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Map No 9: State of the Union
With its circle of megabrands capped by Whole Foods, Union Square’s renaissance is complete.
  • By Sarah Bernard
  • Published


  • A twenty-year rejuvenation process is finally fulfilled: Union Square is now as important an urban hub as any in New York. It’s hard to remember that this was once a neighborhood where businesses had gates on the windows and the homeless slept in a park without benches. Now it’s safe for Circuit City, skater boys, and NYU dorms—not everyone’s idea of an urban idyll, but not so bad next to a three-star restaurant, a burgeoning theater district, and, of course, the glorious Greenmarket. Hit the market for your best burst of flora short of Central Park, celebrate (or bemoan) the new Whole Foods, and just try to get tickets to Thom Pain (based on nothing). Union Square’s moment is now.


    The biggest, best, and most literary B&N in the city, with well-curated display tables and a 2,000-title-strong magazine section. The beautiful 1880 building has been fully restored with cast-iron columns and a redbrick façade. By day it feels like a grad-student lounge (come early for a café seat); by night (until 10 P.M.) it’s more a salon, with regular readings.

    (2.)
    Rothman’s
    200 Park Ave. S., at 17th St.; 212-777-7400
    In the eighteen years since Ken Gideon opened to regular break-ins and the sound of gunfire, everything has changed, even—albeit slowly—his shop’s stodgy reputation. There are still Canali suits and Zegna ties available for the Wall Street types, but new lines meant for sporty hipsters (like Ben Sherman, Fred Perry, and classic, durable, hard-to-find Bill’s Khaki’s) have also become part of the store’s stock.

    (3.)
    W New York Union Square
    201 Park Ave. S., at 17th St.; 212-253-9119
    The only New York W in a landmark building (the old Guardian Life), with a restored ballroom for parties. The calm rooms feel designer, but not obnoxiously so, and beds are super-comfy. The lobby-lounge couches, often draped with media execs and celebrities, are prime Park Avenue South people-watching. The best buy at the pricey in-house restaurant, Todd English’s Olives, is the $24 lunchtime Greenmarket Menu. Downstairs, Rande Gerber’s cavelike Underbar is filled with more out-of-towners than locals.

    (4.)
    Union Square Theatre
    100 E. 17th St., nr. Park Ave. S.; 212-505-0700
    The onetime headquarters of Tammany Hall, built Colonial-revival style in 1929, now hosts hip drama like Jesus Hopped the A Train and Surviving Grace. The current offering, Slava’s Snowshow, is aimed at kids.

    (5.)
    The Children’s Place
    36 Union Square E., at E. 16th St.; 212-529-2201
    This BabyGap alternative has affordable basics and the occasional snazzy piece.

    (6.)
    Italian Wine Merchants
    108 E. 16th St., nr. Union Square E.; 212-473-2323
    There are bottles for $12 to $25, but this shop, co-owned by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Sergio Esposito, is aimed at serious collectors who get advice from “portfolio managers.” A newly built vintage-tasting room—it’s kept at 54 degrees, so dress accordingly—is available for private parties of eight (salumi and antipasti optional).

    (7.)
    Zen Palate
    34 Union Square E., at E. 16th St.; 212-614-9291
    Hard-core vegetarians swear by the shredded soy gluten (it tastes like chicken) and the quick deliveries. The less-committed complain about squishy dumplings and tasteless steamed vegetables.

    (8.)
    Babies ’R’ Us
    24-30 Union Square E., nr. E. 15th St.; 800-869-7787
    By Christmas, car seats and layettes will fill the space once occupied by Toys ’R’ Us.

    (9.)
    Daryl Roth Theatre
    101 E. 15th St., nr. Union Square E.; 212-375-1110
    The cavernous main space (once a Union Square Savings Bank, now named after one of New York’s leading theater producers) made its name by hosting De La Guarda’s interactive acrobatics. After renovations, it will reopen in the spring with about 300 removable seats, and double as a party or event space. The adjacent 99-seat DR2 Theater (103 E. 15th St.; 212-375-1110) currently has the much-raved-about Thom Pain (based on nothing) through Labor Day.

    (10.)
    Metronome
    1 Union Square S.
    This tacky, steam-spouting digital-clock installation, the result of a competition judged by the Public Art Fund, has been confusing people since it was built in 1999. The six numbers on the left display how much time has passed since midnight; the six numbers on the right, read backwards, display how long till midnight. It’s supposed to remind us that time is unknowable, and it certainly succeeds.


