When I visited OCabanon in the summer of 2016, it was in the middle of the European Soccer Championship and the whole restaurant was decked out in French flags and each staff member sported a French jersey, including Armel Joly, one of the three brothers-in-law who own the restaurant - which they have dubbed a “cave à manger,” a term that means “cellar to eat.”
Armel explained that he and the other owners, Alexandre Mur and Michael Faure, were vacationing together during the summer of 2011 with their respective wives/sisters when they came up with the idea of opening a restaurant. From there, the process accelerated and they signed a lease in Chelsea in December of the same year. As for the name, it comes from a piece of family history. Armel pointed to a picture of his grandmother-in-law on the wall, telling me that she had a house in the south of France in which the whole family has had many happy memories. In the house, the kitchen had a tiny pantry off to the side with a small refrigerator. Though “cabanon” is a word that directly translates to “shed,” the grandmother used the word to describe her little pantry. Every time someone came to visit her, she would say something along the lines of, “It’s so good to see you! Let me see if there’s something to eat in my cabanon.” In French, “in the cabanon,” is “au Cabanon,” which phonetically gave the brothers the name of their restaurant.
The cabanon in the south of France often held delicious, fresh food including homemade risotto, mozzarella, and dorado. “She was crazy about fish,” Armel informed me, adding that the restaurant always tries to have one type of fish on the menu in her honor. In addition to dorado, the restaurant does an excellent nicoise salad with fresh tuna. As for other popular plates, Cedric, the wait staff captain, mentioned that the burger, stuffed short ribs, and cherry tomato tarte tatin were frequently ordered. Armel pointed out that the wine is also a “very important focus,” with most bottles coming from small producers.
Armel, who was a banker in France before following his family’s dream in opening the restaurant, is very pleased with what he and his brothers have achieved. “We are very lucky, very happy about this,” he said. “What we have received from the American people is something that surprises me everyday.” Americans, I learned, make up 90% of OCabanon’s regulars. A large number of them discovered the restaurant from a surprising source: since Billy Joel began performing one concert each month in 2014 at nearby Madison Square Garden, OCabanon has been packed to the rafters on those specific evenings. The phenomenon, which Armel describes as “totally amazing,” has allowed him to promote France and French cuisine to even more people... And, of course, soccer - for the space has a side room with a giant screen for watching the games. "We are combining the best of France and the best of New York,” he stated.
Approaching almost fifty years, the American Bartender's School has been teaching mixologists the ‘ology of mixing. Having moved in the ‘80s from their original location on Madison Avenue, the school offers forty-hour courses, with students leaving as certified bartenders with a license issued by the New York State Board of Education. Combining lectures and a “lab” portion, we witnessed students attentively toiling over drinks for phantom customers in a room designed to look like one giant bar. The difference, however, is that unlike a culinary school where one might sample their own creations, students do not imbibe here. In fact, there is no alcohol to be found at this bar. Everything is in the correct bottles and the colors all match their potent potable equivalent. What was explained to us is that everything is about measurements. Students are given a recipe to follow, and provided they do it correctly, they can rest assured that it will taste exactly right in the real world. We left wondering whether phantom customers are good tippers.
There is a lot of space to have fun and be funny at Pioneer's, formerly named Comedy Bar. Well that makes sense, as it is owned by Ali Farahnakian, the man behind the PIT (People's Improv Theater) on 24th Street, which opened a new location just down the street in 2015. We found this place to have a little bit of everything. A fan of pinball? There are several machines; Love playing Jenga with giant size blocks? They have them; Want to dance? The music is playing and there are others who will join in; Like comedy? There are open mic nights; Want to simply drink? The selection is fine, with a variety of beers on tap... and the bartenders are ready to chat; Hungry? There is a menu to choose from and lots of popcorn to go around.
This tiny shop tucked away in Kips Bay has been the go-to spot for any and all of one’s footwear-related troubles since it opened in 2014. Manuel Muicela, the owner, came to New York from Nicaragua in 1987 and quickly joined the trade of shoe repair, enduring grueling six-day workweeks. After gaining thirty years of experience in the field, he was finally able to open his own business. “I learned how to repair shoes, and now I work for me,” he remarked proudly. In this residential area, most of his regulars live in the neighborhood. On the loyalty of his customers, Manuel noted, “If you do a good job, people come back.” A few things about Manuel’s shop set him apart from the rest. One of the first things that grabs the eye upon entering is the set of old-fashioned shoeshine chairs, where one can get a shoeshine for $5, cash only. He also has a unique machine in the back of the shop that stitches both the inside and the outside of the shoe. With a chuckle, Manuel warned our team, “You can stitch your finger if you’re not careful.” This machine is so rare that many other shoe repair shop owners throughout the city come to Manuel to use it.
An oasis in a concrete cityscape, this little church doubles as a place of worship and a serene garden in which to rest. The Episcopalian church was founded in 1848 by George Houghton to welcome any and all of the tired masses, in the spirit of inclusivity. Today, the church maintains that inclusive spirit by keeping its gates open all day to parishioners and non-parishioners alike. On any given day, one can find anyone from actors to businessmen seated among the bushes and fountains, chatting, eating or simply sitting in peace. “A lot of people just come in and meditate or chill,” parish administrator Bill Nave shared with us. “It is one of the most welcoming churches I have ever been to.” What a charming discovery in the midst of bustling Manhattan.