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Editor’s Note: Due to the current situation with COVID-19 involving travel restrictions and ordinances, please note that some of the locations mentioned in this itinerary may be temporarily closed. It’s best to call ahead, and contact information has been provided below where applicable.
New Yorkers are a funny bunch. In addition to being aggressively opinionated, we’re always lamenting the “real” New York of bygone times. Current-day New Yorkers talk wistfully for the 1990s, and in the 1990s, we did the same for the 1970s, and so forth – you get the idea. And while most admit that progress is probably a good thing, we can’t help but miss the grittier days that we feel made us what we are.
The one truism is that the only constant is change and nowhere exemplifies that more than New York City. Restaurants come and go with disturbing speed, and neighborhoods quickly turn unrecognizable to those who have moved away. Perhaps this is why New Yorkers cling to establishments that so sincerely remind us of days of yore.
In this itinerary focusing on “Old” New York City, we’ll check out some establishments that have managed to either survive for unnervingly long or that manage to capture the spirit of a different time. Some are well-known and others are not, but all are throwbacks to previous decades. (Please note that all locations are in Manhattan unless otherwise stated.)
The Lower East Side of Manhattan is where immigration exploded in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. In particular, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe crammed into tiny tenement apartments as they scratched out meager existences in the city. At the Tenement Museum, two apartments have been restored to resemble what they would have looked like back in the day. Museum curators found surviving descendants of former tenants who helped fill in precise detail and who were recorded discussing their memories. It’s an incredible peek into the lives of the families who worked and built New York to be what it is today.
Museum at Eldridge Street
Housed in a beautifully restored synagogue built-in 1887, the Museum at Eldridge Street was the center of life for many newly arrived Eastern European Jews at the turn of the last century and beyond. It was where newcomers could connect with family members already living in the city, meet friends from the old country, and navigate this strange new land. The architecture alone is stunning, and its place in Jewish life as New York exploded cannot be understated.
Russian & Turkish Baths
Located just a bit north in the East Village, the 1892-built Russian & Turkish baths are a throwback to the good old-fashioned Schvitzes. Come and sweat out the grit of the city while catching up on neighborhood gossip. Pay attention to the calendar because certain hours are women-only or men-only. This is definitely not an experience for the modest!
The 55 Bar
Smalls Jazz Club
Have you ever wished you could have experienced Charlie Parker in a tiny club back in the day? While the uptown clubs of the Harlem Renaissance are long gone, 55 Bar is very much alive and well. This teeny Prohibition-era jazz club is still the spot to hear some of the best music of your life. Just a few blocks away is Small’s, another appropriately named teeny club with incredible live jazz. Although Smalls is a much newer club, it captures the basement club vibe completely. Make a night of it and bounce between the two.
Nuyorican Poets Café
As faces of immigration changed, so did the neighborhoods of New York. By the mid-1900s, the Lower East Side and East Village became increasingly more diverse as more people of Afro-Latino descent began to move in. By the 1970s, the Nuyorican Poets Café was born and quickly became an intellectual and artistic meeting place. It’s still home to some of the more creative and inventive performances, featuring everything from poetry slams and spoken word to jazz and live drumming. Keep in mind that the name of the café is a nod to the Spanish-English culture and linguistic blend that developed in the community, so performances are not always in English.
Ok, now, we admit that Chinatown is mostly a tourist spot, but it’s crucial to the development of New York. Chinese immigrants have been in New York as long as Europeans but began arriving en masse in the 1870s to escape persecution in the bigoted American West. Manhattan’s Chinatown has been one of the few neighborhoods that has not demographically changed all that much. If anything, it’s expanded! Get off Canal and explore some of the smaller streets, and if you’re lucky enough to be there on market day, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to the other side of the world.
The importance of Harlem cannot be emphasized enough. By the 1920s, it was home to the intellectual explosion that came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance and Harlem saw a proliferation of musicians, singers, dancers, poets, novelists, actors, and designers. The Apollo Theater, the Savoy, and the Cotton Club are just some of the famous performance spaces that thrived. Do yourself a favor and take a walking tour of the neighborhood to fully appreciate the architecture and the homes of the enormous talent that poured out of Harlem and influenced American art and culture up to today.
Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central is easy enough to find because a) it’s huge, and b) it’s the nexus of train and subway lines. It’s an architectural gem, from the gorgeous starry ceiling to little pockets like the Whispering Corners. Head to the Grand Central Oyster Bar for cocktails and some amazing people watching.
