New York Primer Print

I originally wrote this document for Bob and Barbara Fei, parents of my good friend and fraternity brother Jim Fei, when they were making arrangements to visit New York for an extended vacation.  They hadn't been there in 30 years.  In this letter, I wanted to give them some background on places to go that aren't in all the guidebooks, and some restaurants to visit, since I like food and have some favorites.  I've updated it since then.  Perhaps this will help you...


At long last I’m sitting down to give you some information on New York.  I think you’ll enjoy it and I know that you will find the change in the city extraordinary.  I have been traveling there pretty regularly for almost twenty years and I think the change is incredible; the transformation over the forty years since your last visit should be amazing.

 Rudy Giuliani, despite other foibles, did a splendid job of cleaning up the city, and Michael Bloomberg has kept it up.  Times Square is a safe place to walk again and you will see people out walking all the time.  This is good, because it’s a city of walkers—about 40% of the people who live there never learn how to drive because they don’t need to drive anywhere.  Subways and sidewalks (and an occasional taxi) are all they need.

 I take the subway almost all the time because it’s far less expensive than taking a cab.  The fare is $2.00 now and you can buy a $20.00 card that gives you twelve rides.  So, for example, when I go from Grand Central Station to the World Trade Center, a cab would be about $20.00 but the subway is $2.00, no matter how far you go or how many train changes you make. 

 Granted, it does take some getting used to, what with learning the system and descending into the bowels of New York to catch the trains.  And, if four of you are taking a cab from your apartment to Greenwich Village, the cab fare will be about the same as four people taking the subway, so you would probably want to take a cab.  Keep it in mind, though.

The bus system works well too, and we've taken it numerous times, usually with Duane to help us navigate the system.  The MetroCard works on the bus system as well as the subway.

Here's a link to New York City Transit's Web site for the subway.  On that page, there is a link to an excellent map of the system.

If you want to learn more about riding the bus, you'll see a link on the menu on the left side.


Speaking of Grand Central Station, you should go there and spend an hour or two.  It has been completely refurbished and it is a truly beautiful place.  This is the station built around Cornelius Vanderbilt’s original Grand Central Terminal.  It’s wonderful to just gaze out over the common area but there are all sorts of neat places inside, too.  Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse is there and although I haven’t eaten there, it gets good reviews.  The Grand Central Oyster Bar is still there and is still a pretty seafood restaurant.  There is a terrific wine & spirits shop—Grand Central Spirits—on the main concourse level.  And the Grand Central Market is an open stall market with very good produce and other edibles.  I have become quite familiar with it because I have stayed at the Yale Club many times and it’s across the street at 50 Vanderbilt Ave.   Also, Jennifer and Duane live in Bronxville and commute into Manhattan on the Harlem North line, which comes in at Grand Central.  I stay with them now when I visit New York and I commute in with Jennifer on her train, and then switch to the subway there.

 The Web site for Grand Central Station is here, and here's one of my photos:

0024 grand central station inside.jpg

 I’m sure that you have some guide books that will give you a bunch of information on all the famous things to do, so I’ll concentrate on a few of those and some of the more obscure things that I point out to people who go there with me for the first time.

  Museums—you will want to see a bunch of them, but one that is really interesting is the Morgan Library.  It’s at 29 East 36th Street (36th & Madison) and is the actual library that J. Pierpont Morgan built for himself to house his collection of rare books, manuscripts, etc.  It’s quite pretty, historical and full of amazing stuff—sheet music written by Mozart, Beethoven and so forth, travel journals written by Thoreau and Emerson, an original Gutenberg bible, and on and on.  There is a gift shop in the brownstone that has some good quality things and a little café that’s better than average.  It looks like this:  


  I also recommend the Forbes Building.  Besides being the headquarters for Forbes magazine, it also displays—free of charge—the incredible collection of Fabergé jewelry, toy boats, toy soldiers and rare documents amassed by Malcolm Forbes.  The Fabergé eggs, unfortunately, are gone.  The toy boats are more interesting than they sound.  And the documents include such things as letters written by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and Nixon’s original letter of resignation (how did they get this stuff?).  It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and is located at 62 5th Ave., between 12th & 13th Streets.

