Tuesday, May 12, 2015

My Top 5 Budget "Love it Like a Local" NYC Favorites.

Can you enjoy NYC without spending too much money? Yes! Even with few funds you can still enjoy one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Having less to spend can even put you in closer contact with New Yorkers. The extra time you put into saving dollars - like waiting for the bus, subway, your turn at the window of a popular food truck or on line at the supermarket - means, potentially, more time around city residents. That's more chances to fall into conversation with people who may have great ideas to share with you about what to see and do free or "on the cheap" in New York.

On a tight budget you have to jump right into every day life. The result can be a richer New York experience where you spend your time more like a local, less like a tourist.

Feeling like you can't afford a quick trip to New York until you've saved up enough to enjoy all of its glamour and luxuries? Ok, but if you'd like to visit sooner than later realize that it's easier than you might imagine. The most important thing you need to bring to the experience is the mindset that you are coming to delight not in high-priced fun but in the vibrancy of the city.

A few basic tips:

Skip the hotels. Use Airbnb or stay in hostels (all ages welcome) instead. Manhattan and Brooklyn have some of the best in the U.S.

Avoid the $5 water bottle. Food, water and snacks are outrageously expensive in NYC. Carry a backpack that you can stock up with your easy-to-carry favorites to help you save. A visit to Trader Joe's or Fairway Market is worthwhile.

Keep your feet happy. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes - not only will you need to walk to save, you'll want to - NYC sidewalks are where you fall in step with city life and encounter everything that is fascinating about this place.

Be a tourist but add a twist. See the sights as if you live here. Below, a few suggestions:

My Top 5 "Love 'em Like a Local" NYC Favorites.

1. The Middle of the Brooklyn Bridge:

Any time of day, in any sort of weather, standing at the very center of one of the most iconic symbols of New York is an exhilarating experience and offers an incredible panorama of old and new architecture. You will look windblown and be genuinely smiling when you reach the mid-point of the bridge. What a view! I list this favorite first because visitors usually save it for last then end up saying, "Oh well, we'll do it next time." Don't disappoint yourself - make this moment a priority.

Get Local: Time your visit for fewer crowds and more beauty - aim for sunset, sunrise, full moon eves, snowy days or crystal clear nights - amazing!

2. Off-beat Chinatown:

Every guidebook and app will lead you to this classic New York neighborhood. Follow their advice to arrive in the area. Then? Explore the side streets to escape the big crowds and to find the unexpected.

Get Local: Make a stop at Hester Street Playground to see Chinatown in the details of everyday life. It's a little pocket of peace in a loud, crowded neighborhood. Visit historic, peaceful Eldridge Street Synagogue. Shop inside the base of the Manhattan Bridge where you will find a market filled with small businesses, food stalls and intense aromas.

3. Sunbathing in Central Park:

Exploring NYC takes a lot out of you. Re-charge in Central Park. Enter from the Central Park South entrance at 6th Avenue and 59th Street. Meander toward Sheep Meadow, a green space that covers an area between 65th Street and 71st Street in the middle of the park.

On your way, climb to the top of the exposed bedrock near Heckscher Playground. It's a great spot to rest for a few moments on sun-warmed stone while taking in views of the skylines that surround the park. The bedrock dates back to the Ice Age.

At Sheep Meadow, kick off your shoes, relax with a picnic on the grass and time in the sun. Who relaxes in Sheep Meadow? Everyone - from tourists to city dwellers recovering from long work days to people escaping small apartments for some open space.

Get Local: Bring chilled wine to celebrate creating a lovely, laidback moment for yourself in busy New York but know that while wine is slightly/sort of tolerated a bit during summer concert events in the park it's still not ok, officially speaking. Confused? That's ok, it's confusing. Bring a Frisbee too and enjoy.

4. Explore the Upper West Side:

It's one of Manhattan's most graceful neighborhoods and a beautiful setting in which to encounter the city's art, architecture and history. All you have to do is stroll tree-lined side-streets and boutique-lined avenues and you tap into the heartbeat of a great neighborhood.

Begin your walk at the 79th Street and Central Park West exit of Central Park and start zigzag-ing to cover as much of Central Park West, (The American Museum of Natural History, The Dakota, the New York Historical Society) Columbus Avenue (bakeries, boutiques and classic brownstones along every block) and the Lincoln Center area (art, music, bustling intersections) as possible before you get too tired or run out of time. You can do this walk in as little as 2 hours.

