Neon lines trace the overhang inside Stardust Diner as we sit down for a late night dessert (having just seen Neil Patrick Harris on Broadway in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’) at a glittery red booth. A small part of me feels like Vincent Vega in ‘Pulp Fiction’, minus the cocaine but with the same glamorous atmosphere of Golden Era Hollywood show biz when he and Mrs. Mia Wallace sit inside the now iconic Jack Rabbit Slims. I smile at this cinematic sensation when suddenly a waitress across the room takes center stage and begins to belt out a show tune. She’s quite good actually, and as she mounts one booth and serenades the audience, I wonder whether she’s an aspiring Broadway performer. But that’s ridiculous, of course she is. They all are. She isn’t the last waitress or waiter to perform, auditioning for that potential producer that might happen to stumble in just like I have. She crosses toward us and raises her hand to Josh, singing to him. He laughs that infectious laugh and they take a photo together. The song ends, the dancing lights cease, and the mumbled conversations begin once more.
What I’ve had of New York food hasn’t been life-changing or particularly inspiring in and of itself, but it’s atmosphere of each that keep it memorable. The silver haired waiter who takes our breakfast order with the kind of harsh kindness that New Yorkers have seems straight out of a Scorcese movie. The lamb gyro from a street-cart isn’t any better than the ones I’ve had in Portland, but is wonderfully spicy against the chill of the light rain.
One night, after seeing James Franco in the Broadway production ‘Of Mice and Men’, Josh and I hunt for somewhere to eat. A young man with a reddish beard stands smoking a cigarette and checking his phone at the crosswalk we both wait at.
“Hey man, do you live here? New York I mean.” I ask.
“Yeah, I do. What’s up?” He says, flicking ash onto the pavement and turning toward me.
“Know any good burger places to eat around here? We’re starving.” I say.
“Hmm, not really around here. There is a place up a ways that I’ve heard is incredible.”
“Cool, thanks!” I say, and we continue on.
There is more to that conversation which I’ve chosen to leave out, the specifics of which include the name of the restaurant. Not because I don’t want you to find it, but because finding it is part of the fun. The first step seems to be asking a local; they’ll point you in the right direction. With any smart phone you can find the name of this hidden gem, but even still once you make it to the correct street, actually finding it is another matter. You have to go in the right building, through glass doors, a lobby, and past a large velvet red curtain. We walk up and down 56th street, searching. It’s late and steam rises from the sewer grates in an atmospheric miasma, the streets strangely (and welcomingly) devoid of tourists. Finally, we find the curtain, and a large African American man standing with arms folded asks us what we’re looking for. We say the name as if it were a password. Silently, he nods us in the right direction, into a narrow hallway with nothing but a small neon sign at the end in the shape of a burger. I feel like Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, who in Japan is taken to a nondescript neon sign of a fish only to indulge in one of the most memorable seafood meals of his life. Upon entering, the stark contrast is dramatic. Am I in the right place? Handwritten graffiti of customers who have come before covers nearly every inch of the walls, and the noise and conversations within seem to transport you to a different place in New York, as if that neon burger was actually a portal from the silent area you just came from. A grill sizzles with hot oil and raw meat, steam rising from behind the dilapidated counter, next to which sits a handwritten menu. It’s just long enough to give you some options, but short enough to imply confidence in what they offer.
“How many burgers you gettin’? Yo we closin’ soon so hurry up.”
It’s 11:20, ten minutes before they close, and it’s cash only tonight so we scrounge together just enough to each get a burger (With everything? Yessir, thank you) and fries. The seeming rudeness at telling us to hurry up doesn’t offend me. They’ve got lives to get to, and I find out later it’s that guys birthday. Plus we’re hungry so we want em’ quick anyway. This is New York, after all. Without a certain thickness of skin you might assume the entire city to be snobbish and rude. In a way its refreshing to the sometimes passive aggressive nature of Portland’s food service. They call it like it is here, no bullshit. I can dig that.
We sit down at one of the distressed booths, and my meal is preceded by the words of a wise man who once ate in this very spot, etched into the table and which confirm what I know instinctually: I came here. I ate here. I left here. But I’ll be back.
Something else happens after you’ve eaten there, something better even than the meal (which, I have to say, was pretty damn good). Like a mecca of the city, the journey and experience are a gateway to befriending the locals. A passerby on the street hears our post-meal conversation. “Oh man, dat place is where it’s at!” While buying wine in a liquor store, the cashier finds out as well. He says the simple name of the restaurant, then, “Oh hell yeah! Give it to me right here. Good choice, good choice.” Nodding his head in approval and fist bumping all of us. I feel a certain swell of pride within having been the one to find it. Would Anthony Bourdain be proud? I like to think so. And I now have an invaluable conversation tool at my disposal for any other locals I may happen to meet or cross paths with.
That kind of unifying thread only locals can see is a precious thing not found by taking one of millions of identical photos of Times Square, nor through a selfie or opting for the recognizable and reliably mediocre places like Olive Garden, TGIF, or McDonalds. You find it by not being afraid to look a stranger in the eye, even in an intimidating place like New York, and ask for help.