Vicki Freeman and Mark Meyer are an accomplished couple in the New York restaurant business. They are the creators behind Cookshop, Hundred Acres, and the latest addition to the family, Rosie’s. Their story as restaurateurs goes back to 1993, when Freeman opened her first restaurant, VIX Café, in SoHo. She hired Meyer as her head chef, and as they say, the rest is history.
Vic’s opened in 2014 in the space that used to house Five Points, another restaurant by Freeman and Meyer. While the owners emphasized that Five Points was not struggling, they felt it was time for a change. Opening Vic’s allowed Freeman and Meyer to bring their restaurant group full circle, its name a nod to those early beginnings with VIX Café in 1993.
When I visited Vic’s, I was struck by the bright, open décor. Sitting in the back dining area, with natural light spilling in from the skylight overhead, I was allowed my favorite view - that of the kitchen. Chatting with general manager, Hely, I learned that Freeman and Meyer used to live in an apartment just upstairs, and that their son works for the restaurant group.
In addition to speaking with Hely, I also had the pleasure of spending some time with Hillary Sterling - the head chef of Vic’s. “Hillary’s food is the easiest thing in the world to sell,” said Hely, and then Chef Sterling went on to elaborate about her inspiration for the restaurant’s culinary concept and menu. “It’s all about history and honoring tradition,” she told me. She prepares the restaurant’s traditional Italian and Mediterranean cuisine using food sourced from American farms, and admits that it is a challenge to create authentic flavors with local ingredients - It is a challenge, however, that she proudly declared that she has met with the exceptions being seven imported ingredients: 00 flour (for their famous Borsa), capers, anchovies, pecorino, calabrian chilies, and balsamic vinegar.
As Hillary presented a few of her favorite dishes, she went on to say that traditional Italian and Mediterranean cuisine requires “a lot of herbs and acid,” adding that it is all about achieving the perfect balance and appreciating the ingredients themselves. The heirloom carrots, served with dill, capers, and roasted shallots, were tangy and bright, with a complexity of flavor. As she set the "cheeseless" anchovy pizza with tomato, spring garlic, oregano, and fresh orange zest, Hillary told me that making good pizza dough is just as demanding as making homemade pasta, but it is clear that she has mastered it. The crust was perfect – thin, but bubbling up around the edges, and ever so slightly charred. Finally, I tasted the famous Borsa, the homemade pasta served al dente, with a lemon ricotta filling. The soft and creamy center of these amazing "little purses" with hazelnuts sprinkled on top is definitely the signature dish at Vic's. Chef Sterling said that the Borsa and the bathrooms are the most instagrammed things in the restaurant, and joked that her food has to "compete with the lavatories." The facilities are whimsical and fun with pink flamingoes decorating the room for the ladies, while the men's room is wallpapered in zebras. In my mind, however, there is no competition: Chef Sterling’s food is what truly stands out.
Blue Ribbon was off to a terrific start when I visited the first weekend after it opened in 2013. There was good music and a lively crowd enjoying the offerings in this brightly lit space with large picture windows. The manager stopped by our table and remarked that the “young cool people” frequenting Blue Ribbon seemed to have perpetual smiles on their faces as they indulged themselves at the tables furnished with an array of honeys (mustard, wildflower, and chipotle) and habanero hot sauces. Whether people are munching on the menu staple of crisp-skinned moist chicken breast or the “chicken on the edge” choice of Beak to Butt (crispy necks and backs with hot sauce and pickled peppers), the chicken is cooked to perfection. Any chicken dish paired with a side of potato wedges dusted with chilli powder certainly makes for an excellent quick meal – and all of this can be washed down with a beer. The restaurant is a venture of the Bromberg brothers who have been exciting New Yorkers with their excellent food since 1992. This is their first “fast food” endeavor, and it appears to already be flying high.
