The origins of Times Square’s oldest Thai restaurant trace back to a small spot in Chinatown.
Husband and wife team Khun Pongsri and Khun Prasit Tangchakkrachai started out selling burgers, hot dogs, and other simple American grub, as they were initially deterred by the lack of Thai ingredients and spices in the area. Over time, they became more inventive and
slowly shifted the menu toward their native cuisine.
“They used Filipino, Chinese, Indian, and even Mexican spices to create traditional Thai dishes,” said their son, Saksit, who now manages the 48th Street location.
The couple used Indian curries as substitutes for green and red chili paste and a sweetened carrot mixture in place of papaya. Little tricks like these allowed them to provide New York’s Thai community some semblance of home. Today, with the wealth of specialty Asian grocery stores and the ease of sourcing ingredients from abroad, Pongsri’s menu boasts ten pages of curries, noodles, rice, and every other Thai staple imaginable.
As Saksit commented, everyone at the restaurant is “related somehow,” and the feeling of dining with this warm, extended family pervades the space. He initially wasn’t involved with the restaurant, as he graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in architecture and interior design and took a job in California. However, when his father asked him to return and help manage the thriving business, Saksit could not resist. “I just wanted to come home,” he confessed, as he had spent much of his childhood in boarding schools and then university, only working at Pongsri during holidays and breaks. Now, he is pleased with where life has taken him.
“A restaurant is tiring work, but it’s enjoyable,” Saksit said.
“If you’re going to the theater, you go to Tony’s, ” said Dreni Kyqykaliu, the restaurant’s general manager. Those en route to a Broadway show are a good portion of their clientele, nearby office workers make up the lunch rush, and tourists pop in during breaks between sightseeing. “The blessing of being in Times Square is having all these groups come in. ”Anyone who has visited Tony’s will be familiar with their signature, massive portions of food that are meant to be shared family-style. This adherence to simple but hearty cooking is a trademark of the people that started Tony’s: the Wetansons. (They founded the now-dissolved 1950s burger chain, Wetson’s, which later merged with iconic hot dog vendor, Nathan’s Famous. ) Four generations of Wetansons have run this network of casual dining establishments that also includes Dallas BBQ. Unlike other large companies, however, Greg Wetanson, his father, Herb, and his son, Stuart, remain closely involved in the day-to-day operations and run things as a family business. Thanks to this amiable atmosphere, “Most of the management and the chefs have been here for twenty plus years, ” said Dreni, who joined Tony’s shortly after it opened in the 1990s.
Not only does Barbetta profess to be the oldest restaurant on Restaurant Row, it is also one of the oldest Italian restaurants in New York. Opening its doors in 1906, in four adjoining townhouses built in the late 1800s by the Astor family, Sebastiano Maioglio began his long restaurant career. The emphasis has always been on Italian dishes and wine from the Piemontese region, where he was from. Sebastiano’s daughter, Laura, took over in 1962, and immediately began to remodel the restaurant in the style of 18th C. E. Piemonte. With her passion for collecting art, great sense of personal style, frequent visits in Piemonte, and an art history degree from Bryn Mawr College, it is no wonder that Barbetta’s exquisite interior has become as highly regarded as its food. The dining room demonstrates its old-world opulence, with ornate chandeliers, chairs, and tables meant to evoke a palazzo of the eighteenth century, during Piemonte’s cultural height. The baroque interior serves as more than just a reference to its heritage; it is a part of it. The great chandelier in the main dining room initially came from a palazzo in Torino, where it belonged to the royal family. Laura negotiated to obtain this 18th C. E. chandelier for two years. Other highlights of Barbetta’s extensive collection include the harpsichord in the foyer - crafted in 1631, as well as hanging wall prints from Piemonte - part of a distinguished set crafted in 1682. Items that could not be authentic, such as the numerous chairs and barstools, are reproductions of museum pieces that were specifically chosen by Laura to be reproduced in Italy. The garden, available for dining in the summer, holds trees dating back over a century ago, and, in line with the interior, holds the atmosphere of refined European aristocracy. Barbetta, while serving as a cultural landmark, remains focused on the excellence of its ever-changing list of dishes while serving classics such as risotto and polenta since its founding. Every dish on its menu since 1962 has been approved by Laura, and celebrating its long history and heritage, each menu item is marked with the year it began to be served, while dishes from Piemonte are in red print. Although esteemed for its dishes, Barbetta is also famed for its 72-page wine list, which has won numerous awards. Barbetta has also transformed the Italian dining scene through its numerous examples of “being the first”- from its conception to the present day. A few highlights include its beginning as the first Piemontese restaurant in New York, its status as New York’s first elegant Italian restaurant after its 1962 transformation, as well as its usage of numerous ingredients that at the time, were not commercially available in America and which had to be specifically imported by them from Italy. A particular example of one of these imported ingredients is white truffles. Years ago, Barbetta’s own truffle-hunting dogs became so well known that they were asked to perform a demonstration at Carnegie Hall in 1992. Barbetta is also unique in its emphasis on low sugar and low salt dishes - Laura even decided that Barbetta would smoke its own salmon to ensure it would not be too salty. Laura described Barbetta as “an institution, much more than a restaurant, ” due to the extensive culture that has been built around it and that it has created. The description as “much more than a restaurant” struck us as particularly apt, due to Barbetta’s long list of famous regulars - from The Rolling Stones to Jacklyn Kennedy - its exceptionally elegant and unusually spacious interior, variety of phenomenal food, and historical significance.
