When I walked into Noble Grains, a customer was just finishing making a purchase. I asked her if she frequented the shop and she replied, “Perhaps a little too often! It’s my go-to beer store.” Turning to Bora Yoon, the owner of Noble Grains, the customer added, “She’s very up-to-date and knows when things are coming in. She remembers my favorites.”
After completing the transaction, Bora happily shared that this interaction was typical. As a neighborhood beer store in a city where small apartments proliferate, customers do not usually buy beer in bulk. Instead, Bora sees a loyal stream of customers come to visit sometimes three times a week to grab a few bottles. “New Yorkers want immediate gratification,” she observed.
While living on 96th Street, and working as a line cook at a restaurant in New Jersey, Bora found herself imagining what it would be like to have a beer shop in her neighborhood. At the time, City Swiggers was the closest one, and it was ten blocks away. When a laundromat closed on 95th Street, Bora decided to take over the space and solve her own problem. She read countless books about beer and practiced home brewing in order to educate herself. She already had some practice running her own business, since she had started an online business selling brownie truffles called French Kiss Desserts. She also had the advantage of being passionate about craft beer, something she had learned from her former husband, who still helps to run the business. Though he taught her the basics about beer, she claimed, “Now I know more than he does!”
In the small space that Noble Grains occupies, every inch is filled with clever ways to present the inventory. There is a growler station built into a fridge. Every two weeks, the kegs inside the fridge rotate and customers can come in to fill any type of growler. Bora also makes sure to have two bottles of each beer in the fridge so that people can have a chilled bottle ready whenever it is requested. Possibly the most interesting aspect of Noble Grains, however, is the food. The shelves are stocked with a terrific hodgepodge of items, including oatmeal, fish fillets, maple bacon chips, skinny popcorn, and, of course, ice cream. Bora explained that she has a grocery/liquor license that requires her to always have food on the premises. Instead of selling generic, basic groceries, though, Bora decided to follow a different path. “I just sell what I like to eat,” she said with a grin. Additionally, after requests from regular customers, Bora stocks gluten free items, including cider and gluten-free beer.
Bora's knowledge of craft beer was apparent from the moment we began our discussion. “Sour beers are really a trend nowadays…though I’m not excited about it.” She prefers IPAs, but knows her product well enough to give excellent recommendations on any beer mentioned. “It’s like a candy shop,” she pointed out, saying that the stock changes frequently, so regular customers never get bored. She is excited that the school across the street that has now opened after a long period of construction. She has already met teachers and parents who have stopped by. “I love seeing new faces every day,” Bora confessed. “I’ve had so many careers in my life, but I feel like this is my home. This is the best job I’ve had, honestly.”
“We have a unique mission in this neighborhood, ” Judy Counts, the executive director of the House of the Redeemer, told me. It is true that the house was unlike anything else I had come across in over ninety side streets. The non-profit organization is under the umbrella of the Episcopal Church, but it is considered “a place apart for all faiths. ” The House serves many purposes for those in the neighborhood: it is a space for weddings, memorials, and other meaningful events; but it also offers housing. Judy made it very clear that the House of the Redeemer is “not a cheap hotel. ” The guest rooms in the house provide shelter for those who are in need. Over the years, they have offered lodging for religious retreats, not-for-profit art collectors, and traveling church officials. They also have rooms for those with family emergencies, such as people visiting relatives at the nearby hospitals. They particularly do a lot of work with Mount Sinai, providing a place for their cancer patients to recover from treatments. There is no online booking: instead, interested parties must call the House of the Redeemer and answer the questions of a House representative, at which point they may be invited to stay at the House for up to a week. The House is also home to a priest-in-residence from September to June. When I visited, the clergy-in-residence was a female bishop from the West Coast. Because the house is landmarked, it is not centrally air-conditioned, so many of its residents leave in the summer. Every weekday, there is a morning and evening prayer in the chapel at 8am and 5pm, which is “absolutely open to all. ” Additionally, the house offers yoga groups meditations, bible