The inside of Nice Matin is like a bright carnival ground with three central pillars decorated with lights, wide spaces between tables, and colorful art on the walls. Above the doorway, there is an arrangement of baskets and fruit with handwritten signs and prices in euros, emulating European markets. At any hour of the day or evening, the restaurant is filled with people both from the surrounding neighborhood as well as from the Lucerne, the connecting hotel. The chef and owner of Nice Matin is Andy D'Amico, who has since gone on to develop other restaurants around the city, including 5 Napkin Burger. After attending the Culinary Institute of America, Andy worked at Parker House in Boston and at the Sign of the Dove on the Upper East Side, where he was promoted to head chef. In 2003, he partnered with Simon Oren to open Nice Matin, a venture that earned him the title of "Best Chef 2003" from New York Magazine. I met with Danny, the General Manager, who shared their elaborate cocktail list that had classics with a twist. He brought out a San Tropez, Nice Matin's take on the mojito. It had summery passion fruit foam that complemented the mint and dark rum. The restaurant has seasonal cocktails, such as hot toddies in the winter and Campari cocktails in the spring. My favorite time to dine at Nice Matin, however, is on a warm weekend morning when their elaborate brunch menu is offered, and I can sit outside.
Down the street from the Firemen's Memorial on Riverside Drive, Engine Company 76 has its home, earning it the nickname "Monumental Pride. " The firehouse is one of the largest in the city, since it was formed from what used to be two separate stations. In chatting with one of the firemen, I mentioned what appeared to me to be a firehouse on Amsterdam Avenue but belongs to Brusco Realty. When I inquired, he explained that this used to house the other half of Engine 76, thus the exterior resembles a firehouse. Oh the knowledge one gains when speaking to people in the know. While discussing the Firemen's Memorial, this devoted young fireman told me that on the second Wednesday in October, every year the entire Fire Department of New York assembles around the monument. "It's very impressive, seeing 8, 000 blue suits lining up, " he proudly stated. Right then and there, I added it to my calendar and have every intention of attending this event come the fall of 2016. As the fireman pulled down the firehouse calendar to find the exact date, a tiny firecracker went off, causing him to jump backwards. "The pranks around here are non-stop, " he declared with a wary smile. I was glad to know that firemen have such a keen sense of humor.
The first Pio Pio location opened in 1994 in Queens, and since then, the restaurant has expanded to nine locations throughout the boroughs. Pio Pio is the place to go for chicken, as they have gained a strong reputation for their numerous Peruvian poultry dishes: the menu pairs the juicy meat with a variety of different sauces. The staff assured me that Juanita’s Chicken is especially popular, as are the combos that come with fries or salad, but it is Pio Pio's special green sauce that is the shining star.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral is led by a man who shares a name with the church’s own saint: Volodymyr. Pastor Volodymyr Muzychka greeted us at the door to the church, tucked underneath the façade’s wide balcony, dressed in religious robes that gave him an air of beneficence. Despite the language barrier, the pastor could not have been more charming as he led us through the halls of this magnificent church. Volodymyr came to New York from the Ukraine in 2011 and lives within the walls of the cathedral with his family. He told us that he only allows the heat to be on during the winter months for a half an hour in the morning and again at night, despite the frigid temperatures. Smiling, he said that he likes it this way. Since there were no services on the day that we visited, the cathedral building was cool, dark, and serene. We first stopped in to look at a large party room. The hallway leading to it was lined with portraits of influential religious Ukrainian figures. Next, Volodymyr took us up to the sanctuary in an elevator dating back to 1937. The smell of incense greeted us as we stepped into the sanctuary, lined with stained glass. Volodymyr explained that the building was first constructed in 1894-96 to be a synagogue by noted New York architect Arnold W. Brunner and became a church in 1958. We walked up the stairs to the choir loft, which gave an even grander view of the space. I have met many warm and fascinating leaders of both churches and synagogues over the past several years walking on the side streets of Manhattan. Pastor Muzychka touched my heart in a way that no other has, thus far.
