Here at Levys’ Unique New York!, you’d be surprised at how often we still get questions like:
Here at LUNY! we’re very proud to create all kinds of custom-designed tours. Some off-the-beaten (but still popular) tours we’ve done include Art Deco Architecture in Midtown Manhattan & Taco Crawls of Sunset Park Brooklyn. Some one-of-a-kind types of tours would be our Brooklyn Nostalgia Tours where we visit the client’s childhood neighborhood, their elementary and high schools, and if we’re lucky we can even get inside their childhood home! These kinds of tours are always a hoot for both client and guide.
But we rarely get requests for hip-hop tours because, let’s face it, I’m a nerdy Jewish white kid from Flatbush. And although the same story applied to hometown heroes The Beastie Boys, my musical tastes trended instead towards classic rock (YES, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and geek rock (They Might Be Giants, Violent Femmes) than local rap stars Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def and Raekwon. So when I got this tour request, focusing on local legend Biggie Smalls and all the spots where he hung out during his short time on this planet, I was a little taken aback.
I was even more taken aback when my clients were two young, fashionable Indian gents from London, who came armed with a list of all of Notorious’s hangouts, from crib to beef pattie place. So they already knew where they wanted to go, and just wanted my local expertise and help in getting them from one spot to another. Although they knew that Brooklyn was now the coolest place on the planet, they thought some of the neighborhoods we were visiting might’ve been a little “dodgy.”
For those of you (like me) who don’t know their East Coast rappers from their West Coast counterparts, Biggie Smalls, aka Christopher Wallace, was an exceptionally talented rapper and hip-hop star who blended intelligent lyrics with whiplash-fast delivery, complicated rhyming structure and true-to-life biographical narratives. He was murdered at the age of 25 in a drive-by shooting in LA, some say as revenge for the murder of Tupac Shakur six months earlier.
It didn’t make sense to structure the tour chronologically but geographically instead. So we started in downtown Brooklyn on Fulton street, the site of the Albee Mall, a popular hangout spot where Lil Kim and other up-and-coming rappers would shoot amateur videos, a million years before YouTube. After Albee, we stopped for pics in front of George Westinghouse High School where Christopher cut class, smoked blunts and started to make a name for himself. Then it was over to legendary Juniors, where Biggie probably feasted on their famous fried chicken and cheesecake (and undoubtedly helped put the “Biggie” into Biggie Smalls – that cheesecake’s got a lotta calories!)
We spotted multiple murals of Biggie throughout Brooklyn – a sky-high mural on the side of a Brownstone in Ft. Greene; a black and white local piece across from Marcy Houses (where Jay-Z grew up,) and an awesome glass mosaic piece outside the supermarket where Biggie worked as a bag boy before his big break. We posed outside of Biggie’s apartment building and snapped a shot of the Orient Temple, a bare-bones Masonic lodge where house parties were held.
We checked out the Roman Catholic school where he went as a youngster. We snacked on Jamaican beef patties where The Notorious B.I.G. did the same; we stopped by the barber shop where he got his hair cut; we posed outside a rolldown gate of a Medical Health storefront where he (allegedly) dealt drugs.
After these stops we took a long hike out to Marcy Houses, the NYC Housing Authority complex where Jay-Z grew up, as the boys were very interested in seeing what a traditional style of Public Housing projects in NYC looked like. They were impressed by the cleanliness and the safety of the complex and especially by the humming neighborhood surrounding the houses.
13 miles later, with countless memories of Biggie’s Brooklyn, my London lads hopped the subway over to Grimaldi’s for their pizza stop and I learned more about my hometown’s heroes than I ever knew!
When I was asked to put together a day-long tour focusing on famous curries in NYC I thought it was a joke. Insomuch as New York City has the world’s best foods, as well as the most diverse population, per capita, in the world (Queens, you the best!) I would be hard-pressed to think of a more obscure tour request than “best curries.” But, as it stands, NYC had a sizeable Indian population, a small but robust Thai community, and an equally small Malaysian community. Which meant that with a little research, there were more than enough cafes and restaurants to celebrate the wide, wild, wonderful world of curries!
My clients were a corporate group who studied flavors and fragrances in order to create new versions for consumers and companies. We had a minicoach and we had a plan – to enjoy breakfast at a modern Malaysian coffeeshop, lunch #1 at a Thai steam table, shopping visit #1 at an Indian megamarket, lunch #2 at a Northern Indian buffet, lunch #3 (are you keeping track? Our waistlines weren’t!) at a vegetarian Southern Indian spot, shopping #2 at a world-renowned spice market, spice-specific cocktails (you know, to break up the monotony of lunch, lunch, shopping, lunch) and then dinner at a modern Aussie-Indian joint.