    (11.) Virgin Megastore
    52 E. 14th St., at Broadway; 212-598-4666
    Now that Tower is falling apart, this is the last great general-interest music chain in the city, with an excellent stock of European imports, a solid classical department, a comprehensive jazz selection, and an endless pop section. Countless listening stations at the front offer an instant youth-culture primer, while the basement has a great selection of obscure music books and magazines, as well as graphic novels. It’s perfect for night owls, too—open till 1 A.M. every day except Sunday (midnight).

    (12.)
    Regal Union Square Stadium 14
    14 W. 13th St., at Broadway; 212-253-2225
    What a multiplex should be, using fourteen screens to program a high-low selection of the best blockbusters and the hippest indies, which often stay on screens long enough for late adopters to catch up. Beware the mob scene on weekends: Buy tickets in advance or don’t bother, and use the machines in the lobby to skip the lines.

    REAL ESTATE
    Union Square’s housing stock is a mix of NYU dorms, postwar “white elephants,” loft conversions, and new construction from the late eighties and early nineties. Unless you’re lucky enough to have bought in the seventies for $15 per square foot, as Corcoran’s Kenny and Meris Blumstein did, “$2 million a unit is where the market is,” according to Kenny.
     
    (14.) Zeckendorf Towers
    1 Irving Pl.; 212-260-5521
    The largest condo development in the neighborhood, with 631 apartments. The four structures that make up the complex function as a self-contained “city,” with a pool, supermarket, parking garage—even a hospital: Beth Israel occupies a few of the lower floors. A two-bedroom on the seventh floor recently listed at $1.95 million.
     
    (15.) 1 Union Square South
    212-253-1400
    The only luxury rental property on the square. A two-bedroom, two-bath apartment costs $6,400 a month; a one-bedroom rents for $4,500.
     
    (16.) Nassi Building
    56 E. 13th St., nr. Broadway; 212-539-4972
     
    (17.) The Claremont
    126 University Pl., at 13th St.; 212-727-6130
    Two new loft conversions in progress: The Nassi has seven apartments, none sold yet; a two-bedroom space in the already sold-out, six-unit Claremont is valued at $2.1 million. If you want to get in on the next development, keep an eye on the hole in the ground at East 14th Street and University Place, which will be residential but doesn’t yet have a representative.
     
    (13.)
    Forever 21
    4 Union Square S., nr. University Pl.; 212-228-0598
    This juniors chain store, well known to mall rats in Florida and Texas, is the perfect place for budding Lolitas to invest in a trend. You can pick up a lace camisole for $14.80, or a black tulle ballerina dress for $26.80. Like H&M, shopping here requires digging and patience. Bring multiple sizes into the dressing room, as the fit of each varies. The section of G-strings and boys’ shorts is frighteningly comprehensive.

    (18.) Filene's Basement
    40 E. 14th St., nr. University Pl.; 212-358-0169
    The only New York Filene’s with a sizable home department. It’s perfect for filling a starter apartment or a dorm room on a budget: Calvin Klein sheets are a good value ($79.99, from $180), as are Wamsutta sheets for $9.99, Ralph Lauren irregulars for $11.99, and “nearly perfect” towels for $7.99.

    (19.)
    DSW
    40 E. 14th St., nr. University Pl.; 212-674-2146
    The selection (Kenneth Cole, D&G) of 30,000 shoes on this massive shop floor is hipper than at Payless, and the shopping process is more efficient than at David Z: Each display model sits atop boxes of its own inventory, which means you can help yourself to your size instead of waiting for an overworked salesperson. Current-season shipments arrive twice a week.

    (20.)
    Mexx
    19 Union Square W., at 15th St.; 646-486-7405
    The short-lived outpost of this Dutch chain will relocate to Soho in mid-April, and American Eagle Outfitters will move in after renovations.

    (21.)
    The Coffee Shop
    29 Union Square W., at 16th St.; 212-243-7969
    In grand eighties tradition, wannabe models still seem to make this their first job in the city. Maybe it’s all the agencies within walking distance. They’re the main reason to come; food is mediocre. Have your post–Irving Plaza coffee here; it’s open till 5 A.M.

    (22.)
    Union Square Cafe
    21 E. 16th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-243-4020
    The first fine-dining restaurant to open in Union Square; the first to use fresh ingredients from the Greenmarket; the first to serve high-quality wines by the glass; and the first to encourage eating a full dinner at the bar. Danny Meyer kick-started the Union Square revival almost twenty years ago (the big anniversary is a few months away), and the low-key vibe he maintains is as important as the superb American food to this restaurant’s unflagging popularity. Weekend lunch is the best time to get a short-notice reservation.