There is a unique atmosphere of un-presumptuous masculinity, with comfortable, modern seating, warmly lit globes, and pictures of horses and cows on 1st Street’s latest restaurant addition. When Olivia, from the Manhattan Sideways team, announced that it looked like “Madmen meets the ranch, ” Josh Capon, owner and chef of Bowery Meat Company, raised his eyebrows in humorous consideration. Within only months of first opening towards the end of 2014, Josh already had diners tell him that they had returned eight times. This is exactly what he loves to hear, since one of his primary goals is to create an “eatable and approachable” place in the East Village. He went on to say that he is pleased to be on a side street, as being off the beaten path translates to more locals and, hopefully, regulars. Josh and his partner, John McDonald, opened the Bowery Meat Company to be a “meat-centric” restaurant with an emphasis on sourcing and seasonality. As Josh explained, “Seasons are nature’s way of saying what we should eat and when we should eat it. ” They get a lot of their meat from Diamond Creek Ranch, which is producing “some of the best meat in the country, ” according to Josh. The feedback he has received from customers has generally been very positive. “People are freaking out over our broiled oysters, ” he said, as he placed a plate of the breaded, garlicky delicacies in front of the Manhattan Sideways team, surrounding us with their tantalizing smell. When Josh returned to the kitchen, one of the managers, Lindsey, brought us a plate of fried Arancinis. These scrumptious rice balls are placed on the table at the start of every meal. Lindsey picked up where Josh left off telling us that even though the restaurant stresses meat, they can easily feed vegetarians and vegans. For instance, the standard arancinis are oxtail, but they also have basil pesto versions. “We are very mindful of our guests’ preferences, ” she said. Next up, we were introduced to the pastry chef, Katie McAllister, who is in charge of the masterfully created desserts, such as the S’mores Sundae and “Brookies, ” which are “what would happen if a brownie and a cookie had a baby. ” Lindsey told us that thanks to Katie, the kitchen smells like toasted marshmallow each and every morning. Every aspect of the restaurant appears to click into place to generate a relaxed, comfortable, modern dining experience. Josh’s final words to us were, as he stepped back into the kitchen, “I’m very proud of this restaurant. ” As well he should be.
A look at Manhattan’s most long-standing bars would be lacking without McSorley’s, which is hailed as the oldest Irish saloon in the city. It was founded by Irish immigrant John McSorley as a working-class pub named The Old House at Home. Known for serving beer for the price of pennies and free plates of cheese and crackers, the bar stayed alive during Prohibition by selling “Near Beer” to its loyal patrons. Throughout its long history, McSorley’s has preserved its famous golden rule, ordering customers to “Be Good or Be Gone. ” Its previous slogan of “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies” remains true on the first two counts. As for the latter, although McSorley’s was indeed one of the last men-only bars in the city, a court ruling forced it to admit women in the 1970s. It was eventually purchased by a night manager, Matthew Maher, who then passed it on to his daughter, Teresa. She has made history at this well-loved institution by becoming the first woman to work behind the bar. Aside from this, little has changed. The memorabilia on the walls and the sawdust-covered floor speak to McSorley’s storied past. There is even a chair that Abraham Lincoln sat in when he stopped by for a drink in 1859. A more somber memento can be found hanging from the electric lamps along the bar. Soldiers leaving to fight in World War I were given a turkey and ale dinner, and the wishbones were then placed on the lamps with the hope the men would come back, collect them, and celebrate their safe journey home. Dozens of aged wishbones remain there today, in remembrance to the soldiers who were unable to return. Unsurprisingly, given its enduring popularity, McSorley’s has been featured in numerous works of art, literature, and media. Most notably, it was immortalized in E. E. Cummings’ poem “Sitting in McSorley’s” and by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who was so taken with the bar as a microcosm of old New York that he published an anthology of essays in its honor.
Reed Adelson, owner of the American restaurant Virginia’s, was trained by the best in the industry. He learned about wine at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, interned at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, then returned to his Manhattan roots to work under Jean-Georges to open the Mark Hotel, and finally worked at Locanda Verde. Riding in a car with industry legends Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, he was presented with the answer to his doubts about working in the restaurant business, "If this is what you’re passionate about, there is nothing else you can do. It’s more of a vocation than a job choice. "Reed brought all of this expertise to open his first restaurant in 2015. Named for his mom, Virginia’s has become known for its burger, with bone marrow aioli, cabot cheddar, and house-made pickles, but there are more sophisticated dishes that deserve equal praise including the wild king salmon with red cabbage slaw and golden beet puree. Reed focuses on consistency for his menu, with a few seasonal dishes, such as the corn ravioli with fontina cheese and crispy shallots. With his eye on the future, Reed is contemplating moving a little closer to the city’s center, while admitting, "there’s something romantic about the side streets. "
