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Undiscovered New York

The Big Apple keeps secrets only locals know — until now.

There’s a crooked elbow of a street in New York City’s Chinatown, a meandering little lane that sits apart from a rigid city grid of wide avenues and straight streets set at right angles. It is called Doyers Street, and it seems like a relic of an antique city. Hemmed in by low brick tenement buildings, the winding road seems far from the endlessly rising steel-and-glass skyscrapers that seek to define the rest of Manhattan. During the daytime, coming upon the street’s shabby Chinese restaurants and barber shops feels something like unearthing a stranger’s old family album at a yard sale — something forgotten, yet in whose mystery you can still delight.

Stepping onto the pavement at night, however, feels entirely different. Is that a jazz saxophone you hear, an arpeggio of a trumpet, or a thump of a bass flittering though the night air? And where could it be coming from? In the dark, discovering Doyers Street feels like you’ve discovered a secret. In fact, you have — and it’s by design.

SONGQUAN DENG / SHUTTERSTOCK

New York City has an image problem: It’s overexposed. Lionized in film and television, in book and magazine, its landmarks can take on a “been there, done that” feeling, even for people visiting for the first time. Every coffee shop gives off that sense of deja vu: You’ve seen it on episode after episode of “Friends” after all. A stroll through the West Village’s snaking streets also feels overly familiar, having watched Carrie Bradshaw clop over the cobblestones in her Manolos a hundred times.

But New Yorkers seek to see a different New York — one that harkens back to the city’s earlier days as a Prohibition Era hotspot, where fun was to be had if only you knew where to look. Indeed, there can be no such thing as seeing all of New York these days, because so much is tucked out of view, intentionally.


Things may not be as they seem

The lilting music streaming down Doyers Street comes from beneath a faded red awning, labeled “Gold Flower Restaurant” in both English and Chinese characters. The wooden door below it provides the first sign that things may not be as they seem — thick, rough planks that look as though they’re keeping something inside. The second is the dapperly dressed bouncer inevitably out front.

This is no cheap Chinese restaurant; it is Apothéke, a lavish bar obscured by misleading signage designed to throw the uninitiated off the scent. It is an unexpected pocket of opulence on the quiet street, where inside jazz bands evoking yesteryear play to crowds curled up on plush velvet chairs, bathed in honey-colored light filtering through the bottles of elixir lining the walls. 

At Apothéke — a 19th-century absinthe den–themed bar hidden in New York City’s Chinatown — the mixologists prepare all of the cocktails from locally sourced greenmarkets, including their own rooftop herb garden.
MATTHIAS GAGGL
COURTESY OF APOTHÉKE

The constitutional, countrywide ban on alcohol known as Prohibition — which made concocting it, selling it, and yes, drinking the stuff illegal — ruled in America from 1919 to 1933. And yet the law in New York City seemed merely to drive drinking underground, rather than eradicate it. Speakeasies flourished, camouflaged or hidden down back alleys.

Only a few authentic speakeasies from that era still exist. One is Back Room on Norfolk Street, where drinks are still served in teacups to obscure their alcoholic nature. Uptown a bit in Chelsea is a newfangled version: Behind a hip coffee shop sits Bathtub Gin, a reference to the do-it-yourself method of home-brewing that prevailed during Prohibition. A gleaming copper tub in which some patrons sit and sip forms the centerpiece of the room. 

“I think New Yorkers love hidden spots because they are always surrounded by so many people. You are always living so publicly.”
Heather Tierney,  co-owner of Apothéke

Apothéke evokes the same feel. The co-owner, Heather Tierney, found the Doyers Street location for her bar on a dawn excursion with friends through Chinatown to watch the sun rise over the Brooklyn Bridge. “We stumbled onto Doyers Street and couldn’t believe our eyes!” she says. “It felt so magical at that special hour of dawn before the sun comes us up.”

But Doyers Street was not always magical. A hundred years ago, it was known as the “Bloody Angle,” a bullet-riddled avenue where Chinese gangs called Tongs duked it out for control of the neighborhood. Apothéke’s decor references the space’s more illicit days as perhaps an opium den, with chandeliers made out of an apothecary’s glowing beakers and vials. The cocktails are infused with herbs and labeled as “curatives,” a riff on another of the street’s secrets: Beneath Doyers Street lies a network of tunnels where Chinese herbalists and others ply their trades from tiny, subterranean shop fronts.

The iconic Times Square (right) lends the city a bit of that been there, done that feel; but places like Shareen Vintage (left), where a billowing dress hanging on the fire escape serves as the only hint of the store’s existence, introduce a lesser-known side.
COURTESY OF SHAREEN VINTAGE,  ANDREY BAYDA / SHUTTERSTOCK

“I think New Yorkers love hidden spots because they are always surrounded by so many people,” says Tierney, who also owns Pulqueria, a Mexican restaurant deep underground on Doyers Street. “You are always living so publicly.”

