Without trying at all, I always seem to end up in Chelsea. Probably because I lived in Gramercy when I first moved to New York, just crosstown. I’d creep over 23rd, then down to Union Square, and make my way west, always stopping at the same spots and always discovering new places on the way, too.
Every now and again, I like to take an afternoon or even a whole day to wander around the city. The French have a word for this person, a flâneuse (masculine = flâneur): the urban explorer, a connoisseur of the street.
Nothing clears my head more than a good walk with good food, art and some pretty clothes mixed in, too. If you have a free afternoon, might a suggest a trip to the west side?
Start at Jeffrey
(which doesn’t allow photos inside)
Despite what you might think from Food Whore, Bergdorf Goodman wasn’t my first luxury retail experience. I bought my first pair of designer shoes here in high school: wooden block-heeled Jil Sander sandals with thin navy macrame straps. I still wear them! (And no, it's not an accident that Tia's first designer outfit is also Jil Sander.)
Jeffrey isn’t as avant-garde as Opening Ceremony or as blue-blooded as Bergdorf Goodman. It’s somewhere in between, which I like. A live DJ is there all day (but it isn't clubby) and the staff is nice. Fifteen years ago, the man who sold me the sandals mailed me a thank you note and I guess I've been hooked since. Browsing is totally okay! I do it all the time.
Make your way to Chelsea Market
I love that food halls are popping up all over NY (Gothamist has an excellent overview of the top ones as of November 2015 here). Chelsea Market is a first-generation food hall, and the one that I return to again and again.
Sure, there are tons of tourists there, but there are also a lot of locals, too. I buy gifts at Buon Italia, Chelsea Market Baskets, and The Filling Station. Posman Books is theoretically a general bookstore, but slants food in this location. If I’m putzing around Union Square, Meatpacking, or Flatiron I always find myself here for a quick snack. When I lived closer, I’d pop by almost every weekend for groceries.
Here’s what’s going on!
There's always something new to try. Here's just a fraction.
And?? These are transcendent. I'm kicking myself that I haven't visited sooner. But nevermind. These are classic, unfussy tacos where everything is bringing its A game. I got the steak: deeply marinated with just the right chew to say it's not too precious but not so much you're wrestling. Salsa, guac (yes, I know it looks a little pasty here, but it worked), lettuce, cilantro, lime. But the thing that did me in was the corn tortilla, pressed to the platonic ideal thickness, around 1.5mm. Did I know this was the ideal thickness? No. But it just felt good and right, like the steering wheel of a sports car or the arms of your partner (aw).
From Beyond Sushi: the Pickle Me, with six-grain rice, gobo, pickled daikon and carrot, avocado and carrot ginger sauce.
I first discovered these at a party and they were gone in two seconds. They're beautiful, healthy, clean, and surprisingly filling/ texturally exciting.
At Bar Suzette, you can get crepes that are sweet, savory or something in between, like this apple, brie and honey beauty.
I'm not sure anyone just buys Eleni's Cookies for themselves (too pretty, like walking out in full makeup/heels/dress when you should just be chilling in jeans). But they make cute gifts.
How does Fat Witch do it? Their brownies are top to bottom, left to right the same consistency, as if they were sous-vided to the exact texture between cake and fudge. If you like some textural action, they also sell the castoff ends (one man's trash is another man's...)
Liddabit Sweets makes thoughtful yet straightforward candies. Not yuzu lemongrass or tallegio truffle ... more like beer, pretzels, caramel. I love these honeycomb ones because they utilize negative space in the way the best candies do (think: Kit Kat, Ferrero Rocher, Aero). This is a sucking, savoring candy rather than a chomping one.
What sets Chelsea Market apart from the other food halls is that it's not just a fancy food court. You can get your knives sharpened, pick up a picnic for the Highline, get gourmet ingredients (Food Network shoots upstairs and you'll sometimes see staffers getting ingredients in their chefs' coats). And unlike Eataly or Le District, which also sell cooking ingredients and home goods, Chelsea Market is, on the whole, actually affordable (as far as "gourmet" ingredients go in NYC).
Rana makes fresh, playful pastas in a range of flavors and colors -- and in a tasteful way that (I'd assume) wouldn't anger Italians though.
Dickson's Farmstand Meats is a butcher shop selling beef, pork, lamb and poultry. I also love their jerky and how that confit looks like the meat is covered in fluffy mashed potatoes but it's really covered in fluffy fat.
You'll find a good percentage of people at Chelsea Market licking their fingers, poking at a lobster carcass from Lobster Place. Obviously a strong order. Short of going to Hong Hong Supermarket in Chinatown, I don't think you'll find a larger selection of seafood in NYC. The chowder and sushi is also great here.
Buon Italia is my spot for random Italian goodies. Could be pasta or Doppio Zero 00 flour or Sicilian pistachios. Like a present for your pantry.
