There are many hidden gems to be discovered on the side streets of Manhattan, but the beginning of my walk on 61st might trump any that I have had thus far. For it was here that I was suddenly convinced that I had stepped into a time portal. Nestled between the skyscrapers that perch along the East River is a stone house dating back to the eighteenth century with a glorious garden (even in the middle of winter) tucked behind it. "Eighteenth Century" may be a bit misleading, since the building, which was built as a carriage house to go with a central mansion, was constructed in 1799. Originally named the Abigail Adams Smith Museum, as this is where she and her husband owned the land on which it was built, it was turned into a "day hotel" in 1826. This was a popular kind of institution that possibly resembled a country club more than an inn. With the rise of the middle class, centers for leisure were popping up all over the island. The city proper mainly existed below 14th Street, causing 61st to be considered a vacation getaway. Though the Mount Vernon Hotel is the only day hotel left standing, at one point in time there were numerous similar ones dotting both rivers. In 1833, the building returned to being a private residence. During the following century, it changed hands multiple times, once even being used as a soup kitchen, until it officially opened as a museum in 1939 in the capable hands of the Colonial Dames of America. To this day, their overall mission continues to be to preserve and teach America's history. The Museum also hosts guests and events of many different kinds: One of their largest affairs is Washington's Birthday Ball, but they also host pie-making workshops, school programs (which are often booked solid for three months at a time), and public events in the auditorium next door.
While walking along 55th Street, a bright pink and white awning caught my attention. The entrance beneath the canopy was marked with a sign that said “A La Mode” with the 'A's and 'O' stacked like ice cream scoops. Inside was a cute handmade ice cream shop that could be the setting of an Eloise story. Catering to those with nut and dairy allergies, A La Mode is also a quaint, yet spacious boutique that sells children’s clothes, shoes, and toys. Additionally, the ice cream store hosts storytelling and seasonal arts and crafts events throughout the year. “We just always loved the space and so we decided to finally buy it and make A La Mode! ” said Sandy Roth, the California children’s clothing designer who founded A La Mode in 2015. The A La Mode team is also composed of her husband Marc and friend Marie Ann, both of whom are equally devoted to the business and love the work they do. The handmade, nut-free ice cream is created by Marc, who trained at the Ice Cream university in Switzerland. The Manhattan Sideways Team was given a chance to sample a few of his innovative flavors, including bubble gum and vanilla pretzel crunch. There are also always three dairy-free flavors available: chocolate, vanilla, and a rotating third flavor. A la Mode has various ice cream sizes, including a little three-inch scoop for $1. 50 that is perfect for toddlers. “It’s great to experiment with the flavors. When seasons come around we try to change it up, ” Marc told me, adding, “Right now Salted Caramel is one of our big sellers. ” A La Mode also distributes its ice cream to local ice cream stores and supermarkets. The family friendly location and the nearby schools have given A La Mode a lot of successful business, to the point where no advertisement was needed. Their events during after-school hours include music events in collaboration with ABC Do-Re-Me!, a program that provides music classes that kids and parents can both enjoy. Sandy has become a recognizable neighborhood face, to the point where young children see her on the street and say, "That's the ice cream girl! " “We have a lot of after-school rush, and its great because they can also see that we also do events and not just ice cream, ” she pointed out. She hopes that A La Mode will eventually expand, maybe even to California, where she still spends time working. “I will be living in Texas soon, ” says Marie Ann, “But I will be still involved. Maybe we can open a location there too! ” Their future plans look bright and cheery, just like their store.
Guy Vaknin and his wife Tali opened Beyond Sushi in July of 2012 with the goal of producing healthy, beautiful and earth-conscious food. After learning of the depletion of fish in our oceans – not to mention the health benefits of a meatless diet – Guy set out to be the “first to pioneer the fish-less sushi movement. ” He views “sushi as a vessel that carries the perfect amount of flavor to just grab it in one bite. ” He also praises sushi for its consistency, which gives him room to play around in creating interesting and perfect balances of vegetable's flavors and colors. When describing his extensive background in the restaurant industry, Guy told us, “I had a dream to cook since I was young. I’ve always loved food. ” He grew up on a Kibbutz in Israel - and came to New York after serving in the Israeli army - to help out in his father’s restaurant. He went on to work at numerous other restaurants in New York doing every possible position, and after a brief dalliance with computer engineering, returned to the food world by studying at the Institute of Culinary Education. Fresh out of culinary school, Guy became the executive chef at his father’s kosher catering company. When a request for a sushi station popped up, and knowing that meat and fish are restricted in some areas of the Jewish world, he decided he wanted to create something “cool and innovative - and not fish. ” It took two years to develop his vegetarian sushi, but after selling out at the Vegetarian Food Festival two years in a row, Guy decided to open a business on 14th street. Within three months - working solely with the help of his sushi chef - the growing popularity of his beautiful, healthy, and delicious food quickly enabled him to expand into the thriving company that Beyond Sushi is today. One of Guy’s main goals is to balance sustainability and accessibility to encourage people to choose the healthy option of Beyond Sushi, and the passion that sustains this goal is his creativity. Even now that he has grown Beyond Sushi into a consistently expanding company, Guy still spends around fifty percent of his time cooking, and loves adding new dishes to his menu. He thinks of his business expansion in terms of community impact and wants to be “as big as possible. "
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 Neighborhood Playhouse is both a great community resource and an old-fashioned reminder of the timelessness of great theater. Virtually invisible from the street, the only clue to its existence is a red, unmarked door and a modest sign. Once inside, however, I discovered that this almost one hundred year old building holds within it a proscenium theater, a full-size dance studio, and plenty of dressing rooms and classrooms. What a fascinating tour I was treated to by Emily Duncan, the admissions administrator, where I learned about their history and mission. The lobby, with its shabby elegance, features photos of famous graduates, as well as scenes from plays over the course of the school's history. The top two floors of the building are devoted to a beautiful dance studio with wood floors and soaring ceilings. A lover of dance, I was particularly moved when Emily announced that I was standing in the former domain of dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner. I was also enrapt by Christine Cirker, the librarian, who proudly discussed their vast collection of plays and theatre criticism. Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the world of theater, she told me that she also teaches classes on script interpretation. Christine went on to explain the playhouse's claim to fame: the Meisner Technique, a method of acting that emphasizes that one should "live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances. " Sanford Meisner developed his famous improvisation-based technique at the Playhouse in the mid-1940s, which continues to train actors to this day. It counts among its list of prominent alumni names: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen; and more recently, it has added to its roster, Allison Janney and Chris Noth. The playhouse trains about one hundred students at any given time, seventy-five first-years and twenty-five second-years who have been invited back as a result of a unanimous faculty vote. According to Emily, graduates have an easier time finding work than most aspiring actors due to their alma mater's extensive network of influential writers, directors, and actors. Much of the faculty is closely involved in the theater world, and as Pamela Moller Kareman, the playhouse's executive director, shared, "It's a big leap to become a professional actor; we want people to know that you can do this with your life. " And from the time that I spent here, it became apparent that the staff at Neighborhood Playhouse is there to guide and support students every step of the way.