Tierney finds herself drawn to such spaces. Her favorite, she says, is Shareen Vintage.

Located in Chelsea, the purveyor of exquisitely curated vintage womenswear bears no sign. Instead, a red dress hangs from the second floor brownstone, beckoning customers up a staircase with the sway of a hem.

“You ring the buzzer and the door opens to a vintage wonderland!” Tierney says. As starry-eyed customers try on ‘70s sparkle jumpsuits or Dior New Look dresses from the late 1940s, saleswomen stroll the room dropping candy, popcorn and even Champagne glasses into their hands. There are no men allowed, and no changing rooms. Women slip in and out of clothes in the middle of the room in the girly, effervescent atmosphere.

The densely-packed city tucks away all sorts of hidden surprises; a faux façade for the Lower East Side Toy Co., for example, serves as the entryway to Back Room, an opulent Prohibition Era–themed speakeasy.
COURTESY OF BACK ROOM


Secrects that can’t be kept

But some of New York City’s secrets have been told. The High Line — an elevated park hewn from a former freight train track — is an architectural masterpiece. The track lay rusting and abandoned for decades, before it was spared by a gaggle of conservationists who convinced the city to transform it into a park. The first section opened in 2009, and today the park is heralded as an unmissable attraction, with thousands of native plants and grasses growing on pathways crafted to intimate the train tracks that once lay in their place.

But on a summer day, the narrow track can be as packed as a subway car during rush hour. It’s on those days that, as a native New Yorker, I reflect wistfully on when the High Line was still a gritty secret. My friends used to shinny up the rusty girders to spy what rested atop that abandoned platform, full of not only graffiti but also wildflowers and local seeds blowing in the wind.

The High Line — a disused elevated rail line that has been converted into a public park — floats above Manhattan’s West Side.
TRAVNIKOVSTUDIO / SHUTTERSTOCK

“The secret stuff has a time span,” says Adam Wright-Smith, the director of operations for Silkstone Hospitality, which runs a series of sought-after, tucked-away restaurants and lounges, like The Leadbelly. “All the tourist things will always be there, but the secret things are always changing,” he adds. “Every time you come back to New York, it’s always different.”

Indeed, there are some secrets that just can’t be kept. When it was first opened in 1999, the Waverly Inn in the West Village had an unlisted number; the only way to get a reservation, some joked, was to call the offices of one of the part-owners: Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter. The inn is slightly more accessible now, but its bigger secret is out. In the clubby dining room, where celebrities and other A-list New Yorkers still sometimes stroll from table to table, a distinctly musky scent perfumes the air. It’s the aroma of truffled macaroni and cheese, once a secret menu item that only those in the know were sharp enough to order.

A quintessential symbol of New York City’s classical high-rise architecture, the triangular-shaped Flatiron Building also points directly toward the city’s most famed skyscraper: the Empire State Building.
SONGQUAN DENG / SHUTTERSTOCK

“I’ve always been a giant fan ofsecret menus,” explains Sean MacPherson, a restaurant and hotel impresario who co-owns the inn. “The truffled mac and cheese at Waverly Inn started out as an ‘off’ menu item, but as it became more popular (and received more press), we ultimately capitulated and put it on the menu.”

MARTIN M303 / SHUTTERSTOCK

And then there are some secrets that even the most canny tourist or entrenched native cannot see without extraordinary effort, but somehow knowing they’re just out of reach adds a mysterious appeal. One lies underneath the Frick Collection, an exquisite museum of European painting and sculpture masterpieces housed in the former private residence of a steel baron. It is, of all things, the baron’s private bowling alley.

Crafted in 1914, the lanes are of pine and maple wood, and the walls are of mahogany — custom-built splendor for Henry Clay Frick, one of the wealthiest men in America at the time. No one plays on those lanes these days, not even the staff, but knowing they lie a floor beneath the resplendent Rembrandts around the Frick’s marble fountain lends a special charm.

Secrets like those lying just underground, tucked inside back alleys or whispered between chefs may be more important than ever. “As information becomes increasingly accessible, I think everyone appreciates the notion of discovery,” MacPherson says. 

And in New York City, the hunt for the next one is perpetual. “New Yorkers are a competitive lot,” he adds. “They like the feeling that they know something that others don’t.”

Sarah Maslin Nir is a staff reporter for The New York Times, currently covering Brooklyn for the paper’s Metro section. She is a born-and-raised Manhattanite.