Named "New York's Wackiest Tour Guides" by the Travel Channel!

Between a Roll and a Hard Salami

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A Grilled NY State Cheddar from Amy's Bread.

“Onward, Sandwich Crusaders!” I shouted from inside a busy midtown deli, holding fourteen sandwich sections and fourteen food tourists & NYers in tow. We sat down at the public tables in Worldwide Plaza and dug into our piping hot Grilled NY State Cheddar sandwiches, on pressed Pullman sourdough from Amy’s Bread. This gooey treat is layered with red onion, tomato, fresh cilantro and spicy chipotle pepper puree.

My Crusaders felt it ranked well among the five tastes we had on this Sandwich Tour of Hell’s Kitchen.

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Jonah spends most of his waking hours, on a bus, thinking about sandwiches.

I got the idea to create a sandwich tour of NY earlier this summer, when New York Magazine published a list of the 101 best sandwiches in New York City. I had always been a sandwich aficionado; I used to sell my lunchtime masterpieces in High School for $2 a pop; some say I came out of the womb holding a Cubano. But 101 sandwiches on one tour wasn’t smart – it was insane.

Once I narrowed down NY Mag’s uber-text to a simpler, easily digestible master list of 57 sandwiches, made a Google map of it all, I was on a personal quest to sample all sandwiches.

(Even though I’ve only tried eighteen so far, when you add it up, thats more than 1 sandwich a week. And that ain’t bad.)

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What other neighborhood has it's own mascot? Jonah and his group with the Hell's Kitchen Devil!

I discovered a number of amazing creations in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood sandwiched in history between the blue-collar shipping industry of the Hudson River, the teeming office district of Times Square and the struggling actor’s world of the theater district. If that isn’t perfect breeding grounds for the unofficial lunch of the working class, then consider Hell’s Kitchen’s cutting edge culinary nature, with an average of 20 restaurants per block.
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The classic chicken parmagian at Manganaro's Heroboy

We started at Manganaro’s Heroboy, the birthplace of the 6-foot hero and the site of a dramatic quarter-century feud between two brothers. After a pit stop at the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market to discuss the varying histories of this neighborhood’s notorious name, we moved on to Amy’s Bread. The only thing more heartwarming than Amy’s story of how she escaped the humdrum life of marketing for the artisanal breads of Paris is her phenomenal grilled cheese!
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A hulking bite to fit in all 15 Spices in the 15-Spice-Fried-Chicken + coleslaw + arugula + bourbon BBQ mayo!

Keep in mind, a Levys’ Unique New York! tour isn’t a lecture but a conversation, and our tour group discussed creativity in the kitchen while noshing on a “Fourth of July Picnic,”

(15-spice fried chicken, corn slaw, arugula, bourbon BBQ mayo on a tomcat baguette) from Carve Unique Sandwiches. One Sandwich Crusader admitted to a wild invention of hardboiled egg, soft cheese and melted dark chocolate!
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A sated crew of Sandwich Crusaders learning about the disputed birthplace of the Reuben.

The next stop was the crème de la crème. At Sullivan St. Bakery, on a lightly salted and oiled stecca roll, manzo beef, piquito peppers, goat cheese and aioli rocked our world. The small, soft sandwich slowly consumed in no more than four bites proved that less is more. Moving across the street to Tulcingo Del Valle Restaurante, we could barely finish our al pastor cemitas amid the layers of avocado, oaxaca cheese, refried beans, chipotle AND papalo peppers. Proclaiming “I got my money’s worth”, the customers eased themselves slowly out of their seats and stumbled back into the cool overcast summer day.By Jonah Levy

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Zombies vs Commandos: Capture the Flag on Governor’s Island

Zombies vs Commandos Skirmish

Zombies skirmish with Commandos to Capture the Flag

The Zombies gathered in a bloody pack inside the safety of the flag zone. They were shredded and gaunt, with sunken eyes and gaunt limbs.  Regardless of their condition, they were in possession of the enemy flag and they had only one choice: to make a break for it. They huddled and muttered their plans when suddenly a siren blasted them back into reality: a camouflaged Commando had sprinted from Zombie territory, past a line of defenders and burst through the DMZ into home base. The score was now 4-0.