Kenkeleba Garden, named for an African healing plant, is simply magical. We followed the densely forested greenery around to the back, arriving at a clearing that transported us to another world far from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. We were completely surprised when we landed in front of the sculpture garden, which is only visible from 3rd Street. From large African sculptures to collections of scraps or bricolage, a specialty of the Lower East Side art scene, we could not help but linger before doubling back and re-emerging onto the concrete sidewalks of 2nd Street. It was not until many months later, when we had the pleasure of meeting Joe Overstreet and his wife, Corinne Jennings, that we learned that this is affiliated with their gallery next door, Kenkeleba House. It is their life-long dream to someday use these grounds to build a museum that would house their massive collection of African-American art. It has an entrance on both 2nd Street and 3rd,
Book Club isn’t just for the suburbs anymore — as a new bookshop, bar and coffeehouse gives East Village denizens and beyond a new place to pore over and pour over their favorite reads. Married proprietors Erin Neary and Nat Esten, East Village residents themselves, had longed for an independent bookstore to serve the Alphabet City area, they told the Manhattan Sideways team when we popped in to see dozens of happy customers enjoying a read and a latte one sunny Friday morning. “We always thought that the neighborhood needed another bookstore, ” said Erin, “and we also kept wondering, ‘Wouldn't it be so cool if you could drink wine while you were shopping for books? ’” They decided not only to open a bookstore and bar, but to additionally add in the day-to-night-element of coffee into the mix. While both Erin and Nat had worked in hospitality before, bookselling was new to them. “I started doing research in 2017 and worked with the American Booksellers Association’s consulting program to help new bookstores get off the ground, ” said Erin. “I met with them as well as other bar owners and bookstore owners in the neighborhood and did as much research as I could without actually doing it. ” The duo launched Book Club in November 2019, enjoying an enthusiastic community reception until COVID-19 forced them to pivot. “Nate started doing bike deliveries — as many as 20 miles a day! ” Erin told us. “He’d go out to Harlem to drop off books and then all the way out to Bushwick — so a lot of people learned about the store that way. ”Once they were able to reopen to the public, Book Club forged full steam ahead in engaging the community in “book club”-esque events — from author talks to poetry readings to creative writing workshops, with additional unique offerings like an adult spelling bee and a “drink and draw” sketching class. They’ve also recently received their full liquor license, and plan to roll out literary-themed cocktails like an In Cold Bloody Mary or the Murder on the Orient Espresso Martini, Erin told us. More than anything, she added, she enjoyed having customers back in the store to guide them toward their next favorite book. “Our staff are not just really good baristas, but they’re avid readers as well. So between myself and the rest of the team, we have a really good handle on the books here — it’s fun to be able to curate not just what we stock, but to get the right book into someone’s hands. ”
Biking with my husband on a beautiful August day, I stopped short when I noticed something new and picturesque on 5th Street. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but I had been holding out until I discovered the perfect place to grab a bite to eat, and I certainly landed in an ideal spot. The rustic charm indoors, with replicas of the farm equipment used in Italy hanging from the ceiling, captured our hearts immediately, but it was the food – the outstanding rice dishes – that solidified Risotteria Melotti indefinitely on my list of top restaurants to recommend. Since the restaurant was quiet at this odd hour, we were able to chat casually with the staff throughout our meal, and we learned not only about the history of the restaurant, but also about the world of rice. Back in 1986, a couple began producing rice on one acre of land in Verona, Italy. Almost three decades later, together with their three sons, Rosetta and Giuseppe now farm 544 acres of land, all devoted to growing award-winning rice that is sold the world over. There are basically two different textures of the grain that they produce. Vialone, the more traditional rice, is rich in proteins and vitamins and, because it absorbs liquid better, is used for their delicious risottos. Carnaroli rice, “considered one of the best in the world, ” is more readily used in salads because it remains al dente when cooked, adding a chewiness to the superb insalata di riso that we shared. We both marveled at the combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted red and yellow peppers, capers, fresh mozzarella and, of course, brown rice. When we first sat down, a bread basket was placed on the table. Their take on focaccia was very good, but I could not stop sampling their rice cakes throughout our meal – the basic recipe is made in Italy and then flown here to be tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh rosemary and then baked for fourteen minutes. I cannot say enough about how amazing the second dish that we tried tasted. We never knew that you could make polenta from anything but cornmeal, but we had our eyes opened to something new and wondrous when we had our first taste of polenta fritta con caciottina – a fried rice polenta with mushrooms and cheese that was perfectly moist in the middle with an added crunch on the outside. Every mouthful was rich and heavenly. This brand new restaurant – the first outside of Italy – serves about thirty people, making for an intimate setting, especially when evening falls, the lights are dimmed and the candles are lit. Up front there is a little “shop” that sells many of their rice products. The staff explained that the family has made an across-the-board decision to only offer Melotti’s gluten-free rice merchandise in the States. Thus, anyone eating gluten-free can come to their restaurant and be served a carefree, excellent meal. Anyone fortunate enough to live in the area can either have their food delivered to them in their home or office, or stop by, browse the menu, and take it to go. I have no doubt that we would be eating a lot more rice if we lived in the East Village, but we will visit as often as we can.