Former bankers, husband and wife team Xian Zhang and Yiming Wang, certainly have found a successful niche on 37th Street. If we had not already read that the interior of Cafe China was decorated to resemble Shanghai during the 1930s, we might have guessed that we were having lunch in a 1950s American diner replete with red vinyl chairs and a vintage mint colored mini fridge next to the bar. Once we sat down at our table, however, and had an opportunity to further explore the restaurant, the classy 1930s Shanghai elements became clear. There is a beautiful chandelier twinkling in the back room, blue velvet covering the quaint booths on one side of the restaurant, and Chinese characters decorating some of the prints that hang on the walls. Once past the intriguing decor, we began to concentrate on the menu. The Sideways team ordered some of our favorite staples including wonton soup, vegetable pot stickers, cold sesame noodles and pork dumplings - all perfectly prepared. But it was the Ma Po Tofu dish that stole the show. Having recently learned of this delectable dish, I was eager to try it, and what better place than at a Michelin star restaurant. I was promised it would not be made too spicy for me. It certainly had a kick, but I was able to appreciate the various flavors of the dish and loved it.
The blending of Cuban and Chinese culture at Calle Dao is evident from the moment one steps into the restaurant in which Cuban cigar boxes and fresco walls neighbor Chinese vases and figurines. When we stopped by, we had the chance to sit down to chat with owner Marco Britti, who is also responsible for the innovative interior decoration. He told us that the décor is meant to “transport you back to Havana.” With meticulous attention to each detail including a gate patterned exactly like a traditional style of door in Havana, and intricately distressed wooden chairs, the space is remarkably cohesive.Marco’s own life has been somewhat of a fusion as well. Originally from Naples, Italy, he moved to New York in 1996. He told us, “as an immigrant I left Italy to go to New York. So I know what it is like to leave everything behind, try something out and make a business out of it.” While pursuing a music career – Marco plays the drums – he also worked part time in restaurants. In 1999 he took a trip to Cuba, and ended up living in the Chinatown of Havana for nine months. While there, he learned about the wave of Cuban-Chinese restaurants and was struck by the Chinese influence on the cooking culture. Upon returning to New York, he found that there had not been much development of Cuban-Chinese fusion in the city, which furthered his interest in the restaurant industry. He went on to open his first restaurant, Cubana Café, and later Favela Cubana, both of which presented dishes from different cultures side-by-side. The complete fusion was only realized when he went on to open Calle Dão in the late summer of 2014, partnering with executive chef Humberto Guallpa. Marco said that his situation now is not something he would have ever predicted, and remarks that “it’s interesting to see how you can cross paths in life like that. All of a sudden you are doing something else.”
Nicknamed “The Batcave” for the emblem painted on the floor on the walkway inside, this particular fire station has been an active part of the FDNY’s network since 1865. Previously, it had been a Metropolitan Fire station starting in 1861, and before that it was run by volunteer firefighters. Firefighter Alex Laird was kind enough to give the Manhattan Sideways team a full tour of the historic building. The establishment is so old that it used to house horse drawn engines. Some of the original architecture still remains, most notably the spiral staircase that now sits alongside the modern fireman’s pole. Sadly, this firehouse lost five members in the attacks on 9/11. The station still has the original flag and radio from that day and has them on display out of respect for their fallen brothers.