Team Commando Victorious

Team Commando shows off her prize flag - a teddybear in a necktie.

“Zombies vs. Commandos: Capture the Flag on Governors Island” was our latest NYCentric Event.  The rules are simple: two teams on opposite sides of a field had to invade the enemy territory, grab their flag and return it to home base without getting tagged and captured. POWs go to jail and languish there until brave team members charge through enemy territory to free them via jail break. Again and again, bloody Zombies challenged green clad Commandos as battles raged over the combat field. Most of us have played Capture the Flag as children, a summer-time camp favorite. We Levys learned it as Boy Scouts in Troop 8, Flatbush, one of the oldest troops in NYC, sadly now gone. But we wanted to spice it up.

Team Zombies show their blood thirsty needs.

Team zombies show their blood thirsty needs.

When we first conceived this event, our military themed strategy and combat game was the perfect choice for Governors Island; a bucolic, car free setting resembling an empty Ivy League campus. Without a doubt, Governor’s Island, a former Army and Coast Guard base, is the coolest, newest old thing in New York City.

Most New Yorkers know that the  Dutch founded New York as New Amsterdam in 1624. Few know that their first settlement was on Governors Island, which they named Nutten Island (for the walnut trees.) This strategic spot in the harbor was a military base for over  200 years. Benjamin Franklin ordered a garrison to be built on the island, and those cannons fired at British warships as they sailed up the Hudson River – the British warships were eventually destroyed under the shadow of the Palisades. Forts were built before the War of 1812 and Confederate prisoners were held on the island during the Civil War. Eighteen minutes after war was declared on Germany in 1917, soldiers departed from Governors Island, boarded German steamships in Hoboken, NJ and took the sailors captive as Prisoners of War.

Team Commandos salute the opposing team.

Team Commandos salute the opposing team.

I guess this military history really inspired  our players , because many more arrived as Commandos, which at first overwhelmed the outnumbered Zombie team. Then Super Zombie (aka Matt Levy) came to help. Slathered in fake blood and howling an insatiable thirst for brains, Matt’s secret ability was to tag Commandos in their own territory and clear the way for a few flag points. But the Commandos had their own secret weapon:  Gideon as SuperWeapon X, covered in green camo paint, assisted by  a swarm of 11-year-old  recruits, were able to cover the enemy field.

Group Play on Governors Island

Trying to free the jail on Governors Island

We played about a dozen rounds over the course of two and a half hours. Some rounds went by lightning fast and some seemed slow as reloading muskets. Some involved intricate tactical strategies and some involved simple bursts of speed and daring. Some rounds were frustrating and some were exhausting but from the very moment people started marching down Colonel’s Row for a big game of Capture the Flag, we knew for certain that everyone was in for a long afternoon of unabashed, exhilarating fun.

For more pictures, check out our Flickr stream!

By Jonah Levy.

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Levys’ Love Lightsabers!

Anyone who’s taken a Levys’ tour knows that we’re LUNY about lightsabers! No we’re not a bunch of hopeless Star Wars fanatics that go to conventions and attempt to access “The Force.”

Gideon Lightsaber NYC

Gideon once hosted a Lightsabers NYC Meetup Group.

Instead we have a affection for $11 toy-store collapsible plastic lightsabers simply because they’re the perfect tour guide’s baton.

Jonah leads his Tour Group via Lightsaber

Jonah leading his tour group through Battery Park, NYC

Any good tour guide knows that you need to have something tall to wave for your group to follow, not unlike a flag. In fact, many tour guides use a flag and some –less ceremoniously– just grab a colorful baton, a golf club, a bright orange Mr. Quackenbush Duck-head umbrella, what have you.

Jonathan Turer Duck Umbrella

Jonathan and his friend Mr. Quackenbush, leading the way into Central Park

We Levys are all about the lightsabers because they’re cheap, easy to replace, easily collapsable, don’t set off metal detectors, heck they even come with their own belt clips! We all have different colored sabers, which we use strategically when we have to maneuver our groups around and past each other: in crowded tourist areas like Strawberry Fields.

Jonah Gideon Apter Lightsabers

Jonah, Gideon and Apter having a guide-off!

