23 November 2023

Celebrating a Milestone Birthday in NYC

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this month marked a big birthday for me. And where better to celebrate it than my favourite of cities, New York City? My parents and brother joined me for an action-packed five-day trip to the Big Apple, my 33rd visit to the city since my first in 1995. Each of us was allocated a randomly assigned time slot in which to plan a group activity but there were plenty more celebrations, experiences and wonderful new memories throughout the trip. Read on for a selection of some of my favourites.


1. Watching Wolves beat Spurs with NYC Wolves
When I found out that my football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, was playing Spurs in the early kick-off on the morning after we arrived in New York, I jokingly suggested to my parents that we watch the game with the NYC Wolves supporters group at McHale's, an Irish pub in Hell's Kitchen. But they were game and so we found ourselves trekking through a near-deserted Times Square at 7 am. 


Understandably the turnout is greater at later matches but there was still a group of dedicated fans nursing Irish coffees at the bar. My parents also had some brilliant custom birthday NY Wolves t-shirts made to mark the occasion.  It was somewhat surreal — but not unpleasant — ordering a sausage sandwich with oodles of fries, at 7:45 am. Inevitably, Spurs scored in under three minutes and despite Wolves playing well, the scoreline remained 0-1 as the match drew to a close. We were about to leave to catch a train when somehow, substitute Pablo Sarabia scored a goal — and a wonder goal at that. And then it got even better when Mario Lemina scored the winner for Wolves in the dying seconds. McHale's went wild! It was by far the best experience I've ever had watching a Wolves match outside of a football stadium. And a few days later, my family surprised me by arranging a video message from Wolves legend Steve Bull! Wolves ay we!



2. Day-tripping in the Hudson Valley

My parents and I have wanted to take a day trip from Grand Central Terminal for some years now but never managed to fit it into one of our trips. So, after the footie, we hightailed it over to Grand Central and caught the Metro-North Railroad to Cold Spring, a picturesque small town in the Hudson Valley. The journey took about 90 minutes and on such a crisp but sunny autumnal Saturday the train was absolutely packed — try to arrive early if you can, and sit on the left-hand side as you travel north to get the best views. Round-trip tickets cost $30 and you can buy them and check times using the Metro North app; don't forget to validate your ticket before starting your journey.



There was plenty to keep us entertained in Cold Spring for a few hours. We strolled along the river, walked up and down main street, admiring the colourful, picturesque buildings and dipping in and out of the independent shops. Some of those that caught my eye included: Old Souls (outdoor goods), Cold Spring General Store (homewares, souvenirs and gourmet food), Wyld PlantsMundane (candles), Supplies for Creative Living and Cold Spring Apothecary. We also visited a makers' market and stopped for a gourmet sandwich at Angie's Bake Shop. I'd love to come back for a longer stay, including some hiking on the many trails that abound in the area. 



3. History and pop culture in the East Village

For my activity in BirthdayFest, I wanted to book a walking tour in the East Village — an area I was keen to explore more — but couldn't find any at suitable times. Instead, I planned my own tour, taking inspiration from some of the East Village sights featured in other tours and on Atlas Obscura. From the former house of Eliza Hamilton, widow of Alexander, and a 19th century Stuveysant property to sights spotlighting the neighbourhood's history of protest and provocateurs, we covered a lot of ground. 


I was particularly pleased to find a Wolves connection — Led Zeppelin (whose frontman Robert Plant is VP of Wolves) shot the cover of Physical Graffiti on St Mark's Place, probably because they'd performed at the nearby and sadly now long-since closed Fillmore East music venue a few years earlier. As I'd got some special 'I W NY' tote bags made, I was happy we also got to see the alma mater of graphic designer Milton Glaser, Cooper Union.


Afterwards, we met my dear friend Rachel for a delicious Mexican brunch at Cosme in the Flatiron district with superb Cadillac margaritas, guac to die for, the tastiest corn omelette and lamb barbacoa. We also took part in a Sweet Valley High quiz my dad had prepared, in reference to the many early New York trips we made that involved shopping for missing numbers in Francine Pascal's never-ending series.



4. A sunny afternoon on The Edge

As someone with a November birthday knows all too well, it's always a risk booking outdoor activities in Northern Europe / New England in the autumn. But we were blessed with sunshine, blue skies and just enough of an autumn nip in the air for our entire stay, and so my mum's activity — ascending to the The Edge viewing platform in Hudson Yards — worked out perfectly. In fact, the weather was even better for skyline views than when we went last year in June.



As for the cat I'm holding, that's Charlotte. I used to take her everywhere with me in the early 1990s, including up the Empire State Building. She has seen better days but my parents brought her along as a little surprise.


5. Cool jazz in the West Village
"That's the location of Don Draper's bachelor pad in Mad Men," I said as we exited the subway at Christopher Street. My dad told me I was repeating myself but said it would be nice to do a TV comedy walking tour one day. "Your wish," I said, leading us two minutes down the street to our dinner location, a cosy restaurant called Little Owl, which happens to be located on the corner of Bedford and Grove in a building best known for featuring as the exterior of the Friends apartment building (RIP Matthew Perry).

