Everything at Norma Kamali's eponymous store feels distinctive, from the layout to the designs of the clothes. In the years since the designer opened her first shop on 53rd street in 1968, she has carved out a style all her own. Her flagship store's aesthetic is striking - white walls, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and fluorescent lighting that feels intentional and welcoming. Racks are placed at different locations throughout the store, showcasing Norma's three core collections - Activewear, Swimwear, and Kamali Kulture. The first includes Norma's iconic sweatsuits, which revolutionized women's activewear when the line appeared in 1984. The Swimwear collection prominently features the Bill Mio bathing suit, a rucked, old Hollywood-esque one-piece. Finally, the Kamali Kulture line was created so that a wider variety of women could enjoy Norma's signature designs; every item in the line is under one hundred dollars. The store also features sunglasses, including Norma's signature cat-eye shades.While being given a personal tour by Marissa, a representative of the Norma Kamali Brand, we learned that Norma's flagship location houses the Wellness Cafe, where women are invited to take a break from their shopping, sit down, and help themselves to some green tea and popcorn - sprinkled with Norma's own line of olive oil. On display is a "curation of products Norma loves," including health snacks, supplements and weights. Marissa went on to explain that Norma frequently hosts events at the cafe featuring members of the medical community as well as tarot readers. "We invite people with a range of backgrounds and expertise," said Marissa.Norma has achieved significant recognition in the fashion world and beyond, but many people who come into the store are merely drawn in by the display window. Customers stop by "whether they know that it's Norma Kamali or they're just curious," Marissa told us. Though Norma's collections are featured in most major department stores, including her Fifth Avenue neighbors, this location on West 56th is the only one devoted exclusively to her. Because of their "small but mighty" status, Norma is able to keep a hand in everything that goes on at her boutique and wellness cafe: she styles the display window and chooses what clothing is showcased. Her virtual presence is strong as well: she narrates her own website, providing the stories behind various pieces of clothing. Towards the end of our time spent here, an exhilarating moment occurred when we had the pleasure of catching a glimpse of the grand lady, herself.
The Manhattan Sideways team is always excited when they discover a shop that specializes in chocolate. On this particular day, we were also delighted to spend some time chatting with owner, Kamila Myzel. We learned that this heavenly little store has resided on 55th for over two decades, and has an old-fashioned candy shop charm to it. Kamila makes every effort to be sure that anyone who steps inside her door feels welcome, and she went on to say that she uses her grandma's recipes for the many different sweets she sells. She bakes all the cookies herself, right on the premises, with her signature being the "Ultimate Cookie," a chocolate chip cookie that is then dipped in chocolate.Like many of the store's confectionary delights, Kamila is from Europe; she moved from Poland in 1981, and worked in a few other shops with sweet treats before opening this one. Licorice is a specialty at Myzel's, and Kamila explained to us that she carries over 130 different types of licorice made from licorice root that their loyal customers adore. On one of my visits, Myzel's was decked out for Halloween, with candied skulls, pumpkins, and a number of other appropriate decorations squeezed into every nook and cranny. Apparently, Kamila decorates extensively for each major holiday, but she said her personal favorite is Thanksgiving, as it has the "most sincere meaning."Myzel's even makes chocolate turkeys for the occasion!Until recently, Kamila had a partner with whom she decorated, baked, and ran the store: her mother, Lucy. The mother/daughter team worked together in the sweet shop until the summer of 2015, when Lucy sadly passed away. We had the pleasure of meeting Lucy and seeing the love and devotion that the two women had both for the store and each other. What we derived from our conversations with Kamila was the joy the store brought to her and her mom over the years. Together they have put so much thought and love into Myzel’s Chocolate, and it is clear that her mother lives on in the warmth, color, and happiness that the store evokes. “It’s what’s inside that matters,” Kamila insisted as she spoke about how much she loves connecting with people through sharing candies and sweet treats with them.
