Can you get good coffee in New York?
If you’re a regular drinker of skim milk coffee, there’s a good chance you’ll need to switch to full cream milk while you’re in NYC. For some reason no-one can make a decent coffee with non-fat milk. It is possible to find decent coffee despite what everyone tells you. We stayed in the West Village and after trying a few places settled on one that was consistently good and very popular with the locals, Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee just off 6th Avenue.
Tipping in New York – what should you do?
Tipping is one of the biggest dilemmas when you’re in the US. Our first night out our dinner bill came with recommended tips which started at 18% and went to 20% and 22%. Are you kidding me?!? We generally tip at home and if we have a $64 bill we’d have no problems rounding it up to $70 if the service was good and we liked the food. But an 18% tip on $64 means you need to leave at least $75. It’s a lot extra especially if you’re starting out with Aussie dollars.
The theory in the US is that wait staff get paid such a low hourly wage, they rely on generous tips to make money. What happens though is that wait staff expect at least 20% even if they don’t offer great service.
So, what to do?
If you leave 10% you’re basically saying the service was crap and the waiter will likely ask you what was wrong, so be prepared. We generally tipped no more than 15% and often a bit less and no-one ever hassled us. But a friend got seriously harangued at a Korean restaurant for leaving less than 15% and were guilted into handing over more.
The restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art has recently broken ranks and banned tips. The cost of food and drinks will go up a little to cover higher wage costs leaving customers free to tip good service if they want to. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a tipping revolution!
One other thing to be aware of – if you buy a drink at the bar you’ll need to tip the barman $1 a drink.
When you’re in the US somehow you’ll want to eat fries, donuts, cookies, ice cream sandwiches, pizza and pasta even if your lips never touch this stuff back home. The American diet is so carbohydrate heavy, if you taste just a bit, before you know it, you’ll be wanting more, more, more.
Be prepared to queue
If you want to go to a popular restaurant you’ll need to queue. And New Yorkers, despite a reputation for being impatient and demanding, seem to be more than willing to queue up to wait for a table. It’s become such a thing though that we found maitre d’s would pretty much always tell you there’ll be a 10-15 minute wait even if the restaurant is half empty. It’s all about perception.
The subway – don’t be afraid to ask locals for directions, they get lost too
Despite being dirty, hot and generally pretty horrible the subway system in New York is fantastic. You can get from lower Manhattan to the Upper West Side in 20 – 25 minutes on an express train.
It’s important to recognise the difference between an express and local train. We accidentally caught a few express trains. A local train stops at every station and will have LCL on the side of the train. On the subway map a black dot indicates a local station and a white one with a black ring means express trains always stop here.
You need to read the number or letter of the train as it approaches to see whether it’s local. Most stations don’t provide info on when the next train is due and most of the announcements about what’s coming, what stop is next are completely incomprehensible.
It’s also hard to know which platform to wait on sometimes – ask someone, as several times we found ourselves waiting on the wrong platform. Even when we were on trains, we’d sometimes check with a local to make sure we were heading in the right direction. Funnily enough, one guy sitting next us realised he was on the wrong train and had to jump off at the next station. Even locals get lost.
Public toilets in New York – why Starbucks is your friend
Public toilets are as rare as hens’ teeth in New York. When you’re walking for miles exploring the city it’s easy to get caught short. That’s when Starbucks comes into its own. You might diss their coffee but they are literally everywhere and most of them have a toilet.
Gallery hopping in Chelsea Starbucks was the ONLY option. The snooty-nosed galleries, where the staff are very busy feigning busy-ness, can barely manage ‘hello’ let alone let you use their facilities.
We did find one public toilet that was completely unusable and another, where the ambulance had been called as it looked like someone had suffered a drug overdose in there.
Citibikes – ‘Faster than walking, cheaper than a taxi, more fun than the subway.’
Citibikes, the bike share system, are a fantastic way to get around the city, if you’re brave enough to ride on the roads. Otherwise there’s a great bike track much of the way around Manhattan which is a fast, easy way to discover the city – definitely faster than walking and cleaner than the subway.
The bikes cost $12USD for the day but that doesn’t mean you can take one bike for the whole day. Each ride is limited to 30 minutes so you need to return the bike and swap them over every half hour. If you run over it’s $4USD for every 15 minutes which can make it an expensive ride.
There are 500 stations and 8,000 bikes across the city so they’re not hard to find but it’s worth downloading the app so you don’t get caught. We found ourselves racing to get to the next station a few times and got caught out on the East River.
Around commuter peak times bikes might be a bit scarce and locals can be quite territorial about them too!
Share the sidewalk love
When you’re walking down the crowded sidewalks it’s pretty rare that anyone will step out of your way. A group of people could be walking three-abreast down the street and no-one will step aside. Get used to it.
Unless you’re walking along the Hudson River. There’s a walkway and a cycleway here and people take it very seriously – whatever you, do don’t step onto the wrong side, you’ll get yelled at for sure. Stick to the right.
Home sweet home – how quiet it is
After two and half weeks in the Big Apple heading home to Sydney, Australia was a bit of a shock. We live in a busy beachside suburb and even in winter it’s a hive of activity. But the thing that really struck me when we arrived home was how incredibly quiet it seemed. Like a hush kind of quiet. With hardly any cars or people around. It takes a while to get back in the groove but I realised how quickly you jump into the fast-paced buzz that is New York City.