Note: The Upper West Side is my hometown and considered one of Manhattan's most family-friendly spots. It's a small town in a big city. Read more about it's  history, culture, how to best explore it and what it was like to grow up in the area by clicking around here at City Girl Writes - it's one of my favorite areas to write about.

5. Take to the Water - Governors Island:

Board a ferry and pay $2 to enjoy priceless views of NYC. Governors Island is a 172-acre island surrounded by a 2.2-mile promenade that offers incredible views of skylines and water activity - sailboats, ferries, tugboats are all part of the scenery. While you're there take a tour of the island's historic fort. Remember to bring your backpack of food and snacks to save on the cost of your visit. Spend what you save on renting a bike to explore this wonderfully car-free island.

Get Local: Governors Island features special events all summer long - from a festival that highlights the many ways New Yorkers enjoy the great outdoors in an urban setting to art exhibits and, twice this summer, a favorite among New Yorkers: The Jazz Age Lawn Party. A visit to this tiny island is well worth your time.

So, those are just a few of my recommendations for enjoying highlights in expensive Manhattan on a budget. Sounds exhausting? It can be, especially when you are trying to save by only walking or taking subways to get around.

Treat yourself to an air-conditioned car ride between some of the sights I've listed above that are far apart. For example: after your time in Chinatown, Uber it uptown to Central Park. It's a long way.

Uber has offered me a promo code to share with you - a nice way to save money and a chance for me to say thank you for reading this very long post! Enjoy it knowing there are now more Uber vehicles in NYC than there are yellow taxis (according to the New York Post) so your wait to catch a ride might be as fast as a New York minute.

I'd love to hear how your visit to NYC goes - let me know in the comments section below.

Happy travels,


Monday, April 27, 2015

Travel, Shopping and The Joy of Local

This is a post about travel. This is a post about shopping local. And this is all about how shopping local can be a trip. Confused? Come along with me.

We're all familiar with the many reasons there are to support local business. If you haven't been reminded lately, here are 10 great ones.

But there's another reason to shop local - it's the most satisfying, engaging way to make a purchase. No monotone welcomes or scripted endings ("Did you find everything you were looking for?") In local businesses you connect authentically with members of your own community while purchasing quality in a way that cycles money right back into the micro-economy that is your hometown. Win, win, win!

It's also just plain fun - especially if you turn shopping local into a form of local travel.

Travel is a state of mind you carry with you wherever you go. If you leave home open and curious and return with new ideas you transform your going into travel even if all you do is cover a few blocks...or drop into a few stores you've never visited before.

I traveled all over the world for many years as a writer for the hotel and tourism industry. I loved being on the move and fell in love with exploring new places. Then my family and I moved from Orlando to South Jersey to help develop the Revel Resort project in Atlantic City.

Do you know what happens when the project you relocated to help launch ends abruptly? Many un-fun things. One of those things for us was no more frequent travel. Actually, it was no more travel at all. Wings clipped. All plans grounded.

But good came out of that experience too. We started a family business and I fell in love with a different sort of travel - the hyper-local kind. Exploring hyper-locally only required a little bit of time each day (or week) and a lot of curiosity about the people and places nearby. That I could do!

Once I started I found out just how fun it was to "get lost on purpose."

I found beautiful landscapes, charming towns, historic sites, astonishing weirdness, awful ruins, incredible architecture and fascinating people all within miles of our home and business.

I'd come back to the day-to-day after each mini adventure with that feeling of invigoration travelers know so well.

Are you feeling wanderlust but are just too busy or broke to break out your passport for a long journey? There is a simple way to experience the kind of wonder you feel on trips even when you are close to home.

Believe it or not it's this: walk into stores owned by the people in your community.

Every individually-owned shop is a world and culture unto itself.

A great place to put this idea to the test is just 15-minutes outside of Philadelphia across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Collingswood, New Jersey. The Patco suburban line gets you there fast for under $5 roundtrip if you're traveling from Center City.

Collingswood is a colorful town where one-off businesses, restaurants and galleries line sidewalks. Once home to the Lenni-Lenape Indians and then to pioneers who arrived from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the mid 1600's, Collingswood is now home to an eclectic blend of residents who give the town a unique energy and progressive vibe.

