By Ainsley O'Connell
With the High Line, an elevated railway reborn as a park, set to transform New York’s far west side when it opens in spring 2008, 10th Avenue is poised to take off as boutiques and restaurants give the boot to parking garages and auto body shops. East Villagers who consider Fifth Avenue their western frontier may balk at trekking all the way across the island on a Saturday, but the stretch of 10th Avenue between 23rd and 19th streets is worth the hike. Organic wine? Limited edition posters and artists’ books? Churros con chocolate (chocolate donuts) at Tia Pol? There’s more to Chelsea than gallery-hopping.
1. Empire Diner: Empire draws the occasional tourist with its classic railcar charm (devoted fans of Kieran Culkin may remember it from “Igby Goes Down”), but the local crowd dominates, spreading out the Times on weekends and meeting to discuss gallery business on weekday mornings. Part of the charm lies in the tough-love service: “Eat the crust. Use your napkin. Don’t kick your sister,” the menu commands. But the kitchen handles customized orders with ease (A brie and avocado omelet? No problem) and never skimps on the bacon (Empire may be the only restaurant in Manhattan that refuses to serve diet soda and artificial sweetener). Stick to the basics – eggs, burgers, G.A.C. (grilled American cheese) – and you’ll leave happy.
2. 192 Books: Walking into 192 Books has the calming effect of entering the personal library of a good friend. And in a way, that’s exactly what you are doing: Patrick Knisley, who mans the store most Saturdays, rarely rings up a sale without wryly critiquing your choice or bookmarking a favorite passage. When I bought Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground, he chose the poem “Mint”: “Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice. But, to be fair, it also spelled promise.” The store is the intellectual heart of 10th Avenue, with evening readings by neighborhood residents Ethan Hawke and Annie Liebovitz, as well as authors of the caliber of Jane Smiley and Salman Rushdie. Be sure to reserve a spot in advance and catch up on your David Foster Wallace.
3. Cookshop: When the ‘rents are in town, look no further than Cookshop for a dinner destination. During the week the bar scene lures editorial assistants in Marc Jacobs and skinny jeans, but the dining room is a magnet for a slightly older crowd. The American menu is right on trend, with seasonal ingredients drawn from local farmers and artisans, but the restaurant’s warmth and deceptively simple dishes suggest staying power. Start with the Hudson valley venison sausage, then try the Maine diver sea scallops, and finish with the vanilla bean and roasted pear bread pudding. Mmmmm. Dinner on Daddy’s dime never tasted so good.
4. Appellation Wine & Spirits: If you usually associate the words “wine” and “organic” with Trader Joe’s Two Buck Chuck, Appellation may be something of a revelation. Two-thirds of the store’s wines are organic or biodynamic, many from small estates producing unusual varietals. But it’s easy to navigate the range of unfamiliar labels, with wines grouped by country and ranged from light to full-bodied, and owner Scott Pactor often on hand to offer advice. Pactor, who previously managed the cellars at Balthazar and Pastis, has embraced the neighborhood by hosting free wine tasting events with nearby restaurants, including Trestle on Tenth and cupcake bakery Billy’s. It’s hard not to love a wine store that matches California sparklers to mini-cupcakes.
5. Printed Matter: Have you been searching the city for the perfect $250 Jockey short shopping bag? Or silver wrapping paper decorated with documents used as evidence in the Enron trial? Printed Matter is one step ahead. Home to a non-profit founded in the ’70s that promotes publications made by artists, Printed Matter is the hipster counterpart to 192 Books. Its Chelsea storefront, which has been open for just over a year, sells a wide range of works by artists supported by the organization. In addition to the standard periodicals and coffee table books, Printed Matter stocks a Homeland Security nutrition kit (Bon appetit, says Tom Ridge), complete with Bible Bar and Democracy Enhanced Water, and Brinco sneakers dedicated to migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, complete with attached compass and map.
6. Tia Pol: There has been small explosion recently in tapas restaurants, with newcomers such as Boqueria stealing the spotlight. But Tia Pol remains a favorite, and for good reason. The owners’ “ongoing love affair with Spain” is evident in every dish on the classic tapas menu, and the sangria seems designed to ease the hurt of jilted love. To dodge the crowds, stop by for a late dinner at the bar during the week or an early dinner post-gallery hopping on Saturday. Order from the list of specials and for just a moment let New York slip to the background as the flavors of Spain come into relief.
7. Anzu: Many of Anzu’s diners enter the restaurant with growling stomachs and disappointment in their eyes after facing the reality of a three-hour wait at next door Tia Pol. But by the time they leave, they are converted: by the delicately prepared Japanese small plates, by the excellent house sake and cocktails, and by the quirky mix of music, which veers like a drunken karaoke party from ’80s punk to Celine Dion ballads. The tiny dining room is the perfect first-date fusion of high intimacy and low pretension; after a visit to Anzu, the luster of its cavernous Meatpacking District counterparts fails to burn as bright.
StreetChic Guide Dress to impress: Take a nod from the new Frank Gehry building looming over 10th Avenue and choose an architectural silhouette (think a trapeze top from Unique or coat from Marni).
Accessorize: No Chelsea ensemble is complete without man’s best friend, preferably a breed with looks to match your own, and the bigger the better. No Chihuahuas here: Great Danes and Afghan hounds are better bets.
Style no-no: Visit the driving range at nearby Chelsea Piers if you must, but please, please, don’t tote your golf clubs with you from boutique to gallery and gallery to boutique. Come now, do you want everyone to know you work on Wall Street but don’t have the cash to jet to Palm Beach?