studies, and lectures. Beginning our tour of the house in the butler’s pantry, Judy showed me an ancient box filled with bells that had been used by people in upper rooms to call a servant. There is also a dumbwaiter and a safe that was used for the silverware (“It now holds wine and cereal, ” Judy informed me). Judy pointed to the upper level of the pantry, indicating that this was where the housekeeper’s office was so that she could keep an eye on the other servants through the partition. In the year 1920, the mansion was home to five family members and thirteen servants. The building has a fascinating history. It was completed in 1916 and housed a debutante ball in 1917. It was designed for Edith Shepard Fabbri, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Edith married Ernesto Fabbri, a wealthy Italian, which could explain why the house is designed with a very Italian eye. As I entered the dining room, with the vaulted, round stone of an Italian villa, Judy suggested that the House of the Redeemer may be the only building in New York designed in the style of an Italian Palazzo. The dining room, which is now called “the refectory”, is decorated with eighteenth century paintings that have each been appraised by Sotheby's. In 1949, after being inspired by a sermon, Edith Fabbri donated the house to the Episcopal Church to be used as a religious retreat house, giving it the name “House of the Redeemer. ” Nuns occupied the building from 1950 to 1980, until they were unable to handle the finances, and then a secular staff was brought in to take care of the building's affairs. One of the biggest ways in which the house has earned an income is by renting out the rooms to television and movie producers. Judy revealed that a wide variety of shows have shot scenes here, including Law and Order, The Good Wife, Burn After Reading, and the Nanny Diaries. The House is particularly attractive to PBS – the network has conducted many interviews in the historic rooms. Judy assured me that she takes each request very seriously and is always sure to show the house in a good light. Continuing our walk into another room, we entered the salon, which was set up for a bible study. The walls, I learned, had, at one time, been covered in red fabric. A large portrait of Edith Fabbri dominates the space, but the real centerpiece is the ceiling. Judy said that academics from the Frick, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Columbia University had all come to study the ceiling and had discovered that it came from the same exact part of Italy as the fixtures in their library. Judy then took me into the Chapel - originally the family’s living room. “The light in here at 3: 30 is unbelievable, ” Judy assured me, and I could see why, as the room was surrounded by large windows. As in the salon, the exquisite ceiling was transported from Italy. I was surprised to learn, however, that the triptych at the front of the room was not an antique, but was created by one of their board members. The library was our next stop, and I found it to be the most awe-inspiring part of the house. Not only is the two-tiered enclosure absolutely stunning, but it was also incredibly high-tech considering the year that it was built. The fixtures in the room had been dismantled from a castle on the outskirts of Urbino and shipped to New York in the middle of World War I. The pieces were sent on two boats, because if one boat was torpedoed, the artists would still have half the room from which to replicate the rest. The library is filled with hidden compartments, including one that leads to the servant’s elevator. Along the upper bookshelf, there is a hidden crawl space that some believe may have been where the family hid alcohol during Prohibition. Opening another secret panel, Judy announced, “I like to call this their stereo system. ” Inside were the rolls for a player organ, and the pipes for the organ are hidden behind the bookshelves. The clever engineering did not stop there: behind the main body of the organ is the original projector room. Early movies would be projected onto a sailcloth while someone played music on an organ. Music is still an important part of this room: the Fabbri concert series, which was started by board members as “a way of opening the house to others, since it was a very closed environment, ” takes place here every year. As we returned to the entrance, Judy pointed into the courtyard, showing us where there would have been a massive turntable to help turn around the motorcars, the early models of which only went forwards. I was shocked at how innovative the designs for the original house were. “This is a living museum, ” Judy agreed. She has worked at the House of the Redeemer since the early 2000s, so she has formed a fond attachment to the structure. “It is mostly a very peaceful place, ” and then reminded me that the House is always willing to give walking tours by appointment – something I highly recommend.
