Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year from 1999 to 2015 my wife Anne and I took a road trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. With my son’s senior year in college imminent and next summer likely to be one of major upheaval for him (Lord willing), the summer of 2016 seemed like a good time to get the old trio back together again for one last family vacation before he heads off into adulthood and forgets we’re still here. In honor of one of our all-time favorite vacations to date, we scheduled our long-awaited return to New York City…
Our hotel of choice for the week was on West 44th Street, squished between larger buildings, on the east edge of the notorious Hell’s Kitchen. On Netflix’s Marvel’s Daredevil it’s a crime-infested urban blight magnet that muggers, robbers, and gangsters of various ethnicities wage war on each other for control because everyone among them knows Hell’s Kitchen is the place to be when you’re on the negative end of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment scale. You never see gangs taking over the shiny, upscale neighborhoods that would be a better fit for their expensive cars and even more expensive suits. The Triads and the Black Stereotypes and the Irishmen of Irishness never claim the Upper West Side as their turf or hold their knife fights in front of those fancy Madison Avenue stores.
The reality: Hell’s Kitchen has slowly been undergoing gentrification for years. It’s not as immediately noticeable as the upgrades we see Carol Kane protesting on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but it’s there. It could use several coats of paint and maybe a demolition or two, but we never felt unsafe in all our walks to either end of it. Many actors and other creative types purportedly live in the area between and around the various blue-collar businesses that have probably never had to deal with Kingpins of Crime or treasure-hunting ninja.
Our Hell’s Kitchen hotel was recommended to us by a coworker who had a bona fide Broadway career in a former life until other, less star-studded priorities beckoned. The rates were favorably competitive for an area adjacent to Times Square. The Indian family that runs it kept the rooms reasonably clean and the fresh free cookies stocked at the front desk every afternoon. (Let’s maybe forgive the one day when the cleaning crew didn’t show up till 4:30 p.m. while we were trying to unwind.) The free breakfast buffet included cooked proteins, not just pre-packaged starches. The elevator had a mind of its own, sometimes didn’t open up till it was in the mood, and liked to bounce at every stop to keep you on your toes, but it didn’t squeak or lurch or plunge us to our dooms, so we’d grade it “satisfactory”.
Our quarters were next to the elevator, behind the space where they kept their cleaning cart at all times, and half the size of our modest living room. Two double beds left us about eight square feet for walking. A shortage of convenient outlets meant we had devices charging on every available surface, especially on that first night after our late flight and later wandering. When I wanted to brew some quick free decaf, the last remaining outlet that wasn’t by a bathroom water source was down on the floor by the front door. But it was a place to call home for six nights without fear of murder or bedbugs or Newark.
This same block of West 44th housed our favorite restaurant of the entire week, which we’ll come back to in a future chapter. One other noteworthy location was a tantalizing, stylish mystery to us as we walked past it multiple times throughout our stay — a lone glass doorway with minimalist signage and implied promises of fascination inside.
Not until after we were long gone from Manhattan did I remember to look it up and uncover its secret: once upon a time 321 West 44th Street was the Record Plant, a notable recording studio founded in 1968. A lot of world-famous musicians recorded tunes you’ve known and loved in its storied halls — Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, KISS, Aerosmith, Fleetwood Mac, Cyndi Lauper and countless more. It’s where John Lennon recorded his last song the day he was assassinated. Beatles producer George Martin bought the place in 1987, but it wound up closed within two years. Today it’s a cutting-edge office facility where tech startups and other wannabe high-end entrepreneurs can rent space for a pretty penny and work their wares surrounded by rock-‘n’-roll historicity.
(Timely sad trivia: one of the Record Plant’s co-founders just passed away September 10th.)
I wish I’d known any of this at the time. I doubt they give public tours to rubes like us, but I would’ve stopped and stared at it for so many extra minutes. If you’re ever in the area, you’ll know it by the mural on its east wall, overlooking a public parking lot.
By the end of the first evening, we were all tired, jittery, and still recalibrating our brains to compensate for Manhattan sensory overload. For dinner I walked us over to one of the closest places on our list, a restaurant collective called the City Kitchen. Strictly speaking it’s on the western border of the Times Square district, on 8th Avenue and right across from Hell’s Kitchen. Close enough.
Inside the unassuming entrance, a flight of stairs leads to a selection of eateries that serve creative offerings at what I’d consider a food truck level of quality and variety. I mean that as a compliment — back home in Indianapolis, food trucks are frequently The Best.
As of the dates of our visits, options included sushi, Mexican, shawarma, seafood, burgers, ramen, and donuts. All except the sushi seemed fairly priced by my personal food truck standards. Sushi here was, as with everywhere else ever, beyond budget unless you eat like a model.
Between the noisy Saturday crowds and the fatigue we brought along, we decided not to risk heated family debate and went with an easy choice — the burgers at Whitmans. Service wasn’t the speediest and there weren’t enough fries to go around, but on a New York Saturday night, I’m guessing that’s not atypical.
My dinner of choice: the PB&B Burger, which stands for peanut butter and bacon. If you’ve already had peanut butter on a burger at your nearest state fair, nothing about this combination is shocking. It was in line with my previous experiences.
All seats on the second floor were full, so we absconded with our meals to some spare seating on a lower, adjacent level that seemed to belong partly to a trendy bar. I think. Bars aren’t my thing, so I might be off-base, but it was dark and had soothing neon lights and shining glasses hanging. I saw no pool tables or canned beer signs. Patrons wore upper-class dresses rather than denim jackets and bandannas. It looked to me like a dinner-scene soundstage for any given drama on The CW. All we cared was that we could eat sitting down, unlike that one disappointing time on the Shake Shack sidewalk.
On two subsequent mornings Anne and I let my son sleep in while we returned to another City Kitchen establishment called Dough. Because craft donuts. He considers donuts just-okay, not nearly enough motivation to break his night-owl rhythms. So we cheerfully let him sleep in while we savored these rare minutes of husband/wife quality time. And the donuts.
Even their coffee was top-notch. In fact, in all my NYC restaurant experiences this week, I never once found a single cup of bad coffee. Not a one. Dough’s coffee was probably my favorite. I was tempted to eat every meal that week at the City Kitchen, but we had other areas to explore and other cuisines to sample with varying degrees of complexity and quality, including but not limited to pizza. Soon, some form of NYC pizza had to be ours.
To be continued!
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