It was the only washout day of our visit, that July Friday in 2011, when we ventured to Central Park, newly engaged and revelling in the novelty of our first holiday together. We had stood in line in the benign drizzle that morning, a pair of free tickets to the open air theatre performance that night rewarding our patience. They would showcase Shakespeare “come rain or shine” but even our lifelong British residency couldn’t persuade us to park for two hours in the downpours that amassed six hours later.
And so, for us, Measure For Measure never materialised, our day instead both shielded and cultured with the exhibits and artefacts housed inside The Met – a museum to some, an educational umbrella to the rest of us.
Birthday Beginnings at Central Park
Back then, we weren’t prepared for the unwanted rains, at least if my sandals and off-shoulder dress were anything to go by. This time, in February, a notoriously low month for NYC tourism and hardly famed for its inviting climates, I had almost built the soggy days into the itinerary; so when prongs of radiant sunlight reflected off the lake in Central Park a few months ago, I pleaded with Pumpkin for us to linger over a lazy stroll. “Pleeeease can we stay here longer,” I whimpered. “It’s glorious today.”
His poker face gave nothing away, concealed behind the habitual pragmatism the boy is known for, as I opened Pandora’s déjà vu box and recalled all the times I had tried in vain to anticipate his thoughts and feelings in our early dating days.
“Ok, just a quick walk,” he agreed, “otherwise we’ll run out of time to see the Chinese New Year parade and that Little Italy dessert place you wanted to try.”
Hitting me with the dessert card. He knew how to play on my weaknesses, the cunning genius.
It rolled off his tongue seamlessly, watertight in its logic. I gave no further thought to it, oblivious that his apparent ambivalence towards Central Park was merely a diversion tactic for the events he had planned back at Central Park four days later.
We would be joining the Iconic Views of Central Park walking tour as the first of a whole day of surprises he had planned for my birthday, learning the history of how this leafy oasis arrived in the middle of this cosmopolitan city all those generations ago.
He took a punt booking an outdoor activity for a birthday that falls in the middle of a New York winter – but he was right to. The sun shone for us once again, as if to bring to life the birthday love we had shown towards this city a few years ago, after we had once transformed the walls of our London home into Manhattan at the turn of my milestone birthday.
As my sister rang the doorbell armed with a homemade New York cheesecake and Pumpkin constructed the cardboard Lady Liberty he had located on trusty Ebay, I wouldn’t have imagined that one day, the NYC birthday would become a reality.
I couldn’t have known it would involve a Saturday brunch spent staring through the ceiling to floor glass façade of the boat house restaurant at Central Park, where I threw caution to the wind and went all American with an order of eggs Benny for brunch – “easy over please.” It’s not about the fact that “calories don’t count on birthdays” and it’s also not a question of whether we really needed that side of mac’n’cheese…it was more to do with the fact that I was in New York City, my happy place on my happy day and a floaty, carefree feeling took over.
A Renowned Cookie Stop
Pumpkin suggested we skip dessert, a bold statement at any time of year let alone a celebratory day but when he marched me to the famed Levain Bakery for gooey, straight-out-of-the-oven cookies, the logic became clear. Despite the 20 minute or so walk from Central Park, the US portion sizes (or perhaps simply my greed!) meant that I was still relatively full from brunch and if I have one teeny foodie regret from the day, it was that I didn’t just pack away their decadent signature chocolate chip and walnut cookie to eat later. Instead, overwhelmed by the desire to taste this famed Upper East Side cookie in the throes of its fresh warmth, I guzzled it down and whilst its uber gooey interior is a thing of envy for dessert lovers worldwide, it really is best enjoyed on a starving empty stomach. Go hungry, cookie monsters. Go hungry.
An Off-Broadway Surprise Show
“Are you good to keep walking,” he mumbled, already aware that a fed Shikha is usually a more manageable one. “I certainly am. Let’s do this.” We were heading back in the direction of Times Square, which I found puzzling, since we had already spent our first two nights staying in the heart of Times Square.