    (23.)
    Blue Water Grill
    31 Union Square W., at 16th St.; 212-675-9500
    The linchpin of the BR Guest chain has two levels and an outside seating area that wraps around 16th Street. The basement feels bland, and the mezzanine is cramped, so head for the raw bar—seafood and creative appetizers are the best things on the menu anyway. A good spot for supersized-group dining, but beware happy-hour enthusiasts downing rounds of “Dragon Sunrise.”

    (24.)
    Union Square Wines & Spirits
    33 Union Square W., nr. 16th St.; 212-675-8100
    In a previous life, the Decker building was home to Andy Warhol’s second Factory studio. Now it holds more than 4,000 wines. Prices tend to be high—you’ll pay more for a bottle of champagne here than anywhere else in the city—so wait for the regular sales, when 25 percent off a mixed case is typical.

    (25.)
    Shija Day Spa
    37 Union Square W., nr. 16th St.; 212-366-0706
    The generous lockers are perfect for stashing multiple shopping bags. Owner Sarah Choi does Nicole Kidman’s facials, and that’s what you should get, too—they’re thorough and extremely relaxing, with bonus foot, hand, and neck massage, and a temperature-adjusted water pillow. Couples treatments in double-size rooms are popular, as are bachelorette parties.

    (26.)
    Republic
    37 Union Square W., nr. 16th St.; 212-627-7172
    Inexpensive, quickly prepared Thai food that punches above its price point. The savory pad Thai is a classic; the spicy coconut chicken soup should be. Large parties can make themselves comfortable at communal tables; small parties should be prepared to share.

    (27.)
    Chop’t
    24 E. 17th St., nr. Union Square W.; 646-336-5513
    Duck off the main square into this reasonably priced salad-and-sandwich shop with extremely fresh ingredients. The dressings are made fresh every day and sweetened with organic honey. Salads are diced with a mezzaluna knife, so all pieces are bite-size—no flinging salad dressing all over your face.

    (28.)
    The Whole Foods Story
    Whether you’re shopping or not, the best reason to go to the new Whole Foods (4 Union Square S.; 212-673-5388)—smaller than Columbus Circle’s, but bigger than Chelsea’s—is the spectacular view from the second-floor café: You might mistake the urbane scene below for a Venetian piazza. Wall-mounted sinks for a post-snack rinse are a nice touch. Prepared foods are on the ground floor, and menus are displayed on plasma screens. It’s got 32 registers, so you can get in and out with dinner in ten minutes. The “Market” (a.k.a. basement) level houses everything else and requires more commitment, but the aisles are numbered—a Whole Foods first. As at others, “Greenmarket specials” are featured daily. Whole Foods vs. the Greenmarket is a tempting storyline, but in reality, the Greenmarket fills a niche—extreme freshness, personal relationships with farmers, and the political appeal of sustainable farming—that the chain still can’t match. The real hit is likely to be taken by local high-end groceries like Dean & DeLuca and Garden of Eden.

    (29.)
    Union Square Park dog run
    At 15th St.
    If you still think this sliver of the park’s west side is a doggie ghetto, think again: A 2002 overhaul got rid of the chicken wire, fixed the benches, and added a drinking fountain and a hose to rinse off pooches. Now there’s significantly higher traffic, especially when it’s time for the annual Halloween costume party.

    (30.)
    Luna Park
    Union Square Park at 16th St.; 212-243-7969
    Tucked in between the Greenmarket and one of the park’s three playgrounds, this bar-restaurant is an ideal spot for a post- work cocktail (it’s open from April to October). Easy to miss—the hanging Christmas lights are the only giveaway—yet still the wait is usually long. Once people get hold of a table, they refuse to give it up.

    (31.)
    The Greenmarket
    at Union Square; www.cenyc.org
    Arrive early in the morning, buy your usual bag of Martin’s Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels, and see if you can spot the chefs from local restaurants as they make their daily raids. Tulips from Faoro’s are beautiful if slightly pricey, Windfall Farms has the most pristine greens you’ve ever seen, and 3-Corner Farm sheep’s-milk yogurt is even creamier than cow’s milk. Pick up blue and green Araucana chicken eggs from Quattro’s. As always, skip the baked goods: They’re too wholesome.


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