New York State of Mind – NYC Day 1

Start spreadin’ the news and stuff! We’re in New York City for the holidays (well, actually not quite, since we’re flying home on the 23rd, but close enough) and we’re already having a great time. As I write this, it’s Friday morning (okay, now it’s Friday afternoon – couldn’t get the post wrapped up before we left for today’s fun) and we arrived around 9 PM on Wednesday evening, so we’ve got a full day under our belts already. It was a fun day and we’re hoping today is just as good!

Backing up a bit, let’s talk accommodations. As you may remember from previous NYC trips (we’ve been here three times together), we’ve always stayed in apartments from Airbnb, but we’ve never been wowed with any of them (not terrible, mind you, but just okay), so we decided to go the hotel route this time. I’ve somehow managed to get some decent status with Marriott over the last couple of years, so we decided to stay at the JW Marriott Essex House on Central Park South. The building itself is really cool and originally opened as simply Essex House in 1931 (read more about the history of the building here). Although the guarantee of a king-size bed, AC, and a nice bathroom are great, we knew there was a chance we’d end up with a view outside our window of a wall or something equally dreary, but my status proved useful when we found out we had been upgraded to a room with a view of Central Park. That was a nice touch! The room itself doesn’t seem any bigger/nicer than a standard room (I was keeping my fingers crossed for a suite upgrade, but park view is the next best thing), but it’s nice to have such cool views. Everything has been perfectly serviceable in the room and the free breakfast we get with my status has been a nice touch as well. Check out some photos of our digs below!

The hotel as seen from Central Park as I wanted to capture the iconic Essex House sign.

The huge Christmas tree in the hotel lobby.

The hallway to the elevator is also nicely decorated.

The view of the park and the city from our room.

Looking just at the park from our room. It would be an even better view with the trees all green in the summer or if they were covered in snow for winter. Oddly enough, all of our December trips here have involved warmer weather than normal for the season and no snow.

So other than getting settled into our hotel, what did we get up to on our first day here? As usual, Scott did a great job of planning some fun stuff for us, including choosing some great restaurants, so after breakfast at the hotel, we walked around Central Park for a little bit. The day started off with some sun, nice temperatures (around 45° F), and no rain, so there were lots of people in the park – walking, running, carriage riding, and ice skating. But we soon decided to head towards our first stop of the day, the Museum of the American Gangster. This museum is about three miles from our hotel, but given the relatively good weather and the fact that we like walking anyway, we decided to hoof it there. The walk was fine, although filled with people (unsurprisingly). The thing that always strikes me about NYC, even as compared to other big cities, is that there are always SO MANY PEOPLE around! We both walk at a pretty fast pace, so we end up having to do a lot of weaving around other people, but even when we have to split to go around a group or to quickly cross an intersection, we always come back together seamlessly. We stopped for some photos along the way, since we knew we had plenty of time, and actually arrived at the museum with about 20 minutes to spare, based on when we booked our ticket (we chose 1 PM, which was the first tour of the day). Since the museum wasn’t actually open yet, we just waited outside until they opened their doors and then made our way inside.

To be honest, the inside of the museum is…a little unimpressive. It’s just two rooms with various photos on the walls, small exhibits, etc. scattered around, but this isn’t really a museum you experience just by looking at exhibits on your own. Instead, it’s one where you’re led through the history of the American gangster by a tour guide, who takes you through the the items in the rooms, talks about the rise of gangsters in this country (mostly in NYC, but Chicago and Al Capone also get some love), and then talks specifically about the building that houses the museum. Why is that, you may ask? Because it was the base of operations for gangster Frank Hoffman and his second-in-command, Walter Scheib. They ran a successful speakeasy there (remember that Prohibition played a HUGE part in the rise of gangsters in the US) that managed to run for 11 years without getting raided or shut down once. It stayed open the entire time and then, after Prohibition was lifted, it became a legitimate bar. Pretty cool! The guide we had was very passionate and educated about the topic, so she made the hour-long tour very enjoyable. We spent most of our time in the two rooms of the museum proper, learning about gangsters, looking at photos, old newspapers, etc. of gangster activity, seeing a Dillinger death mask, looking at artifacts from the Valentine’s Day Massacre, and more. After that, we went into the building next door, which operates as a functioning pub called the William Barnacle Tavern, and saw some of spaces, like the speakeasy, the basement where there were secret tunnels to the East River (to facilitate bringing liquor in without worrying about police), and Hoffman’s personal office, which used to be wired up with explosives in the wall and a huge fire door, allowing it to become a trap that would cause a massive explosion should police have raided the place (which, again, never happened). We also heard the fascinating story about the two safes that belonged to Hoffman (one of which is still in his old office, while the other is in the museum proper), but were ultimately opened by Walter Scheib after Hoffman disappeared to his native Germany, having returned there in 1933 and never being seen again after that. Check out this article about the safes – really interesting stuff!