You won't find too many "chains" there. What you will find are businesses with well...let's call them "wings": family-run BYOBs, bakeries, music schools, yoga studios and all sorts of shops that fly high powered by the vision and individuality of each owner.


In the center of town, there's Frugal, a donation-based thrift store where you can find vintage and modern clothes for men, women and children "at broken-in prices." It's cheerful, lively and full of great finds. I bought two summer tops - only $5.99 each - while Toots and The Mayals played in the background. (When was the last time you shopped for clothes listening to great reggae? Usually to find a great bargain you have to shop in stores where radio stations are set between Pop and static.)

At Frugal, even some of the hangers are unique - this one offered a peek into the past when New Jersey's phone numbers were only five digits long.

The Robinson family, owners of the boutique, support local charities monthly, donating a portion of their profits to each community-based organization.

Right next door there's Collingswood's happy place, The Candy Jar, a shop where you always get more than you give. Walk in even with zero dollars and you will still leave with samples, smiles and full of good conversation and stories thanks to Laurie Cohen and her team of ladies. From the moment you step inside the retro visuals, the kind welcome, the aromas of house-made chocolates all work together to return you to the best days of childhood. It's a warmth you won't find in the candy aisle of your nearest fluorescent-glare convenience store.

A few blocks away you will notice the ornate façade of a 1920s movie theater. It may look closed from your perspective along Collingswood's Haddon Avenue but walk to the corner of Fern Avenue where a small sign points you mid-block toward a non-descript yellow brick building. There you will find a way into the landmark.

You might hesitate when you face the metal logo on the door, "The Factory Workers? Is this a union hall? Is this an actual factory? Am I allowed in here?" Push open the heavy door and what you will find is an unexpected scene, one defined by deeds, dreams and deliciousness all made by skilled hands.

It takes about a second to realize you've discovered the heart of Collingswood.

Inside is a lively café that serves eight incredible coffees roasted with care on site. Revolution Roasters is a labor of love created by Justin, Steve and Joe, a trio dedicated to the art of the perfect cup of Fair Trade, sustainably grown coffee.

The food they serve along with their aromatic brews is good for the soul - hearty, fresh fare crafted in the Constellation Collective Kitchen at The Factory by Valentina Fortuna, Lindsey Ferguson and Maura Rosado, three food artisans who prepare everything - from quiches, po' boys, salads, breads and decadent breakfast sandwiches to sweets baked from scratch - from locally-sourced ingredients.

Around a bend past the café is where you find the actual floor of The Factory, a 16,000-square-foot community makerspace on a mission to help bring back the trades to the United States. The membership workshop created by owner, Tom Marchetty, makes $200,000 worth of wood- and metal-working equipment (and classes in their use) available to anyone over the age of 18 for a small fee.

The historic, mural-lined space is now home to builders, designers, a video production team, a busy recording studio and a full line-up of monthly community events that feature live music, including The Factory's Second Saturdays.

After your visit to The Factory, head back toward Haddon Avenue inspired to explore further. Look at the panorama that lies ahead of you. Those stores and restaurants you see lining both sides of Haddon are personal stories. Walk into any one of those places, ask a question with genuine interest and watch how quickly you discover the unexpected.


At El Sitio you can sit in the outdoor patio with friends and a bottle of BYOB wine for as long as you like, enjoying good conversation with one of the owners, Cecilia Jaramillo, about Collingswood and the latest dishes she has created. What you soon discover is that she owns a second El Sitio - it's thousands of miles away in Ecuador.

Stop into The Tortilla Press for a meal and you'll discover there's more to the award-winning restaurant than great Mexican-inspired food. It's run by a team that is fully-committed to promoting green practices, loves New Jersey wines and has even tried to launch a Restaurant Week for Kids.

Need one more example that might encourage you to go on your own door-to-door exploration of Collingswood? Here's a quirky one:

I almost walked past a physical therapy office on Haddon Avenue one Saturday afternoon when a sidewalk display of paintings in front of it drew my attention. I stopped and moments later I was meeting the artist behind the paintings. Francesco di Santis explained that he was borrowing the space, described how he creates his own oil pastels from elements of nature using techniques that date back to the Renaissance and shared the stories behind some of his beautiful landscapes and haunting portraits. I didn't expect to discover so much in that sunny space where neck braces and wheelchairs had been moved aside to make room for art. It was another Collingswood surprise!

