Everybody at Maz Mezcal, whether they work at the restaurant or dine there as a customer, is considered to be a member of the family. It is difficult not to break into a smile after entering the space and being greeted not only by the warm, bright colors of the decor, but also by the friendly staff, led by their matriarch Mary - or most commonly and affectionately, "Mama."
Mama's story seems to be right out of a fairytale. She is possibly the only non-Mexican member of the restaurant staff, having grown up in Indiana. She met the now-owner of Maz Mezcal, Eduardo Silva, when she was sixteen-years-old and he was eighteen. Eduardo, whose family is from Mazatlan, Sinaloa in Mexico, was stationed in Indiana with the army. One day, his car ran out of gas and along came young "Maria" to his rescue. She helped him out by purchasing the necessary gas. Eduardo left for Vietnam, but the two teenagers wrote to each other throughout his time overseas. When he returned, the couple moved to New York, where Eduardo's father already had a few restaurants on the Upper East Side, and joined the culinary world. Mary, who had never even eaten in a restaurant and had never heard Spanish spoken before meeting Eduardo, was thrown into a totally new world that she embraced from the beginning. She told me that when the couple was living with Eduardo's parents, Eduardo's mother refused to speak to her in English, even though the older woman knew how. As a consequence, in part, Mary is now fluent in Spanish.
Maz Mezcal originally opened up a few doors down from its current location in 1972. Though she has since handed over the full responsibility of cooking to the chefs, Maria prepared most of the meals for many years after they opened. Eduardo was, and has always been, the primary decorator. Mama got a bemused look on her face when she spoke about the eclectic items that Eduardo brings back with him every time he visits Mexico. The restaurant is filled with the beautiful and quirky calacas (the skeletons commonly used for Day of the Dead decorations) that Eduardo collects during his travels. And they are particularly popular when the restaurant hosts a set of Halloween parties each year - "one for kids and one for adults."
In 1987, Maz Mezcal moved to its current location. Just as Mary and Eduardo were starting to settle into their new location, and one month before their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, their daughter Gabi came along. "She was a huge surprise," Maria said, giving her daughter a hug. It was clear even from my limited interaction with the mother and daughter that not only is Gabi a wonderfully friendly, polite, and jubilant member of the team, but she is also an enormous help. She knows the restaurant like the back of her hand, having essentially grown up in it. Gabi happily told us that she has been walking across the street to Maz Mezcal from their apartment almost every day since she was four years old and she has been taking on the duties of a hostess since she was eight. Her best friends growing up were the children of Maz Mezcal's employees, who have now similarly grown up to join their parents at the restaurant. "It takes a village," Gabi said, to which her mother gave a proud smile. This particular village includes the customers. Mama is proud of the strong following that Maz Mezcal has accrued and loves when diners say things like, "How old is Gabi now? So old!" Today, decades later, people whom Mama remembers as teenagers are now dining here with their grandchildren. The whole circle of life is contained under Maz Mezcal's roof.
Always one to appreciate a walk through the kitchen, I stopped to take a look at the lineup of ingredients that tended towards bright red, green, and purple colors. There were bowls of multi-colored chips and vats of freshly made guacamole and salsa - at three different levels of spiciness. I also had the pleasure of meeting some of the other "family" members. Jose, who has been with the restaurant since the early 1980s, was there, along with Antonio, a fifty-one year old man who started working with Mama when he was fifteen. I learned further examples of how everyone at the restaurant is part of the same network: Gabi's nanny when she was a baby was Antonio's godmother, and Juan's aunt is grandmother to Johnny, another one of Gabi's co-workers and former playmates.
While sampling some of the amazing dishes and sipping on a variety of margaritas, Joe, a regular, came and seated himself at the bar - but not before giving Mama a hug. He then turned to no one in particular and declared, "This is one of the last authentic places on the Upper East Side." We understood perfectly: Even though we were sitting in a beautifully decorated restaurant, we felt as if we were being treated to a home-cooked meal surrounded by family. Gabi nodded when we said this and added, "Everything is made with so much love and attention because we want people to be at home here. It's great that after a long day, this is where people want to come."