After dinner (delicious meatball sliders, followed by roast chicken and mash, in my case), we headed over to the Mezzrow on West 10th Street for an evening of jazz, courtesy of the Susan Tobocman Quartet. I'm still learning when to clap during jazz performances, but Mezzrow is a very relaxed and welcoming setting.


6. Brooklyn follies with friends

Over the years, I'm lucky to have made some excellent friends in NYC, mainly through my previous job. As well as catching up with Rachel over brunch, I also got to see the lovely Neda at Tsuta, a ramen bar at the foot of Brooklyn Bridge. Our time passed all too quickly but we walked across Brooklyn together to the subway, allowing a little more catch-up time and sharing of book recommendations.


I then travelled to Prospect Park, which was resplendent with autumn hues. I was meeting my great friend Sarah, who also surprised me with two of her beautiful cobalt ceramic pieces as birthday gifts. Check out her Squids Ceramics Instagram for her online shop and details of markets she'll be selling at. We strolled around the lake together, chatting and watching all the dogs and other wildlife, before heading for a drink at the Nitehawk Cinema. It was a perfect afternoon in Brooklyn!



7. Cocktails in the sky at Overstory
For his activity, my brother sought my input as to what I might like to do and I indicated that high-end cocktails would be, you know, OK. So, off to Overstory we went — a relatively new and highly acclaimed bar on the 64th floor of 70 Pine Street in the heart of the Financial District, not too far from my former company's NYC office. The cocktails were top-notch. I started with the pink drink (Pink Tuxedo), as always, with vodka, cherry blossom, vermouth, strawberry and absinthe, and then followed up with the Big Bang (whiskey, honeydew, nori and buckwheat soda). Both were exquisitely mixed and I loved the retro vibes of the small bar.

It was too cold to sit outside but we did go out onto the terrace briefly to take in the incredible views of the metropolis lying below us, looking up into Manhattan and across to Brooklyn. I'd love to go back for sunset or in warmer climes to soak up even more of the view. Afterwards, we taxied over to Emily in the West Village — purveyor of my favourite NYC burger. The charming waiter also presented us with a chocolate brownie cake in honour of my birthday.



8. A colourful morning in SoHo 

My dad drew the highest pressure slot in the activity schedule: my actual birthday. But I always knew he would plan the perfect day and that he did. We started by following my favourite life lesson — eat cake for breakfast — at Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo. I had a divine salted caramel eclair and, under the influence of others, the Perfect Little Egg Sandwich (tasty but not that little). 


Then we headed to Color Factory NYC for a morning of fun and creativity. I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but Color Factory is very well set up. Each room involves a different experience, tantalising all five senses and including plenty of great photo opportunities. What better way to celebrate a significant birthday than by letting loose and embracing my inner child? 



My brother, however, was concerned by what his four-year-old daughter would say when she discovered Daddy had been to what was essentially a very colourful adult soft play without her! After escaping the giant ball pit ("turn your phone ringer ALL the way up," we were warned), we indulged in a spot of shopping and then had lunch at an old family favourite, the 103-year-old Fanelli Cafe.



9. Supper under the Chrysler Building at Le Pavillon

The Chrysler is my favourite New York building but as it's still not possible to go up to the top, let alone dine there, I settled for having my birthday dinner looking up at it from Le Pavillon instead. When I say "settled for", I mean "enjoyed an incredible three-course menu from chef Daniel Boulud." In addition to the weather, another hazard of a November birthday is that fine-dining restaurants often lace their tasting menus with food of the devil (mushrooms). I picked Le Pavillon in part because its menu offered a broad range of mushroom-free choices and the food and service were both impeccable. 



After starting with another pink drink (mezcal, blood orange and beetroot), I opted for the escabeche and ceviche, followed by the most beautifully cooked pork (including chicharrones — even better than the pork scratchings at Molineux!) and then a chocolate praline dessert. It was a most special evening and I felt very spoiled.



10. A sunny stroll over Brooklyn Bridge
Technically, our last day in NYC was my mum's birthday celebration, not mine, but it was too glorious a day not to highlight here and I know she won't mind! After packing up, we took the subway down to Borough Hall and picked up breakfast to go from L'Appartement 4F. After a wander through Brooklyn Heights, admiring the Brookstones and stoop d├ęcor, we found a sunny spot to eat our pastries. My rose and pistachio croissant was absolutely delicious. 


Then, we found our way up onto Brooklyn Bridge and walked back to Manhattan admiring the perfect views of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty. We continued our ramble through Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village and Chelsea, before lunch, last shopping and then (sob) a date with our car to the airport.



I like to use this blog as a place to record places where I've enjoyed eating and drinking on my travels, so I'm also highlighting: The Campbell Apartment (superb cocktails in an elegant bar in Grand Central); pasta molto buona (and an ovine tiramisu) at La Pecora Bianca in NoMad; more delicious Italian fare at Bocca di Bacco in Hell's Kitchen; and top burgers (from Bash Burger) and pizza (from Roberta's) at Urbanspace Vanderbilt. And there's a whole other post rounding up my latest NYC speciality coffee discoveries.


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