I've valued small businesses ever since they started disappearing from the neighborhood where I grew up in New York. I saw one after another pushed out by national chains. Places that had existed for decades were replaced by stores that opened and closed every six months. That cycle of closings served to raise commercial rents continuously. The result? The New York I grew up in no longer exists. It went from being a place where every corner had a little neighborhood deli or old time place where neighbors could touch base and get news from each other, like my childhood favorite, Joe's candy store to being a place where recently one Design Within Reach and one Starbucks, yes Starbucks, announced they were closing due to outrageous rent hikes. (Starbucks at the corner of West 67th Street and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan saw it's rent rise to $300,000 a month this year.) In that environment everyone loses.

The big American hope that's left? Local businesses in small towns. The fight has been lost in big cities - there is no way to keep a small family place going there any more. But in small towns, people still have a chance to help each other, their local economy and themselves by supporting each others' businesses.

What will it take to inspire you to shop locally? Will it be the ethics? Will it be the fun? Whatever it might be, know that your choices - where you shop, how much you spend - matter and tend to boomerang back into the very communities we call home. Oh no...my post about travel/shopping has turned preachy! I'll end this post with more fun - a listing of fantastic upcoming events to enjoy soon on your travel adventure to Collingswood. Enjoy!

Visit these South Jersey towns to explore more and support local businesses:

Camden, Downtown Business District
Downtown Haddonfield - Full disclosure: my family owns a business in this town. (I'll be writing about Haddonfield next.)
Historic Haddon Heights
Westmont's Dining District


Philadelphia's Fabric Workshop and Museum sells all locally-crafted goods.

Revel Resort in all it's former, promising glory.

A beautiful mural - part of Philadelphia's Mural Arts program.

A landscape that left me in awe in Amish Country.

A funny moment I captured on a sidestreet during a 15-minute mini adventure walk in Philadelphia.

A little frame shop with a big personality and long history - 75-year-old Caves in Audabon, NJ

Series of five photos show Collingswood locations featured in the post.

Joe, one of the owners of Revolution Roasters and Tom, owner of The Factory Workers.

Additional images of bright and colorful Collingswood, New Jersey

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Discovering Baltimore's Fells Point

A trip requires careful planning...or does it? Too much preparation leaves little room for surprise. The next time you venture into new territory skip some of the details. Magic always appears in those open spaces you leave in your itinerary.

During a weekend getaway to Baltimore I re-discovered just how energizing it feels to arrive in a destination without any expectations. I knew the basics: Inner Harbor, crab legs, Little Italy, water taxi. I let Baltimore fill in the rest of the details, one long walk and wander at a time. 

Baltimore turned out to be a generous host and clever guide.

At every turn, it was a new discovery. I found broad strokes of New York and London, hints of Paris and Philadelphia (but with hills!), and left in love with a new city. But my favorite discovery? A thriving storybook village along Charm City's waterfront - Fell's Point.

Small-scale life and walkable history stood quietly, invitingly only a few blocks away from the bustle of Inner Harbor's biggest attractions. We were searching for our hotel, The Admiral Fell Inn. We turned a corner to find that "off-the-beaten-path" led us right into a cobblestone market square alive with music and artisans in an area defined by shops, bistros, cafes, boutiques, and graceful architecture dating back to the 1800s. No chain stores. No chain restaurants. Each small business added its own flavor to the vibrant scene.

We were met by another surprise at the hotel - an elegant, historic hotel that was even more lovely than we had expected. After a warm welcome in the Lobby we arrived in our room to discover it was not only beautiful and pristine but faced one of the prettiest streets in Fell's Point.

We explored Baltimore widely but ending back at Fell's Point each night became the highlight of our visit to the city. A cozy, Bohemian spot for tapas and wine, Adela's, connected right to our hotel. It was a great place to visit each night before easing into sleep.

Mornings were always misty while we were there - just right for quiet strolls down to a quirky cafe, The Daily Grind, and a walk back to the hotel alongside history.

If you're headed to Baltimore, consider making Fell's Point your home base and The Admiral Fell Inn your home-away-from-home while you are there. These spots are a picturesque retreat from the familiar brand name stores and  restaurants that line much of the Inner Harbor. You'll enjoy just as much liveliness and activity on the Fell's Point stretch of the Inner Harbor but with more charm, magic and sense of discovery. Behind every jingling, creaking door you'll find a warm, welcoming pub, treasure-filled little shop and the kind of nuance-laced atmosphere that makes a place unforgettable. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Kid at Tinturn Abbey

The joy in the photo of my son running free under the soaring ruins of Tinturn Abbey will hopefully go a little way toward changing your mind if you've ever thought, "I'll wait until the children are grown to travel."

