International designer Rafe Totengco shares his essential black book for the hip and chic
My New York. Frank Sinatra crooned it in Vegas, Liza Minnelli belted it on Broadway and Odyssey discoed to it but I think Alicia Keys sings it best.
“In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do. Now you’re in New York, these streets will make you feel brand new, the lights will inspire you, lets hear it for New York, New York, New York!”
I’ve always said that moving to this city was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. I came with a dream and now I’m living that dream. I’ve lived here for almost twenty years now and I’m proud to call myself a New Yorker. There is always something happening every night of the week and the possibilities are endless. New York is like the energizer bunny, it just keeps going and going. I love every exhilarating, adrenaline pumping minute of it.
As a designer, the city is a great source of inspiration. The museums, galleries, the fashion industry, theatre, concerts, shopping and dining all compete for their fifteen minutes of fame. Just walking around the different neighborhoods bears fruit to so many ideas. New York is one big stimulus package!
In a city where the best of the best and the worst are at your fingertips, finding the unique and the truly special can be quite a challenge. I’m always on the hunt for what’s new and fresh yet at the same time I’m a creature of habit. Once I find something I love, I come back for more. Inevitably, whenever friends visit they always want recommendations for shopping, dining and other hedonistic activities. New York can be intimidating and overwhelming because there are way too many choices. Over the years I’ve culled a tried, true and tested list of faves and I’m happy to share some of them with you.
430 Lafayette Street
Tel (1)(212) 505-1111
A New York downtown institution and one of my go-tos if I’m craving Vietnamese! I used to live next door so I became a regular stopping by for a lychee saketini. I swear by their spring rolls and crab cakes! During Fashion Week, this place is mobbed by cognoscenti every night. This restaurant has such an illustrious history that in honor of their 25th anniversary, Rizzoli released a coffee table book filled with images and stories of their famous diners. How chic is that! In a pinch, Jean-Marc Houmard, my friend and one of the owners, always manages to squeeze me in on a busy Thursday night.
306 West 13th Street
Tel (1)(212) 206-0601
A cozy Italian enoteca (wine bar) in the West Village. I always go here if I want something quick and simple. They have classic antipasti like ‘prosciutto e melone’ and tuna tartar, plus a nice wine list with enough Barolos and Venetos to satisfy a connoisseur. Anthony, the proprietor always comes over and pours me an extra glass. In my book, that gets double stars! And if you’re hungry for more, order their cannelloni. Trust me, those carbs are worth it!
171 Spring Street
Tel (1)(212) 343-4255
It’s not strictly a tapas bar but their small dishes keep me coming back. Yann de Rochefort, one of the owners, was inspired by his childhood memories of Spain and I don’t think anyone has created a New York version that is nearly as compelling as the Barcelona originals. I always order the “albondigas” (meatballs), “pimientos de Padron” (fried green peppers) and a glass of Onix (Priorat red wine). They don’t take reservations so come early if you want a table but I like eating at the bar, just like the Catalans.
120 Hudson St
Tel (1)(212) 219 0666
You haven’t had a proper New York brunch until you’ve been to this Tribeca landmark. in the old days you’d bump into JFK Jr. or Harvey Keitel having breakfast. These days you might catch a glimpse of an incognito Robert Pattinson having coffee. Try their famous Banana Walnut Pancakes (perfection!) and have a bite of their Key Lime pie, chef and owner Ron Silver makes them fresh daily. On weekends, be prepared to wait at least an hour for a table and just in case you’re out really late and have a sudden urge for Eggs Benedict, they are open for midnight brunch. Love that!
199 Grand Street
Tel (1)(212) 334-3669
Malaysian cuisine at its best. Straight to the point and cash only. Roti Canai, Satay Ayam (chicken sate’), Nasi Lemak and Hainanese chicken are my personal faves. They will also serve you fresh coconut juice from a coconut, just the way it’s supposed to be done.