Named after a gangster-turned-reformist, a Robin Hood-like figure who redistributed wealth from the rich to the poor, Tanner Smith’s Bar espouses the message that even those most seemingly set in their ways, as the old-school Irish, can reform. And Tanner Smith’s is certainly far from the stereotypical old-school Irish bars that saturate the city streets.The upper floor of Tanner Smith’s is light and laid back, serving mostly craft beers. There is a mix of wooden structures, shiny surfaces, and weathered brick walls. Downstairs, Winona bar, named after a former nightclub under the same ownership, is an entirely different venue with a separate sound system and dimmer lighting. A mix of whim and history, the accents throughout the bar play on an Alice-and-Wonderland-meets-prohibition aesthetic with cute teacups, an intriguing gin bathtub structure, old New York maps, mounted farm animal heads, and alcoholic paraphernalia like whiskey barrels protruding from the wall.The drinks, too, are spectacular, from classic mixes to standard beer brands to unique specialty drinks, and everything in-between. Guests can order them any way they want to without pretension - a Bud Light at the cocktail bar goes unquestioned. And the food menu, featuring a craze-inducing battered-and-fried eggplant chip with a honey drizzle, is more than sufficient on its own. Any eggplant-averted soul will discover a newfound appreciation for the underrated veggie in these crispy bites.But it is not the decorations, inventive drinks, nor impressive layout of this grand Midtown West speakeasy that make Tanner Smith’s a happening spot. While all of these factors, primed and cohesive, greatly compliment the magnificence of the bar, its finest attribute are the dynamic people who work here, committed to making each night a special one.The bar consultant to Tanner Smith’s, Kevin, started out collecting glasses for a nightclub in Ireland at the ripe age of thirteen, and has never left the bar scene. He ventured to America to promote a whiskey brand, Glendalough, which has since taken off. Kevin had also been to every New York City bar we threw at him, so when he told us why this spot stood out, we listened.“We are an entertainment-based bar,” he explained, “I serve booze - that is literally living the dream. I give people a fun night.” Sitting bar side on a Thursday afternoon-turned-evening as the space gradually filled up, these words rang more and more true for the fellow Manhattan Sideways members and me. This bar is not about being high-end, but about fun, about “lighting things on fire.” Literally. Watching Kevin smoke a barrel-aged stevedore cocktail by using a “smoking gun” filled with bourbon-soaked oak chips was a mesmerizing sight. The effect took out some of the drink’s sweetness, and the longer the smoking goes on, the bitterer the drink becomes.The key lime pie martini I tried - citrus vodka mixed with lemon syrup, lemon preserve, and passion fruit, and topped with a smoked meringue - was superb, but the contagious vibes Kevin and the rest of the playful staff gave off made it memorable. “If you want a great drink, you can have a great drink,” Kevin shared with me, “but, in addition to the alcoholic beverages, this is a place where all the employees are always happy.”There is no doubt that Tanner Smith's is helping to redefine the city’s standards of bar service, and, therefore, no small wonder that they already have regulars after only being open for a few short months.
Toni Cohen first opened up her shop in 1990, but has been selling antiques for most of her life. She described it as “the ideal thing to do.” Toni shared that she loves being able to collect interesting items and tell people about them, especially those who stop by from the neighborhood. “Antiques are a picture into the past. You can learn all about a time period or country from antiques,” she explained.Since opening her shop, Toni has become a fixture on East 55th. She even keeps the lights on all night so passersby can peer inside at her collection. In addition to selling antiques, Toni is a certified appraiser. Her loyal clientele often ask her to visit their homes to evaluate pieces that they have acquired, which she then occasionally puts on sale in the store.Toni's shop is full of decorative, eclectic, and unusual items. She highlighted several unique pieces of furniture and Chinese vases that were her favorite, and her eyes lit up when she talked to Jon, a member of the Manhattan Sideways team, about these cherished items. She makes it her mission to learn about the background of every object she purchases, and even takes an occasional history class to brush up on certain time periods.While we were visiting in 2017, Toni’s daughter stopped by, and began chatting with us about her mother’s amazing run on 55th Street. She believes that the reason the store has thrived is due to the relationships her mom has formed with her clientele over the years. Despite the fact that the internet has taken away much of the in-store antique business, Tony finds that customers continue to be drawn to her, for they are eager to hear the history behind the pieces firsthand. “In New York, small businesses can cater closely to their clientele. That’s the thread that connects them, that’s why she’s still here.”
Engaging in conversation with Barbara Gerber-Krasner, the president of Or Olam, I learned that they have not always been on 55th Street. The synagogue, founded in 1906, started out in a storefront on Second Avenue. The congregation, known then as B'nei Leive, came to its current site in 1916. The building dates from the 1870s, and was originally a Baptist church. Barbara explained that, though the ceiling is now "acoustical," if one were to remove it they would see "the normal structure of a church ceiling." Originally an Orthodox congregation, in 1966 it became Conservative, followed by the hiring of long time Rabbi Reuven Siegel, who served for over forty years. Upon his arrival, he brought the stain glass windows - representing the twelve tribes of Israel and other Jewish symbols - from the Bronx synagogue where he had been.The congregation remains Conservative and was renamed to Or Olam (Everlasting Light) in 2012. Today, the synagogue's focus is on their older congregants, "empty-nesters" in their 50s or 60s, and suburban transplants. "They want to be able to listen to an adult sermon," Barbara explained. Though Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits leads weekly study classes on Torah and Jewish law where "everyone is welcome to attend," Or Olam does not offer a children's education program. Instead, they encourage families to enroll in the courses offered through the 92nd Street Y.Generally speaking, Barbara characterized Or Olam as "a very open congregation." A number of members are married to non-Jewish spouses who attend services with them, and Or Olam is home to an active LGBT community. Barbara told me, in no uncertain terms, that at Or Olam, "we don't have cliques." New members are welcomed with open arms, and are often given aliyot - the opportunity to read from a Torah scroll in front of the congregation - their first time in the synagogue.Or Olam also offers financial assistance to younger congregants through a program called The Legacy Campaign, another way in which they hope to not have to turn anyone away. "So far we've been managing," Barbara said. "We hope we can continue."