler genuinely is gathering ideas about the crime, and attendees receive an email from her after the show to see if they have any theories. ‘We keep trying new things and learning new information,’ she says. She is also working on a book about the mystery. ‘Now I have these rich characters that exist on their own, and all I have to do is record them.’

Grand Central Terminal
The massive terminal of Grand Central sees more than 500,000 passengers and visitors a day. Even outside rush hour, the arrivals hall is a blur of black coats; from the staircases at either end, the travellers seem to weave a complex fabric as they criss-cross their way between dozens of train platforms.

One man stands unusually still in the midst of the rush, looking upward. Anthony W Robins is a New York City native and historian, and he knows almost all there is to know about the place. He gestures at the zodiac mural on the ceiling, whose light bulbs create a twinkling starscape over the arrivals hall. It had just been completed in 1913, he explains, when an observant commuter noticed that it was not astronomically correct: the signs were all backwards.

Today, very few people are stopping to look around the Terminal, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Occasionally, visitors from out of town stop to talk to the wall at the lower level’s ‘whispering gallery’, where acoustics allow sound to travel between opposite corners of the room as if spoken from inches away. But most miss the subtlety of the Beaux-Arts architecture and detailing, with its brass acorn motifs – included as a symbol of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 19th-century industrial tycoon who bankrolled the terminal’s predecessor.

Outside, Robins points out features on the Terminal’s façade: the number VI on the stainedglass clock is a door that can be opened for repairs.

‘I visited Grand Central a lot as a kid,’ he says, ‘but I only remember the trains – not the station.’ It wasn’t until he was older that he appreciated its architecture. ‘I remember coming back and noticing the details and it was like a third eye opened. I want people to have that experience. The key with New Yorkers,’ he says, ‘is getting them to look up. Once they’ve done that, they’ll get it.’

New York’s food carts
It’s 1pm and the sidewalks in Midtown Manhattan are overflowing: people in suits rush by, fashion handlers push industrial clothes racks around the Garment District, and co-workers stop for a smoke. Some are in a hurry; others pause by the side of the footpath to breathe in the delicious scents of onions, tacos, falafel and Korean bibimbap, all emanating from the food trucks peppered throughout the streets. From them snake long queues, made up of people who know that these carts serve up some of the city’s best and cheapest ethnic food.

On West 43rd Street, Rosa Cardosa and her brother Martin cook the food they grew up with in Puebla, Mexico – and that includes the occasional dried-grasshopper quesadilla. When a customer at their truck, El Rey del Sabor (The King of Flavour), says she’s never had tortillas made with pumpkinblossom flour, Rosa exclaims excitedly: ‘You haven’t had flor de calabaza? What?!’ She rushes to prepare the enchiladas. ‘It’s so delicious, just wait.’

‘You can’t get authentic Mexican food like this in most Mexican restaurants,’ says Brian Hoffman, who leads food-cart tours in Manhattan. ‘It’s amazing, the quality you find.’ The food tends to follow immigration trends, he explains, and in particular Middle Eastern, Latin American and Trinidadian food are currently big. ‘Thirty or 40 years ago, there were many Greek food carts. Now a lot of it is halal,’ he says.

A few blocks away on 46th Street, Bangladeshi chef Meru Sikder runs the Biryani Cart, specialising in the chicken ‘kati roll’ – tender grilled chicken and caramelised onion rolled up in a chapati. For an authentic taste, he brings in all of his rice from India: ‘Right now I’m waiting for 2,500 bags of it to get through customs. It’s at some port,’ he says with a laugh, taking it all in his stride. Meru now has a restaurant, but serving up his food on the sidewalk is where his heart is: ‘People don’t even have to order here – I know what they want. Dealing with all the people, that’s what I love.’

The stairwell leading up to Kiosk is covered in wild-coloured graffiti and band stickers – a reminder of this neighbourhood’s roots. Before SoHo was a gallery, and then shopping, district, it was the domain of starving artists who made brilliant work in abandoned factories. Some of that spirit, in rather tidier form, is holding on at Kiosk, which is nominally a store but mostly an installation. Neon sculptures illuminate the wares – a giant aluminium salt-shaker from the Netherlands, a soft raw-cotton blanket from India, Portuguese paper hot-air balloons – clustered on mirrored boards, or hanging from colourful chains on the ceiling.

The eclectic items for sale are bought by co-owners Marco Romeny and Alisa Grifo and their team on research trips across the US and around the world: ‘A travel story depicted through objects,’ as they put it. It’s a hodgepodge: there’s candy and pencil sharpeners, a trumpet kazoo, a Japanese cat toy, and combs engraved with French wordplay. On the road, the collectors who source Kiosk’s eclectic range forgo the usual souvenirs, the novel and the pretty, for the ordinary and under-appreciated, like toothpaste or gloves. ‘For our Icelandic collection we visited all these liquorice factories,’ says shop employee Ming Lin. ‘That was fun.’

Some objects also come from nearby, such as a New York doughnut map, or a Shaker onion basket from New Hampshire. ‘I keep saying we should do a Canada collection. That’s a seriously underrated country,’ says Ming. ‘Some people are disappointed by our domestic collection – they want exotic stuff – but it’s good to see what’s being made here too.’

The article 'New York City uncovered' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.