Boom Boom Room
The Standard Hotel, 848 Washington Street
Tel (1)((212) 645-4646
If you can manage to get in, what awaits you at the top of the Standard Hotel is the chicest watering hole in the Big Apple since Studio 54! Celeb spotting is almost guaranteed. Just last week I was having cocktails right beside Sarah Jessica Parker, and Dylan McDermott was over at the bar while Mary Kate Olsen was huddled around the fireplace! Like any hot spot, entry is next to impossible and details are ambiguous. There’s a special number you have to call to get on the list but if you’re staying at The Standard then you’re all set. Book a weekend at the hotel when you’re in town so you can see what I’m talking about. The hotel is located in the Meatpacking district which is a great area to meander around in anyway, day or night.
Rose Bar and Jade Bar
2 Lexington Avenue,
(Tel)(1) 212 920 3300
Inside the Gramercy Park Hotel is a cozy bohemian drawing room with a huge fireplace, a pool table and walls packed with exquisite 20th century artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince and Julian Schnabel. Coincidentally, Mr. Schnabel is also the hotel’s art director. The crowd is as sophisticated as the interiors and the drinks are appropriately expensive. Be warned, reservations are required after 9pm even for cocktails. This is New York after all.
311 Church Street
Tel (1)(212) 431-8750
Just below Canal Street, underneath the hip restaurant Macao Trading Company is another secret den reserved for fabulous downtown denizens. It’s decorated to resemble an opium den with dim lighting, Chinese teak screens, silk brocade cushions and walls filled with erotic imagery and paraphernalia. If you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll catch hunky actor Josh Hartnett working the turntables. He’s even adopted a new nickname, “DJ Heart-net”. I heart that! LOL! But be warned, entry is elusive unless you know the right people or the door person fancies you.
37 Greenwich Avenue
Tel (1)(212) 488 2803
Jon’s got the Midas touch (four stores in the city!) and he can do no wrong in my book. Everything he does is so “happy chic”, including needlepoint pillows, platinum dipped pottery and enamel picture frames! He even lets you customize your own pillows or rugs! How’s that for special and unique?
35 Howard Street
Tel (1)(212) 219-2631
Umberto Leon and Carol Lim are pioneers in the downtown retail scene opening a store in an unlikely location on Howard Street back in 2002. Now they count Derek Lam, Jill Sander and Vesper as their neighbors. They’ve collaborated with stylish actress Chloe Sevigne and even Timberland boots! Going to their store is a fun experience. You’ll find emerging American and international designers mixed with one of a kind vintage pieces and established designer labels like Alexander Wang and Acne. This February they’re opening the ‘ultimate hotel shop’ at the Ace Hotel.
6 East 2nd Street
Tel (1)(212) 677 3917
Here’s a store that I can get lost in for hours. You have to do several laps before you can take it all in. It’s an atmospheric hodge- podgy of antiques, art, clothing, home furnishings and John’s own decorative objects. John singlehandedly made decoupage chic again. They make great gifts! My favorite is the multi piece wall hanging with an image of a skeleton. You’ll always find interior designers browsing the store with fabric swatches in their hands and occasionally you will run into Helena Christensen buying a Hugo Guinness print. I get all my Rogues Gallery T-shirts here.
199 Lafayette Street
Tel (1)(212) 966 0026
I have a serious love / hate relationship with this men’s store. I love that they carry my favorite labels like Richard Chai, Robert Geller, Engineered Garments, Band of Outsiders and Shipley & Halmos but I hate that I can’t walk out empty handed. The shop staff is just as cool as the merchandise they carry and are often photographed by Japanese magazines for their sartorial choices.
New York Vintage
117 West 25th Street
Tel (1)212 647 1107
Shannon has a curator’s eye for designer and couture vintage clothing and accessories. Every piece is one of a kind and in mint condition. She scours vintage auctions for the best of the best. The last time I was there I saw Sarah Michelle Gellar trying on a vintage Halston dress. I go to her every season to look for inspiration and she’s never failed me.
252 Lafayette Street
Tel (1)(212) 431-4161
This is one of my favorite vintage stores in the city! The owners, Marco Liotta and Patti Bordoni scour vintage fairs and flea markets in Europe several times a year to bring back the best of the best. Often they buy dead stock merchandise and unknown labels with interesting details. Last season I bought the original army sneaker that Martin Margiela and Dior Homme based theirs on for a fraction of the price of course!
This originally appeared in the February-March 2010 issue of Travelife Magazine.
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