Thursday, September 13, 2012


Eating in New York runs the gambit from very expensive to just slightly expensive but whether it's high or low it's always done with style and panache.
There's nothing more exciting than surprising a group of unsuspecting New York first-timers with a trip to Beauty & Essex. We surprised our daughter with a birthday dinner for her and four of her New York neophyte friends on a New York trip in early July. The culture in New York allows for commerce to survive and thrive when the location and the information is intentionally obscure. New Yorkers love discovery and the feeling of knowing something not everyone else knows.
That's how restaurants like Freeman's, the one at the end of a dead-end alley off of what used to be skid row, can be such a success without even putting up a sign.
We had the girls get all dressed up for our daughter's birthday dinner on the premise we were taking them to a place we knew very little about. On the cab ride over we kept downplaying their expectations. The restaurant came recommended by a friend but we hadn't seen it, we weren't too sure about what it might be like, we knew the address was in a not-so-nice area. As the cabs pulled up Essex Street you could see the girls begin to put on their disappointed faces. Emmy even uttered a "why did we bother getting dressed up" as her eyes scanned the exterior of the approaching buildings undulating between dirty bricks and corrugated metal facades from deceased businesses. The cab stopped directly in front of a light bulb lit sign saying "Beauty & Essex" covering up the faded remnants of the previous sign for a long gone furniture company. The girls and our daughter in particular were not too impressed. The entrance to the restaurant is through a tiny pawn shop selling old music memorabilia. A security guard with a stoic demeanor similar to the Queens Guards at Buckingham Palace stands at the back next to an unframed secret entrance. The girls shuffled to the back with what had now turned to dismal disappointment until the guard slowly pushed open the door.
Then the giggles began and the breathtaking opulence of Beauty & Essex hit this bunch of sixteen year-olds in a way that made them ooh and aah as if it was Justin Bieber on the other side of that door. The interior is New York glamour at its apex. The contrast between the overly lit pawn shop and what one sees on the other side of that green door would make even the most jaded New Yorker secretly tingle inside.
A glass wall lined with rows and columns of sconces are on one side where the hostess stands and a curved staircase with an amazing crystal chandelier that is both contemporary and vintage at the same time frames the other side of the entrance
We were ushered up the stairs past the lounge and the upstairs bar into the back seating area. I'm sure this is where they seat all of the out-of-towners but it didn't matter a bit to the girls.
They were given their own booth and we older folks were seated at another booth near enough that we could still be with them but far enough removed that they could feel confident in their budding independence and sophistication. From the back of the room they had a vantage point of the entire room and they loved it. Food is served tapas style and shared by everyone at your table. I was very impressed with this quintet of Midwestern and Southern girls willing to try a menu with things they'd never heard of before and could barely pronounce; things like roasted bone marrow, garganelli and lime semifreddo.
But the kicker for them was the ladies room; a lounge in itself, with champagne served gratis to those old enough to take up a glass. This, of course, they couldn't imbibe but they could appreciate and dream of a future where they too could be handed a glass as if it was the most ordinary and expected thing to do.

On the other side of the New York eating experience is the 5 Napkin Burger chain. Leave it to New York to create a burger chain that is as beautifully designed as its higher-end counterparts but does it in a way that makes you feel completely comfortable walking in dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. My favorite location is the one in Astoria next to the new Tony Bennett/Frank Sinatra School for the Performing Arts and the Kaufman Astoria Studios.
The concept makes you think you've walked into a 1930's butcher shop coolly transformed into a great place to meet after work for a burger and cocktails at the bar.
Meat hooks hang from the ceiling on a conveyer belt. The walls are tiled in white subway tiles with a deep dark grout creating the kind of surface easily cleaned and sanitized in a slaughter house where everything gets washed down at the end of the day.
Top this off with one of New York's best burgers and your set for a pretty good night out.

At the far east end of Willy Street there's a bar called, Mickey's. The building's been there for decades standing sentinel over the Yahara river, a sturdy brick building with a single turret capped with a yellow crown. The building's exterior is interesting enough but it's the interior that will give you a reason to gasp the first time you transition from outside to in.
The bar is original to the building, it's one of Madison's oldest bars, and couldn't be any more Wisconsin in look, smell and feel. It kinda explains why Wisconsin is noted as having more bars per capita than any other state in the union. Micro-brews are always available and the regular Wisconsin brands are all on tap.
It also explains how a gun toting lumberjack can belly-up to the bar next to a couple wearing t-shirts with the slogan 'Gay by birth, Fabulous by choice". Beyond the bar you get the kitschiness that makes this place such a hoot.
The color palette of the rooms is vibrantly silly and the flea market furnishings are so appropriately outrageous can't not smile as you make your way to your table and a plate of Mickey's famous sexy fries, a concoction of potatoes, truffle oil and parmesan.
Order a Scoonie beer, sit back, watch the crowd and your set. Who needs New York?

I only get back to the city for a few days each month. Peter and I had an informal relationship where I'd show up, always unannounced, and we'd sit and talk about business and our kids usually over an early cocktail Peter would concoct from the back bar at the office. Peter would always start out very low-key. He always seemed to be sizing up the situation but then he'd take off. Whether it was a vac-u-form contraption for making three dimensional mini-models of his most recent furniture ideas or discussing how to scare the pants off one of his sons whom he had discovered with a bag of pot, Peter became as animated and enticingly engaging as a comedian on the borsht belt. His wild hair and Albert Einstein appearance belied his amazing sense of style and creative prowess in the fields of architecture and design.
The last time I saw him he seemed to look a little thinner and perhaps a little older than I remembered but his wit and charm hadn't skipped a beat. When I was back in New York in August I found those few available minutes where I could buzz the twelfth floor of his office building to say hello and see if he had a few minutes he could spare for a late afternoon cocktail and some idle chatter and juicy gossip. The receptionist told me he wasn't in and hadn't been in for a while. I knew something wasn't right. I wrote Laura an email asking if Peter was accepting visitors, I'd wanted to stop by for a few minutes if he was up to it. I had no idea of how sick he was; the receptionist had said he was fine. It was six days before he died. Living in Madison you don't immediately get all the information about the goings-on in the New York design scene. It wasn't until yesterday that I stumbled on an article about his death. Something made me google Peter. Something told me he was gone. I'm not sure what I'll do next time I'm in the city when I find those spare moments and that itch to buzz up Peter.  My guess is he'd want me to have that cocktail, not take things too seriously and enjoy the rest of the day.

Bob, Cub 53, Amery
Carl Corey, photographer
Represented by Sherry Leedy Contemporary, Kansas City

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