When I was in the second grade, my parents got divorced. I saw my father every other weekend, and on Wednesdays we would have dinner. Usually we would go out, but occasionally this also entailed some depressing bachelor take out buffet of too much Chinese (which to this day echoes in my ordering style of wanting spare ribs, soup, lo mein, and spring rolls in addition to an entrée, an insane amount of food in general but especially ridiculous for a 115 lb girl), or perhaps Italian food, a hero and some pizza. Those tend to be the options in the more ethnically deprived areas of New Jersey. There are Chinese and Italian restaurants in every strip mall, but I didn’t learn what a falafel was until I moved to New York at age 17. Once every three towns or so, I’d find a Japanese place, and Indian place, or even a Thai place if I was lucky, but convincing my parents to go there was another story. “In town” in Princeton there were more options, but we didn’t live too close to the university and the restaurants there tended to be more expensive. And oh, there were the diners – that goes without saying, it was New Jersey. I worked at one in my senior year of high school, the Americana, one of the best in the state according to the framed press clippings on their walls. It was so popular that I had watched them do at least three expansions in my time living in New Jersey.
When I was about eight, my father started dating an awful woman who lived about an hour north of where I lived with my mom, and near her house we found a new but still rather dull selection of restaurants. On Saturday nights we would go to my favorite, The Tiger’s Tale, named for the Princeton University mascot, a relatively standard tavern with a bar that gave you popcorn while you were waiting for your table. Our waiter, Dave, would marvel as every other weekend I took out a French onion soup, a bowl of steamers, a twenty four ounce Kansas City steak, and still had room to split an apple crisp with my family. I particularly enjoyed knocking the dessert off my father’s spoon while he was eating it, not because I wanted to eat it myself, but just to see how long it would take him to get annoyed. I was elated when one dreary March day in my sophomore year of high school, my father told me that they were getting divorced, but not yet battered enough myself to understand the pain associated with the memory of places and people, I was a little bit sad to learn we would never again return to The Tiger’s Tale. Luckily, a sister restaurant operated twenty minutes from his new house. It’s still one of my favorite places to eat when I visit my parents, along with the diner where I used to work, and embarrassingly enough, P.F. Chang’s.
My father would, on occasion, wax poetic about his time growing up in Jackson Heights, and a Spanish restaurant, La Salamanca, that his family loved. He’s convinced that it closed or he might have taken us there, though I’m not entirely sure since a Salamanca Café exists currently in Jackson Heights. We taught ourselves to make his favorite dishes from his youth, Clams or Shrimp in Green Sauce (or Green Soup, as my deceased grandfather would call it) and Garlic Shrimp. As a result of not being able to go there, though, my father was always in search of the Spanish restaurant from his youth wherever he went. The internet didn’t really exist throughout most of his life, and even at the times when it has, it would not have occurred to him to look up restaurants on it. He discovered one place about half hour from his house, Spain 92, but it was also added to the off limits list after the divorce.
I learned how to eat in restaurants from my father. A particular atmosphere. A way of ordering. That a meal should be an event, an experience. He would make mental notes of places to try, and I learned to do the same. That’s the reason we tried such gems as The New York Deli on Route 1, a wannabe Katz’s in the middle of New Jersey complete with an all you can eat pickle bar, where the two of us would split three entrees: a foot-long hot dog, a pastrami sandwich as big as my head, and a bagel with cream cheese and lox. It was also the reason why we tried some really dreadful places that did not serve unlimited pickles, such as the Santa Fe Grill, a Mexican place down the street from our beloved The Tiger’s Tale.
I am prone to long walks. I might be bored walking around the middle of nowhere, but I do a great deal of poking around in urban environments. There’s always something to see and learn. Rarely is a walk complete without wandering into numerous stores and restaurants, making mental and physical notes of where I would like to return and under what circumstances. One such category is Places To Take Dad, one to which I frequently add during my never-ending explorations.
