I first saw the Unisphere in New York’s Flushing Meadows,
I was eight and trembling with the excitement of attending
a World’s Fair. The next time I saw it was 45 years later—just
last month—and it remains a compelling reminder of those hopeful
times. In 1964, “Peace Through Understanding” was the Fair’s
slogan, and spread over the fair’s 646 acres were fancy pavilions
from across the country and around the world.
touring these multicultural exhibits among an audience of
white guys with crew cuts and Jackie Kennedy wives, then returning
to my grandparents’ apartment in Astoria, near Ditmars Boulevard,
where the population seemed to consist only of other elderly
Norwegians. Not true, of course. My father, who grew up there,
later told me that it was a matter of some despair to his
parents that the Greek population swelled to a point that
his neighborhood became known as “Little Athens,” and his
sister brought home a succession of Greek boyfriends.
finished a month as an Astoria resident and saw evidence,
culinary and otherwise, that the World’s Fair promise has
been fulfilled in ways that organizer Robert Moses could never
have imagined. My apartment was not far from the intersection
of Broadway and 33rd Street, an area known for its restaurant
variety. Rarely did I dine at home.
identity endures. Three of that intersection’s corners declare
it. Café Kolonaki recently closed, but right across from it
is the long-lived, ever-expanding Omonia Café, a pastry and
coffee shop with outdoor seating that’s occupied for all but
a few wee-hours hours. They baked the cake for My Big Fat
Greek Wedding. They’ll serve you breakfast, sandwiches
and more if you don’t need baklava just yet. They introduced
me to fresh strawberries over Greek yoghurt, and I’m hooked.
Famous Pizza, at the third corner, also has room for you at
sidewalk tables, and a rotisserie of dense gyro loaf
promises more than Italian pies. Head one block southeast
to 34th and dine at Uncle George’s, a large, old-school place
with checkered tablecloths and an expansive menu that includes
classic Greek spreads and a variety of grilled and skewered
meats. And friendly service, but that proved to be the rule
in this neighborhood.
I dined in Manhattan, there was none of New York’s storied
gruffness; in Astoria, I was repeatedly welcomed to the neighborhood.
Some of this friendliness is studied, as at the nearby Brooklyn
Bagel & Coffee Co., where, as you near the counter, you’re
prompted to order with a cry of “Can I help the next guest?”
of it takes a little while, though. It wasn’t until my third
or fourth stop at OK Fruits and Vegetables, grabbing a fruit
salad for breakfast en route to work, that the taciturn fellow
behind the counter decided I was a regular and welcomed me.
of it’s just in the game. The legendary King of Falafel is
a truck parked by 30th Street, in front of a supermarket,
where you can get pita-wrapped falafel or souvlaki for under
five bucks. “Hey, big guy, what can I get you?” starts the
conversation, which then winds through the accompaniments
(“Gotta have some hot sauce on this, boss!”), the weather,
sports teams, and do I live around here, delivered in a rapid-fire
staccato by a fellow baking in August heat magnified by the
deep fryer and grill. Even though the King takes a powder
before nightfall, the souvlaki truck at 32nd Street is open,
grill-smoking and scenting the neighborhood well past midnight,
something for which I was most grateful on late-night trips
back from Manhattan.
ethnic variety covers not only a range of nations but also
prices, as newer establishments experiment with fancier settings
and menus. Demetri’s Authentic Greek Cuisine may have closed
after many years, but Bahari just opened across Broadway and
offers Greek fare from family recipes like galeos saganaki
(sautéed baby shark with feta) in a skylight-enhanced room.
pleasant dining area I enjoyed was the back garden of Leng
Thai, where bamboo trees hide the wooden fence and the khao
soi is remarkable. Two blocks away is Benjamas’ Taste
of Thai, and two more Thai restaurants on one long block northeast
at 31st Avenue.
got to Tierras Colombianas, also at 33rd and Broadway, and
thus missed its take on Colombian cuisine, but I breakfasted
a couple of times at Viva El Mariachi, a few doors down, where
you can get nopales (from prickly pear cactus) or chorizo
with your eggs.
a couple of weeks of sandpapering, painting and refinishing,
a place promising authentic Spanish tapas opened just as I
left, and I regret missing this one, too. Small portions are
a widespread trend of which I’m all in favor, as they let
you sample more upscale fare at reasonable prices.
trend I long to see arrive in our area is churrasco,
the Brazilian barbecue that presents many different meatstuffs
marinated and grilled to marvelous flavor and tenderness.
I saw several in midtown, and there was one right beside the
Broadway subway platform that gave you a variety of ordering
options. I chose the by-the-pound approach, filling a plate
from the salad bar with beef, chicken and sausage from the
grill, and weighing it at the counter before plunging in.
resident learns to hate the menu stuffing that clogs your
doorway, so I sheepishly confess that I found a menu for Osaka,
a just-opened Japanese restaurant, as I was fretting over
a dinner destination, and enjoyed an excellent noodle soup
at this cheery destination. Asian eateries abound, from the
by-the-book Sunshine Chinese Restaurant, right across Broadway,
to JJ’s Restaurant on 31st Avenue, where the menu puts fusion
fare alongside sushi and the traditionals. Wok ’n’ Roll sits
near the subway; Nuevo Jardin de China, on Broadway, mixes
Chinese and Cuban fare.
a short walk to a couple of Indian restaurants, to a Bosnian
restaurant (Djerdan) specializing in burek pies, many
Italian restaurants of varying gourmet-icity, several late-night
bars, a couple of mixed-pedigree American-menu places and
a few members-only joints that remain mysterious. Notice what’s
missing? Chain restaurants.
the Capital Region doesn’t boast the critical population mass
that puts so much in walking distance, here’s what I’d like
to see in the area: Appealing hippie vibes inform Bareburger,
a busy place with a simple menu. Choose your bun, choose your
meat (Piedmontese beef, elk, bison, ostrich, lamb), mushroom
(portobello), or veggie patty and add an array of toppings.
All organic, with the best herbal iced tea I’ve tasted.
Fairs are terrific, and the next one is long overdue, but
nothing brings cultures together as easily as the dinner table.
The neighborhood at Astoria’s 33rd and Broadway is proof of