So yes, dear wide-eyed out-of-towner, you’ve finally made it to the Big Apple. Your jam-packed itinerary included taking in Phantom of the Opera, scaling the heights of the Empire State Building, strolling through Central Park, gazing at Lady Liberty’s majestic figure, and if you’re lucky enough, snaring a table at Nobu. However, after days of trudging through the concrete jungle of Manhattan with all those huge corporate buildings looking down upon yourself, a refreshing change would be a subway ride down to one of New York City’s most interesting and historic neighborhoods, Greenwich Village. Greenwich Village possesses a reputation as a hangout of writers, artists, and other non-establishment types.
The best place to hang out and people-watch is definitely Washington Square Park. This eight-acre park’s main focal point is the landmark Washington Arch, whose design was modeled after the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France. Flood-lit at night time, it is one of the most dramatic sights in the area. At any given time, a variety of musicians, jugglers, tourists, and street performers provide visual entertainment and add to the vibrant atmosphere, in addition to the dog owners taking their pets for a run and the bocci competitors showing off their skill playing that anachronistic game. Surrounding Washington Square Park, most of the buildings belong to New York University, including centers of learning, performing arts venues, and students’ residence halls. Thus it is common to see many of today’s youth poring over their books, playing musical instruments or socializing on the park benches as well. Be wary though of the sellers of marijuana who ply their trade at night.
In its present day form, although Greenwich Village has become highly commercialized, it has successfully resisted the gentrification that has befallen the neighboring Soho – Mom ‘n Pop stores, funky shops, and family-owned restaurants still dominate the main thoroughfare, Bleecker St., and around. Visitors to Greenwich Village are charmed by its quaint looks and European “feel” – the small, winding streets are lined with row houses and brownstones dating from the 1800s, in constrast to most of Manhattan which follows the grid street pattern. Where else can one find oneself at the intersection of West 4th St. and West 12th St.? Moreover, today it is a food lover’s haven – numerous ethnic restaurants and specialty shops are tightly clustered in this small neighborhood, some of them family-run businesses handed down from one generation to the next. Some of these will be discussed in greater detail in the succeeding paragraphs.
On Carmine St., right across from Father Demo square, Joe’s Pizza awaits. This small pizza joint boasts a reputation of serving the best New York style pizza (thin crust) in town, and best of all, they sell by the slice (not at all common). I found the regular cheese pizza to be hot, fresh, and delicious, unencumbered by any extraneous toppings to weigh it down (a subtle reference to the “Which is better?” debate with the opposing camp, lovers of Chicago-style deep dish pizza).
If you have a sweet tooth, then dessert heaven is just around the corner. Two renowned pastry shops stand beside each other on Bleecker St. First is Rocco’s, a Southern Italian pastry shop, whose freshly-filled cannolis are simply delightful. During my visit, they were filled right before our very eyes which is the secret to their rich, delicious taste. Pasticceria Bruno, in contrast, offers more of the Northern Italian style (heavier) of pastries, although of course there is some overlap between the two establishments’ offerings. I sampled the dulce de leche cheesecake which was predictably sweet (a tad too sweet for some palates) and the mango mousse which is perfect! Highly recommended. Other goodies worth coming back for are the mousse desserts and marzipan from Bruno’s, while for Rocco’s their specialties were biscotti and cookies.
While most of the action is centered around Bleecker St., more and more people are discovering the various restaurants sitting side-by-side on quiet Cornelia St. These include the famous chef Mario Batali’s first restaurant in the Big Apple, Po (serving innovative Italian cuisine and still popular despite his recent disassociation with the establishment); the renowned Cornelia St. Cafe, complete with a downstairs lounge for music, poetry and spoken word performances; Home, serving good ol’ Midwestern food (“Great Wines and great ketchup” is their slogan) and well-known for their Vahlrona chocolate pudding; Le Gigot, an intimate French bistro for romantic dates; and lastly, Palma. This Italian-French restaurant sits on the site of an old farm. If you go inside and make your way past the kitchen, you’ll find the rustic back house which the owners use as their residence. Looked straight out of “Little House on the Prairie”, I must say. There are so many more restaurants in addition to these mentioned. Yes, no Applebee’s or Red Lobster in these parts!
Crossing over to the other side of Seventh Ave, you will come to the area which is now popularly referred to as the “West Village”. This part of town was originally an Irish settlement, and there still exists the same attractive turn-of-the-century attractive row houses. Here you will also encounter what was once the most famous speakasy during the Prohibition – Chumley’s. Virtually impossible to find, we walked into an ordinary-looking courtyard and opened the unmarked door into this landmark, whose walls were adorned with pictures of a veritable who’s who of American literature – Hemingway, Steinbeck, O’Neill and Fitzgerald, among others. All of them made Chumley’s their hangout while drinking a cold one – we followed in their footsteps to seek refuge from the light rain that had developed. Nine different homemade brews are on tap, with Captain Brennan’s Irish Red the most popular. If you ever wonder why the place wasn’t shut down during Prohibition, well, its owners were canny enough to rent out the apartment above to the local chief of police, no less. Thus whenever a crackdown on illegal speakeasies was in the offing, the chief would send a warning by calling Chumley’s, speak the words “Eighty Six” into the receiver, and immediately hanging up. All the great literary writers would then file out through the secret door hidden behind a fake bookcase into the streets, beer in hand. Imagine that!
Lastly, fans of the hit TV show ‘Friends’ will be overjoyed to know that the building the members of the “Gang” supposedly inhabit is right in the heart of the West Village. Nowadays it is a much-photographed landmark, and organized tour groups can be seen peering intently at the building on weekends. Check out one of the accompanying pictures to find out at which intersection the building is located.
Hopefully, this has been a good introduction on what to expect on your visit to Greenwich Village, and will inspire you to spend an enjoyable day exploring its nooks and crannies, sampling some of its gourmet food establishments, and at the same time appreciating the unique atmosphere and charm it retains. Now unfold those subway maps and come down to the Village!