Led into a long hallway and down a flight of stairs by signs bearing "The Red Caboose," I came into a basement full of what seemed every toy train part and accessory imaginable. In a small kiosk-like structure sat a man (and his cat on the counter in front of him) who was comparing acrylic and oil-based paints with a middle-aged gentleman. When his customer left, the man greeted me with a smile and a "Hello, how can I help you?" in a distinctively New York accent.
Initially, I was speechless. I just needed a moment to take in what was surrounding me. I had grown up with one room in our basement dedicated to our electric train set. It had been years since I had seen anything close to resembling my fond childhood memories.
That afternoon, I learned a lot about The Red Caboose and Mr. Allan J. Spitz, its owner. Although the Red Caboose opened in 1994, the No. 23 West location has had a hobby shop on its premises since 1946.
The basement originally held the Model Railroad Equipment Corporation, run by Carmen "Ma" Webster. Ms. Webster got into the business because of her husband, the original owner of the store. When he left Ms. Webster, she decided to take over his store and learn everything there was to know about model train building.
In a time when men dominated the hobby industry, Ms. Webster stood out as a female impresario. Undeterred by the hesitance of her male peers, Carmen Webster made a name for herself and was among the first to start selling spare nuts, bolts and parts to hobbyists who would have previously had to buy a completely new set in order to replace the pieces they were missing. Ms. Webster also began her own publication and boasted having the widest selection of model train-related items in the world. "If Ma Webster doesn't have it, no one does," the saying goes. Ms. Webster stayed in the hobby business until 1973. Over the years, the space has changed hands a couple of times before Allan Spitz leased the location.
Mr. Spitz had a passion for building warships growing up and found himself working at Polk's, a legendary hobby shop on Fifth Avenue. After spending a few years learning about the industry, he decided to leave with a couple of co-workers to open The Red Caboose.
Today, Mr. Spitz is the only remaining partner of his original associates. He explained to me that during hobby shops' high water mark, there used to be four or five other places along 45th Street, but now, only The Red Caboose remains. Mr. Spitz recalls years past with fondness, saying that in its heyday, he had ten employees on payroll – now, there is usually only one other employee standing beside him.
Mr. Spitz says that his customers are "old, older, and oldest," describing hobby enthusiasts as an aging group of men who used to build model trains during their childhood. Back in the days of railroad workers, men, in between train shifts, would come during their lunch to pick up parts for their models. Nowadays, Mr. Spitz says that a good amount of his sales come from foreigners - especially Brazilians: "here in The Red Caboose, we only fly one flag," he exclaimed, while waving a small Brazilian flag on a stick. Times have changed for hobbyists worldwide, but Mr. Spitz remains loyal and passionate about his cluttered and endearing hobby shop.
Paul Stuart's flagship location commands the southwest corner of Madison Avenue, a 60,000 square foot retail space dedicated to fine menswear. Established in 1938 by haberdasher Ralph Ostrove - and named after his son - Paul Stuart is committed to revitalizing and updating the classic American style. Continuing on with the family tradition, CEO, Michael Ostrove, explains that Paul Stuart is "an American interpretation of its Anglo roots," those that stretch to London's famous Savile Row.
Beer Culture opened in the summer of 2013, offering beer, cider, whiskey, and bottled sodas. Customers can come in to pick up a bottle – or growler - of beer to take home, or grab a seat at the bar to chat with the friendly staff while noshing on some charcuterie. The record player behind the bar is usually going and if the owner, Matt Gebhard, and bar manager, Peter Malfatti, are around, they are bound to strike up a conversation and offer to guide patrons through their extensive beer selection.The beers are organized by region. The first door of their huge, glass-front fridge is full of beers from New York State, while the second is full of east coast beers, and the third and fourth is full of central and west coast beers. A bit further back into the room is their international fridge, proudly boasting selections from the UK, France, and three shelves worth of Belgian beers.For patrons who just want a nice, cold, familiar beer, grandpa's fridge is the place to go. Customers often mistake the old Kelvinator across from the bar as a prop and are always surprised when they open it up and realize that it works and that they recognize all of the brands inside of it. Matt included grandpa's fridge because he thinks that there is a place for all beers (except lite ones, which are not sold on the Beer Culture premises) and that some brands hold emotional value for customers. True to its name, the beers in the old Kelvinator are those that Matt had seen in his own grandfather's fridge growing up.Matt's first true exposure to beer and its culture was during a year he spent studying abroad in Belgium. When he came back home to upstate NY, Matt was nineteen and decided to pursue his newfound passion by working in a local Belgian brewery. He remained here for a few years until he met Peter, his future bar manager, who was living in Rochester, NY.Before opening their own place, Matt came to Manhattan and worked in a Belgian bar in Midtown. Although he enjoyed it, Matt told us that he wanted to do things his own way and fulfill his vision of what a bar should be. The bar that these two terrific guys opened is one that is dedicated to the simple, comfortable and unpretentious beverage that they adore.Nestled between Eighth and Ninth Avenue in a residential part of 45th Street, Beer Culture, is a hybrid bar and bottle shop offering its customers over 500 different types of beer. Although at the time of this write-up, Beer Culture had been around for less than a year, both Matt and Peter already feel like part of the block. As Matt stated, "We pride ourselves in being an establishment of beer nerds, not beer snobs."
After eleven years in her Noho location, Executive Chef and Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli opened Butter in the Cassa Hotel, a Midtown twin to her well-known restaurant. Shaped by Guarnaschelli's own travels and time spent working abroad, the attractive dark wood restaurant with comfortable booth seating, is American but with the requisite global touches and ingredients expected of fine dining. When Chef Guarnaschelli isn't filming, she is in the kitchen, on the line, adding her fine touch into every aspect of the cooking. As members of her staff shared with us, Alex is dedicated to bringing fresh and simple ingredients together in beautifully crafted dishes.On a rare and special night out with just my husband and daughter, I could not pass up the opportunity to bring my butter-loving girl to this dining experience. Since she has always considered the dairy treat to be its own food group, I had the highest hopes for the meal - particularly the bread basket - which did not disappoint. The warm Pullman-style rolls with the house-made butters (a plain with a hint of sour cream for richness, and an herb that was light and lovely) were out of this world. All three of us agreed we could leave satisfied just from that - and a spicy cocktail, of course (the Ghost Margarita) But we powered ahead sharing the burrata salad. The creamy burrata with garden-fresh tomatoes was divine and the ribeye steaks that my husband and daughter ordered were cooked perfectly and sat atop smashed purple potatoes. And, as a vegetarian, I always keep an eye out for restaurants working to develop unique, hearty main courses. The charred coconut milk-soaked cauliflower was much appreciated. We finished things off, in case one thought we had already indulged ourselves sufficiently, with the raspberry beignets accompanied by a vanilla dipping sauce. If the name of this restaurant alone does not have one's mouth watering, I am sure that it is now!