After having eaten at Barbes, I was eager to check out Omar Balouma's other restaurant. Stopping to notice the beautiful, ornately carved front door, we learned that it was shipped directly from Morocco, and functions as a literal and figurative portal to North Africa. Inside, a vague smell of hookah smoke hangs in the air amidst beautifully crafted walls done in a soft pastel-hued Venetian plaster. The front of the restaurant is for dining where the menu offers smaller Mediterranean-style plates flavored with Moroccan spices. The back hookah room might be the real star. Benches line the large square room, along with colorful seat cushions while tapestry-esque sheets hang overhead. Saturday nights come alive with belly dancers and music is played by Rachid Halibal, a native of Morocco.
Amid a sea of skyscrapers, this old townhouse has been made into a bar in three parts. The bottom floor sits amid darkly polished wood, sporting large TVs with the night’s games turned on. Above, a room of unfinished reclaimed wood from Pennsylvania sets a more rustic, rugged tone. And upstairs on the third floor, voila! A long-tabled, compact biergarten nestles between towering edifices to either side, creates a chasm in which to drink beer and be merry all year round. Opened in 2012, this bar is now playing a part in the transformation of the midtown area towards a more "hospitable atmosphere. " As manager, Cara, told us, "With so many hotels in the district, we draw from a "super dynamic" crowd of people. " In addition to the vast selection of beer, there is an excellent cocktail menu that changes by the season to stay up-to-date and fresh, and the American-style eats follow suit. A tale of three different worlds in one, it is a great place to come for a drink and to mingle.
Middle Branch rebranded itself as LB33 in 2022. The concept behind Middle Branch is simply explained by manager, Lucinda Sterling. "It stems from drinks created before Prohibition while also utilizing the new ingredients on the market, " but Lucinda emphasized that they adhere to the classics as much as possible. Equally intriguing to me was Lucinda's own story and how she came to run this bar. Eight years ago, she set out on a whimsical cross-country road trip, looking for a "bigger destiny. " Stopping in Manhattan, and having a drink at the bar, Milk & Honey, she struck up a conversation with owner, Sasha Petraske. And as she says, "I never finished that road trip. " She went on to tell me how many inspiring people she has met on this journey and how she has learned to love and appreciate the craft of a good cocktail. "There is so much integrity in what we do here. " So when Sasha decided to open yet another bar, Lucinda was eager to stand behind him. Dimly lit, brooding, and brimming with mystery, Middle Branch is a sophisticated milieu to take a cocktail seriously, impress a date, or even to have a peaceful, uninterrupted evening with friends of all ages. Pineapple lights hang from the ceiling and cast their warm glow over the proceedings, while plush leather seats upstairs let customers sip in languorous comfort. Downstairs, where jazz is played on Tuesdays and bluegrass Wednesdays, standing tables encourage a more active approach to imbibing. We would not have been surprised to run into Voltaire and Montesquieu clinking glasses. But it is hardly all style, the substance is substantial. In addition to classic cocktails, a “bartender’s choice” option lets drinkers tell bartenders (do not make the mistake of calling them “mixologists”) what flavors they like, and then letting the pros perform their magic. Really, it is more poetry than prose. A “something new” section on the menu showcases recent drinks the bartenders have been working on... with wonderful results. There were quite a few of us drinking one Friday night, and we were appreciative of each of the recommendations. Did we like spicy, sweet, ginger, coconut??? Lots of questions until our waitress smiled and quietly walked away. Each time she came back with something unique and splendid. Some favorites were the Chin Chin (made with bourbon, apple cider and fresh ginger), the Cobble Hill (a cheeky spinoff of a Manhattan) and a drink that was yet to come out officially, the Pear Necessities. We were also pleased to have a constant bowl of handmade pretzels set before us as this along with mixed nuts are the only food options... and soon to be introduced, their secret blend of popcorn. Across the bottom of the menu, they score bonus points with pithy quotes from historical bon vivants. From Mark Twain: “never refuse to do a kindness unless the act would work great injury to yourself, and never refuse to take a drink - under any circumstances. ” If all of our drinks were created at Middle Branch, I am quite sure that none of us would.
Originally known as the Manhattan Opera House, 311 West has had an interesting history. Oscar Hammerstein built the theater in 1906, but after a few short years, the Metropolitan Opera House came to him requesting that he not compete with them, and made him an offer that he could not refuse. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hammerstein sold the building to the Shubert brothers where they continued to feature a variety of shows and concerts. In 1922, it was sold again, and this time a Grand Ballroom was added. Unbeknownst to the builders, they had created an outstanding acoustic setup where musicians from Harry Belafonte to the Grateful Dead have performed and recorded. Over the past twenty plus years, construction has been on-going as more multimedia studios have been added and a refurbishing done to the Hammerstein Ballroom to accommodate large private events.
With construction starting in 1958 and finishing ten years later, Saint Vartan Cathedral represents the first Armenian Apostolic cathedral built in North America. Named after a saint who was martyred a millennium and a half ago defending Armenian Christianity, Saint Vartan Cathedral had a memorable beginning. During its construction and immediately following its completion, the building was visited by the highest authority within the Church, His Holiness Vasken I, marking the first such visit by a Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in the United States. For a people so persecuted throughout history, and especially by the recent Armenian genocide, the building and consecration of this holy house was a monumental event in the community. His Holiness Vasken I, looking out at an assembled audience soon after Saint Vartan's completion, spoke of "an admirable picture of spiritual grace - a rare moment of spiritual bliss - to which we are all witnesses. " But far from being a relic, the church continues to thrive with the energy of the community it houses. I encourage any visitors to the church to walk through the intricately decorated doors and take some time to absorb the sheer size and depth of the church. Narrow strips of stained glass depicting biblical scenes and significant events in the history of the Armenian Church rise up to the impressive dome, which depicts Christian symbols in paint and stained glass, such as a human eye within a triangle (representing the omniscient Triune God), the wooden ship (representing the Church), and the white dove (representing the Holy Spirit). Closer to the altar, the “Head of Christ” is chiseled on a slate of stone in high relief. Silver and gold crosses decorate the distinctly Armenian altar. On the sides of the altar are paintings of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob, the two men credited with inventing the Armenian Alphabet, and a painting that seeks to honor the victims of the dreadful Armenian genocide.
I have dropped by Wine 30 on a numerous occasions and it has always been perfectly pleasant for a glass of wine, some scrumptious food and a nice conversation. Once a very tiny space, the restaurant has been cleverly expanded backward to include a heated, glass-enclosed garden. For nights when grabbing a beer at the local pub does not appeal, this great find offers refuge.