Over the years that I have been walking on the side streets, I have found that several of the successful food trucks and carts have decided to make the leap and open brick-and-mortar locations. At any hour of the day, this Middle Eastern company has been known to have a line down the block at their West 53rd Street cart waiting for their gyros. They began serving this cuisine on the streets in 1990, opened an eatery on 14th Street in 2014, and then a few months later, their second shop opened on 95th. The Manhattan Sideways team stopped in for lunch, excited to try the food after smelling it for so long on street corners. There is a quick and efficient ordering line right by the entrance as well as a collection of tables for those who prefer to eat in. The back wall is cleverly designed to look like a line of people queuing for a food cart, complete with a three dimensional umbrella. As for the food, the team agreed that though messy, it was excellent. Customers can order a sandwich in a pita, or a platter that comes with rice and lettuce. I had been warned that the Halal Guys’ hummus was some of the best in the city: sure enough, it was quite good, as was their flaky baklava.
Courtney Barroll, the owner of Buceo 95, seems like a character out of a storybook. She greeted me wearing a long 1970s patterned dress, one from a collection of vintage pieces that she has been accumulating over the years. She lived in Spain for quite a while and attended the University of Salamanca. She worked as a personal trainer and recognized that the Spanish lifestyle was healthier than that of Americans. She would often ask her Spanish clients what they wanted for dinner, and they responded, “small plates. ” Rather than eating a large meal late in the day, they would dine on a selection of tapas. When she returned to the States, she decided to open a restaurant with her boyfriend, Jim Petersen, that focused on this concept. Jim - the owner of Dive Bar, a neighborhood bar around the corner - agreed to join Courtney in her venture. Together, they decided to continue with the diving theme naming their restaurant “Buceo, ” the Spanish word for scuba diving. The restaurant opened its doors in 2008. The décor of the restaurant represents a labor of love. Jim had a vision and tracked down the company that could build custom shelves with a sliding ladder rail for the walls of the restaurant. Other decorations refer to earlier periods in Courtney’s life. She was the first female waitress on Christopher Street, where she met Philip Ward, who composed the line drawings that hang below the bookshelf. Courtney explained that each piece was a self-portrait based on an Eastern philosophy of lines. The lines have to go in a certain direction in order to enhance the atmosphere of the restaurant. As we stood chatting with Courtney, I was observing Veronica, the chef, who was churning out plates at breakneck speed from the small open kitchen. She prepared some of the favorites of the restaurant, including roasted brussels sprouts, goat cheese croquettes, and “datilas” – bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo goat cheese – all of which are meant to be shared. The “national dishes, ” including the tortillas española and the gambos al ajillo, are frequently requested and Veronica announced that they would never come off the menu. Veronica began work as the sous-chef and was then promoted to head chef. She has left the original menu mostly intact, saying, “Don’t touch what’s not broken. ” She did, however, enhance the tortillas española to make them more flavorful. “I make it to be how I like my food. ” Veronica’s son, Nicholas, who was eight years old at the time of my visit, is a big part of the Buceo family. “He loves helping me, ” his mom proudly told us, adding that he especially enjoys “working” the front of the house. The staff of Buceo 95 are a tight knit family. The two women told me that they close the restaurant every year for ten days at Christmas time - a holiday that begins with a meal for the staff and the exchanging of gifts. Courtney insisted that everyone who works in the restaurant is extremely important to her. “There is no difference between an owner and a bartender, ” she stated. “I’m replaceable, but if we lost the dishwasher, we would close down. ” She then introduced me to the bartender, Christine, who comes from Malaga, and lauded her as the wine and beverage director. “These people are our ambassadors. ”The friendly, family atmosphere does not end with the staff. “People come back because of the environment, ” Courtney went on to say. She estimated that about seventy percent of her customers are referrals or regulars. Buceo is conducive to just about any outing, be it a first date or a night with friends. Courtney became totally animated when she began sharing stories of neighborhood events that she has hosted. Her favorite is election night, when she live streams the results, complete with games and decorations poking fun at the candidates. In the spring of 2016, she had already begun brainstorming what she would do come November for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Many of Buceo’s customers are the clients that Courtney spends time with during the day. “I fatten them up here at night, ” but during the morning and afternoon hours she helps them lose the pounds as their personal trainer. Not a bad combination. Courtney has worked hard to create a restaurant that “encompasses all lifestyles and ways of living. ” Overall, she recognizes that her restaurant’s success boils down to three main ingredients: “Food, staff, and atmosphere. ”