Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.
Jared, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, was eager to share his passion about Socarrat with me when we reached 19th Street. There are two main reasons for the long weekend lines and boisterous, gleeful crowds regularly filling up this sliver of a restaurant: fantastic sangria and socarrat. Socarrat is the crunchy, salty, flavorful crust that forms at the base of a true, well-done paella. This uber-slick Spanish paella bar is the ultimate place in New York to experience this delicious phenomenon. Socarrat also serves a variety of excellent tapas – come during the day and you can get three small plates for $14. Jared has been coming here regularly with his friends since the restaurant first opened in 2008. He generally orders several different paellas, one for every two people, and a pitcher of red and white sangria. He loves seafood, and is particularly fond of the Pescados & Mariscos paella – basa fish, shrimp, cuttlefish, mussels, cockles, squid, and scallops. The restaurant’s signature dish is the Socarrat paella, an interesting mix of chicken, beef, calamari, shrimp, white fish, cuttlefish, mussels, clams, and green beans. There are eight paella options in total, for the carnivores and vegetarians alike, and some really fantastic small plates – spicy shrimp grilled in olive oil and hot peppers and spicy sautéed chorizo sausage with peppers and onions are amongst Jared's favorites. Socarrat has found much success since its opening a few years ago, and now has multiple locations in Nolita and the East Village.
Babycastles, randomly named in honor of a Japanese pastry, is a gallery and community venue for video game designers. However, according to Todd Anderson, one of the members of the Babycastles collective, Babycastles is about more than just gaming. It is an “incubator” of fresh artistic thought, a place to go with unconventional ideas to be welcomed by individuals who can see those concepts into fruition without red tape and hefty price tags.Using his own story as a case study, Todd told me about how he moved to New York from Chicago in order to pursue digital poetry, a relatively new genre that plays with the interaction between technology and language (for example, using a keyboard to control the delivery of a poem in the same way a conductor guides an orchestra). Todd turned to Babycastles, inquired about hosting a monthly poetry event, and was met with great support. He found a home for his art, and has been invested in Babycastles ever since.Sharing a building with Hack Manhattan, Babycastles hosts a wide variety of events for all ages including concerts, lectures, game launches, and even yoga. The Babycastles team curates exhibitions that spotlight independent video game designers and define their work in the larger context of fine arts. Oftentimes, custom game cabinets are built to accommodate the works on display.Game creators and other artists are invited to apply for the Babycastles residency program, which allows them to take advantage of the bright, sunlit co-working space and receive inspiration from an artistic community where they can freely test their latest ideas. For an application to the program, check the website; new members are admitted regularly.