Relentless future-mindedness is one of the things that gives New York its incredible energy – this is a town that is all about what's happening right now, or, more accurately, what's coming around the bend – could it possibly be something better?
Nostalgic types and lovers of history find themselves forever in a bind. The past may be all around, but it's never wise to let yourself get too close. You never know, after all – tomorrow could be the day when it all goes up in a cloud of construction dust.
After a breathtaking decade or so, in which a tidal wave of change crashed its way through the city, the skeptic might be excused for wondering if there's anything left at all here, really, that isn't shiny or new. Except that there is, and plenty of it – you just have to know what you're looking for. On your next date with New York, set aside a day and go live in the past, because you never know – just like that, it could be gone. Here's what to do.
Lox and a bagel at Russ & Daughters
This timeless, well-kept Lower East Side shop has been a refuge for lox lovers on gritty Houston Street since 1914 – still family-operated, you come here for some of the best smoked fish money can buy. A proper bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese is the perfect way to start a day of exploring in New York. (RussandDaughters.com; 179 E. Houston St.)
Browse the Essex Street Market
Shimmering new public markets and high-priced food halls are all the rage from coast to coast, but back in the old days, before supermarkets, a public market were little more than a utilitarian essential, corralling groups of vendors under one roof in a more sanitary, less weather-dependent setting. They've had their ups and downs – with more drama, it looks like, still to come –but the City of New York still operates four such markets in Manhattan, The Bronx and Brooklyn. Have a look through this Lower East Side gem, operating since 1940 and selling everything from fresh bread and cheap produce to Japanese snacks and fancy cheeses. (EssexStreetMarket.com; 120 Essex St.)
Get lost in the stacks at the Strand Book Store
Opened in 1927 and moved to its current location just south of Union Square in the 1950s, this independent bookstore is one of those places many New Yorkers refuse to imagine their city without, boasting more than 2.5 million titles and well-known for its carts of $1 books sitting outside on the pavement, every single day. Tip: If you're up near Central Park, they've got a kiosk on Fifth Avenue and 60th Street, right across from the Pierre Hotel. It's open every day, roughly until Christmas, weather permitting. (StrandBooks.com; 828 Broadway)
Lunch at Eisenberg Sandwich Shop
Ever watch Mad Men and find yourself wishing you could go back in time, just so you could take your lunches at long, Formica counters in impossibly cool old coffee shops, puffing on totally-good-for-you cigarettes, ordering up things like tuna on rye and celery soda? Get over to this Flatiron luncheonette, around since the 1920s and still one of the best of its kind in the city, despite a number of changes in ownership. Unlike those showboating delis elsewhere in town, this isn't just another a tourist trap – it's a place locals eat lunch, over and over and over again. Stop in for a – you guessed it – tuna on rye and a chocolate egg cream. (Eisenbergsnyc.com; 174 5th Avenue)
Sip cappuccino at the cafe that brought them to America
Not very long ago, deep into the 1990s, as a matter of fact, if you wanted a very good cup of coffee in New York – not the bilge water that most New Yorkers bought for two bits at their local deli in the morning – it wasn't out of the question to make a special trip to the West Village and its collection of ancient Italian caffes. Opened in 1927, Caffe Reggio is said to have been the first place to sell a cappuccino on this side of the Atlantic; they're still at it today. You can get a cappuccino anywhere, nowadays – cafes with this much atmosphere, however, are harder than ever to find. (CaffeReggio.com; 119 Macdougal St.)
Go for a walk where it all started
Of the countless ways New York has changed since the terrorist attacks of 2001, among the more notable is the slow, but sure resurgence of downtown, for decades considered a relatively remote section of the city best left to office workers and tourists. Today, this thicket of narrow streets and passageways feels more important to the city than ever before, while as the list of reasons to visit keeps getting longer and longer. Start your walk on highly-Instagrammable Stone Street, said to have first been paved in 1658 – lined with bars and cafes, here you're just blocks from some of the Financial District's most famous addresses. Next, head over to Bowling Green Park, New York's first and dating back to the 1730s, stopping along the way to nod at Fraunces Tavern, the oldest restaurant in town (1762) and dripping with local lore. (Sad trombone: What you're looking at here is a reconstruction.) There's nothing fake about Trinity Church, however, a welcome bit of calm at the hectic junction of Wall and Broadway. Dating back to the 1600s, the handsome structure you see today dates all the way back to the mid-1800s. It's a great place to catch your breath after a day of exploration.
Happy hour at New York's oldest bar
Open since 1817 – yes, even through Prohibition, when it operated as a speakeasy – the diminutive Ear Inn, on the ground level of a proper old Federal townhouse built back in the late 1700s for one of George Washington's aides, is a real, live, ye olde watering hole with the sagging wood floors, low ceilings and vintage décor you've come looking for. Stop in for their modest happy hour, offered 5-7 on weekdays. (If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, they do a great live jazz jam session of sorts, kicking off at 8pm most weeks.) (EarInn.com; 326 Spring St.)
Dinner at Bamonte's
New York's hardly short on old school restaurants, from tourist trap delis to expensive steakhouses serving up just-okay meat to dubious revivals of classic addresses that were probably better off lost to history. Bamonte's in Williamsburg – way over by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, on a block that was the middle of nowhere until fairly recently – isn't one of those places. Now well over a century old, this clubby spot with dark décor and a wonderful menu of Italian-American classics usually manages to charm the socks off of most of its visitors, even if they ordered wrong. (Some of the food just hasn't held up, over time.) You won't make that mistake, though, because you knew ahead of time to not fill up on appetizers and pasta, instead saving room for all of the veal parmesan and pork chops with pickled peppers you can possibly eat. (32 Withers St.)