There are many hidden gems to be discovered on the side streets of Manhattan, but the beginning of my walk on 61st might trump any that I have had thus far. For it was here that I was suddenly convinced that I had stepped into a time portal. Nestled between the skyscrapers that perch along the East River is a stone house dating back to the eighteenth century with a glorious garden (even in the middle of winter) tucked behind it. "Eighteenth Century" may be a bit misleading, since the building, which was built as a carriage house to go with a central mansion, was constructed in 1799. Originally named the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, as this is where she and her husband owned the land on which it was built, it was turned into a "day hotel" in 1826. This was a popular kind of institution that possibly resembled a country club more than an inn. With the rise of the middle class, centers for leisure were popping up all over the island. The city proper mainly existed below 14th Street, causing 61st to be considered a vacation getaway. Though the Mount Vernon Hotel is the only day hotel left standing, at one point in time there were numerous similar ones dotting both rivers. In 1833, the building returned to being a private residence. During the following century, it changed hands multiple times, once even being used as a soup kitchen, until it officially opened as a museum in 1939 in the capable hands of the Colonial Dames of America. To this day, their overall mission continues to be to preserve and teach America's history. The Museum also hosts guests and events of many different kinds: One of their largest affairs is Washington's Birthday Ball, but they also host pie-making workshops, school programs (which are often booked solid for three months at a time), and public events in the auditorium next door.
Named after the patron saint of those who heal, St. Catherine's Park is modeled after the Roman Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church that holds the saint's remains with its pew-like play areas and altar-symbolizing flagpole. Renovated in 1996, the park takes up a portion of both 67th and 68th Street, and is frequented by people of all ages. Young children can entertain themselves on the slides, swings or in the sandbox, teens can engage in a basketball or handball game, while adults can find joy running on the track, playing against the tennis wall, or simply seating themselves on a shaded bench. The greenery surrounding this area is maintained by the volunteer-based organization, The Friends of St. Catherine's Park.
Founded in Prague by philosopher Dr. Miroslav Tyrs in 1862, Sokol (the Slavic word for “falcon”) has numerous international branches all devoted to physical, educational, and cultural growth. Sokol New York was begun by Czech and Slovak immigrants with a vision that still holds true today — “a sound mind in a sound body. ”“When the building was being constructed, hundreds of people gathered to support this project. There is so much history involved in this building, and through it all, we have remained a community-centered organization, ” said President Donna Sbriglia. Sokol New York maintains a perfect intersection of culture and recreation. Each year, local chapters convene to compete against one another, and every four years, an international competition known as the Slet (a gathering of falcons) is held in an alternating Sokol branch. There are also Czech and Slovak cultural activities such as wine tastings and holiday festivities to bring families together, and language classes are offered to youngsters eager to learn Czech. Housed in a stunning building, there is a “retired” bar in the front replete with old signage and dark wood. The main floor has a gym surrounded by a balcony lined with dozens of Czechoslovakian prints from 1923. Upstairs, the 1896 Meeting Room doubles as a ballet studio, and downstairs is a Tae Kwon Do room and a tots’ gym that was previously a space for billiards. “It is important to have a place like Sokol in the neighborhood. It brings everyone together to have a multicultural experience, which is excellent for kids. ”
An inviting gourmet deli for both to-go bites and sit-down fare, Cafe Fresco offers a salad bar, an omelet station, sandwich fixings, "legendary bagels, " and many other options for all sorts of cravings. One of their featured dishes, the eggplant Milanese, is made with oven-roasted eggplants, pesto ricotta and fresh mozzarella. Open windows give each seat a full view of either First Avenue or St. Catherine's Park. When I stopped in with a fellow Sideways member on a brutally humid summer day, we watched the children swinging higher and higher outside at the park as we hid inside from the heat, refueled ourselves, and recharged our cell phones.
Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that opened in 1934, has not forgotten its origins as a home to the ewes and rams that grazed in Sheep Meadow. Images of sheep are everywhere - carved into the fireplace, decorating the menu, holding up the table in the lobby. In 2010, the building ceased to be a restaurant for a brief stint, serving instead as a visitor's center and gift shop. After being taken over by partners, Jim Caiola and David Salama, and a lengthy renovation, the Tavern made a culinary return with a rustic and seasonal menu. I have eaten here on a number of occasions since its debut in the spring of 2014, but strolling in and out of the various rooms with members of the Manhattan Sideways team was a whole different experience. None had ever been, and I was amused and pleased with their reactions to this iconic Central Park locale. The Tavern contains three main areas. In the front dining room, the vast space resembles a summer hunting lodge. A large, circular bar takes up the center with a rotating carousel of gilded horses above it, and mammoth roof beams run along the ceiling like an old mead hall. Separated from the outdoors by a large glass wall, the second dining area is far more modern with creams, ivories and a collection of glass chandeliers. And though it was a hot day, a few brave souls ate outside in the exterior dining space, under umbrellas and large, mid-century street-lamps. The other side of the building features a beer garden with its own menu of simple bar fare. Finally, for the thousands of people who jog, bike or are simply wandering in the park, there is now a delightful little take-away window called "Green-to-Go. " It offers both a breakfast and lunch menu, and tables to sit down, relax and enjoy either a cup of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal, or a variety of wraps and salads in the afternoon. If nothing else, it is a terrific spot to watch both tourists and New Yorkers passing by.
Delle Celle features many respected brands of Italian-fabricated women's clothing, as well as its own line of garments. The pieces are full of color and pattern, with an abundance of styles - there are very few repeats. Walking in, one is greeted by a friendly salesperson, happy to answer any questions. Face-to-face shopping is a vital component of this business, void of an online site. And the integrity and authenticity of the pieces certainly warrants this tactile form of transaction.
"You are now in Bedford Falls, " a sign read in this 67th Street bar, named after a location referenced in the classic movie, "It's a Wonderful Life. " With a bounty of liquor, an arcade golf game, and sports on all the televisions, this bar is the ultimate man cave. A food menu is also offered, including the ever-popular Bedford burger and a nice brunch assortment for the weekend. When I ventured in on a Wednesday night, men in good spirits, many of whom were regulars, occupied the main bar. A more private room featured cushy leather for quieter comfort, and the backroom was complete with high-legged seating and a wooden-booth. Tables appeared to be repurposed beer boxes, and the place was otherwise furnished with whiskey barrels, brick walls, and light alternative music. And through an intriguing walkway, I found myself in the splendid beer garden.