These are called “spins,” and a lightsaber is instrumental in knowing which guides is with which group and when its time to move on. Of course, when two guides meet in the same spot, we often have a “Guide Off” which sometimes ends with Mark slicing down on one of our arms while shouting “Luke, I am your father!” Hilarity all around. And most importantly- the groups LOVE them! In fact, as anybody who’s seen our short video The Tourfather knows, a light saber is one of the 5 things our guides need “. . . to give them a tour they cannnot refuse!” Pop Quiz time –  What are the other four?

Gideon Matt Lightsabers

Gideon and Matt, armed with lightsabers, to tame an unruly tour group.

So when people ask me if I like my job, I usually tell them- “You know what my morning is like? I wake up, shower, get dressed, make coffee, grab my lightsaber and go to work.” It’s a sweet life.

By Gideon Levy

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(How to) Live Forever, NYC

Forever, by Pete Hamill

The time machine is every history buff’s fantasy. The prospect of living through any era, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds and answering the questions that have been lost to time gives us all chills of excitement. I’d have no qualms, and neither would any NYC history buffs, if this wish were granted within Manhattan’s 23 square miles.

That is why reading Forever by Pete Hamill has been an enrapturing adventure. This novel, about a man who lives immortally in Manhattan from 1741 to contemporary times, has been my favorite read in (almost) as many years. Hamill’s ability to transport his reader to the most vivid moments in this city’s history is a gift, but it’s his use of magical realism that should attract the less historically-inclined.

Cormac O’Connor lives a simple & complete life with his family in early 18th century Ireland. But after his parents are killed by the Earl of Warren, a manipulative slave trader, Cormac travels to Manhattan to avenge their deaths. There, during the slave revolt of 1741, he saves the life of a babalawo (an African shaman).

For his good deed, the babalawo grants Cormac the gift of immortality with two caveats: one is that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. The other is that he must be a lover of life. This is where my inner romantic bursts with excitement: throughout the ages Cormac becomes a painter, musician, linguist and journalist. He also develops a number of deep relationships with women. Kongo, the babalawo tells him “…to love women, to pleasure them. To make them laugh. To be foolish for them. To protect them. To respect them. To listen to them. They are the lifegivers. To live is to love them…”

To call Cormac’s immortality a gift is difficult, because he views it as a curse. He can never truly love a woman knowing that he will eventually bury her. Sitting in his art studio on Duane Street, he is haunted by the memory of the Countess de Chardon, the head mistress at a bordello where Cormac find refuge during the cholera epidemic of 1835. She teaches him the beauty of music and “pleasures of the flesh,” but they never sleep together, as they know the dangers of true intimacy. Up to the very end, Hamill keeps heartstrings humming as Cormac discovers that the only woman he ever loved is his ticket away from “too much life” and into the Otherworld.

Romantic love is not the only danger which Cormac must steel himself against. One of his best friends throughout the second half of the 19th century is Boss Tweed, the King of Tammany Hall. They brawl through the early days of the Five Points (a neighborhood we tour), they sing the fight song of the Bloody Ould Sixth in Lower East Side saloons (another neighborhood tour), and they keep an eye out for each other during the Draft Riots of the 1860’s (one guess, people). But when Tweed ends up imprisoned and wasting away in The Tombs, Cormac can do little more than bring Tweed ice cream and play their old fight song on the ivories.

Hamill interweaves a tale of vengeance between the stories of this epic, historic novel. Cormac is bound by duty to track down the Warren family line. The ambiguous relationship he develops with the final descendant of the family in 2001 is reason enough to keep the reader on edge. Willie Warren lives in a penthouse on 5th avenue, runs a well-known newspaper, is married to an intriguing wife and owns the sword Cormac carried on his trip to the New World. How each meets their fate will please and surprise you.

Hamill’s fearless depiction of New York’s history made  the life of Cormac and the island of Manhattan a vicariously gripping experience. Throughout Forever I was running from the great fire of 1776, getting knocked off my feet by the subway explosion at St. Nicholas Ave and 195th street in 1903, and sitting high up in the air looking down at Cass Gilbert from the top of the Woolworth building in 1913.

Escape from modern life for some time and pick up Forever.

By Jonah Levy

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