There are twenty-four taps in use every night of the week at Bondurants, and when the bar hooks up a cask to the final, larger tap, there are twenty-five beverages available. Bondurants has become known for its rotating draft list that features both local brews as well as lesser-known international brands. The bar also prides itself on its small batch of bourbons made at local distilleries and its quirky cocktails with names that include "Fizzy Lifting Drink" and "Fernet Me Not. " There is also a full dinner menu, offering everything from traditional southern pulled pork to a fresh kale and collard salad, as well as a brunch menu that is beloved in the neighborhood. Specials rotate with the seasons and everything is sourced locally whenever possible. Caity Prunka, one of the owners of Bondurants, told me, "We make nearly every food item in-house, from grinding meat daily for burgers to smoking our own cheeses. "The bar is decorated to look like an upscale moonshiner's haven. Many customers link the name to the famous moonshiner family, though Jess, the bartender, smiled and suggested that the name comes from elsewhere. The walls are lined with shelves holding barrels, glasses and funnels with lettering that is reminiscent of Appalachia or the Wild West. It is a true urban saloon. Many of the decorations have stories behind them. For example, when I pointed out the manatee statue on the central bar column guzzling whiskey, Jess told me that one of the owners is from Florida, where manatees are considered the state marine mammal. "It's his piece of home, " she said with a smile.
"Monkeys are whimsical and playful and that fits with our theme, " Arun relayed to me on the evening that we sat down in his Indian restaurant and cocktail bar. Arun grew up "all over. " His dad was a diplomat who moved the family every few years from India to Washington to London. "I was constantly having new friends, a new home, a new school - a new life. " But, in hindsight, Arun said that it was an amazing way to be raised, and he appreciates what his parents did for him. "Hey, I have a friend and a couch in every city that I need to crash now. "Arun spent time working in other restaurants and bars over the years, but it was always his dream to have his own place. He just needed to figure out exactly what his concept would be. Initially, he thought he would open a cocktail bar, as there were none in the surrounding area at the time. "I recognized the density in population, and the variety of restaurants, but there was nowhere for people to go to have a nice drink and relax in this neighborhood, " he said. After admiring the bistro format derived from his uncle's successful restaurant, Bateau Ivre, which opened in 1995, Arun sat down with the man that he had always admired to discuss some of his ideas for starting a business. Enthusiastic about Arun's concept, his uncle took Arun to India where the two solidified their partnership. Now, periodically, they will travel back to their native country as well as to England to refresh their palate and come back to Manhattan with new recipes to try. There is a limited menu - not one's typical Indian choices - highlighting a little bit of everything from India’s North to its South, as well as the classic street food found in India. They are continuously revamping the menu and trading dishes with their fairly new downtown location, Royal Munkey. Many of the recipes that Executive Chef Derik Alfro uses are from Arun's mom, grandmother, and other members of the family. "This is home style cooking, " Arun told me as he placed a plate of white bread in front of me, cut into triangles with a mild cheddar cheese shredded over it and a bit of red onion, cilantro and green chili mixed in. "This is the kind of food we would eat at home, and at Drunken Munkey, we are trying to serve it in a similar style and setting. "While Arun tasted the chicken alongside the rest of us from Manhattan Sideways, he pointed to the accompanying sauce and told us that it was his grandmother's recipe - a play on the traditional tamarind made with apple butter, a blend of ground spices, and lemon that steeps for a few days before it is ready to be served. A number of other dishes were brought out, including a bowl of crispy fried okra and Paani Pori - tiny appetizers that we popped into our mouths and let explode with beautifully spiced liquid. Next, the team devoured a plate of perfectly cooked baby lamb chops while I tasted the cubes of cheese in the classic, but marvelous tomato-spiced sauce. Arun then commented on the mango dessert that Royal Munkey serves, explaining that it is inspired by Arun's memories of his mom serving his dad a fresh cut mango every evening on top of a bowl of vanilla ice cream - "simple, refreshing and delicious. "There are two photos that are especially sweet hanging on the wall - one of Arun's parents' wedding and the other of his grandparents. Arun's mom continues to come by at least once a week to sample the food and to give "valid pointers. " It is a combination of every one's skills that makes the menu a perfect blend of dishes. Even Arun's ninety-four year old grandmother comes by to check on things. Arun refers to her as the "entrepreneurial brain" in the family. Arun continued to discuss the interesting menu, describing it as "Anglo Indian. " He proceeded to give us a quick history lesson about the British and Indian relationship to food. As a