“Restaurants are a funny thing — I think most of us fall in and then some of us never leave,” said Laura Bird, who spent decades working in and out of her uncle’s Southwestern eatery, Santa Fe, before taking over as the owner.
Laura’s uncle, John Bird, initially set out to be a musician. However, “like most creatives in New York, he spent a lot of time working in restaurants in between gigs.” He was a busboy at the casual Mexican joint, Cantina, on 70th Street for many years. Putting his dreams of stardom aside, John and a crew of coworkers he had befriended at Cantina chose to open a new place mere blocks away that would “elevate Southwestern cuisine.” John later became the sole proprietor, and under his management, the business was able to straddle the line between attracting hotshot celebrities and serving as a warm, family restaurant. “So many people began bringing their kids to dinner and started a long-lasting tradition of dining at Santa Fe together,” Laura shared. She fondly recalls her own early visits to her uncle’s restaurant. “It seemed like a game then. I remember the excitement of being allowed to use the soda gun for the first time.” Little did she know that she would be a fixture at Santa Fe.
Similar to her uncle before her, Laura graduated college with a theater major and the knowledge that she would need a side job to pay her rent. She went from working the coat check, to waitressing, to suddenly managing the entire restaurant. Though it may not be for everyone, Laura admitted that she loved the “vampire lifestyle — I could do what I loved during the day and then come here at night to do a different kind of show business.”
The family ties at Santa Fe do not stop at Laura and John. The chef of over a decade, José Gonzalez, appointed his son, Danny, as his second-in-command. Together, they dish up traditional Mexican foods as well as American staples and do their best to abide by John’s cardinal rule: consistency. “It’s easy to make something once, but the real goal is to keep cooking it the same way every time. We try to ensure that when people order a dish, it is the same flavor that they fell in love with when they first tried it a week or even ten years ago.” Just as notable are Santa Fe’s margaritas, which have “a reputation of their own as our shining superstar.”
As for John, after devoting decades of his life to Santa Fe, he “took a bow from his restaurant journey” during the COVID-19 pandemic and entrusted Laura and her husband, Alex Fresqued, to keep running the show. In a heartwarming twist of fate, Santa Fe’s landlord turned out to be equally as fond of this neighborhood gem as its patrons, and he came on as a partner to help keep it alive.
When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure. Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father. Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different, " Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window. " He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock. "Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here. "It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right. " He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week. " Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me. "
It does not matter what I am looking for, I always stop by Stationery and Toys first, certain that I will find what I need. Sometimes I find myself laughing out loud when I ask either of the owners of this fantastic old world shop, a father and daughter, for the item that I am in search of that day, and they answer "of course we have it. " With its simple name and treasure trove of items for children and adults alike, it is one of the last of its kind, and it makes me happy simply to wander the aisles. "I used to sell wholesale to Hallmark stores, " Larry Gomez, the founder, shared with me one day. "Now there aren't places like this anymore. " On the day that I visited with the Manhattan Sideways team, Larry took the time, in between ringing customers up for paper, pens, puzzles and party supplies, to tell us how the store began. He said that his daughter, Donna Schofield, came home from college to help him in the wholesale business. As Larry tells it, Donna said, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I don't want to sit in a warehouse anymore. I want to work in retail. " Donna, when I spoke to her, tells it a little differently. She says, "I was talking to the same people every day with very little sight of daylight. I wanted to work in a store. "Either way, the outcome was a positive one. Larry gave Donna her wish in 1988 by opening Stationery and Toys. One day, I asked her what it was like having children while working around toys. She said, "My son thought the warehouse was Santa Claus's section. " The boy, who is now fully grown, knew to stay away. His younger sister, though, needed more convincing not to play with the toys. Donna gave the keys to the store to her brother-in-law for a while in order to spend more time with her family, but in 2009, she returned. "She's the big cheese, now, " Larry declared. Today, during the week, when a customer walks into the store, they will see Donna behind the counter and on the weekends it is Larry who is there, allowing his daughter to remain at home. "I'm the Saturday Sunday man! " he said with a grin. Donna's son, however, has started coming in on weekends to work with his grandfather, while he studies to become an electrician. It is this sense of family that Larry believes has saved their store. Donna and Larry form a friendly pair of faces for neighbors to recognize from year to year. He says that they still see many regulars from when the store first opened, though as Larry put it sadly, "there are many that we've lost. " He brightened, however, when he told me about the men and women who come in with their children. Larry recognizes many as having been frequent shoppers when they were kids themselves. He considers himself quite fortunate to have stayed in business through the years. When he first started, he explained, the area was known as "Needle Park" and in order to stay out of danger, people got out of the neighborhood by six in the evening. Now, Larry embraces the fact that the street is a place where families can safely thrive. When speaking with Gary - a sales assistant who has been with the store "for a long time" - I asked him how they decide what to stock, since the inventory seems to be infinite. He replied, "Donna gets it word of mouth, through the kids. The best thing to do is to listen to them. " Donna agreed, saying "If I get asked for an item three times, I get it. " Just before we were leaving, we witnessed a beautiful yet typical moment when Donna noticed a little boy eying a batman figurine on the counter while his mother was making a purchase. Donna sweetly handed the toy to him and told him that it was now his. Neighborhood kindness and generosity is alive and well at Stationery and Toys.