I snapped this photo on our second day in  Wales. Our family was there on a work-related trip, exploring the history surrounding  key hotels in order to develop heritage-based programming for each of those hotels. Visiting castles and ruins was a big part of our days in the beautiful Wye Valley.

Running free at Tinturn Abbey

On the afternoon this photo was taken, Brandon and I had already passed a crumbling wall that dated back to the Roman era, roamed the interior of glorious Chepstow Castle, a Norman masterpiece in stone built in 1081, walked along part of the Wye River in an area of the world that has been inhabited since 5000 B.C./B.C.E., had lunch in a 300-year-old pub and would soon be resting in the shade near a stone wall, reading aloud from a book of old Welsh ghost stories we'd picked up from a roadside seller.

What a day that was - full of good fun and non-stop exploration that my son often charged ahead of with a little wooden sword from a gift shop.

There were many more beautiful moments for us on that trip - walks in landscapes that seemed like paintings come to life, sunsets with Welsh wine as cool and crisp as the surroundings - but none stand out more than this moment.

I'll always remember Wales through the wonder in my son's eyes.

Curious to see more of Wales? Three top resources:

The Official Gateway to Wales
Wonderful Wales
Visit Monmouthshire
Chepstow Castle

Friday, April 3, 2015

When Happy Met Traffic

The happiest people I've seen so far today were two sanitation workers. I was in traffic. Each car around me was an SUV with a grim person sitting behind the wheel, windows rolled up on this incredible, beautiful day.

The men?

Smiling, hanging, one-handed off the back of the garbage truck, moving to the music playing, wind billowing up their sleeveless shirts, faces to the wind. They made that truck look like a boat or maybe a pirate ship riding the bumps in the road like waves.

I wonder how many people they woke up out of aggravation along the way? They definitely did it for me. Feeling grateful for this day.

Want to move toward a better mindset?

Nourish your body with healthy food, good drink, deep rest; your soul with beauty.
Stay in the moment - alive to the present - and find your way toward gratitude for the best that's in it.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New York City Sightseeing in Cold and Rain: Three Ways to Stay Happy and Warm

Sightseeing in New York City is a thrill no matter what the weather is like but cold, damp days can take the spark out of exploring if you let them. Make sure you keep a sunny disposition even on the gloomiest of New York days by rewarding yourself often with warmth, rest, food and drink in settings that are as inspiring as the city itself.

If you find your energy lagging in the middle of Times Square, don’t worry. Your second wind and a re-energizing experience are only minutes away.

R Lounge at The Renaissance Times Square Hotel is your escape from crowds, cold wind and the temptation to return to your hotel room for a nap. 

In this welcoming lounge you’re surrounded by panoramic views of Times Square, neon lights and the throbbing energy of a no-sleep city but you can enjoy it all from the comfort of plush seats with cocktail in hand and appetizers on the way. The soundtrack is mellow lounge music and the vibe is relaxed sophistication that casts a soothing spell. Break away only once you feel fully restored.

Prometheus is the centerpiece of Rockefeller Center. Photo: Rev Stan

If you’ve walked from Times Square to Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral then north along Fifth Avenue toward East 59th Street and Fifth Avenue - a classic New York City walk that provides you with a chance to experience a collection of sightseeing “greatest hits” in one enjoyable pass – you’re loving the city and all it has to offer. You’re also exhausted and maybe even a bit cranky. 

Time to re-boot.

The Fifth Avenue entrance to The Plaza. Photo: Dan DeChiaro
Enter The Plaza via the main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. Bear left and make your way toward the ruby glow of The Rose Club to your right just a few steps up from the Lobby floor.  Sink into velvet, order something that pleases and bask. This is a New York moment. It’s accompanied by alto sax, rich bass, drum brush accents and ivory notes.

When it’s time to return to the jazz of New York City’s streets you’ll do so fortified and humming.

If you’ve strolled from Central Park South and Fifth Avenue toward Poet’s Walk then stopped to take photos at Bethesda Fountain and reached The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue you’re likely overdue for a recovery session and feeling it.

