When I asked Michael Coll about the name of his wine shop, the answer, in his Scottish accent, was one of the most eloquent and humbling etymologies I have received: “It is a little tongue in cheek – a disciple is a student, a teacher, and a devotee. It is someone who follows and wants to learn. We aim to be that for wine.” Michael is extremely well spoken in everything he says, but this definition really got to the purpose behind Wine Disciples: it is a place of education, comfort, and new experiences. Michael knows that wine is one subject that can humble many people, either because they do not have the vocabulary, or because they have not been trained to know what they want. Wine Disciples is built for easy navigation – Michael wants to “help people connect.” He recognizes that the wine world is truly a territory to be explored: “It goes through the city, from coast to coast,” he poetically explained.
After learning about Michael’s past, I understood where he gets his worldliness. He traveled as an engineer through Alaska, Africa, and the Middle East before entering the restaurant world. Most recently he was the beverage director at Estiatorio Milos. “Travel is important,” Michael affirmed. “It opens your eyes to people’s cultures.” It helps him make even stronger connections with his customers, through shared experiences.
Everything about the wine shop is open and uncluttered, which is a special treat in the bustling Midtown streets. There are big red doors at the back of the wine store that can be closed for a private wine tasting, or open to the world. “We are focused towards the community,” Michael noted. In addition to his retail store, he has a restaurant, Enoteca, next door, complete with a private room that hosts up to 40 people for a sit-down dinner.
Wine Disciples focuses on organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines, with an emphasis on smaller producers. With 756 different labels, there is a broad range of styles and price points. Since Michael’s main goal is to educate his customers, he often sells bottles of wine for an extremely affordable price. He says that when people ask, “Why are you charging so little for your wine?” he answers, “Because I want you to come in and drink it!” Michael told us that he caters to all budgets and that he wants to provide people with “the best ten dollar bottle of wine that they’ve ever had.”
Though excited about opening his first restaurant and wine shop, Michael also recognizes the scale of the endeavor. “It’s a huge project – if I were sane, I would never have undertaken it,” he said with a wry grin. Michael has already experienced the pay-off, however. He told me that the week before I visited, a man had tried to describe the kind of wine he liked to drink, not knowing what words to use. Michael worked with the man to find the right wine, and the customer returned after drinking it to tell Michael, “You hit the nail on the head.”
Greeting guests with a small taste of their Spanish mulled house wine, we immediately knew that we had discovered a small wonder. Aytac and Zaf, both from Turkey, are the owners. They lived in New York for many years, working in other restaurants before the two friends decided to embark on their own adventure. They opened their doors in 2007 and have had a steady flow of customers, drawing from both the locals living in the neighborhood and the strong tourist population that surrounds them. Nothing is made from scratch on the premises, as the kitchen is minute, but what they bring out of there is absolutely scrumptious. We managed to eat every piece of chocolate made by either renowned Jacques Torres or Xocolatti. Small chunks are served on a wooden platter, similar to a cheese board. Delving into their signature dessert, "21 Layer Crepes Cake" was like indulging in a piece of heaven. Thin crepes and whipped cream, topped with burnt sugar. We watched as others shared the dark chocolate fondue, dipping into their melted land of wonder with bananas, strawberries, marshmallows and finger cookies as Frank Sinatra was singing in the background. Although we did not order anything else, there is a menu filled with savory treats - Angry Chicken Lollipops, White Truffle Pizza, Goat Cheese Brulee and, of course, a cocktail menu of Chocolate Martinis and wines from around the world.
As the name suggests, Burgundy Wine Company specializes in wines from this glorious region in France. Opening in 1988 in the West Village as a niche market before this concept became so trendy, their clientele has remained loyal and many over the years. Max, one of the knowledgeable staff members, explained to us that his dad got him into wine long before he was of legal age, and it has since become his passion. The shop seems like a perfect place to nurture a passion for wine - we can easily imagine ourselves curled up on their cozy couch with one of their books about wine, and a glass of red in hand.
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.