There’s only so much a Brooklynite of Eastern-European Jewish descent can say about curry, but there is a veritable universe of flavors, aromas, colors, textures, spices, heat levels and sweet and sour profiles to enjoy. From our first stop – Kopitiam in Chinatown, for curried eggs blasted with black pepper, pulled coffee and nasi lemak (coconut rice with egg, cucumber, and curried spicy sambal sauce) my clients knew they were in for a unique NY tour experience.
Onto the minicoach and off to Queens. Recently named The #1 Tourist Hotspot in America by Lonely Planet, Queens is a veritable universe of multi-culturalism. Each neighborhood is an extraordinary collection of ethnic markets, shops, restaurants, houses of worship and more. Our Thai curry spot, Khao Kang in Elmhurst, was a traditional steam table where $8 gets a mound of white rice and 3 proteins, vegetables, and/or sauces. Red curry, massaman, green, yellow, jungle, you name it and Khao Kang has it, spiced accordingly to the native Thai palate. These weren’t watered down dishes for American taste buds!
In order to digest a bit, we walked over to Jackson Heights for a quick supermarket stop at Patel Brothers and left with a shopping cart full of curry spices. Our next stop was back in Manhattan at Bukhara Grill, a traditional Northern Indian Curry House for a buffet lunch. Yes, you heard that correctly. One of our planned 6 meals was an all-you-could-eat smorgasbord of chickens korma and tikka, saag paneer, samosas, and everything else you would expect at a popular Indian curry house near the UN.
After Bukhara, we rolled downtown to visit Kaluystans in Curry Hill (an Indian micro-hood within Murray Hill,) an extraordinary marketplace that stocks an eye-bogglingly large collection of dried fruits, nuts, sweets, spices, sauces, mixes and more. We got a quick talk about where they import their spices and walked out with a basket full of curries.
But wait, there’s still two more restaurants and a cocktail bar to get to! Lunch #3 was at Saravana Bhavan, a franchise South Indian vegetarian spot that gave us dosas with an assortment of curried vegetables to dip and spread.
Then it was over to Mace, a spice-specific cocktail bar in the East Village where each drink is painstakingly conceived around a single spice, many of which you would never expect to find in a boozy drink. Some of the cocktails had garam masala, some had curry leaf, some had matcha green tea powder, all were delicious, none were what you would expect of a “spice-driven menu.”
One last feast – a prix-fixe modern Indian restaurant, imported from Melbourne, featuring bright, exciting Indian tastes set amongst a hip crowd and a artsy decor. Remarkably, everyone on the tour group was still hungry, and so we found a way to stuff our faces one last time with curries and assorted Indian flavors. Washed it down with craft beer and fine wine and called it a night.
Let it be known that when we say we specialize in custom tours of New York City, we mean it! Next tour pitch – the best gym to burn off curry calories!
In the summer, New Yorkers line up at Pier 11 to catch the New York Beach Ferry. It takes up to 250 passengers from Wall Street to the Jacob Riis Park Beach in the Rockaways. The ferry travels by the Statue of Liberty, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and past numerous scenic landmarks on the way from Manhattan to Riis Landing. It’s a journey that countless New Yorkers and tour guides have made over the years. In honor of this storied community, let’s take a look at Rockaways’ history from the turn of the century to the new millennium and from Jacob Riis to the Ramones.
What exactly are the Rockaways?
They are a group of communities located on the Rockaway Peninsula in the Borough of Queens. They’re next to Long Island, across the bay from Brooklyn and down the street from the John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Rockaways are famous for being New York’s playground. During the summer, day-trippers and adventure seekers flock from the five boroughs to spend time on the beaches with their friends and family. The area’s popularity and place in New York culture goes back more than a century. Things have changed over the years, but the community’s status as a travel destination shows no signs of diminishing.
Five Fast Facts about the Rockaways
- The villages of Far Rockaway and Rockaway Beach were established in 1888 and 1897 respectively. They were incorporated into the metropolitan area in 1898 despite various campaigns to secede.
- Although New Yorkers love to argue about their different opinions, most people agree that the Rockaways take their name from the Indian community called Rechaweygh, which is translated as a place with bright waters or a lonely place.
- From 1902 to 1982, Rockaways’ Playland was one of the biggest attractions in the area. When the amusement park closed due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances, it was truly the end of an era. Now, the site is home to a new crop of apartment buildings.
- The Jacob Riis Beach Park was named after a famous Danish writer who lived in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens. He was one of the first photojournalists. Riis was a social commentator who wrote about disparities between the classes and was good friends with Theodore Roosevelt. The park features an eclectic beach bazaar that’s open for tours all year.