Fine & Rare, shorthand for “fine food and rare spirits” is the latest creation of Tommy Tardie, restaurateur and owner of the Flatiron Room on West 26th Street. In contrast to the more common restaurant theme of the 1920s and 30s, which Tommy considers to have “played out,” Fine & Rare aims to be an aristocratic parlor straight out of the 1950s, modeled after classic Manhattan hideaways such as The Explorers Club. “The challenge was getting it to look like the Flatiron Room - old world, almost like we discovered it,” Tommy told the Manhattan Sideways team.The space has had other lives as a Japanese restaurant and a photocopy center - Tommy said that when he first saw the space, it was raw, with concrete floors that had holes them and wires hanging from the ceiling. In 2016, it became a little slice of vintage Manhattan, complete with a repurposed teller booth from Grand Central Station serving as the hosts’ stand. The wallpaper is finely textured with glass and sand, and the stainless steel ceilings are reclaimed parts from a former distillery. Descending into the restaurant, we walked on 125-year-old floorboards from Connecticut that have the names of the restaurant’s investors carved into it. Two of these investors are Tommy’s young sons, River and Sawyer, who each made a $1 investment in the establishment in order to garner a place on the floor. Hanging above the booths are pieces of taxidermy that Tommy believes “bring in some more old world charm.”The room is large, but because the tables are isolated from one another, each setting is intimate and unique. “Wherever you are in the restaurant, you feel like you’re in your own area.” Each side of the dining room features a fireplace: one has hand carved marble from Italy, and the other is repurposed from the door of a country schoolhouse. The jazz stage provides a theatrical ambience to the space without overpowering it. “We want the performance to enhance, but not be, the experience. There’s always a show going on even if nothing is onstage.” The walls are decked out with the restaurant’s inventory of over 1000 bottles, which Tommy noted are, “part of the architecture.” Some sit atop high shelves and can only be reached by ladders, which members of the staff will climb throughout the night. Others sit in the caged bottle keep, with personalized labels that can be bought. “New York is all about showmanship - people love to put their name on something.” The back elevated room holds up to thirty-five people and is used for tastings and private events. It has a few hidden elements of its own, including a chandelier and leather and steel door from a masonic hall.While speaking with Tommy, the Manhattan Sideways team sampled a few of the restaurant's scrumptious items, including the burrata served with arugula and an assortment of fruits, the short rib burger, the seafood Cobb salad, and the Greek grain bowl with quinoa, mint, and beet humus. While the Flatrion Room focuses largely on whiskey, Fine & Rare features cocktails with tequila, rum, and brandy. This does not mean that they do not still have some amazing whiskey options, such as the breathtaking smoked Old Fashioned that was presented to us to photograph and then sip.Tommy began his professional career as a creative director in advertising on Madison Avenue, but realized after a dozen years that he was craving something more exciting. “The higher I got on the corporate ladder, the less creative it got. It lost that cool factor.” He resolved to go the route of the entrepreneur, initially with a few clubs, and later with the Flatiron Room and eventually Fine & Rare in 2017. “With this one, I decided to make the demographic and design a place I’d like to go, as opposed to previous projects that centered on reaching a specific consumer base." Tommy also remarked on how Fine & Rare is the result of the trial and error from past ventures: “This is as if I got to do it again and I could do it better. I think entrepreneurs are genetically coded to forget how difficult it can be starting out, but a new project is fun. It makes your heart pump and your adrenaline go.”
Despite his Irish background, having grown up in Dublin and owning a few bars and restaurants there, Nick's bars and lounges in Manhattan are all about America. I am certain that his training abroad did him well, as he has been quite successful in New York for over twenty years. He began with a club in Tribeca and then moved uptown where he now runs four pubs. Nick admits that Stitch is showing its age as it has been around for quite some time, but he continues to try to" keep it fresh." And Nick went on to say, "we are a user friendly venue." We found it to be a warm welcoming place to come by for a drink and some solid American food - the hamburgers and wings are the specialty. We shared the Lingerie (the cocktails are each cleverly named for something represented in the fashion district ...thus the name Stitch, the main event.) Filled with vanilla vodka, amaretto, coco lopez, honey, pineapple juice and a touch of cranberry, our drink went down smoothly and was an interesting twist on a pina colada.
A line out the door at lunchtime certainly caught my attention. When I inquired, I was told that the food is fresh, the sandwiches are terrific, and that their Mediterranean menu is worth the wait. Thus, the Manhattan Sideways team queued up along side everyone else, as who would not trust the word on the street? Meeting the two animated Israeli owners, David and Yariv, was an added bonus, as we secured one of the few tables to sit and eat our freshly made dishes. We eagerly delved into the bowl of hummus, the hot pressed mozzarella sandwich and the strips of zucchini with lemon, olive oil and toasted almonds. We left with a full understanding of why people are willing to stand on line. Although, we also learned that Picnic Basket is expanding their kitchen in an effort to accommodate more people at a faster pace.