If it were warm you would be heading for the Roof Garden Café and Martini Bar for sunshine, sips and views of Fifth Avenue penthouses to the east and Central Park vistas and the Upper West Side skyline toward the west. But it’s cold and the terrace is closed and you’re too tired to walk back to The Loeb Boathouse. 

Never fear – taxis are near.

New-York Historical Society as featured at newyork.com.

Ask the driver to cross the park and deposit you near the steps of the New-York Historical Society at West 77th Street and Central Park West. Stumble out of the cab as gracefully as possible. It’s been a long day.

Escape the chill by hurrying up the steps, two at a time if you can, to enter this, New York’s oldest museum. You’ll sweep through an elegant gallery, then past a Native American hunter cast in marble to find Caffe Storico, aglow and soaring, within.

It may be gloomy outside but inside Caffe Storico it feels like Spring. 

Stephen Starr’s Northern Italian restaurant is airy, bright and accented in cheerful yellow. Windows along the north side of the building offer tree-top peeks at Manhattan but from your perch at the white marble slab bar you see only evidence of La Dolce Vita –chilled glasses of prosecco, plentiful Italian wines, expertly-crafted cocktail infusions, and an array of cicchetti, little Venetian tapas-style plates, prepared before you and in Chef Jim Burke’s open kitchen.

All around you and above you toward the ceiling are hints of the city’s past in the form of porcelain and china from the museum’s collection.  End the day (or start your night) here by raising a glass to New York history and to the sightseeing stamina that carried you through a memorable day. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Leopard at des Artistes: A New York Classic on the Upper West Side

Deciding where to dine in Manhattan isn’t easy – the island has over 3,500 restaurants for you to choose from - but finding the quintessential New York dining experience, the kind you catch a glimpse of in a movie and suddenly you’re in love with New York all over again? 

That’s simple.
You’ll find it around the corner from Central Park on West 67th Street at The Leopard at des Artistes.

A whispered welcome along an Upper West Side street. 
The Upper West Side restaurant is a neighborhood treasure that serves Southern Italian cuisine in a soothing, soft-lit ambiance. You leave hectic behind when you enter The Leopard at des Artistes, a landmarked space that has welcomed guests for nearly a century. Moments after you arrive you are as delighted as the dancing naked nymphs that surround you in the glowing murals that line the dining room. The murals were painted in 1937 by Howard Chandler Christy, a dashing figure in a black and white photo framed alongside one of his creations.
But there is more to The Leopard at des Artistes than food and ambiance.

The restaurant is a genuine New York classic in part because it is steeped in Upper West Side history.

A Colorful Past

Before Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino opened The Leopard at des Artistes in 2011 and Chef Vito Gnazzo brought his expertise to both its menu and kitchen, West 67th Street was home to a remarkable Upper West Sider’s legendary restaurant – for almost 35 years it was George Lang’s Café des Artistes.

Bill Clinton once said, “Although in New York, the only thing permanent is change, the people who keep saying that have never been to Café Des Artistes.” The look and feel of the restaurant, one that you can enjoy to this day in a more contemporary form, seems to have cast its spell over the former president. The space inhabited by Café de Artistes and now The Leopard at des Artistes has always had that kind of timeless quality about it. It seems as if it captured the essence of New York 100 years ago and never lost it.

In fact, the space where The Leopard at des Artistes stands has changed often.

“Every decade, it filled a different need for different people,” restaurateur George Lang’s wife, Jennifer Lang, was once quoted as saying. In the 1970s, “it was filled with people from Lincoln Center, which was then only ten years old. In the ‘80s, it gave people this café kind of experience, and it was one of the few places on the Upper West Side where you could have a really nice meal. In the ‘90s, we were discovered by Hollywood and the young, although it’s always had a lot of celebrities in it.”

From the beginning, it was destined to attract the Who’s Who of the creative world.

Art Meets Architecture

In 1917, when Café des Artistes first opened, it served artists, dancers, musicians and writers, all of whom lived in kitchen-less apartments above the restaurant in the Upper West Side’s famed landmark, Hotel des Artistes, and along West 67th Street, an area listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the “West 67th Street Artists’ Colony District.”
But the artists who lived and dined on West 67th Street were unlike the struggling avant-garde figures who transformed Greenwich Village into a bohemian district. They were renowned sculptors, illustrators, portrait painters and writers who were patronized by the wealthiest members of New York society. Café des Artistes’ regulars throughout the years always included bold-print names, among them Norman Rockwell, Rudolf Valentino, Isadora Ducan, Noel Coward, Marcel Duchamp and George Balanchine.