- One person who left a mark on the villages was New York City’s master planner and resident maniac Robert Moses. In addition to building several important bridges for local travel, Moses expanded Shore Front Parkway. Locals call it the road from nowhere to nowhere. Victorian houses just steps from the beach were sawed in half to accommodate the widened road. Despite ravages from Hurricane Sandy, these relics are still standing.
Today, the area’s main attractions are the miles of beaches, the thriving food scene and the family-friendly parks. For a peninsula that’s just 10 miles long and half a mile wide, the Rockaways have a lot happening throughout the year. There is an unbelievable food truck community offering everything from vegan desserts to tacos made with locally caught fish. You’re more likely to find a Paleo-friendly restaurant than a pizzeria in the Rockaways today. There are surf shops, family owned and operated boutiques, boardwalk events and concerts. It’s a great place to soak in some New York history and culture.
I hear the sound of music…
While you stroll down the beach, you might hear Motown hits or cutting-edge DJs. One band that you may know for its connection with the area is The Ramones, who immortalized the line “We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach” back in 1977. Fans instantly associate those two minutes of solid punk rock with the beaches that the native New Yorkers frequented back in the day. We talked more about New York culture and music history during our overview of the Punk Rock School Bus Tours that the our tour guides hosted back in June.
Our comparison between the punk rockers in the late 1970s and the original gangs of New York was accurate. The hit TV series “Boardwalk Empire” used Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis Park to double as Atlantic City in the final season. Celebrities ranging from Frank Sinatra to Woody Allen filmed movies in the Rockaways too.
Whether you’re interested in New York history, the food scene, local music or an outdoor adventure, you can discover new sights in this special part of Queens. On behalf of Levys’, the area’s first family owned and operated tour company, we invite you to explore the Rockaways like native New Yorkers.
From gourmet picnics to elegant feasts on a rooftop terrace, New York City offers diners many ways to enjoy world-class food in the great outdoors. Alice Waters, the famed restaurateur, author and organic food activist, once said, “It’s true that appetites are sharpened and tastes are enlivened in the open air.” Exploring the city’s avenues, parks and green spaces is a great way to work up an appetite that will help you eat your way across the Big Apple. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are some recommendations from our very own Mr. Moustache and the rest of the Levy family.
The High Line
The High Line is a meandering urban park set 30 feet above the city on an elevated section of track used by the New York Central Railroad until 1980. Now, it’s a pedestrian-only park and greenway that travels 1.45 miles from Hudson Yards to the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Meatpacking District. There are plenty of places to sit, relax or watch the people along the High Line. Stop at Chelsea Market to grab some picnic fixings that you can enjoy al fresco, or check out some of the bars, restaurants, boutiques and art galleries that are along the route.
Madison Square Park
Located next to the distinctive wedge-shaped Flatiron Building, Madison Square Park is a Midtown landmark. The park spans three blocks between 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue, two of Manhattan’s most glamorous thoroughfares. It is renowned for art installations, live concerts, landscape plantings and culinary celebrations. Seasonal events like Parktoberfest and Flatiron Chefs draw thousands of visitors. Several times a year, there are pop-up markets showcasing foods and beverages from the city’s best eateries and breweries. When the park isn’t hosting culinary events, you can find coffee, cocktails, craft beer, steak and international fare nearby to enjoy inside or outdoors.
Hudson River Park
Hudson River Park is one of the best spots for a memorable day outside or a picture-perfect picnic. This waterfront greenway runs from 59th Street to Battery Park. There are numerous cafes and restaurants located in the 500-acre park and surrounding neighborhoods. In Tribeca, you’ll find eateries near piers 25 and 26 and on the blocks west of Broadway. In Chelsea, you can try local seafood at a riverside restaurant. There’s no shortage of recreational opportunities in the park. Don’t forget about the food trucks that serve up fantastic and affordable meals throughout the city.
The Winter Village in Bryant Park is New York’s answer to Europe’s old-world holiday markets. At the end of October, the village is in full swing. In addition to the requisite ice skating on The Pond, there will be more than 125 boutique vendors and a number of top-notch eateries serving up pastries, sandwiches and hot drinks all day. If you hit the park in the evening, you can enjoy handcrafted cocktails and offerings from the wine bar.
After seven years of painstaking work, Teardrop Park opened to the public in 2006. This family-friendly green space includes open lawns, play areas, interactive fountains, sustainable landscaping and impressive rock installations. It’s a lush oasis tucked between several modern apartment buildings in lower Manhattan. If you get hungry after playing in the fresh air, you can visit one of the international restaurants along Murray Street. Take time to stroll along the Battery Park City Esplanade next door for fantastic views of the Hudson River and the New Jersey skyline.
There’s more to our city than Central Park. It was fine in 1860, but it’s been done to death. You’ll find many outstanding sites if you’re craving something new in New York.