Off The Record is a recurring feature here on the Drunkard that marries two of my greatest interests; music and travel. Having a locals perspective when visiting a new locale is the difference between experiencing it through the lens of a tourist and of that of a native.
Off The Record gathers some of my favorite artists, asks them to reflect on their city of residence, and choose a handful of places they could not live without — be them bookstores, bars, restaurants or vistas.
Between the upcoming Robyn Hitchcock full-length, Goodnight Oslo (February 17, Yep Roc), and the fairly recent early catalog reissues, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the old Soft Boy. Now I just need to catch the next live show. This week we catch up with Robyn as he takes us on a tour of not London, but NYC. Informative? Absolutely, but like his lyrics the man just has a way with words that probably makes his grocery lists more akin to poetry than not. This is one of my favorite entries in the series thus far. Enjoy.
Robyn Hitchcock :: My Kind of New York 2009
1. The Red Flame Coffee Shop (W 44th St.) :: This is the first place I had breakfast in America, in August 1980. John Lennon was still alive, 30 blocks north of where we were staying (the Iroquois Hotel next door to the coffee shop). The Red Flame was the first place we had ever seen a club sandwich: “Look, it’s a sandwich with a sandwich on top!” In Britain, the bread always outnumbered the filling, but in the US, it was obviously the other way round. Truly the land of milk and honey. I had breakfast there with Lydia Lunch. When the cashier said “Have a nice day” I shook her hand and said “And you have a nice day, too”. I couldn’t believe she had been so sweet as to single me out for her good wishes. Then while I was waiting for my companions I heard her say it to them and everybody else. So my first love affair with the US was over, but there would be many more. Barack Obama was inaugurated today – it ain’t over yet!
2. Cafe Figaro (Bleecker & MacDougal) :: The Figaro is on the south-east corner of where MacDougal street bisects Bleecker. So you have a commanding view of the crossroads, always a good viewpoint for a cafe. I started going there about 1990. Although it’s closed for renovation at the moment (the bathroom door didn’t shut too well), it was always a good place for salads, hot snacks and cakes in particular. The walls were pasted with old newspapers – copies of le Figaro, I think – and you could feel the original bohemia emanating through the tourist glazing that inevitably settled over Greenwich Village after the 1960’s. In her book A Freewheelin’ Time Suze Rotolo mentions Bob Dylan hanging out in the Figaro all night during the Cuban Missile Crisis, so next time I go there I’ll take along my polka-dot shirt and sunglasses. They could do with some chocolate gateau. My wife Michî¨le and I were outside it one wet April, 10 years ago and a hipster of about my generation walked up and greeted us – Richard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs, one of my favourite singers. We had to have some cake after that…
3. The Campbell Apartments (15 Vanderbilt Ave between E. 42nd & 43rd) :: Grand Central Station is aptly named: it’s grand and central. Like most great NY locations, it takes you back in time, to a grand and fizzy era when the air was full of jazz and smoke. Sneak off to one side of the station bar and you find yourself in the library-like confines of the Campbell Apartments. It was built as a private office for a private millionaire, and it is still used for private parties, so best go late (midnight or so) and call ahead to check how open it is. You have to wear shoes rather than sneakers, that’s another little barrier. But the result is that it does always feel like your own private party – and what’s a party without a few people you don’t know, feeling the same way about you? I first went back in the smoke age – now only the jazz survives from that time, on certain nights. A great place for an un-crowded drink.
4. Nat Sherman’s (5th Ave & 42nd St) :: On that first occasion at the Campbell apartments, Michî¨le still smoked cigarettes. But only Nat Sherman’s. They are in a way the most insidious kind of tobacco – cigarettes in pink, blue, green and lilac pastel colours with a gold filter that look more like crayons or sweets (candy to y’all) than a toxic inhalable drug. Tobacco has many tastes, all of them foul to the non-smoker. Unfortunately, as with strong liquor, tastes that naturally repel a child can be cultivated to please to a mature palette. Hence fungal cheeses, corrosive brandy and choking cigars. The world is a duller place without them, like so many non-essentials. Nat Sherman’s not only sell beguiling cigarettes – we also bought an 8-ball cane there to present to our friend Bill Flanagan, the writer, boulevardier, and MTV supremo, with whom I hope soon to be working on an off-Broadway musical version of Clint Eastwood’s classic Magnum Force.
5. Fred’s at Barney’s (Madison & 61st) :: At the south-east corner of Central Park, Barney’s is one of many sumptuous department stores on Madison Avenue. The rich do not look happy, but they know how to litter the place with town-cars and limousines: a sure sign that they are inside the buildings, doing what they do best. You don’t have to be rich to eat at Fred’s, the restaurant at the pulsing heart of Barney’s. You just need a few dollars more. It’s odd how, the more expensive a meal gets, the less of it there is. Moons Over My Hammy at Denny’s is an almost infinite guzzle: yet nouvelle cuisine is often despatched as easily as a python can swallow a quail. At Fred’s there are quail’s eggs, fishcakes, and many other delicacies, not too small and not outsize. There is really good coffee to boot and they still give away attractive red match-boxes, too.
6. Nikko’s (on Broadway & 76th) :: This is a bit cheaper than Fred’s, with larger portions and quicker service. I’ve just turned into a food reviewer – oh woe! Food reviews are a sure sign of too much of something: food, time, money, or paper. Well, you gotta eat nonetheless and Nikko’s is a swell place to do it. It’s essentially Greek food, so Greek music wanders through the air to let you know that. If, like me, you abuse the humble prawn, you can really sock it to the little creature (wait till it’s their turn) on kabobs (or kebabs as we all call them) and seafood stews. Nikko’s works as breakfast, lunch or supper – you just walk in and prawn out whenever you feel like it. Sit in the glass cupola section for a good view of the Milburn Hotel, and try to figure out what the Milburns are doing in there. Nikko’s often gives you a free digestif drink at the end of the meal, to chase away those pink-ass shrimp. Have a nice day!