  Remember, by the way, that you cannot tell what street intersects an avenue by an address.  Numerical addresses have no relation whatsoever to cross streets.  You would think that 62 5th Avenue would be at 62nd Street, but nooooo.  I have a cross street/avenue finder in my Palm Pilot, but that isn’t going to help you much.  Just remember that avenues run north/south and streets run east/west.  Also remember that “downtown” doesn’t mean going to the center of town, like it does in most other cities.  “Downtown” means anything in a southerly direction, and “uptown” means anything in a northerly direction.  Therefore, if you are standing in Battery Park, you cannot go downtown, because you are already standing at the southern tip of Manhattan.  When you are going somewhere, just give the cabbie the name of the place and the address and he’ll find it.

 Now, back to Forbes.  It’s only three blocks from Union Square Café, easily one of the best restaurants in New York.  You must eat there.  It’s owned by Danny Meyer, who also owns Tabla (where Jennifer worked when she graduated from culinary school), Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern.  Wonderful food, wonderful service, wonderful place.  You could go to Forbes when it opens and then walk up to Union Square Café for lunch.  Out of the Forbes building, head uptown on 5th Avenue three blocks to 16th street and turn right toward Union Square.  USC will be on your left.

 Let’s see—Trinity Church is another interesting place.  It’s at the beginning of Wall Street, at Broadway.  It was originally built in 1698, expanded in 1740, and destroyed by fire in 1776.  It was rebuilt after the Revolution.  I think it’s interesting because it’s really pretty and some interesting people are buried in its graveyard—like, Alexander Hamilton.  It’s a strange experience to visit a church that old that is surrounded by modern skyscrapers.

 From Trinity Church, walk down Wall Street a block and on the left (at 26 Wall St.) is Federal Hall, built on the location where George Washington took his first oath of office as President.  The New York Stock Exchange is across the street.  Here’s a current photo of Trinity Church:


 Here is one of my photos of Federal Hall:

085 federal hall 2.jpg

The whole area around Ground Zero is, of course, radically different now.  I have not been there since 9/11 so I can't tell you anything about the experience. 

A really good way to get a feel for Manhattan is to take a Circle Line boat tour around Manhattan.  It’s a half-day trip and will give you some really good information about New York.  It may seem kind of hokey, but we did it with friends and learned a lot, despite the fact that I had been there dozens of times.  They leave from Pier 83 at 42nd Street.

 Also close by Pier 83 at Pier 86 (46th Street) is the aircraft carrier Intrepid, which is now an aircraft museum.  I haven’t been there but Jennifer and Duane have, and even Jennifer said it was really cool.  There is an A12 Blackbird on desk, which, although it could obviously have never flown from an aircraft carrier, would be a sight to see.  If you’re into aircraft and such things, this looks pretty neat.

 You should walk up and down Fifth Avenue from your place.  Walk up to Central Park and turn right to the Plaza Hotel, then walk downtown on Fifth Avenue.  Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany are two places worth a look even if you aren’t buying.  Also, when you get to Rockefeller Center on the west side, look across the street to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the east side.  You should walk over to St. Patrick’s and go inside.  It’s a spectacular church and really worth a look inside.  It’s on 5th Avenue between 50th & 51st.  Here’s one of my pictures from the outside:


 For the rest, follow your guidebooks and pick what you want to see.  We went to Ellis Island during our Christmas trip in 1998 and enjoyed that but I wouldn’t call it a must see item.  Anyway, enjoy.  Now, for the food…


The Tavern On The Green in Central Park is widely touted as a terrific place, largely because of the location, the décor and the view.  Those all may be good, but the food isn’t all that great and neither is the service, so if I were you, I wouldn’t waste my money there.

Also (this is a personal thing) I will never again patronize any restaurant owned by The Fireman Group:  Shelly's, Brooklyn Diner, Redeye Grill, Trattoria Dell'Arte, Café Fiorello, or Bond 45.  ES&D, Shelly Fireman.