Acker Merrall & Condit Company changed its name to Acker Wines in 2020. I thought I misheard Anna, a member of the Acker Merrall team, when she said the company had been around since 1820. There was no misunderstanding: Acker Merrall is the oldest continuously operating wine merchant in the country. Anna even showed me a framed list on the wall that detailed the provisions of the Titanic. Sure enough, wine from Acker Merrall was listed. Anna explained that they were specifically known for stocking ships and that in the early 1900s, there were twenty-nine locations scattered along the coast, stretching as far south as Baltimore. Not only that, but the company sold fine food and housewares along with wine. As Harper, another member of the Acker Merrall team, joked, "It was perfect for when you think, 'Hmm... I need some whiskey and some chairs. '"Sadly, after Prohibition was repealed, a law was passed in New York requiring liquor stores to have only one location. It was also decided that no food items were allowed to be sold in a liquor shop. This meant that Acker Merrall had to choose whether it wanted to be a wine store or a grocery store. The original Acker Merrall family decided to take over the food and housewares departments and sold the alcohol operations to the Kapon family, who still run the company - John Kapon is currently the owner, and has been on West 72nd since 1985. Today, Acker Merrall is best known as the largest wine auctioneer in the world, with its strongest support coming from New York and Hong Kong, since China has become the biggest consumer of wine worldwide. There are beautifully bound books in the back of the store that have carefully documented these sales over the years. In addition to the auctions, the store has regular tasting events and invites importers and producers from different wine companies to share their goods with the community. While Acker is "pretty global, " they focus on a lot of old world wines, especially French. Harper credits the company's attention to detail and customer service with its longevity. Acker offers services that go above and beyond, such as free delivery to the Hamptons and Fire Island during the summer months. It also helps that Acker sources rare wines from many countries around the world. One day, I was with a member of the Manhattan Sideways team who recognized a bottle that his father had purchased while on vacation in Argentina. James excitedly said, "My dad loved this wine, but has never been able to find it again. " Of course he had to buy a bottle to take home to him. Before we left, Harper showed me a picture of New York City from the early 1900s. Behind a horse-drawn carriage and a pile of barrels, I could see the sign for Acker Merrall. In a city where shops open and close faster than I can discover them, it was refreshing to find a business that has managed to stay afloat for almost two centuries.
"It's good to see you, and it's good to be seen, " Paul Whitman said to Mrs. Lloyd, who has been a regular at Fischer Bros. & Leslie for the last fifty years. From across the shop, Paul's brother-in-law Steve Niederman smiled and said, "Mrs. Lloyd, from 57th Street! " Paul wrote down Mrs. Lloyd's order in his big book of house accounts and she was on her way. Over the course of the thirty minutes that we spent in this butcher shop, we witnessed many scenes like this. A regular would arrive, be greeted by name, place an order, pay via their "house account, " maybe set up delivery, and be off to their next errand. It is something that does not happen everyday, especially in New York. Fischer Bros. & Leslie, which has been in business since 1949, has proudly served three, sometimes four generations of families, and vice president and partner Paul Whitman has gotten to know most of them throughout his tenure with the shop, thanks in part to their commitment to the house account system. Fischer Bros. & Leslie does take cash, checks, and the occasional credit card, and it does have a website, but Paul encourages everyone to open a house account. "You get to know the people this way, " he told me. They will call a customer to let them know that one of their favorites is in stock: "We have some rib steak, just what you like. " The store even accommodates their regulars by preparing seasonal foods throughout the year, if demand warrants. Partner Yisroel Brown told us there is an older couple that loves their gazpacho, even in the wintertime, so "we'll make a batch for them, " and then added, "Just like latkes are not just for Hanukkah. "Paul has been a part of the Fischer Bros. & Leslie family ever since he married Leslie's daughter Marcy, whom he met in college. After graduate school at The Stern School of Business at NYU, Leslie invited Paul to work at the store while he got his resume together. "That was thirty-five years ago, " Paul told me. The full-service kosher butcher shop also prepares a large variety of Jewish favorites in-house, including matzo ball soup, which was initially prepared for Marcy one day years ago when she wasn't feeling well, but then became so popular that it was added to