child, Arun loved hearing the tale of how the Brits and the Indians melded their lives and their food. Vinegar was a common ingredient used in both countries, but the similarities stopped there. Everyone had a different take on which spices to grind and include in their dishes. As Arun tells it, the English did not use spice, and therefore their food was bland, but the Indians introduced them to an entirely new way to appreciate whatever they were preparing - even Shepherd's Pie. The name of the Royal Munkey's menu, "Mess Hall, " harkens to a time when the best fare could often be found in officers clubs and railways cars and Indian street food. Arun, however, thinks of the bar as the center piece to the restaurant and that the food is meant to complement the beautifully crafted cocktails. His cocktails are based on old British drinks and tied into India - little stories are mentioned throughout the drink menu in addition to historic references. "People who come in who are from India immediately appreciate the history that surrounds them and can relate to it, " Arun told me. It is not only the food, however, that draw them in: it is also the ambience. Although there are Bollywood flicks playing on the wall next to the bar and toy trains hanging in a different area, the wooden panels alongside the mirrored glass wall could easily translate into a French bistro, a look that appeals to Arun's uncle. Because there is a limited amount of seating, Arun decided that he would like to support another business a few doors down, while ensuring that he would not lose his own potential customers. Therefore, if people come by without a reservation and cannot be seated for a little while, the Royal Munkey will give them a voucher and send them to Reif's Tavern for a drink. "It works out well for everyone this way, " Arun revealed. "People questioned my choosing to be on 92nd Street but it is proving to be just fine. " The restaurant stays open until three or four in the morning - something unique to this part of town - and the kitchen remains open alongside the bar. Arun ended our conversation by mentioning that he really wanted to be on a side street: "Besides the reduction in rent, there is a charm in being tucked away. "
When Susan Weber, an American historian, came across the six-story townhouse at 18 West 86th, she knew that she had to do something extraordinary with it. Though Susan received an art history degree from Barnard College, in 1993, she chose to establish the Bard Graduate Center, where advanced students can study humanity's past through the materials it leaves behind. The Center, which is affiliated with Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is one of only three schools where someone can receive an advanced degree in decorative arts. The degree also focuses on Design History and Material Culture. The program has an excellent reputation for students who wish to pursue a career in a museum. Hollis Barnhart, the Communications Manager for the Center and Gallery spoke to me about the Gallery as "a way of opening something to the public. " The gallery had its first exhibit in October of 1993, called Along the Royal Road: Berlin and Potsdam in KPM Porcelain and Painting, 1815-1848. Since then, the gallery has hosted countless exhibits that, in Hollis' words, "study the things that people have used from antiquity to now. " The exhibits have spanned a wide range of topics from Central European cast iron and English silver to Swedish glass and Indian jewelry. Hollis was proud that the gallery exhibitions can feature everything from “caveman spoons to gold pieces. ”The gallery does not have a permanent collection, and so items are often borrowed from museums and collections from around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Gallery displays have included many exhibits in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. One of the gallery’s most popular shows was a collection of hats curated by Stephen Jones, a famous British milliner. Since 1996, the gallery has worked with Yale University Press to print beautiful catalogues that accompany each exhibition. Though graduate students occasionally have a hand in designing the main exhibitions, they are very hands-on when it comes to the smaller exhibits, called "Focus Projects. " These are curated displays that mark the culmination of a workshop or seminar. They function both as final projects for students and additional learning opportunities for guests. When I visited the gallery, the graduate students were preparing a collection of materials that demonstrated how the indigenous people of Oceania in the Pacific displayed and adapted their identity in the face of colonial powers. The main exhibition fascinated me: it was an in-depth look at the history of wooden toys from Sweden. The toys dated back to the 1600s and included everything from little planes to detailed doll-houses. The show explored how the toys underscored Sweden's reliance on their expansive forests and how wooden toys are respected throughout the world. As Hollis explained, many of the exhibits tend to have "An international flavor. "