Manhattan Fruit Exchange is the best. I've seen chefs start at the Union Square Greenmarket and then follow up here for additional items. It has everything, includinghe little things you'd be hard pressed to find at a general market: baby corn in baby husks, fresh crosnes, wine grapes. I get my whole spices here.
But wait! You didn't have coffee! Ninth Street Espresso is in Chelsea Market and is great, but you've been there awhile and you'll be back. Try Blue Bottle.
The thing to get here is usually the pour-over, but I am impatient. In the summer, I like a shakerato (though to be honest, I have yet to find an NYC shakerato with the same fizzy body I had a couple years ago in Puglia (sorry that was obnoxious)). Come winter/fall I go for a latte.
The guy ahead of me got this and I asked what it was. "A Gibraltar," the barista said, and I nodded, pretending like I knew what that was. "It's like a cortado," she said, because my knowing face sucks.
But I don't feel too bad. The Gibraltar is an off-menu Blue Bottle invention favored by staffers: a double-shot of espresso and a bit of milk, served in a Libbey "Gibraltar" tumbler.
And don't sleep on the pastries! They are an attraction themselves. Though NYC doesn't have the pieces of edible art that the SFMOMA once had, the pastries are ever-so-slightly unexpected: a Parmesan-fennel shortbread, stout coffee cake with pecan and caraway streusel, I opted for the coconut rocher, coconut shavings just barely bonded by a chewy/soft cloud of meringue.
Head to the Highline
You're here and you should go. Again, it's slightly touristy and when it's crowded you will feel like shrub-gazing cattle... but it's also spectacular and so well-done. A NYC institution just as much as Central Park.
Snake your way around the Chelsea Galleries
You don't have to plan anything... just wander. All you have to do is zigzag your way between 20th and 25th St (north and south) and 10th and 12th Ave (east and west). Here are some of the galleries and pieces I liked, but of course these exhibits are all temporary and will be different in a couple weeks or months. I also included some gallery press release copy because, like restaurant reviews, I love how one art (words) can be used to described another.
Wolf Kahn at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe
"...his signature palette prevails - alizarin crimson, thalo green, and dioxazine purple."
Sheila Hicks at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
"supple and flexible...to explore infinite possibilities in form and movement."
Louise Fishman at Cheim & Read
"Brushed, scraped, layered and smeared....the grid itself seems torqued and unhinged."
Natvar Bhasvar at Cara Gallery
"...both vibrancy and life, and in another sense, imminent or implied destruction."
Jeff Koons at Gagosian Gallery
"...viewer and painting are reflected in the gazing ball...reunited for maximum sensory perception."
Some gallery-hopping tips:
Think of each gallery as its own mini museum with its own point-of-view. One gallery might have lush jewel-toned canvases. The gallery next door might have ten-foot barbed penis sculptures. You don’t know! And that’s the fun.
You’ll surprise yourself and discover new artists. With the exception of music that’s played for you (on the radio, at an event), we rarely encounter art with a completely blank slate. We’re geared to learn and research, to pay attention to the pre-hype. But when you’re wandering galleries, you probably won’t know who’s showing where so you’ll just get to consider/appreciate the art in a clean, unprejudiced way. Do you like it? That’s all that really matters.
After the Chelsea Market crowds, Chelsea galleries will feel positively cavernous. Sometimes you will walk into a gallery and you won’t see one person, or just one person who doesn’t even look at you. Enjoy it! There are few places in NYC where you can get solitude and beauty in equal measure.
I know it can seem intimidating to walk into a gallery, especially if there aren't many people inside. But don't worry about it. Art needs buyers, but it needs appreciators more. And chances are, the people inside those empty galleries want you to come in (even if they act snobby).
And now, my galleries of note
My favorite discovery of the day: Ha Chong-Hyun at Tina Kim Gallery
"... a rough matrix of paint that is pushed through the picture plane....that broke radically with art tradition and poignantly evoked the poverty and raw physicality of postwar Korea."
Artist at a gallery that always takes my breath away: Teresita Fernández at Lehmann Maupin
Who knows how I first started following Lehmann Maupin. I think I came across their booth at an art show, loved the work but didn't do anything about it. Then I went to another show, loved the work, and looked up to see it was Lehmann Maupin. By now I know I love everything LM exhibits. Takeaway: when you find a gallery you like, join the mailing list.
"...scale as an elastic concept, and the correlation between the immense and the intimate; the vast and the miniature; the macro and the micro."
By now you'll be around 26th and 10th. When are you ever here? Make the most of it and head to Martha Stewart Cafe. Despite the pedigree, it's not that special. But you're here so maybe grab a tea and head back up to the Highline.
Other places of note
Comme des Garçons (photo on top) for black high-concept wear and also very wearable shirts and accessories with the CDG heart
HARBS for beautiful and light Japanese pastries
Printed Matter for art books (books about art and books that are art)
What did I miss? What are your favorite places in Chelsea?