Originally when we booked the Downtown Eats food tour we expected spring weather, particularly after a few days of warmth. Alas, that fell through as our group –- a few clutching steaming cups of coffee — huddled outside the Equitable Building on Broadway in a bitter cold this weekend, anxiously awaiting our final two participants.
“The last time it was pouring -– POURING — and everyone still showed up,” said Nicole Harnett, the cheerful culinary food guide, all bundled up, toting a clip board, checking off names, and distributing itineraries lest anyone veer left when the rest of us veered right.
“This,” she said, “is a very, very special and unique place in Manhattan,” and then launched into a brief history of Lower Manhattan, its rich history and evolution, and the tour’s creator, the Alliance for Downtown New York.
She checked her watch. It was a few minutes past noon, and the final two guests were still no-shows. “We lag behind sometimes; I’m going to move us along,” she said, shepherding the group up Broadway.
Thus the three-hour tour began, sandwiching in nuggets about the area as we hustled between stops. The first led us to the back of Les Halles on John Street, where the 13 participants (now joined by the two latecomers) dined on crab cakes and salad greens.
We learned that the building used to host a kosher French establishment, and was the first restaurant to open its doors South of Canal Street after the September 11th attacks. Pamela Gill, the general manager, described the décor, the menu, and the atmosphere.
And while it wasn’t on the day’s menu, her description of the legendary French fries was appetizing enough to prompt several participants to vow a hasty return. “This is not a place where you should have to feel dressed up,” she said, pointing to the brasserie’s imported lighting, and noting the artwork adorning the walls occasionally pictured French-kissing cows.
As we left, we all stopped to look at a triangular fresco that once had been plastered over but now speaks of days gone by. And Pamela also pointed out that upstairs –- off-limits to this tour, unfortunately — is another restaurant that closed more than three decades ago; its tableware is still set up.
Each stop along the tour is about 20 minutes, and participants from different walks of life soon become new friends. On today’s tour there was a mix of the three –- people who work downtown, live downtown (two who even live in the same building but never met before) or were visiting downtown from Chicago and England.
As we stepped into the second establishment, Nelson Blue on Front Street a New Zealand themed bar, one participant, Tom, had a flashback. “I used to get drunk here all the time,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to remember the name of the previous bar. Another noted that Nelson was the name of one of our group.
We were treated to pitchers of Steinlager (“The Budweiser of New Zealand,” we were informed by proprietor Michelle Gervais) and mini curry lamb pies with crusts so perfect we all wanted two and left behind barely any crumbs. Above hovered a handcrafted wooden boat with tiny little men.
“That’s good beer,” said the visitor from overseas, replenishing her glass, then whispering to her friends as if she’s discovered an ancient secret. “This is a really good price for a food tour.” (It’s $25.)
Nearby, several residents watched basketball and occasionally cheered. Everyone decided they wanted to live on this block.
And a flyer at the next stop – Jack’s – noted an available two-bedroom just a few doors down. A few of us ripped off the contact number. Jack’s, if you haven’t discovered it, is the Front Street coffeehouse that follows three main rules (which are emblazoned on the side wall lest you didn’t figure them out): all organic, locally made (fair trade) and shade grown.
Awaiting us were cups of brewed tea and coffee, and even a few iced ones on this brisk day. It was a homey place on a cobblestone street. Chris Stiegler, the manager, explained: “We’ve tried to facilitate a neighborhood feel,” pointing to pictures taken by a local photographer and now adorning the walls, several referencing “dodgier times.”
“Ah, the good ole times in the Seaport,” Tom said, the group chuckling. Outside, a male model was posing on the sidewalk for photos, drawing attention.
As Jack himself sat at one of the wooden tables, our group perused the enticing muffins and apples, and noted that Jack’s also serves gluten-free items and Hudson Valley fresh milk, just like its flagship store on West Seventh Street.
Capping off the visit: chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, served from the baking sheet. The cookies proved popular. The recipe remained a family secret, though eventually his grandmother coughed it up, and now Jack’s sister makes the cookie dough and it’s delivered to him each week.
Then –- as the clock ticked down –- we marched a few blocks to Maiden Lane and landed at Alfanoose, a Middle Eastern restaurant with a giant hookah pipe on the counter. By then, we were filling up, but as soon as one of the owner’s sons and Nicole hoisted out plates of falafel and Baba ghannouj– as well as other delicacies – all was forgotten.
We ladled the fillings onto pitas with dollops of tahini, and enjoyed the spicy mixes, rice and lentils. By now, two of the participants seemed to be hitting it off, possibly leading to the Alliance’s first food tour-inspired romance (according to Nicole).
Nicole kept it going like clockwork so the final stop was only a short distance away, down a small set of stairs into the The Greene Grape wine shop on Liberty Street. There, manager Andy Miramontes poured us a triple tasting of wines meant to be paired with the foods already enjoyed during our travels: a chardonay from France, a pinot noir, and a malbec from Mendoza.
Lining the walls were wines from Italy, Germany, Chile, Argentina, and even New York. The tour was wrapping up, though we still lingered, and even bought a bottle. “Is anyone hungry?” someone asked, jokingly.
Nicole, who runs these food tours every other weekend until May, said she usually leads between 10 and 20 people on each one, mixing up the types of establishments and keeping them within walking distance of one another to give people more time to sit, eat and enjoy (and get to know not just each other but about downtown and all it has to offer.)
“We try to keep it fresh, change up the stops,” she said, as people waved goodbye.
Three hours and 15 minutes later, we were back out into the cold again, but this time with a buzz.
The Alliance’s next food tour – Spring into Spring – is on April 10th. For more details and to sign up, visit http://www.downtownny.com/foodtours/