New York is not the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, the glass-and-steel monolith of One World Trade Center. That is just architecture. New York is an attitude and it lives in the people. Trust us: if you want to experience the Big Apple, put away the checklist of tourist sites and head for the neighbourhoods.
For food-lovers: West Village
Up close and personal is mandatory at Buvette: the tables are barely bigger than drink coasters and packed as tight as sardines. But Buvette is magical, filled with creatives and designers lost in the bliss of “les oeufs vapeur” (organic steamed eggs). “Buvette is one of those rare places where they get every detail right,” says Daniel Isengart, a food writer and performance coach who regularly dines in. “It’s a perfect neighbourhood bistro for hanging out and meeting with friends.”
Just up Bleecker Street, Magnolia Bakery serves red velvet cupcakes (who said brunch doesn’t need dessert?) near leafy Abingdon Square. Digest on a park bench surrounded by flowers then meander to Jeffrey’s Grocery and order a bottle of Larmandier-Bernier. “Oyster Happy Hour” starts at four here, and this place is an institution for its Bloody Marys and giant windows overlooking an intersection – perfect for people-watching.
For night owls: East Village
The bartenders at Death & Co are modern magicians. From a classic Manhattan to the Kaleidoscope Eyes (tequila, Crème de Cacao, sparkling wine), there is nothing they can’t conjure up to get an evening kicking in the East Village – an evening that’s liable to end with spoken word poetry, off-off-Broadway theatre or slabs of cheesecake after midnight (Veniero’s has been baking here since 1894).
The East Village is also home to one of the best wine bars in America. Ruffian seats a maximum of 20 guests in a room that’s smaller than many apartments, making it perfect to strike up a conversation with a stranger. “I like to say that we’ve converted more people to orange wine than anyone else in New York City,” says Moshe Schulman, one of the founding partners. “Artists, musicians and literary-minded people – some whom you may even recognise! – are frequent guests, too.”
For movers and shakers: Midtown
Grand deals are struck opposite Grand Central Terminal, in a large dining room called Pershing Square. Breakfast in this upmarket diner has become synonymous with business meetings, and the banquettes and wooden bar scream classic New York in the same way that yellow cabs do. A faster and more modern option can be found at the popular Taylor St., which brings Australian café casualness – a place where people can “come and chill”, says owner Richard Shaer – to an area otherwise known for its stiff formality.
For art aficionados: Upper East Side
Yes, there’s The Met, The Frick and The Guggenheim. But ask many Upper East Siders which museum you should really visit and they’ll probably name-drop the Neue Galerie. That’s because it is less like a museum and more like the exquisite, welcoming mansion of a wealthy duke, with Klimts and Kandinskys hanging on the parlour walls. It also features a kaffeehaus straight out of mid-century Vienna called Café Sabarsky. Come for the pianist playing Strauss and stay for the local writers hunched over sachertorte.
Afterwards, head down Fifth Avenue to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy – which is itself hidden inside another graceful mansion – and Albertine. There, you’ll find every French writer from Sartre to Michel Houellebecq – 14,000 books stacked and shelved beneath a handpainted mural of constellations.
For culturists: Harlem
“I chose Harlem to express my vision,” says Marc Williamson, the suave owner of Flamekeepers Hat Club. “I’d looked at the Lower East Side, Brooklyn. But I wanted to be part of the scene.” His showroom is filled with fedoras and felt trilbies, a deep leather couch and ambient hip-hop – Harlem, in other words, distilled to its essence.
Any visitor north of Central Park should try to catch a performance at the legendary Apollo Theater, where all the greats have performed – from Aretha to Whitney – and a long-running Amateur Night redefines interactive entertainment. But for a real insight into the “scene”, bring your dancing shoes (and your new hat) to Ginny’s Supper Club, where locals cut loose on an intimate dance floor through the early hours.