I wandered into the Madison Square Tavern just a couple months after it had opened in 2015 and knew that I had found something special. Antonio and Deborah, the general manager and bar manager, immediately gave me a warm welcome. Deborah showed me around the massive three-floored space, telling me a bit about the history of the building. Like many places in the neighborhood, it had been home to a furrier before Madison Square Tavern took it over and rebuilt the space from scratch. As I went upstairs with Deborah, she pointed out where high top tables usually stand along the catwalk, when they are not removed for a private event. We then went around the corner to a little nook that Deborah described as “perfect for football parties.” We looked down on the large, open dining room, which was decorated with colorful gourds for the harvest season.
Passing the upstairs bar, Deborah took me back downstairs, noting that the tavern had already amassed a good after-work crowd in its short time being open. The food, which she described as “contemporary American with ethnic influences,” has many gluten-free options. The restaurant is especially known for its pork chop and steaks.
Deborah showed me into another area, a versatile private dining room called “The Den.” Venturing downstairs, I checked out the Cellar Bar, which functions as a small sports bar. Though sports are occasionally shown on the flat screens upstairs, the TVs in the Cellar Bar play the games with sound. It was here that I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Walter Hinds. Before Madison Square Tavern, he had gained a fine reputation working in the Virgin Islands.
Our tour ended at the long Onyx bar, back on the first floor. After getting a taste of each floor, it was clear that there is something here for everyone, whether it be a cozy nook for a private party, a grand dining room for a steak dinner, or a lively sports bar. Madison Square Tavern covers all bases.
Manhattan has dozens of superb steak houses and Nick & Stef's certainly ranks up there with some of the better ones. Although I have not dined at this location, I recently had an excellent meal at their L.A. restaurant. Beginning with a great salad, as usual, I shared in the sides that everyone chose. I loved the cream spinach (sans bacon breadcrumbs), and I indulged in the numerous potato dishes. My husband was a happy guy having been served a perfectly prepared filet mignon, cooked exactly the way he likes it - charred on the outside and medium on the inside.
If one were to close their eyes and walk into Hill Country, there is no doubt that in an instant they would know what kind of food was being prepared. At Hill Country, they take their barbecue very seriously. The food is prepared in their very own custom meat-smoking room, and everything is done in the style of Central Texas barbecue. The atmosphere is kitschy and relaxed, with live American music most nights of the week.
Except for the unfortunate lactose intolerant among us, I do not know anyone who does not love a good grilled cheese. At Melt Shop, they serve up this childhood staple, simple and delicious, or a bit more sophisticated with interesting variations on the classic. Paired with their potato tots and a milkshake, the Manhattan Sideways team was happy to feel like they were back in grade school.
A newcomer to 31st in late 2013, I was happy to discover Friedman's Lunch. Having eaten at their restaurant in Chelsea Market on many occasions, I was quite familiar with them. Glancing quickly at the menu, I knew that I would, once again, have options as a vegetarian. Two of us shared the "House-Made Veggie Burger" with spicy tomato fennel jam, avocado and sprouts, and the "Veggie Bowl" with quinoa, sauteed vegetables, tofu and a delicious sesame lime dressing. Both were excellent. At the end of our meal, we struck up a conversation with one of the owners, Justin, who told us that he gave up being a real estate broker to pursue his passion for food. He helped turn Chelsea Market into the success that it is, and then came to open up this second location. Not via classical training in the kitchen, but rather through his love of food and hospitality, "traveling down a long road," he has finally been able to open up his dream. Working with a young design couple from Tribeca, they created something simple using distressed wood and antique mirrors. "The decor is kick ass," Justin exclaimed. With good music, a great neighborhood vibe, lots of gluten free options, and the most amazing signature potato chips, Manhattan Sideways has no doubt that Friedman's reputation will take off.
“Liquor-wise, whiskey is the greatest expression of America.” So said Jessica, bar manager at American Whiskey at the time that I visited. Opened in September 2013, the bar immediately attracted a large industry following with its nearly two hundred varieties of bourbons and rye. The bar is more versatile than that, however, with a southern, French-inspired food menu and full bar to complement, because, as Jessica says, “even us cocktail nerds want a beer and a shot sometimes.” Here, highbrow meets reality. Tans and grays line the space, with rough distressed wood showing through. Numerous flat screens are generously located throughout the bar, between giant busts of beasts.Following our conversation with Jessica, we spoke with Casey, an owner of American Whiskey. As simple as the story is, we found it fascinating and truly applaud the dedication that it took for a bunch of friends to follow their dream. Between the five managing partners, they have trained behind the bar, managed a restaurant, cooked and even washed dishes – “you name it, we have done it,” Casey, told us. “We always knew that our end goal would be to open our own place. Once we graduated college and began to mature a bit, we got out of the beer mode and moved into the more refined and sophisticated world of alcohol.” Their vision from the beginning was to find a space large enough to accommodate their sport-themed bar, as they are avid fans of multiple games. One of the partners is a University of Georgia graduate, and managed to bring in several hundred Georgia football enthusiasts on a recent weekend. Casey said the place was electric.Mimicking the theme of a vodka service, the guys came up with “barrel service.” Served right at the table are buckets of ice, glasses and one or three liter barrels, which are whiskey-based with a variety of mixers, ready to drink. Duane, one of the several in-house whiskey experts, spent time with us sharing his passion for Bourbon. It was quite interesting to hear him speak of his experience in Kentucky, this past spring, when a few of the partners went on a trip to gain further knowledge. “What better place to go than right to the state that is famous for this,” Duane said. However, he did go on to tell us that there are a number of states that manufacture their own whiskies – Iowa, Oregon and Montana were a few mentioned.Duane chatted about the surrounding landscape where the whiskey is produced, saying “it breathes into the barrels” and emphasized the importance of the water source – “all combined, it makes for an outstanding whiskey.” The enthusiasm for the drink was contagious. Having only had tiny tastes over the years, I broke down and took a few sips of Duane’s signature “Strike Me Dead.” Templeton Rye (dating from the Prohibition), black pepper, maple syrup and maple bitters were combined and finished off with some orange zest and cloves. The result was powerful and flavorful. Following that, I tried Duane's other favorite drink, “Floral Collins,” consisting of Fords gin, cucumber juice, lavender syrup, fresh squeezed lime juice, maraschino liqueur and a slice of cucumber. Esteban, our photographer, was asked which concoction he preferred and answered that they had, “Equal goodness.” Duane has spent the last three years living and breathing whiskey. Although incredibly conversant on the subject, he describes himself as being “humble” and said that he is simply dedicated to delivering the message of our country’s whiskey, “the voice of reason.”