All in all, this museum was definitely worth it! Admission was only $20 per adult ($15 for students and seniors) and we booked ahead of time, which I recommend because they only offer a few tours per day. Walk-ins are welcome, but be sure you have cash, as they don’t accept cards for walk-in ticket purchases. Be sure to plan a trip here the next time you’re in NYC and check out my photos below in the meantime!

Watching a carriage drive by in Central Park.

People enjoying the ice at Wollman Rink.

Selfie in front of the skaters.

Monument to Cuban patriot José Martí.

Walking by Carnegie Hall on our way to the museum.

The Herald’s Square Macy’s looking sufficiently Christmassy.

The Flatiron Building.

Statue of William Seward.

The entrance to the museum, which Hoffman had specifically built up so the stairs would lead to the second floor. He did this so the speakeasy below wouldn’t be heard by people above the second floor. Clever!

The sign outside the neighboring William Barnacle Tavern.

A doctor’s prescription for liquor issued during Prohibition.

Old whiskey bottle with a doctor’s prescription affixed to it (so police would know it was legal for its owner to drink it).

A still, which was used by many to make homemade liquor during Prohibition.

Various paraphernalia used in the lead-up to Prohibition.

Yours truly with hardhat on, ready to explore the basement of the speakeasy. Be warned that it’s a pretty tight space and the hardhats are required! You don’t spend much time down there though.

It’s hard to see, but there’s a small divot in the basement wall of the speakeasy as a result of a ricocheted bullet shot down there.

After all that gangster fun, we decided to stop into The Grafton, an Irish pub a short distance away, to have a beverage and rest our feet. We knew we had some time to kill before our next destination, but didn’t have anything planned to fill it, other than knowing we wanted to stay in the same general area, since everything we did yesterday was in that vicinity (meaning, we didn’t want to go all the way back to the hotel only to have to come back). So between The Grafton, walking through some of Chinatown and Little Italy, and then having a sweet treat at Caffe Roma, we managed to fill the time adequately.

After that walking around, eating, and drinking, we were energized for our second museum stop of the day, the Tenement Museum. This museum is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of an old tenement building (155 years old, to be precise) in the East Village. This museum is very interesting in that it’s not a one-size-fits-all experience – they offer a variety of tours, so you pick the one that interests you the most and do that one. The cool thing about that is that you can come back multiple times and experience something different on every trip. We chose the Exploring 97 Orchard tour, which is a tour of various parts of the actual tenement building, including an un-restored apartment as well as three restored apartments. This tour was SO fascinating and the guide, SJ, was amazing, passionate, and super well-informed. At 90 minutes, this is a longer experience, but well worth it (and I highly recommend pre-booking this one, if for no other reason than you’ll have the chance to read up on each tour and pick the one that interests you the most). Learning about the building itself and some of the families who lived there was such a cool experience. In learning about the building, for example, we heard about how experts were able to take a sample of wall from one apartment and peel it apart to find over 20 layers of wallpaper. We also went into the rear yard, which is where the water spigot and outhouses were (the building was NOT built with electricity, water, or plumbing, though that was all added in later), to learn about how this building was one of the first to be connected to a municipal sewer and that there used to be an elevated train just behind it that would take you from the Staten Island Ferry all the way to Harlem for a whopping nickel. Back inside, we learned how one of the restored apartments was pieced together by the memories of a woman who lived in it when she was a little girl. So fascinating! The founders of the museum laid a foundation of caring deeply about the building and its history and, 30 years later, it seems that foundation is as strong as ever, if our tour guide is anything to go by. Definitely visit this place!! I think the ticket prices vary based on the tour you’re doing, but our tickets were $28 each and they were well worth it.

