Thursday, July 24, 2014

Love in Grand Central Station

The seeds of a beautiful experience that took place in the middle of New York rush hour, crowded down in the belly of hot Grand Central Station, were planted over a year ago with these words shared on Twitter:

“Today let your breath be your soundtrack, smile and breathe in every pose.”

Putting those words into action has grown easier over time. For over a year I’ve tried. It’s worked for a few minutes or hours but then I slip back into the old habits of stress. Still, every time I’ve done it – deep breathing, seeing each challenging moment as a tough but temporary posture to move through in peace – I’ve fallen in love with the whole idea a little bit more so it’s stuck. I’ve kept at it.

So I was deep in the mess that is Grand Central Station at peak rush hour in the heat of summer. The subways that rolled through were packed, the platform for the 6 train packed, the stairs leading up and down jammed as were all the areas upstairs spilling out onto loud, crowded sidewalks and streets jammed with traffic. 

All this awareness of being crowded into that space hit me and I waited for the panic. It didn’t materialize. Instead I felt waves of something unexpected.

I looked at each face, exhausted, frustrated, angry, some just trying to hold it together, and felt the brush of sweaty arms and the heat off tired backs bumping me and three words rose in me with each push and look –
“I am that.” “I am that.”

I didn’t see strangers I saw people desperate to just get home or to wherever they were going to enjoy the rest of the day with kids, friends, pets, air conditioning, some fresh air. The one woman who shoved her way through the crowd cursing everyone as she passed didn’t seem angry to me as she would have before – instead I could hear fear in her voice. And that’s when it started, I felt connected to everyone around me in spirit. I felt love. The word “Namaste” (“I am that”) made sense to me for the first time.

It amazed me. I kept testing it – looking around the subway platform for anyone I would have usually judged as annoying, obnoxious, stuck up, ridiculous whatever. It didn’t work. I saw people and I felt peace and love toward each one. If you are rolling your eyes right now that’s okay because on that day, between waves of love, I was thinking, “Really? This can’t be happening.”

I had a short ride to my destination (25 blocks) so I decided to just walk the distance instead of waiting to work my way into the next packed subway. I popped in my ear buds, turned up some samba and bossa nova and walked along Fifth Avenue toward 59th and Central Park South to enter the park and cross toward the Upper West Side. 

Along the way I had tens of thousands of chances to fall out of love with people. Waves of them - of us - covered every city street and we were beautiful that night.

The tweet above is a Russell Simmons quote. His words led me to explore, which led me deeper into yoga, meditation and a new way of moving through this life. I’d love to hear from you about your own experiences – please leave a comment here or @CityGirlWrites on Twitter or Instagram. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Travel Massive Arrives in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is a city of firsts - first elevator, first hospital, first taxi service, first department store, first soda, first...well, the list goes on and on. Recently, Philadelphia experienced another first - its inaugural eve as a Travel Massive city. 

The response from the Philadelphia travel community to its first Travel Massive meet-up was a roar of welcome - huge turnout, big energy and non-stop conversations fueled by genuine interest all around. It was a gathering of some of Philadelphia's most engaged and engaging people all connected by a love of travel. 

A few highlights:

Philly Tour Hub was the setting for Travel Massive Philadelphia’s first event. It's one of the most welcoming spots in the city. Travelers, tourists and local wanderers alike drop in throughout the day to cool off, re-charge electronics, chat, enjoy free Wi-Fi and simply feel right at home.

Anytime you’re in Old City, drop in to rest between your own activities or rev up your day with a Segway tour led by the Philly Tour Hub team. If you happen to walk by and a cocktail party, book signing, comedy performance or even the next Travel Massive Philadelphia event is underway, stay and join the fun! The word “hub” in Philly Tour Hub’s name describes more than a place – it’s an attitude. This spot is becoming the heart-center of the Philadelphia travel community and it’s already getting things moving.

One of the most dashing guests at Philly’s first Travel Massive event was "Montecristo" - the world-traveling long-haired Chihuahua. He trots the globe in Gucci and Louis Vuitton and blogs his global adventures about "living life eight inches off the ground" when he isn't out and about networking with fellow explorers. He and his bi-peds were planning to do a Segway tour of Philadelphia together before jetting off to the South of France and Switzerland next. Follow them for lively adventures and pet travel insights @MontecristoTravels

Guests were in for much more than travel talk that first night – Philadelphia’s way famous Little Baby’s Ice Cream was on hand with wickedly delicious flavors for fearless ice cream lovers. The team who created Balsamic Banana, Peanut Butter Maple Tarragon and Earl Grey Sriracha held everyone’s attention with scoops recognized for their power to “make babies cry.” Chipolte Chocolate was especially amazing - a smokey hot frozen treat! Check out their haunting YouTube video to discover why almost seven million people around the world are now just a little bit scared of ice cream.