 Le Bernadin is one of the best restaurants in the city, if not the world.  We went there in February 2003 to celebrate Sue's and Jennifer's birthdays.  Without question the finest seafood meal we've ever had with the finest wine pairings (arranged by their sommelier) imaginable.  Incredibly expensive, but worth it if you have lots of money to spend.  Here's the review:


Key to ratings






West 50s
155 W. 51st St. (bet. 6th & 7th Aves.) New York, NY, 10019-6019 (212) 554-1515

"Hallowed ground" for gourmets and the Survey's No. 1 seafooder, Maguy LeCoze's Midtown French "piscatorial paradise" "spoils you" with "incredible" feats of "culinary magic" from chef Eric Ripert and "seamless service" of "balletic" "finesse" in a "gorgeous", "formal" setting; "breathless" admirers don't mind the "whale of a bill" (prix fixe lunch $47, dinner $84), since this is "grand" dining "nonpareil."


 I already mentioned Union Square Café.  Here’s the review from Zagat:









Flatiron District/Union Square
21 E. 16th St. (bet. 5th Ave. & Union Sq. W.) New York, NY, 10003 (212) 243-4020

"Gourmet food without the attitude" -- and at comparatively modest prices -- might be the motto of Danny Meyer's "congenial" Union Square New American, voted Most Popular Restaurant for the fifth year in a row; despite a few protests, Michael Romano's cuisine obviously "keeps on pleasin'" and is served by a "fabulously friendly", "customer-oriented" staff in a choice of three "civilized" settings.

 As I said, this is one of those places that you simply must enjoy.  If you don’t eat lunch there, have dinner.  You will need a reservation and they are hard to get, so call from San Diego a month ahead.  For two of you, though, having lunch might be possible, even if you eat at the bar, because they serve the full menu at the bar.  I’ve eaten at the bar several times when I have been traveling alone.


The Carnegie Deli is a classic New York experience, rude waiters and all.  It’s very close to your place at 55th and 7th.  Here’s the review:

CARNEGIE DELIOpen Late Night (after 11)Open SundayCredit Cards Not Accepted








West 50s
854 Seventh Ave. (55th St.) New York, NY, 10019-5276 (212) 757-2245

For many, this Midtown "fixture" (look for the lines out front) defines deli in NY, with a "staff as sour as the pickles" serving "can't-get-your-mouth-around-'em" sandwiches and other Jewish "classics" to elbow-to-elbow diners amid classically "bad" decor, i.e. rows of crowded tables; though tourists "love it", you're just as likely to meet Woody Allen -- or some of his characters -- here.

  This place has the best pastrami in the world.  I suggest that you walk down there and share a pastrami on rye (they’re huge) and a piece of plain New York cheesecake.  Trust me—you’ve never had pastrami like this. 

  Here is another must go place for dinner:

BABBOOpen Late Night (after 11)Open Sunday








Greenwich Village
110 Waverly Pl. (bet. MacDougal St. & 6th Ave.) New York, NY, 10011-9109 (212) 777-0303

Mario Batali "makes Italian taste brand-new" with his "inspired", "earthy" menu at this Village "instant classic" co-owned with Joe Bastianich; the "warm", golden-hued duplex setting and "intriguing" wines add pleasure, and even if the "clairvoyant" staff is "rushed" and booking is a "pain", the last word is "bravo Babbo."

We have been here several times and it’s easily one of the best Italian restaurants in the city.  Reservations are essential so call ahead of time for this one, too.



I learned about Prune in Saveur magazine, in one of their first Saveur 100 issues.  We tried it shortly thereafter and became one of our favorites.  It's small and funky, but it has great character, great food, and it's well worth going.  There is a small private room downstairs that we've used on several occasions.  I heartily recommend this place.

PruneOpen Sunday





East Village
54 E. First St. (bet. 1st & 2nd Aves.) New York, NY, 10003 (212) 677-6221

Chef-owner Gabrielle Hamilton's "smart", "earthy" New American cuisine and her "knowledgeable", "tattooed" staff "inspire" diners to "be adventurous" at this "charming" East Villager; sure, it's "way cramped", but "hip" "foodies" agree the "big, big flavors" make it worth the "tight squeeze."




You should consider going to Blue Hill and The Place , also.  They’re nice, small places that have great food.  One of my current favorites is Prune in the East Village but it’s small (only 30 seats) and a little cramped and noisy, which may put you off a little.  It’s full of young, thin, hip people but I don’t feel bad going there with Jennifer and Duane. 

Also--Red Cat and The Harrison are great restaurants and deserve a visit any time.