Speaking with Jon Baltimore in his woodwind and brass repair shop is directly engaging with the history of Midtown's music scene - Baltimore grew up on 48th street working in his father's shop when "Music Row" was thriving. Jon Baltimore Music remains firmly rooted in the days where jazz legends would play on the street corner, simply having fun with their new instruments. Continuing the tradition that his dad began in 1974, Jon offers quality service in a relaxed, casual atmosphere. Jon started work at the age of nine, across from the well-known Manny's music store (now closed) in Rod Baltimore's music repair shop, where they bought, sold, rented and fixed woodwinds, brass and string instruments. After "buying his father out" in 2001, Jon moved the shop from its original location to 46th Street in 2008. He explained to us that "Over the years, music businesses closed, and 48th just died, but now there is a small rebirth on 46th. " While on 48th, Jon recalls working in the same building as Robert Giardenelli, who specialized in trumpet repair and crafted some of the best brass mouthpieces available. Capitol Records was also in this building and Jon told us how he remembers the days when Frank Sinatra used to come through, on his way up to his label, and hang out with whatever musicians were currently in the store. Despite the new street, Jon has tried to maintain the same environment that he loved about his father's shop, the real sense of camaraderie between himself and the musicians. "For a lot of these guys that come in, a repair person is like a doctor, " Jon explained, "They're relying on you to keep what they care about together. " Over the course of the family business, Jon has counted Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Peter Weller, Dizzie Gillespie, Bill Cosby and George Carlin among regular customers, and he still reminisces about Paul McCartney coming the day of a concert in New York to buy a Beatles songbook from him. "I was just so amazed that he was in my shop, " Jon laughed. As we were looking around, Jon pointed out a few curiosities among his collection. He showed us a French coronet from 1884 that was found sealed between two walls in a Brooklyn brownstone, and a personally-customized saxophone for disabled musicians. His greatest treasure, however, is the mouthpiece of Louis Armstrong, which he proudly displays. Jon Baltimore Music Company felt like a trip to the Mecca of jazz history, a temple to a past time where musicians would, in Jon's words, "come in, sit around, pick up an instrument and simply hang out. "
Initially serving as a resting stop for Scandinavian sailors when they disembarked in lower Manhattan, the Swedish Seaman's Church opened its doors on Water Street in 1873. The neo-Gothic building in which the Church currently resides was constructed in 1921 for "The Bible House" before being sold to the Church of Sweden in 1978. The Church's nautical past is evidenced in the model boats placed among the large collection of Swedish books. With a chapel, a library, and a coffee shop, the Church's doors are always open to Swedes. While tasting their delicious Swedish buns, I chatted with the staff who spoke enthusiastically about the function that the center plays in people's lives. For families, it provides a "wind" of Sweden whenever they miss their homeland. There are also multiple weddings conducted in the chapel each week, and people come from all over to celebrate holidays and shop at their Christmas Bazaar.
Clinton Garden is a striking testament to the power of residential communities in New York. One of the earliest examples of urban agricultural reclamation, the garden was created in 1979 in a lot that had been abandoned for twenty-eight years. Seeing potential in the space and hoping to improve the area around the neighborhood, residents (with the help of Operation Green Thumb, which leased the lot from the city) transformed the VACANT property into a garden using reclaimed and salvaged bricks, concrete, and slate. Finding the gates open on a beautiful spring Saturday, I wandered in and strolled down the paths filled with magnificent flowers and shrubs. I also met committed people tending to their small plots of land, of which there are now over one hundred. I have since been back many times, as I think this is a magnificent retreat on those days that I am in a need of a place to rest while walking the side streets of Manhattan.
Tucked between a Swiss and an Italian restaurant, Scent Elate brings Eastern spirituality to the neighborhood. With the doors swung open, the aromas were an enticing trail that led me into this tiny boutique packed with an array of incense, candles, soaps, oils and lotions. Scent Elate also has books on meditation and yoga scattered among crystals, jewelry, chimes and hanging ornaments. In fact, it might just be "the" place to go when searching for sticks of incense - not only is there a vast selection, but Mo, the owner, makes a special effort to find the perfect scent to enhance each individual customer's environment.
Named after Bible verses in Isaiah (the wolf and the lamb shall feed together), this restaurant opened in Manhattan in 1998, and expanded to Brooklyn the following year. Initially a traditional kosher deli, it later reinvented itself as a steakhouse. The extensive menu ranges from matzo ball soup to salmon burgers, veal Bolognese gnocchi and, of course, includes a variety of steaks and chops. Drawing on influences as diverse as Vietnamese, Tex-Mex, and French-country, Wolf and Lamb adapts its more customary function to a cosmopolitan venue. "Just because you're keeping kosher doesn't mean you have to sacrifice on quality, " shared a waitress. And while we were told that the majority of customers keep kosher regularly, the crowded space was testament to Wolf and Lamb's broad culinary appeal.