To your typical Manhattanite – me, say – Queens is where someone’s aunt lives, the part of town where 34th Street meets 34th Avenue meets 34th Road meets 34th Place, and the street addresses have those hyphens. Outer-borough chic hasn’t quite made it to Flushing.
Which means, really, that spending a day in Queens is like visiting some other American city, one more reasonable than New York – Baltimore or Chicago or Seattle. It’s as if, on the way to La Guardia, your cab stalled and you decided to dig in.
For us jaded types, those other cities’ cultural institutions are usually at their best when they specialize – instead of competing with the Met and losing – showing superior small collections that set the standard. Take, for example, the remarkable oasis in warehouse-heavy Long Island City, the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (32-37 Vernon Boulevard; 718-204-7088). This converted photoengraving plant was Noguchi’s studio from the sixties on. The first rooms you’ll see inside are cinder block and concrete, as austere as the granite and marble works they hold. But turn a corner and you enter the galleries with more delicate, mannered sculpture, and they’re much warmer, with a lot of blond wood and sunlight. Then you find the perfectly serene garden in the building’s courtyard, full of ivy, birch trees, gravel paths, and many more sculptures, some of which incorporate flowing water. The Noguchi Museum expertly works the line between placidity and sterility. Zenned out, I left the museum walking a little more slowly than when I’d arrived.
And promptly got all hopped up again – because across the street from the Noguchi Museum is Costco, the mondo-volume warehouse store. It could only happen in America, where everyone has a car and storage space; it could just barely happen in New York, where many people have neither. If you’re not a member (as I am not), a visit to Costco is like a museum trip – specifically, to the dinosaur hall at the Museum of Natural History. You walk through the aisles openmouthed, pointing at the giants that walk the retail earth. Tanker-size jars of pickles, monstrous bottles of detergent, hey-look-at-the-size-of-that-box-of-cereal … I fully expected to run into those bronto-ribs from The Flintstones (32-50 Vernon Boulevard; 718-204-7443).
Giant food inspires an appetite, and Costco is a very short ride or a modest walk from Astoria. To me, this means one thing: roast lamb. I am partial to Uncle George’s (33-19 Broadway, at 34th Street; 718-626-0593). For refined Mediterranean food, stick to upscale Manhattan places; for fish awash in lemon and herbs, or skordalia with so much garlic it’ll make your sinuses pop, go to George’s. Cheap retsina, too, which you should order even if it tastes a little gross to you on its own. There’s nothing better to cut through the oil and salt in this kind of food, especially when the wine is chilled and you’re not.
It’s summer, so some outdoor play had to be part of my day. Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is one of those places the rest of the city knows is Out There: They see it when they go to Shea or La Guardia. What it’s perfect for on this afternoon is cooling down, because there are plenty of corners under the trees where you can get out of the sun. Though the park is dotted with stadiums and other institutions (the National Tennis Center, the Queens Museum, the beat-up World’s Fair pavilions), it feels vast, bigger even than Central Park, maybe because you’re not as hemmed in by the surrounding street grid. I made a token stop by the Unisphere because I hadn’t in a while, and for the breeze over its reflecting pool, where a few toddlers waded. Having been one of those kids who could name every astronaut and his mission from Al Shepard on, I also had to visit the dilapidated Mercury and Gemini capsules perched on their booster rockets outside the New York Hall of Science. (They won’t be this decrepit for long; renovation will begin in a year or so.) If you’re bringing kids – or even if you’re not – check out the outdoor science-education playground, too, which is said to be the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
Time to think about dinner, this time in Flushing’s booming Chinatown. You probably have your own unshakable opinions about how to find a great Chinese restaurant, but I will recommend the much-publicized but still spectacular Joe’s Shanghai (136-21 37th Avenue, Flushing; 718-539-3838). Everyone there orders the house special, xiao lon bau – dumplings filled with pork and a very hot, rich broth that you imbibe before you eat the whole thing. Regulars call for them even before they’re seated, as xiao lon bau take a few extra minutes to prepare. Don’t worry if you’re arriving alone, as I did. Several big communal tables take care of the singles and couples. Stay quiet and you’ll be left alone; participate in table talk and you’ll generally be welcomed.
For dessert, it’s not far to the Lemon Ice King of Corona, an Italian-ices stand at the intersection of 52nd Avenue and 108th Street. (They have dozens of flavors besides lemon; try the peanut butter, which sounds peculiar but is pretty good.) Arrange to wind up your evening in the tiny park across the way. Pick your bench, listen to the music on the loudspeakers (accordions, tarantellas, Sinatra), and watch the old men play bocce under garlands of little multicolored electric lanterns. At the bocce court, I asked someone who looked as if he might be some kind of caretaker – the other guys called him Joe – who runs the place and manages the tournament. He shrugged. “Somebody comes,” he said mysteriously.
And so should you. I’d be content if I never made it to La Guardia again.