The building above Café des Artistes was designed by George Mort, in all its Neo-Gothic glory and medieval ornamentation, specifically to attract artists. For decades they arrived, turning that stretch of West 67th Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West into a particularly vibrant hub of creativity on the Upper West Side.

When they were hungry they dined at Café des Artistes.

A glowing mural in the soft-lit ambiance of The Leopard at des Artistes.

The uninterrupted presence of the brilliant, famous and even notorious turned the place into one of the most fascinating restaurants in New York. Its often lackluster food (in the later years) rarely discouraged the landmark’s loyal and upscale clientele from dropping in.

Then the seemingly impossible happened. Café des Artistes suddenly closed. The news was crushing to many New Yorkers who had loved George Lang and his restaurant – it was a fixture, the steady, elegant face of a friend in a constantly changing city crowded with strangers. How could a place that had been around since 1917 simply close without warning? How could a restaurant’s story, woven into the fabric of a New York neighborhood just end?

A New Chapter in an Upper West Side Story

It was Gianfranco and Paula Bolla-Sorrentino who came to the restaurant’s rescue after union pressures and slowing business took their toll. With full appreciation for the significance of the space they were entering, they carefully restored it, bringing a more contemporary air to its dining room and bar while maintaining the integrity and “aristocratic bone structure” of the beloved institution.

Upper West Siders who had mourned the loss of Café des Artistes when it closed found a newer, fresher version of it when The Leopard at des Artistes opened in its place. They also found one significant but welcome change – in place of just above-average French cuisine there was now an exciting menu of Southern Italian dishes to explore – one rooted in the culinary traditions of an area once known as The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and those of Campania, Basilicata, Calabria, Apulia and Sardinia.

Since opening in 2011, the restaurant has established itself as more than a successful dining establishment – quite a feat in a city where, by one estimation, 1,000 restaurants open and 800 of those same restaurants go out of business within five years. The Leopard at des Artistes has already become a New York classic. It’s a young Upper West Side restaurant but it has an old, welcoming spirit. As one longtime Café des Artistes patron said after The Leopard opened, it’s like “the offspring of an old friend, familiar but better in so many ways.” 

With so much history behind it and so much going for it at this moment, it may prove to be one of the most interesting chapters in the West 67th Street story.  

Review: Dining at The Leopard at des Artistes

I visited The Leopard at des Artistes on a Sunday eve recently, a night when the restaurant adopts a BYOB approach. I was treated to six courses of exquisite Southern Italian food prepared and served with what I can only describe as joy and genius. 

It was the kind of taste experience that can bring tears to the eyes if you are moved by beautiful, delicious food.

At first the dishes were delicate and light, matched with crisp white Italian wines. Then the flavors grew bolder. Grilled octopus with lemon dressing and green olives transitioned gently up the flavor spectrum to an amazing halibut in salsa verde with clams, cherry tomatoes and salmoriglio paired with Grecco di Tufo from Campania, onto a splendid veal dish followed by slow-braised Colorado lamb ossobuco served with sautéed spinach and celery root puree.

Each morsel gave reason to swoon.

In between glorious dishes I had moments to gaze and listen. The music throughout the restaurant set the tone – jazz, classical guitar, bossa nova. When Nicola Conte’s “Bossa Per Due” started playing it matched the mood of the restaurant perfectly – sophisticated but with a sense of relaxed celebration. One diner seemed as swept away by the mood of The Leopard at des Artistes as I felt: he was a man in a top-knot, long beard, paint-splattered safari-like clothes and an ascot. He moved about the dining room staring at each of The Leopard's revered murals with a dreamy-eyed smile.

The night I was there the service was excellent. The dining room staff was comprised of a graceful, intuitive team. Each member played a part in transforming a beautiful dinner for one into an event for all of the senses. The wines were perfectly paired with each dish; kind, elegant gestures were extended to every guest; the music, lighting, setting were all ideal for that evening - there was thoughtfulness and expertise behind each moment. 

When you dine at The Leopard, I suggest you set distractions, concerns and mobile devices aside - you won't want to miss a single detail. Let yourself get carried away by the entire experience knowing you will be in the expert hands of artists.

The Leopard at des Artistes - 1 West 67th Street, New York, NY  10023, Tel: 212.787.9767