Coney Island Circus Sideshow
Coney Island is pretty far but it’s worth the trip. The beach itself used to be absolutely crammed on summer days as residents sought some relief from the sweltering heat, and it can still get pretty busy. But the highlights of visiting are the old-school carnival rides like the Wonder Wheel and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. You’ll immediately be transported back to rum-running days when any odd talent would be turned into an act. Will you see a sword-swallower? An escape artist? A strongman? Who knows? But it’ll be entertaining, for sure!
Certainly not a secret, Katz’s Delicatessen is always bustling with activity and is a wonderful throwback to the disappearing deli culture. Settle in for a legit bowl of matzo ball soup or a hot Reuben. Don’t expect warm and cuddly service, but hey – that’s part of the charm, right?
Pakistan Tea House
Don’t expect glamor at the Pakistan Tea House despite its very genteel name. This storefront basically consists of a few tables and chairs and a counter where you can pick out what you’d like. You will, however, taste some of the most delicious Indian-Pakistani dishes of your life here. Don’t go around noon because it’s famous among taxi drivers who are in a hurry and have no time for your indecision as you order.
Dating back to 1937, Minetta Tavern will have you thinking you stumbled back into glorious old New York. Certainly not catering to budget-seekers, its polished brass and leather banquettes provide perfect detail for imagining a different time. If you don’t want to commit to a meal, grabbing a beer at the bar is a must.
If you want dumplings and you want them to be tasty, this is the place. There’s something to be said for places like Tasty Dumpling that have managed to remain gloriously un-artisanal or hipster – and by consequence are actually artisanal since everything is made in-house. Cheap, filling, and delicious, you’ll want to grab a table to eat them right then and there.
Located right on Houston Street, Emilio’s Ballato has a down-to-earth atmosphere that is a bit deceiving: the food is incredible. A targeted menu pays homage to Mama Italy, with a wine list to match. And while Italian-American restaurants certainly are not lacking in the New York metro area, Emilio’s Ballato will take you back to the early 1900s as Italian immigrants secured their place in New York history.
Caffè Reggio claims to be the home of the ‘original cappuccino’ and who are we to question? Established in 1927, Caffè Reggio has seen Greenwich Village through nearly a century of change. Settle in with a cappuccino (you sort of have to) and house-made tiramisu, and prepare for some of the best people-watching around.
Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery
If you’ve never experienced Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery… wow, are you in for it. Established in 1910, this kosher eatery is still slinging knishes, kugels, and latkes with no signs of slowing down. You can also ship across the country. What a time to be alive.
The Stonewall Inn
Now a registered Historic Landmark, the Stonewall Inn is the location of the turning point in the fight for gay rights and equality. In 1969, sweeping arrests in the bar led to days of rioting and helped kickstart broader protests. It is, it claims, “where pride began.” (A bonus: it’s across the street from 55 Bar!)
New Yorkers love to lament the loss of gritty dive bars and many favorites have indeed faded away. Thankfully, Milano’s does not seem to be going anywhere. Don’t expect cheerful wit and chatter – sarcasm is about all you’ll hear here. Milano’s is the perfect dose of grungier times.
King Cole Bar
Artist Maxfield Parrish is known for painting luminous landscapes and fanciful portraiture. Included in his works are two murals, one of which resides at the St. Regis hotel’s King Cole Bar. You’ll want snazzy attire, but the bartenders are remarkably approachable and down-to-earth. Bonus if you ask why King Cole’s attendants have the expressions they do.
The Lobby Lounge
The Algonquin Hotel was home to the infamous “Round Table” lunches hosted by Dorothy Parker, which were not limited to two or even three martinis. And while the Round Table and the Blue Bar are still the main attractions here, the Lobby Lounge is a lovely way to settle into a leather armchair with a good book and a strong drink on a cold New York evening.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
Established in the 1850s, McSorley’s is hardly a secret and as a result can be mobbed at any point in time, but it’s still worth checking out for a dose of old New York. Known for its sawdust-covered floors and for slinging two kinds of ale (light or dark), it did not allow women until the 1970s. And although it’s certainly commercialized, it will still bring you back to bars experienced by newly arrived immigrants in the 1800s – at least the male ones.
And to think – we’ve barely scratched the surface here! New York is more than just Manhattan, of course, and we could write a book about all of the little gems tucked in every borough. These, though, are all within subway-able distance from each other and provide several days of New York rediscovery. Cheers!