Grade “A” Fancy


Talking favourite places and things to do with Karen McBurnie and Jon Hammer, Herb Lester’s New York correspondents and writers of our new book, Brooklyn Mom & Pop.

What are some of your favourite places around where you live?

There are a few old faithfuls we have a serious pang for, and Bamonte’s (32 Withers Street, Williamsburg) is one. You get chandeliers and tuxedo’d career waiters, but it’s not formal, more Sunday dinner nice. We arrive early, have a cocktail at the well-worn art deco bar, to soak up the chatter and just generally dig all that can be dug of a joint that’s seen a century of Brooklyn. They’re happy to see you — well, not jumping up and down fake smiles happy, more like a grumpy favourite uncle is glad you’re there, even though it means more work for him. We think the food has gotten a little better over the last few years. The pork chops alla Bamonte seldom disappoint.

New York City has always had clusters of businesses: the flower district, Tin Pan Alley for music publishing, Radio Row (before they razed it for the Twin Towers), the Diamond District for jewellery, the dearly departed Music Row for instruments and repair. The Garment District spans the West 30s and 40s. Its little sister, the Trim District, is an essential resource for manufacturers, seamstresses, tailors and craftspeople. It’s where you go if you want a doodad or a thingamajig — ribbon, thread, buttons, faux flowers, felt, cool tiger patches just like the back of Iggy’s jacket, scissors, snaps, jewellery findings, elastic of all shapes and sizes — you get the idea. A few of our favourites who admit retail customers are Daytona Trimmings (251 W 39th St) and Pacific Trimming (218 W 38th St). Be warned that browsing this bounty can sway laymen into believing they have the hidden talents to spin gold from straw. One day we really will do something with those sequinned patches we were convinced we absolutely needed ten years ago.

There are so many things to do here in NYC that we absolutely need a clone to send out when sleep beckons. One thing a bit off the radar is taking in a film at the French Institute/Alliance Française (22 East 60th St). The French cultural centre hosts language classes and events but non-members are invited to take advantage of their film programme — usually two showings on Tuesdays — both new French films and classics you probably will not see elsewhere. The lower level single screen theatre is cool and dark, comfortable and never overcrowded. They often have special screening events with directors and stars. On a memorable evening we were able to shoot la merde with superfave photographer/director William Klein.

And some favourite places elsewhere in the world?

Tommy’s Joynt (1101 Geary Blvd, San Francisco) is the last of the local steam table “Hofbrau” style cafeteria restaurants. It’s also a café, bar, and the best spot in town for a hangover feast. An Anchor Steam ale or an Irish Coffee will do the trick, and to eat, we gravitate to the turkey leg plate. There’s also baked beans, roast beef, corned beef, and other meats carved to order; a menu unmistakably a throwback to days before food became art. It has an old hand-wrought bohemian/beatnik charm — all the signage, all the cabinetry, everything is oozing with character. It’s an enduring example of the pre-hippie, pre-tech-bro, pre-hipster city of 1947, the year of its opening.

La Fiambrera (Calle del Pez 7, Madrid) is equal parts high art and lowbrow rock ‘n’ roll, the kooky, the bold and bright, the often hilarious and sometimes disturbing, but always intriguing. The front shop has bins of prints and shelves of books and novelties, hip tchotchkes at every price level. La Fiambrera (The Lunchbox) is considerably more fun than a gallery has any right to be.

The local supermarket or corner store is one of our favourite ways to immerse ourselves in a city. You can gawk at mystery foods and wonderful packaging and score bargain-priced tidbits for yourself and maybe unexpected gifts, too. We’ve snagged easily transportable and cheap chestnut paste in Paris, saffron packets in Madrid, coffee beans in Havana and chicory in New Orleans.

What’s your favourite city or place to visit?

When we mentioned in Glasgow we were about to vacation on the tiny Outer Hebridean isle of Barra, we got a lot of blank stares, and comments warning that there would be nothing to do out there. But it was August, we wanted to avoid crowds, and we wanted to see the ocean. We’re superfans of the Ealing comedy “Whisky Galore”, and the idea of seeing its remote film locale was enticing. As our ferry pulled up to the island after the five-hour ride, we were stunned to see the island truly looking just like it did in 1949, except in colour. There really is little to do but bicycle around on the one main road which circles the island, or visit the airport where small planes land only at low tide, on a carpet of cockle shells (the same shellfish you’ll find on your dinner plate at the hotel later). The dream is one day we will rent a house for a month, open to any friends intrepid enough to make the trek for a visit.

Do you have a travel tip to share?

When you rent a car always check the trunk for weird odours or suspicious stains before you get on the road. We’ll never know what exactly went on back there, but the theorising we did while we aired out the luggage turned quickly to the macabre, which didn’t help us get a good night’s sleep.

You can read more of Karen and Jon's work at grade-a-fancy-magazine.com and in our guides A Manhattan Bar For All Reasons, A Brooklyn Bar For All Reasons and Eating Queens.

Daytona Trimmings, Pacific Trimming and supermarket shelf photos courtesy of Karen McBurnie.

Barra photo by Szczepan Janus.

Published 12 June 2018

Our guides are printed in England on 100% recycled paper