the menu. Paul went on to say that they set a wall on fire making the soup, which spurred them to build a kitchen. Another fire occurred years later, just before Passover, when someone left a brisket in the oven. Luckily, Paul was staying in the family's office upstairs at the time, and a neighbor (who knew he was there, thanks to his motorcycle parked out front) alerted him to the fire, and a Passover crisis was averted. When I walked out of this old world shop, Jenna, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, turned to me and said, "My family has been in New York City for over a hundred years, and I have heard them tell stories of places like Fischer Bros. & Leslie, places where a customer was greeted by name, where money only changed hands at the end of the month, where quality of product went hand-in-hand with quality of service and character, but I had never experienced it myself. Wait until I tell my Grandma that a place like the ones she reminisces about still exists. " (Good thing they deliver to Brooklyn. )
Helen Clay Frick, always an art enthusiast, founded the Frick Art Reference Gallery in 1920 as a public reserve and in loving memory of her father, Henry Clay Frick. Originally housed in the basement bowling alley of the Frick Collection, the library moved to its current location in 1935, transformed from its previously residential identity by Russell Pope. To date, the library offers access to comprehensive collections of photographs with complementing texts as well as other resources to better understand Western Art, adhering to the intentions of both Helen and Henry.
Raised by parents from Sicily and Naples, Nick Mormando grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, exposed to authentic Italian food in a comfortable setting. "We were the house on the block that was always cooking something, " Nick explained. And he still is, having stayed true to his family recipes since opening the neighborhood-centric Polpette 71 restaurant in November of 1994. The front room is set up with white tablecloths, bottles of Pellegrino and photographs of "The Gates" by Christo and Jean-Claude, which decorated Central Park in 2005. On my first visit to Polpette 71, when it was still operating under its original name, Bello Giardino, Nick asked if I would like to sit outside in the garden. I looked up in surprise and eagerly replied, "Yes please. " Truly a hidden gem on West 71st, this quiet respite has become a favorite of mine over the last several years. The red-and-white checkered tablecloths, small bottles of olive oil, and a massive mural by Hans de Castellane - depicting an Italian landscape with ocean views and coastal dwellings - brings a smile to my face every time I stroll in. Overhead, a weaving grape vine, grown out of a tiny root planted years ago from Nick's childhood garden, opens to pockets of natural light. The star of the culinary show has been the "Nicky" meatball. Voted the best in the boroughs by Dish du Jour Magazine in 2009, it has since made guest appearances on television shows, and inspired Nick's latest restaurant, Polpette, on Amsterdam Avenue. Other favorites include the penne alla vodka, the linguini and clams, which Nick fondly remembers his mother serving twice a month as he was growing up, and my personal favorite, the eggplant parmigiana. In addition to the food and décor, the ambiance is set by the strong relationships the restaurant has established. Without a doubt, this is a neighborhood haunt. Special occasions are commonly celebrated, guests are unafraid to dine alone, often engaging in comfortable conversations with the servers, and diners are referenced by names. "We are that kind of place, " Nick smiled, recalling a couple who had met in his restaurant, moved outside of New York, but returned to Polpette 71 for their son's first birthday.
In 1887, Father Matthew A. Taylor founded the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, and in 1919, in an effort to accommodate an impressive following, the Roman Catholic Church was moved to its current residence just in front of the School of the Blessed Sacrament. Designed by architect Gustave E. Steinback, the building draws on Gothic Revival styles. The exterior stone facade stands proudly with arched stone ridges, detailed carvings, and heavy wooden doors, but it is the immaculate rose window that presents the most marvels. On the inside, the window is even more awe-inspiring, glowing in a spectrum of soft hues that fill the space with natural light complemented by more stain glass panels on the sidewalls and a beautifully designed tile floor.
Originally designed by architect Stephen D. Hatch for a Methodist church in 1880, this building was taken over by the Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church ten years later. In 1939, the German-founded congregation merged with that of St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran to become Grace & St. Paul's Church. Today the church retains its beautiful brownstone facade, a mixture of Gothic and Victorian expression.
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. ”