City Swiggers, which opened in 2011, is where casual and professional overlap. The atmosphere of the beer shop / tasting room is neighborly and homey, but each staff member is an encyclopedia of beer information and each bottle has been chosen with the utmost care. The eclectic space, which contains both bar stools and tables, can seat a few dozen people, while the shop experiences the majority of its business from clients grabbing beer to-go. We heard an all too familiar story from owner, Alan Rice, who left the world of finance in order to further explore his passion for beer. Alan said simply, "I loved beer" and then corrected himself: "I still love beer. A little too much, maybe. " The shop, which carries over 900 beers, always has samples of new varieties. Regulars often come in and try the new brews with the staff. Alan believes that he may have the largest selection in the city. The taps are constantly being swapped out, to the point where after two weeks, the beers provided at City Swiggers have completely changed over. In addition to selling bottles, cans, flights, and pints, Alan mentioned that City Swiggers will fill any growler, even those that are not their own. Alan's wife, Pam, has a lot to do with the cozy atmosphere at City Swiggers. She has created most of the artwork - often made from recycled items - that adorns the store. When Manhattan Sideways visited during the winter, we noticed the snowflakes made from six-pack plastic on the front doors, as well as the beer can mobile in the back. Though there is a set of prints on one wall that Pam designed, the larger paintings lining the walls were created by a friend. Pam is also the inspiration behind the small bites offered at the bar. She is the leader of the Veggie Pride Parade and the head of a Vegan newsletter, so City Swiggers offers vegan empanadas from V-Spot. In addition, there are soft pretzels from Schaller and Weber, a German cafe. And for those of us who are not fond of drinking beer, City Swiggers offers wine by the glass and a large array of ciders. Samantha, the extremely knowledgeable bartender who began working at City Swiggers in 2014, was discovered by Alan while she was working at a nearby cafe. He was impressed with all the facts that she was able to rattle off about beer. He invited her to join him and she started that week. Samantha began educating us as she explained that to "tap" a beer is to attach a hose to a keg, but to "pour" a beer is to fill a glass from the tap. She went on to say that one of the most important things to think about in choosing a beer is the freshness of the hops, and that the definition of "cider" differs not only from country to country but from region to region. She also informed us that she had just taken her test to become a cicerone, which is essentially a sommelier for beer. The first master cicerone, we learned, was a woman from the UK. Whereas Samantha admitted that she liked sour beers and super fresh IPAs, Alan stated that he has "always liked variety, " which explains why his store contains such a diverse array. Samantha poured a flight for us so that the team could see just how varied the stock could be. They tried a light melon Gose (a German beer that was cooling and fruity), a tart Wild Ale with red-currents, a red double IPA that was especially hoppy, and an imperial stout with a chocolaty finish. The Manhattan Sideways Team left City Swiggers with their bellies warmed, their thirst quenched, and their heads bursting with beer knowledge.
When I sat down in the minister's office at West Park Presbyterian Church, the first thing I asked was his name. He responded, "I am going to give you the whole thing, and you decide how much you would like to include. " It is a name to be proud of - Reverend Doctor Robert Brashear. Though originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Robert has been at the church since 1995. He first came to New York for an internship from 1982-83, and enjoyed his time in the city so much that he leapt at the opportunity to return when it was presented to him years later. The church has a fascinating history. It was originally formed under the name "North Presbyterian Church" on Bleecker Street in 1829 in response to the growing population of people moving north to escape the Yellow Fever. The congregation soon split and one group became the West Presbyterian Church, moving to a building on Carmine Street. In the meantime, the Park Presbyterian Church was formed on 84th Street thanks to the efforts of A. Phelps Atterbury in 1887. In 1890, Park Presbyterian moved into the red sandstone structure on 86th Street and the two congregations, West and Park, merged in 1911. The church received landmark status in 2000. West Park Presbyterian has always been at the forefront of a lot of political and social issues. In 1978, the church was one of the first to jump into the LGBT movement - the Reverend believes that the shift towards the religious embrace of homosexuality actually started in this church. He explained that the church was the first to perform gay marriages and "acknowledge them as just that. " In terms of other social movements, the Reverend also declared that Senior Housing had its birth on 86th Street. Additionally, during Occupy Wall Street when the people were pushed out of Zuccotti Park, activists were invited to take up housing in the church. Some remained for close to a year. Robert is proud that although the church's membership only consists of a few dozen families, they are continuously written up and receive excellent reviews for the cultural events that they hold. According to the Reverend, the tightly knit community at West Park Presbyterian will always be on the "cutting edge" - where things happen.