Unfortunately, this is a museum that doesn’t allow photography. So you’ll have to settle for a couple of photos of the exterior, but be sure to also check out the museum’s website, which has tons of photos available.

The sign outside the building.

Looking at 97 Orchard Street.

You didn’t think we’d get through our first day in NYC without stopping somewhere delicious for dinner, did you? Definitely not! Scott has dinner locations already booked for each day of the trip and the destination for our first dinner was Momofuku Ssäm Bar, also in the East Village. The menu changes regularly here and we honestly weren’t 100% sure what to expect, other than the fact that the food would have an Asian vibe and that it would be served tapas-style, with the idea being that you choose several options to compose your meal.

And compose we did! They have a whole section of the menu called Country Hams, which I thought had some deeper meaning (as if “country ham” was a reference to a type of food), but it wasn’t that deep – it was literally ham. They had several options and we went for Benton’s, which was described as “silky, with high salinity.” Those were very accurate as this ham was VERY salty, but also super delicious. It’s not a lot of food as the ham is sliced very thin, almost like prosciutto, and it’s served with a few small pieces of crusty bread and a spread that was flavored intensely like coffee (the only thing I didn’t like as I don’t like coffee).

Delicious ham!

Scott had seen something about pork buns on their website, but was disappointed to not see them on the menu. However, we were saved by our server, who said that one of the off-menu options for the evening was pork buns. Perfect! We ordered two as our next course and they were also very tasty. They used pork belly, so it was very fatty and tasty and they were served with a spicy, vinegary sauce that reminded me of sriracha. I didn’t love the sauce on its own, but the spice of it went perfectly with the fattiness and richness of the pork belly. Again, so good!!

There was a good portion of pork belly on the buns!

After that, we moved onto some a-ma-zing ribs. SO GOOD!! Of course, this was a small plate, so there were only three ribs to share between the two of us, but they were smoky, ridiculously tender, and were covered in just the right amount of a spicy/sweet BBQ sauce. I could have eaten a whole meal of them!

Fall-off-the-bone deliciousness!

Last, but certainly not least, was the 28-day dry aged sirloin steak, which was served with fried pickled onions and a potato butter sauce. Now, I don’t know what goes into a potato butter sauce, but it was rich, creamy, and salty and paired perfectly with the meat, which was cooked to medium rare (or maybe just a hair more done than medium rare). The presentation (as you see below) was really great and I especially loved how they kept the bone on the plate even though they had sliced all the meat off for us. The steak itself was super juicy and went amazingly well with a bite of the fried pickled onions (which I was a little worried about as I love onions and I love fried onions, but I don’t love pickled onions – nonetheless, it all worked out).

I don’t know exactly what the breading was on those onions, but it was salty and delicious.

Such a good meal! As I’ve said before, I’m not someone who usually makes food a big part of their travel experience, but Scott loves trying new places and I’m fortunate enough to come along for the ride, especially when the meal is this tasty. 🙂

After that deliciousness, we made our way back to our hotel, where we watched a little TV while I edited photos. The long day (once we left the hotel around 1030 AM, we didn’t return until around 930 PM) is the reason why you didn’t get this post yesterday, but hopefully my post with today’s activities will be up later today. And if you’re reading this 50 years from now, you don’t care when it was posted anyway! Either way, you can read the post here, so read through it to learn about our second-day shenanigans!

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About thejeffelston

Based in St. Paul, MN and love to blog about travel. Comment, follow, and join me on my journey!