“It’s something you’ve done before and liked, I’ve never done it.” All the random possibilities swooped into my thoughts with aplomb. Doughnut making? Silent disco? An orderly queue stood wrapped up in scarves and beanies, whilst us evidently lucky ticket holders, could jump to the front. Quite what we were jumping ahead for remained to be seen but it was then that the familiar cheeky grin of the profane puppets of Avenue Q entered my vision. He knew I had seen this boundary-pushing hilarity years ago in London’s west end and it remained every bit as comical in the packed off-Broadway theatre in 2019. And if your curiosity is spurred by the description of it being off-Broadway, it actually refers more to the capacity of the venue with than the location -off-Broadway shows typically offering a smaller and more intimate theatre experience than the big Broadway fanfare.
The All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-American Diner
Six visits to the land of the free and barely a couple of visits to a classic American diner. Pumpkin had evidently picked up on this untapped niche in my travel life and when I was told there was another queue awaiting us, quite frankly, I wasn’t up for it. Queuing for a burger when the icy wind chill had started to permeate through my over-proportioned and meticulously thought out layering strategy, didn’t seem hugely appealing. I took my place in line for our “early dinner stop” whilst Pumpkin marched ahead to get the lowdown on the approximate wait time.
I listened curiously and tentatively to the family of four ahead of me, sensing a Southern state accent. “Is it really worth waiting so long” the Momma asked her husband, her conversation intercepted by a repeat frequenter to this particular fast food joint. “It’s your first time huh? Trust me, you are TOTALLY going to wanna wait. It’s worth it. You’ll see what I mean when you get in”
The impassioned assurance coupled with my #FOMO meant my eavesdropping ears heard all they needed to and with that, I nestled into my spot in the queue, pulling my recently-gifted glitter beanie over my ears to the last inches of its stretching abilities.
45 minutes or so later, we were escorted to our table inside the electric, one-of-a-kind Eileen’s Stardust Diner, an all singing, all dancing diner experience, where the all wait staff dance, sing and perform and most of whom have backgrounds in performing arts. There was some serious vocal and comedy talent locked within their personnel, just yearning to be unleashed as they stepped onto that catwalk stage, shortly after delivering battered food and ice cream floats to the hungry, music-loving diners.
You don’t come somewhere like this for top quality Michelin star dining but the food turned out to be better than I had anticipated. With pizzas and sodas gracing the menu, door-stop wedges of pie and multi-layered cakes, calorie counters need a ten mile wide berth of this place but the entertainment and quirk factor is hard to surpass. Total win if “bit quirky” is on your NYC itinerary and as I tucked into my fried potato cakes, the adjacent tables chanted along in unison to the soaring high notes of Bohemian Rhasody.
Rooftop Drinks at R Lounge, Times Square
After all that greedy gobbling and enthused city walking, we were in need of some down time back at the hotel and I was dangerously close to throwing my PJs on and calling it a night at 8pm. My birthday had already been a most eclectic, original and thoughtful jigsaw of New York City shenanigans and whatever “Times Square evening surprise” he had left up his sleeve didn’t seem necessary.
And yet, spurred on by my sense of euphoria and by my immense gratitude to Pumpkin for planning one activity after another, I found a few remaining morsels of energy to head out again rather like I always manage to find a last morsel of hunger when it comes to puddings!)
So, through the minty lens of a Virgin Mojito, I found myself gazing over Times Square from an entirely new vantage point at R Lounge, where my eyes were drawn to the chameleon-like neon choreography of the concave Reeses bilboard ahead of me. I could have people watched for hours, curiously delving silently into the hidden stories of those who walk these streets; those who may be awestruck by the glaring lights for the very first time and those for whom this city may have centuries worth of connections.
Rooftop Cocktails at Library Hotel and Mini Cupcakes in Bed
We returned to our hotel, the boutique Library Hotel, very much in need of a thaw and the of hot cocktails on offer in the heated corner of their rooftop bar seemed the ideal way to (warmly) see out a perfect birthday and our final night in New York City (for now.) The couple of bitesized cupcakes we had purchased from Baked by Melissa in Times Square may or may have not formed the basis of a a cheeky midnight snack (it was just before midnight so when it’s still on birthday time, it totally counts right?!)
They say that things go full circle and I guess, for us, it started and ended with mini cupcakes in Midtown Manhattan with 8 years of exhilarating life lived in between. Blog posts sometimes end with disclaimers and whilst I do need to thank The Library Hotel for hosting us during our stay, my main disclaimer is actually to my Pumpkin, whom I owe a huge debt of thanks for putting so much thought and effort into making this birthday such a special one.