Philadelphia’s own Conshohocken Brewing Company made sure everyone stayed happily hydrated throughout the eve with their refreshing floral and citrusy India Pale Ale and a classic English-style ale, Puddlers Row ESB. Conshohocken’s Tap Room has become a local favorite especially among outdoor enthusiasts. Bicyclists, in-line skaters, walkers and hikers trek along the Schuylkill RiverTrail to spend an afternoon on their outdoor deck savoring hand-crafted, small-batch brews.

Visit Philadelphia brought giveaways and gave the eve a visual focal point – the “With Love, Philly xoxo” step-and-repeat banner became the evening’s key spot for photo taking, video interviews - guests shared their “Philadelphia First Impressions” on camera – and fun. It was thanks to the Visit Philadelphia team that Pizza Brain and Little Baby’s Ice Cream were there too. Travel Massive Philadelphia’s first official sponsors are kicking off a new marketing campaign that will invite you to celebrate how Philadelphia thinks – it’s ‘Phillyosophy.’

There’s much more to tell but the rest you’ll just have to experience for yourself at the next Travel Massive Philadelphia event!

Follow on social @TravelMassivePHL for frequent updates.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

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

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Manhattan in the 1970s - A Novel Reveals Another Side of the Story

Dirty Old 1970s New York City is a Facebook page that perfectly captures the city as it was in its bad old heyday - scary, rough, dirty but also spontaneous, authentic and brash in a way that was irresistible to the millions who lived and flocked here despite the danger. It's a page that celebrates the old New York that everyone recognizes and many of us miss.

A new novel invites you into a very different 1970s New York City - a hushed, elegant Manhattan that continued to thrive even in the middle of the mayhem that defined that era. A Very Good Life reminds you that there was more than one version of New York City in the 1970s. You could switch between them just by choosing to walk several blocks in one direction or by walking from one avenue to the next.

It's worth remembering that the New York you might catch a glimpse of while watching Tony Randall in The Odd Couple was the same city you watched Al Pacino move through in Serpico and Panic in Needle Park.

Stepping into Lynne Steward's debut novel, A Very Good Life, is much like walking into the legendary New York department store, B. Altman, in which so much of the story unfolds. It's classic, subdued and reveals its facets moment by moment. A Very Good Life isn't focused on the hard edges. Instead it sheds gentle light on the classic city.

Ms. Steward's novel takes the reader away from today's touchscreen existence back to a time in New York when telephones rang and typewriters clacked on cluttered desks. A time when stand-up ashtrays were part of office decor and dry martinis were ordered with each business lunch. A time when customers dressed up to visit New York's grandest store then shopped for hats, scarves, slippers, gloves and more - each category of item displayed reverently in its own dedicated department.

But there is nothing old fashioned about this novel. The characters in it navigate marriage, career and New York's stratified social scene in a way that resonates across the decades.

A Very Good Life invites you to revel in the New York of the recent past. If you are a native New Yorker it also allows you the satisfaction of recognizing the people, places and concerns that were the focus of Manhattan attention during those gritty yet glamorous years. But the characters are what linger with you long after you've finished the book. Lynne Steward brings them to life with spare, masterful strokes.

This is a New York story told in genuine New York style in voices that ring true. It's now been several weeks since I read A Very Good Life. (Ms. Steward shared her book with me after she read my post about my childhood memories of the great B. Altman department store) What is a bit funny is that I remember it not as a book that I read but as a movie I watched - the experience of reading it was like watching one of the great films of the 1970s, the ones that featured female leads that you immediately got caught up with and fell alongside them in their journey from the first scene - An Unmarried Woman comes to mind. The novel is available everywhere including online and in one of New York's leading independent bookstores,  St. Mark's Bookshop.

Photos: The subway and Park Avenue images above do not belong to me. If you are the copyright holder, please contact me so that I can add your copyright information and a link to your site or delete the images from this post. 

Thursday, April 24, 2014

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. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The National Cherry Blossom Festival: Pink Even Off-Peak.

Timing is everything when it comes to The National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., a lovely, lively, month-long springtime event that marks the official end to winter doldrums. 

But our timing was off. 

My mother and I coordinated our schedules and planned our trip to D.C. to match predictions for peak blooming. We imagined ourselves enjoying a sunny, warm weekend surrounded by color and blooms. We arrived in D.C. to cold, gray and pouring rain. Most trees were at the "peduncle elongation stage" - trying hard but not quite flowers yet. Could this trip be saved?


Hints of pink just steps from The White House.

Washington, D.C provided plenty of reasons to smile.

A Japanese Magnolia abloom in The White House Garden. 

The scent of fresh spring was in the air, the hiss of wet city streets muted D.C.'s bustle and there were no crowds.

Rose-tinted skies above The Capitol Building.

Even making restaurant reservations was a breeze. And if you looked carefully, there was a rosy glow with hints of pink everywhere.

A Treasury Department visitor brought a touch of pink to a gray day.

If you're on your way to The National Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend, you're in for something special. Over 70% of the cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin are now in peak bloom! Join the festivities then wander - Washington, D.C. is at its seasonal best right now, rain or shine. Happy Spring!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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

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 winter day.