Hailing from a family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu royalty, Renzo Gracie is not a good man with whom to make trouble. He is, however, a good man to train with, carrying several blackbelts and fight records, including bouts against past world champions. In 1995, while still an active (young) fighter, Gracie moved to New York and opened Renzo Gracie in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks north of its current location. Since then, the gym has moved south, added Muay Thai to its training acumen (as well as comprehensive MMA and boxing programs), and seen more than one world champion come to train.
Arriving from South Africa, Albertus Swanepoel attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, which led him to an apprenticeship and ultimately his own glove-making business. The appeal of gloves, however, was “incredibly limited,” as most people wear them only seasonally. So, renaissance man that he is, Albertus switched gears and slid seamlessly into the world of hats. Now he is firmly entrenched in his new niche, and has been producing haute couture headwear since the 1990s. Grounding his practice in old-fashioned millinery traditions, but using techniques from multiple fashion disciplines, he is able to approach hats creatively and expertly. This is a must for a bold garment that can fall flat if not done stylishly. “I try to make things that people wear everyday and look cool but not nostalgic,” Swanepoel explained. And New Yorkers are wearing his high-end hats across the city. Albertus has a very optimistic take on his environment: “I think that’s the great thing about Manhattan. There are so many people living here that you can almost do anything and people will want it.”
“We wanted to be that diamond in the rough,” explained Ashley, the co-owner of Blank Slate. When Ashley and Zach, spouses and co-owners, were searching for a location for their restaurant, they wanted to find a neighborhood with a large crowd but not a lot of quality spots to eat. Blank Slate is successfully that hidden gem located in NoMad, one of Manhattan’s up and coming neighborhoods. Blank Slate attracts a crowd full of young, creative professionals who are quickly changing the area.Ashley and Zach established Blank Slate, which opened in November of 2015, in an effort to create the first coffee-shop-restaurant hybrid in New York City. Ashley explains that they were tired of going to places that provided quality coffee but low quality food. She wanted a place that offered superb grab-n-go coffee as well as more formal dining where friends could meet for a long meal.Ashley and Zach’s vision has been realized. Blank Slate serves killer coffee as well as an impressive assortment of salads, sandwiches and even gourmet desserts. Their coffee is proudly served from farm to cup in close to 20 days. They have a sign at the cash register indicating the green date and roast date of the coffee being served that day. My intern, Emily, hesitantly tried their brussels sprout Caesar salad and only had positive things to say about it, even though she usually does not enjoy Brussels sprouts. Blank Slate also has a small but wonderfully curated market located inside the restaurant, which offers primarily locally sourced products such as cookie dough, yoghurts, pickles and a host of beverages.In addition to serving excellent coffee and food, Blank Slate has a fun, creative atmosphere. Ashley and Zach chose Blank Slate’s name because they wanted to convey the idea that people can make or create everything here. While customers wait in line for coffee, for example, there are etch-a-sketches on which to play. They even have Instagram competitions that reward one talented etch-a-sketcher with a free meal. Ashley hopes that Blank Slate can be a space for people to create. She explained that the etch-a-sketch sends a message: the “possibility of everything."
In the race among Manhattan restaurants to attract customers, simplicity is sometimes lost. But not so in the Mason Jar, a restaurant and bar that keeps it old school with good vibes and great tastes. The southern, barbecue-heavy menu and extensive list of craft beers and bourbons speak for themselves, complete with suggested pairings. Each month, a new craft beer is featured in an effort to support small breweries. If these beers attract a following, they are added to the full-time roster.While visiting with some Sideways members, I had a lively conversation with chef about the different styles of barbecue - our North Carolinian team member swears by vinegar sauce and appreciated Mason Jar’s variety. The food is fresh and not overdone, but at the same time the Chef “puts love into it.” The high quality meat is treated seriously - specialty ribs are coated with a dry rub, smoked using apple and hickory wood, braised, and mopped with a tomato-based Kansas City-style sauce. Then grilled. The brisket and boneless pork butts are given no less attention.Replete with wood, American Flags, and comfortable seating, Mason Jar also achieves a homey feel to match its Southern style. Many of the University of South Carolina alumni in Manhattan choose this spot as the venue to catch the Cocks football games, and Villanova basketball fans flock here for their games, as well. With the hearty food, good beers, and down-home feel, it is easy to understand why. To put it plainly and simply, Mason Jar was a good find.