There are protests in London. The Occupy movement has taken over one of the city’s most famous landmarks, St Paul’s Cathedral. Across the pond, the Occupy Wall Street movement that inspired its London counterpart was in full swing until last week. When I left home on Wednesday to travel to New York City for my mother’s birthday, I felt a bit like I was going to the same city from which I had come.
This feeling was heightened when our train from JFK airport to Manhattan pulled into Penn Station. I looked up at the departure boards and saw signs for destinations like St Albans, Kew Gardens, and West Hempstead. They all rang familiar, as if I had flown for seven hours only to land back home in the UK.
The sensation continued when we got to the subway. The announcement of delays on several lines and posters detailing the weekend’s station closures felt all too familiar to my weekly experiences on the London Underground.
Another transport hub that reminded me of home was Grand Central Station. We went to the famous building on our first full day in the city, and the beauty of the place was reminiscent of London’s revamped St. Pancras International train station. While the two differed stylistically, both paid picturesque homage to the spirit of adventure inspired by travel.
But we were done with train travel for the time being. Our subsequent travel concentrated on the subway, which took us to our hotel near the Natural History Museum on the Upper West Side. After checking in, we started to discover the restaurants of New York City.
At the suggestion of my cousin, who lives in Brooklyn, our first stop was Kefi, a Greek restaurant on Columbus Avenue. There we dined on a meze feast consisting of grilled prawns, fried calamari, and a bountiful Greek salad.
The following night was my mother’s birthday. At the suggestion of a friend I worked with in Paris, I took her to dinner at Taboon in Hell’s Kitchen. I hadn’t realized that I had booked us into two Greek restaurants in New York City two nights in a row, but the variety of food on the menu at Taboon meant that we didn’t replicate our previous night’s dinner.
In a glassed-in dining room with rustic white wood tables we went from celebratory blanc de blancs to seared scallops on a bed of chickpea mash to a delicious vegetarian grill plate. They were topped off by an incredibly unique dessert that consisted of vanilla ice cream, date honey, caramelized pistachios, and shredded halva.
Greek food finished, we ate American for several more meals. One was at Northern Spy Food Co, a farm-to-table restaurant in the East Village where my cousin and her boyfriend met us for dinner. There we enjoyed fresh kale salads, squid and mussel ragout, and chocolate torte with sweet potato sorbet. My cousin explained to me that kale was the trendy green at the moment, which reminded me of London restaurants’ love of rocket. The kale was a nice break from the usual. Overall the food was excellent, and the tiny dining room had a great ambiance.
Our other American meal came in the form of brunch, a meal I always miss in London despite a few of the city’s restaurants that serve it. My cousin took us to a place in Chelsea Market, a warehouse-turned-foodie-paradise complete with bakeries, wine bars, restaurants, cafes, and cheese shops.
Brunch was at The Green Table, a pretty cafe where we delighted in the likes of baked eggs, “Kiss My Grits”, and free-range chicken pot pie. It was a great way to get back into American cuisine after a long break.
Chelsea Market wasn’t the only market we came across, either. On Sunday we stumbled upon a farmers’ market called the 79th Street Greenmarket. There we were enticed by deliciously fresh apples, ripe cheeses, purple cauliflowers, and Brussels sprouts. The variety and selection reminded me of London’s Borough Market and made me homesick for the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco.
Our cuisine in New York wasn’t all good Greek and fresh American, though. On our final night in New York City my mother and I had wine at an Italian wine bar called Tarallucci E Vino before meeting two friends for dinner at Nice Matin on the Upper West Side.
The food and service weren’t stellar, but the company more than made up for it. Overall, the range of international cuisine in New York City reminded me of the breadth of restaurant choices from all over the world that I find in London.
But believe it or not, it wasn’t all eating and drinking in New York. My mother and I got up to other things as well. First we visited some of the best museums in Manhattan. One day we spent all afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From an exhibition on Alfred Stieglitz’s artists to Greek sculpture to 19th century European painting, we got our fill. The museum reminded me of a mix of London’s National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, and British Museum all in one. Even the famous Isle of Lewis chessmen from the British Museum were on loan for a temporary exhibition.
Another day we went to The Frick Collection to see some amazing Old Masters paintings in the home of one of America’s great industrialists. The museum housed to everything from Goyas to Rembrandts, with the stunning Fragonard canvases being a particular highlight. The Frick reminded me a lot of London’s Wallace Collection, another home-turned-museum upon its owner-slash-curator’s death.
Perhaps the best museum of all was the New York Public Library. Made famous by the first Sex and the City movie, the beautiful building and the institution behind it were celebrating their 100th birthday with a special exhibition.
On display were originals of the Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, a draft of the American Declaration of Independence, and George Washington’s Farewell Address. Also present were journals written by Jack Kerouac and Virginia Woolf, the original stuffed animals that inspiration A. A. Milne to write the Winnie the Pooh books, and intricate 15th century maps of the world. The exhibition reminded me of some of the ones I’ve seen at the British Library in London, which has an equally impressive collection.
When we tore ourselves away from Manhattan’s museums, we did a bit of shopping in New York City. Starting on 5th Avenue at Rockefeller Center, we stopped everywhere from J. Crew to Bergdorf Goodman. The latter had decadent Christmas decorations in the windows, all of which reminded me of the seasonal windows in some of London’s most famous department stores.
Our stint on 5th Avenue was followed by some shopping in SoHo. The area was home to some of New York City’s best boutiques as well as luxury goods stores, art galleries, design shops, and the occasional dive bar. It reminded me of a mix of London’s pretty Marylebone High Street and edgy Hoxton Square.
When we weren’t engaging in retail therapy, we were busy exploring some of New York City’s sightseeing highlights. On our first day in Manhattan we went to the top of the Empire State Building. The iconic viewing platform, which has featured in movies like Sleepless in Seattle, had expansive views over the city and was so high up that it was snowing when we reached the top. The scene reminded me of the views from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, but much, much higher.
Back on the ground, we made our way to Times Square, another of New York’s most visited spaces. It reminded me of London’s Piccadilly Circus on high-voltage steroids, and was right around the corner from Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre. There we saw an excellent production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. It was as good as any show I’ve seen in London’s equally famous West End, from Richard III to War Horse to Les Mis to Jerusalem.
After being indoors, we were in need of some fresh air. This came in the form of an afternoon walk in Central Park, where the autumn colors were brilliant in their reds, yellows, and oranges. The scene reminded me of fall in London’s Hampstead Heath, where I once spent hours wandering around photographing the leaves.
After all of the great food, world-class museums, productive shopping, and classic sightseeing, my mother and I hopped on the Long Island Rail Road to head back to JFK Airport. Unfortunately, our connecting Air Train was delayed, as was our flight from New York to San Francisco.
It reminded me again of the transport blunders I experience all too often in London, and deepened my belief that the two cities mirror one another uncannily across the Atlantic. If London had more brunch places, skyscrapers, and a J. Crew store, I might even wonder if I had ever left home to travel to New York City.