When I visited Tip Top Shoes in the summer of 2015, the store was celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary. Danny Wasserman proudly showed me the most recent edition of Footwear News, which was essentially dedicated to Tip Top. There were messages from countless sponsors in the shoe world, congratulating the Wasserman family for their longevity. Sitting down with Danny and his children, Lester and Margot, who are in charge of West NYC and Tip Top Kids respectively was an absolute pleasure. Having grown up just a block away, Lester and Margot were immersed in the business even as toddlers. In high school, both began working at the store with their dad. Lester was immediately drawn into the world of shoes, learning as much as he could with the ultimate goal of opening his own sneaker shop, West NYC, a few doors down. Lester explained to me that Tip Top already sold sporty designer men's shoes, but that he expanded this concept into a trendier store in 2007. Margot, on the other hand, knew that she wanted to work in retail, but began her career with Ralph Lauren. She stayed there through the dot-com revolution and then returned to work for her father. Included in the copy of Footwear News was a picture of how the store looked decades ago. Display cases took up the first few feet on either side of the door. Danny's grandfather originally opened the store after coming to the United States from Israel. He chose to buy the little shoe shop, which had been uptown in Riverdale, from an elderly German couple. The family then moved the store to 72nd Street. "Things were very different, " Danny explained to me. "People were less affluent, there were fewer options, and every shoe in the store was in the window. " He told me that at one point there were two black shoes and two brown shoes for men, and that was what customers had to choose from. Expanding on the neighborhood's history, Danny said that the street was frequented by pimps. "We had white boots with fur at the time that we couldn't keep in stock. "Later, the store was expanded both forward (eliminating the window displays) and back. Today, Tip Top continues to have a loyal following, many from the next generation of shoppers. Having walked so many streets in Manhattan, Tip Top has been a wonderful reminder to me that the old world concept of customer service, with a warm staff who have been working with the Wassermans for years, still exists. This thinking was solidified when I asked the family why they never considered expanding to another location. The response from Danny simply stated that they never wanted to spread themselves too thin. "The reason for our success is because we're all here. "It was really touching to see how strong the glue is that holds the Wasserman family together. I was not surprised when I learned that Lester, Margot and their parents live in the same building, a block over on 72nd Street - but on different floors. Yes, Tip Top has been an incredible success story in the world of mom and pop stores, but not everyone has had the great fortune of such a beautiful family relationship. When I expressed this sentiment to Danny, he replied, "Everyone says how fortunate I am to have my kids, and they're right. " He then went on to say with a warm smile, "I mean, my son chooses to work with me six days a week. " Lester shook his head in agreement and responded, "And I am lucky to have the best possible teacher to educate me. "
I never miss the opportunity to gaze upward when entering a space in the hopes of discovering a chandelier (Check out our Sideways Story on the stunning chandeliers of the Side Streets). Peeking inside Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on a Sunday afternoon, it was the dazzling, yet unlit, fixture that captured my attention first. I could still decipher its glistening in the dim shafts of light filtering through the stunning figurative stained glass "Transfiguration of Christ" by L. C. Tiffany (containing over 17, 561 individual pieces of glass). When I returned to the church with members of our team and Chrissi Nicolas, the office manager, turned on a few of the lights, we were able to see the spectral beams produced by the Czechoslovakian crystal. The entire sanctuary appeared to work in tandem, with the stained glass projecting light on the chandelier, which in turn reflected it onto the artwork surrounding the altar. For those who attend and work at Annunciation, it is considered a miraculous place. Chrissi told us that it was built in 1894 as the Fourth Presbyterian Church. The Greek Orthodox Church bought the location in 1953, after having met in various locations since its founding as the “Evangelismos” (“The Good News”) church in the late nineteenth century. At the beginning, the entire space was lit with a combination of electricity and gas lighting. They used an ingenious series of vents that allowed the gas to escape while turning on every light in the room with a single flint switch. “For its time, this building had amazing engineering, ” Chrissi said. We ascended to the loft, where we received a view of the magnificent pipe organ. Annunciation's organ is one of the few tonally unaltered organs designed by E. M. Skinner that remain in existence today. We learned a lot about the traditions and practices of the Greek Orthodox Church through Chrissi. For example, one always knows the feast day is celebrated by the church by looking to the left of the Royal Doors of the altar to see what icon appears there. Chrissi also provided us with an interpretation of the surrounding religious art imagery. For example, in the painting of the Annunciation, the angel has his feet apart to show that he is running towards the Virgin Mary. In 1957, the congregation installed an intricate iconastasis screen of linden and lime tree wood designed and executed in Greece by noted Byzantine-style woodcarver Theophanis Nomikos, with inset icons hand-painted by New York iconographer Konstantinos Youssis of the Bronx. There are many coincidences contained within the church’s history. For example, the Greek Orthodox congregation that would become Annunciation was founded in 1892, the same year the church at 91st Street was starting to be built. Also, the congregation moved into the building on March 25th, the day of the Annunciation of Christ, hence the name. Possibly the most mysterious fact about the church, however, is that one of the priests is said to have been visited by St. Xenia, a little-known saint. After his vision, the priest was hesitant to tell anyone, since it was the twentieth century, and he was afraid that no one would believe him. But he did some research, and discovered that St. Xenia did, in fact, exist. In his vision, she asked him to paint her icon. He did, and today the icon he painted holds a special position in the sanctuary and in the history of the parish
Sweet aromas lure one into this tiny coffee and tea shop on west 70th. Originally founded in 1976 across the street, the Sensuous Bean moved to its current location in 1990 and is now co-owned by partners in life and in business, Lucretia La Mora and Tom Wilson. "People follow their noses, " explained Tom of the cafe's success. And even horses cannot resist - he recalled one peeking its head through the door as an officer grabbed a cup. "We blend to taste, " Tom added. Each day, beans are grinded on site and brewed in three roasters for a hot cup. And although small, the place is stocked with a large selection of coffees and teas sourced from a variety of regions. The chai spice tea comes from India and the Mexican Vienna brew from Zimbabwe. The assortment of flavorful tisanes includes intriguing names like red velvet cupcake or bella coola lemon lime.
Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that opened in 1934, has not forgotten its origins as a home to the ewes and rams that grazed in Sheep Meadow. Images of sheep are everywhere - carved into the fireplace, decorating the menu, holding up the table in the lobby. In 2010, the building ceased to be a restaurant for a brief stint, serving instead as a visitor's center and gift shop. After being taken over by partners, Jim Caiola and David Salama, and a lengthy renovation, the Tavern made a culinary return with a rustic and seasonal menu. I have eaten here on a number of occasions since its debut in the spring of 2014, but strolling in and out of the various rooms with members of the Manhattan Sideways team was a whole different experience. None had ever been, and I was amused and pleased with their reactions to this iconic Central Park locale. The Tavern contains three main areas. In the front dining room, the vast space resembles a summer hunting lodge. A large, circular bar takes up the center with a rotating carousel of gilded horses above it, and mammoth roof beams run along the ceiling like an old mead hall. Separated from the outdoors by a large glass wall, the second dining area is far more modern with creams, ivories and a collection of glass chandeliers. And though it was a hot day, a few brave souls ate outside in the exterior dining space, under umbrellas and large, mid-century street-lamps. The other side of the building features a beer garden with its own menu of simple bar fare. Finally, for the thousands of people who jog, bike or are simply wandering in the park, there is now a delightful little take-away window called "Green-to-Go. " It offers both a breakfast and lunch menu, and tables to sit down, relax and enjoy either a cup of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal, or a variety of wraps and salads in the afternoon. If nothing else, it is a terrific spot to watch both tourists and New Yorkers passing by.
“We are beer nerds, not beer snobs. ” That is how Bo Bogle, the general manager of Gebhard’s Beer Culture, and Peter Malfatti, its beverage director, would describe the wood-furnished, cozy bar and restaurant that they opened in the summer of 2016, featuring various local and foreign artisanal beers on tap. The people behind Gebhard’s Beer Culture - the sister restaurant to Beer Culture on 45th Street - are as enthusiastic about beer as they are about educating customers. Because many of the beers that they offer are unknown to the general public, Gebhard’s will always work to find the draught that best suits each customer’s palate. If one feels like tasting several selections, the beer flight - a tray of four small glasses - is a good choice. Along with the continuously changing list of beers, the kitchen offers an ample menu of munchies, many from Belgium, as this is where owner Matt Gebhard spent time as a foreign exchange student. I was enchanted to discover how playful the space is: Upstairs, there is a games room, complete with a dartboard, shuffleboard, Hacky Sacks, and BulziBucket. The decorations throughout the bar and restaurant are eclectic, with various beer signs and novelty items covering the walls. At the front, I discovered a nook full of records, as well as a well-loved bicycle helmet. Bo and Ryan, the bartenders on duty, matched the vibe of the restaurant with their jovial nature as they poured beers for the Manhattan Sideways team. They set out glasses of citrusy TarTan Ale, a Central Waters Brewing Co beer, and a fresh, hoppy Southern Tier 2x Tangier. The two men knew exactly what to select for a hot day in the city and enjoyed tag-teaming descriptions of each beer and brand. Bo explained to us that the motivation behind Gebhard's Beer Culture is essentially a “passion for the local beer market. ” With the recent proliferation of local breweries around the city and in the rest of the country, Bo feels that “individuals are making great beers and that should be acknowledged. ” However, he believes it is not enough to simply have them on tap, but rather, the bartenders should teach customers about the local beer scene. Beer Culture’s objective is as much educational as it is to host many good nights with friends. When asked about the one thing that he would like customers to know about their new bar, Bo grinned and said: “the second beer always tastes better than the first. ”