5 Places to Get a Taste of Old-School NYC
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Looking for a bit of classic NYC amidst the city’s modern bustle? TPG Contributor Katie Hammel shares five Big Apple spots where New York’s past still shines. (All photos by the author.)
New York City is always changing, but some places — like these old-school NYC restaurants and bars — stand the test of time, remaining as relevant today as they were in their golden years. When visiting any of the eating/drinking establishments on this list, remember to bring along your Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or no-fee Barclaycard Arrival to earn 2x points for each dollar spent on dining. (And for those who anticipate over-indulging, I’ll overview some of the most historic hotels in town.)
1. Stone Street
Then: A short walk from Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, you’ll find Stone Street. Known by multiple names over the years, it was reportedly the first city street to be paved with cobblestones, way back in 1658. It’s now called the Stone Street Historic District, which consists of 15 buildings that date as far back as 1836, one year after the Great Fire destroyed much of lower Manhattan.
Now: Many of the street’s historic buildings are home to restaurants whose patios spill into the street. The single, curved block is shorter than a football field, but contains a dozen bars and restaurants, ranging from Irish to Italian to Scandinavian. The “restaurant row” was the brainchild of a local business owner who wanted to breathe life back into the neighborhood post-9/11, and his plan clearly worked. At times it can be tough to score a seat, and the street echoes with the sound of people eating and drinking al fresco.
2. Campbell Apartment
Then: Hidden in plain sight in bustling Grand Central Station, the Campbell Apartment is an unassuming lounge in the former office of millionaire John W. Campbell. The single-room establishment, which was built in 1923, fell into disrepair after Campbell’s death, and was briefly used a closet and a small jail. It was renovated and reopened as the Campbell Apartment bar in 1999 (it was updated again in 2006).
Now: Despite the updates, the Campbell Apartment still feels like in belongs in the 1920s. The quatrefoil mahogany bar is new, but matches the style of the original balcony; the plaster of Paris ceiling is original, as is the massive fireplace, which now displays Campbell’s original steel safe (once hidden behind a wall). The bar can be packed with commuters during rush hour, but on weekends and off-hours it’s a quiet place for a throwback cocktail like the signature Prohibition Punch or a Pisco Sour. (For a few more recommendations of historic cocktail spots in Manhattan, see our post on the 10 Best Restaurants in New York for Broadway Dining.)
3. Grand Central Oyster Bar
Then: Another historic space in the iconic train station, the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant has been a New York landmark for decades. However, like many other places on this list, it went through a period of decline. In 1974, when it was purchased by the current owner, it was in a sad state of disrepair. The owners revamped the menu, exhumed the marble columns from layers of wallpaper and paint and restored the room to its former glory, beginning a new era of grandeur for the iconic restaurant.
Now: Grand Central Oyster Bar serves thousands of fresh oysters — usually 20 to 30 varieties — every day. There’s also lobster, crab, mussels, scallops, two dozen varieties of fresh fish and both New England- and Manhattan-style clam chowder. While you’re here, take a stroll around Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913 and was also renovated in the 90s. Audio tours are available from 9am to 6pm for $9.
4. Lombardi’s Pizza
Then: Recognized as the first pizzeria in the US, Lombardi’s began as a grocery store in 1897. In 1905, proprietor Gennaro Lombardi received a business license to operate a pizzeria restaurant; though the original closed in 1984, it was reopened ten years later by Lombardi’s grandson in a location one block away.
Now: There’s a reason Lombardi’s has been selling pizza for more than 100 years, and it’s not just nostalgia. The new location uses a coal oven just as the original did, so the pizza has the perfect chewy, slightly crispy crust. The menu is limited — a few salads, breadsticks, meatballs and pizza with a dozen topping options — but what the old-school pizzeria lacks in options it makes up for in taste and charm.
Then: Delmonico’s in Lower Manhattan lays claim to several “firsts.” Opened in 1827, it was the first American dining establishment to be called a restaurant. It was the first eatery with a printed menu; the first to have tablecloths; and it’s credited with inventing the Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, Lobster Newburg and the Delmonico Steak. The restaurant has existed at multiple locations and under various owners in its nearly 200-year lifespan. Though the current iteration is owned by a different company, it’s back in its original location at 2 South William Street.
Now: The restaurant still does a brisk business for those with deep pockets and a taste for a well-cooked steak or a Baked Alaska. If your budget is smaller, it’s worth popping into the dark wood bar for a martini, Old Fashioned or that most classic of NY drinks, a Manhattan.
Where to Sleep it Off
Built in the bones of the 1930s St. Moritz Hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Central Park is technically a newer hotel with a vintage vibe and a venerable pedigree. It doesn’t come cheap (rooms start at about $995 or 70,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards points per night), but its location — right across the street from the park — is a big draw. The white-glove service and indulgent afternoon tea also harken back to decades past.
At half the price (about $595 or 60,000 Ritz-Carlton Rewards points per night), the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park has a more modern feel, with Asprey amenities, 400 thread-count Frette linens and goose down pillows, not to mention views of the Statue of Liberty. Since it’s a Tier 4 property, the two free nights you’d earn from The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card would apply. Conversely, you’d earn 5 points per dollar spent at either of these Ritz-Carlton properties with this card, or with the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card.
Built in 1904 by John Jacob Astor IV, the 18-story French Beaux Arts-style St. Regis was the tallest hotel in the city when it opened. Salvador Dali, Marlene Dietrich and John Lennon are among some of its famous guests. The contemporary-style rooms start at about $1,000 or 30,000 Starpoints per night, and come with luxe fixtures like Italian marble bathrooms. If you sign up for the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express now through September 14, you’ll earn 30,000 Starpoints after spending $3,000 in the first three months — enough for a free night at this property.
On the Upper East Side, The Carlyle has long been a favorite of celebs and dignitaries — even JFK owned an apartment there. Room rates start at about $720 per night, but if that’s out of your price range, at least stop by the 1930s Bemelmans Bar for a less-expensive step back in time. Named in honor of Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline children’s books, the swanky Art Deco bar comes complete with a piano and leather banquette seating, 24-karat gold leaf-covered ceiling and murals that are the only surviving Bemelmans installation accessible to the public.
The Carlyle is part of the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program, available to cardholders of The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum® Card from American Express. Book your stay here through the FHR portal and you’ll receive perks like a room upgrade (based on availability), daily breakfast for up to two people and a $100 spa services credit — and if you book by September 26 for a stay completed by September 30, you’ll receive a complimentary third night.
What are your favorite historic spots in the city? Let us know in the comments below!