In my mid-twenties (that phrase stings to hear), we have reinstated weekly joint custody father-daughter dinners, though they have been moved to Thursdays in Washington Heights from Wednesdays in New Jersey, and sometimes have months in between, depending on work. I think Bangkok Heights may have been a little too adventurous for him, and as much as I enjoy Refried Beans, last time we went there I had too many margaritas and my first ever experience of throwing up as a result of drinking was unfortunately in my father’s company. We’ve enjoyed summer afternoons at La Marina, including taking my grandmother there, but it’s not open year-round. That, and as a creature of habit, it’s hard to get my Dad to go anywhere that isn’t Manolo.
Without even stepping foot inside, the first time I saw it I knew instantly that he would love Manolo, and actually opening their door confirmed my suspicions tenfold. I learned from him how to make Sangria at about age 14 and have since mostly stopped drinking, but I watch him take out a pitcher each time we go.
“How do you find these places?” he asks, at every new restaurant. Does my father think I just stare at my feet when I walk and don’t notice anything in my surroundings? And how could you possibly miss Manolo’s brick exterior, the smell of awesome coming out of Malecon, La Marina’s presence on the water below while strolling through Inwood or Fort Tryon Park, or seeing people drinking out of pineapples at Mama Sushi? These are not things I find to be easily ignored. I once considered taking him to No Parking as a joke (“Hey Dad, since you’ve been married three times and you and your girlfriend just broke up, I thought you might want to try something different”) though that is obviously now unfortunately a dream deferred.
Occasionally, and I must stress this, OCCASIONALLY, I will consult the internet for advice on where to eat, particularly when starting a new job in a neighborhood where I do not often work. I’m not the kind of person who can spend hours surfing blogs and news outlets when I’m bored. Fifteen minutes online not looking for something very specific and I don’t know what to do with myself. But while looking for more information on Uptown Restaurant Week, I came upon a few pieces on restaurants in the area, some I’d been to, some I have wanted to go to but haven’t yet, and a few I hadn’t heard of and will certainly visit sometime soon. What I did find strange, however, was that someone at a website specifically devoted to food had not listed Manolo (a place where at every visit, I have trouble limiting myself to five appetizers in addition to a skirt steak as big as my plate, and as I always promise myself I’ll try one new thing each time, I have tried nearly the whole menu), on their list of best Uptown restaurants. I’m not the kind of person who posts comments on blogs, or is a kochloeffel in really any situation, so I do not wish for this to be one of those obnoxious internet feuds. I don’t have any social networks and spend about half hour a day online. It usually makes no difference to me what the faceless people of the interwebs have to say, and I remembered why it is that I don’t spend too much time on it anymore anyway: it usually just makes me angry.
I understand that this list might have intended to seek out something less bougie than Lobster Paella, or promote some of the smaller and underrated establishments, as it is missing often kvelled about places like Malecon, and did not list a single restaurant in the Fort Washington and 187th Street cluster, but to list not one but TWO pizza places, however good they may be, and leave out a place my father travels a round trip of three hours on a weeknight to frequent, is an insulting and ignorant oversight. Every time we go there my father spends a minimum of ten minutes trying to convince our waiter to open up a franchise in Princeton, New Jersey.
This is not an advertisement for Manolo or Malecon, for Uptown Restaurant Week, or even for Uptown in general, though you can call it a love letter to them if you wish. It is more likely an advertisement against the internet, despite appearing on it, an advertisement for going outside, for walking around and discovering new places and making mental notes of the things you want to check out because you want to check them out, not because some faceless stranger on the internet told you to, and for the sake of enjoying them yourself and not because you want to tell your friends about it via status update or tweet. To be fully anonymous and uninfluenced by media in one’s decisions, a concept almost unheard of in 2014. Of course, I’m a faceless stranger hiding behind printed words too, at this instant, but this week I covered twenty four miles of New York City wandering in three days and had a really fabulous time, none of it below 125th Street, and the minute I stop typing, I’m going to tackle twenty four more and then some, all without the advice of someone on the internet I’ve never met.