Whether it’s chartering a private plane for a pooch or arranging an illicit encounter with an off-duty policeman, New York concierges are well used to pandering to their hotel guests’ every whim. But has the internet changed all of that and even made their role redundant?
I’ve always been a fan of hotel concierges and an admirer of their great art, particularly in New York City’s luxury hotels. These perfectly groomed, effortlessly patient and polite (at least to your face) walking encyclopedias hold some of the closest-kept secrets in the city, not to mention the connections to get you access when and where you need it.
Some of the best discoveries I’ve made in New York were through their introductions. Just a few years ago, for instance, after a particularly heavy weekend, I took a recommendation from Michael Romei of the Waldorf Astoria and enjoyed a serene picnic (complete with mouthwatering pumpernickel bagels from the Ess-a-Bagel bakery on 3rd Avenue) in seldom-visited Greenacre Park in Midtown East. And it was Frederick Bigler, chief concierge at the Peninsula, who first introduced me to the secret garden on the roof of Carnegie Hall and told me about the institution’s gay history. Did you know that Tchaikovsky conducted his Coronation March at the opening concert there in 1891? Frederick also told me about its gay present: the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus perform a number of shows at the concert hall each year and during WorldPride in June they will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of their founding at a gala concert there.
The word concierge conjures up images of yesteryear grandeur and the role and value of an NYC concierge has changed significantly, especially in today’s digital age. I recently learnt that many of the city’s concierges are now outsourced, as they commonly are in high-end hotels around the world. Some hotels have even done away with the role completely, replacing them with sophisticated digital databases that guests can access at the touch of an iPad. And the word on the street is that JW Marriott Essex House may soon be rolling out ‘Alexa’ concierges, something that the parent company has been trialling with Amazon.
Outside the hotel environment, it is open season in the concierge market. Global contemporary candle-and-key services such as Velocity Black and Quintessentially promise members an all-access service via their phone, while DIY inspiration platforms such as Culture Trip are revolutionising the online space, offering browsing-to-booking opportunities.
With all this accessibility at our fingertips, I set myself the challenge of finding a way for OutThere travellers to explore New York through one of these ‘contemporary concierges’.
But I’m tough to please. I’ve been to New York City many times and have experienced what it offers luxury travellers. I’m keen to dig deeper and find a way to access genuine personal recommendations; to receive the service of a concierge, but in a modern way. And like many OutThere travellers, it would be great if I could support an LGBT+ business.
Ask and you shall receive: over cocktails on the top floor of the historic Knickerbocker hotel overlooking the roofs of Times Square, I receive an email from Andreas Leuzinger, travel curator and founder of LOCALIKE. He’s heard that I’m looking for the inside track to the city and he wants to meet to tell me more about what he does and how he can help.
We meet at the south-west corner of Bryant Park. I know this place well, as it’s close to my favourite Japanese bookstore and canteen, Kinokuniya. It sells the most awesome East Asian lifestyle magazines. I could while away hours flicking through Popeye or Brutus as I have my fill of the onigiri on sale in the first-floor canteen.
As soon as we meet, Andreas is leading me to Blue Bottle café. We order what he says is Midtown’s best drip-coffee. Much to his bemusement (and mine), I decline cake. We walk back to the park to talk.
Leuzinger – the name gives it away – is originally Swiss, from Zurich. He loves New York City, most likely because it’s in his blood. His mother is a third-generation Manhattanite. We share stories and exchange tales of the city; the discoverers in us are kindred spirits.
Andreas tells me that NYC is more than an inspiration for him; it’s a treasure trove of creativity. And his hunger to discover the city has led him to search high and low for the very best experiences and use his background in marketing to find ways to deliver them in the most curated of ways. From museums to art galleries, theatre to dance productions, music to food, he spends his days and nights – and most of LOCALIKE’s working capital, it seems – discovering the very best morsels of culture across the five boroughs.
In an efficient and systematic way (that only the Swiss can achieve), Andreas has also created an online algorithm, where perspective explorers fill in a comprehensive questionnaire that determines their travel and lifestyle preferences. The results of that survey then become the foundation for a personalised itinerary to the city – a menu of customised suggestions. And, like a bespoke suit, this list fits the interests of each individual, couple or group with recommendations on how to make the most of each visit. There’s even a ‘fitting’ process (to take the tailoring analogy a little further), where Andreas or a member of his team goes over the results to match the needs of the client.
Being an innate traditionalist, I’m glad there’s a human being involved. Andreas doesn’t like being called a concierge (just as today’s ‘experience designers’ don’t see themselves as travel agents), but he acknowledges that what he does is the same, despite all the tech.
Back in the old days of concierges, letters would be sent ahead of time to the hotel, detailing the specific or even niche requirements of the arriving guest. The concierge, receiving the requests would spend some time getting a handle on things, confirming the guest’s preferences and starting to make plans for their arrival.
Andreas’s system does the same thing. After all, the system still relies on real, local knowledge delivered on a personalised level. Plus, a knowledge of who to call to make those hard-to-get reservations and, should their customers require it, added value service.
I pore over the comprehensive questionnaire. There are hundreds of possible lines of questioning and it’s a case of the more I give, the more I get back. I’m keen to put this to the test, so I answer in much detail and add that I’m keen to experience the city and all its boroughs in a way I haven’t done before. In 48 hours, I will receive my NYC inside track.
Less than 24 hours later, I’m having an afternoon snack in chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s the Lambs Club, part of Manhattan’s iconic Chatwal hotel. I’m imbibing Broadway history: it was here in this Stanford White-designed edifice that the famous Lambs theatrical club used to meet. A roster of the good and the great of American theatre have passed through its doors.
I have an email. It’s from Andreas, letting me know that my proposal is ready. To make it easily manageable, he’s split it up into a three-day itinerary. Some suggestions I can see in my own time and others have numbers where I can make a reservation and, of course, someone I can contact if I need more help. At the top of the list, I spot something right here in this neighbourhood and I dive straight in. I could have been anywhere in city, but it’s almost as if Andreas knew that I’d be right here in Midtown and in need of some retail therapy.
A tailored tour of NYC
Uwern’s bespoke three-day itinerary of the city’s five boroughs
Thursday 5.30pm Nepenthes, Manhattan
Trendy concept stores are all the rage with Japanese visitors to NYC, but the rest of the world’s savvy shoppers gather here in Nepenthes, a menswear store founded by an iconic Japanese art collective. It has a diverse, curated collection of otherwise hard-to-find streetwear labels. The overall style leans towards utilitarian looks from Japanese and Swedish mainstays. I scour the emerging-talent section, hoping to pick out something from a soon-to-be-world-renowned designer. I settle on a chic little Breton number, right on theme for tomorrow’s big adventure. I leave before my credit card takes a bashing.
Friday 9.00am Buvette, Manhattan
Bonjour! You couldn’t make it up: this delightful café is like something out of Montmartre. It even has a lady out front chatting passionately on her phone while taking puffs on a cigarette in a holder perched skilfully between her satin-gloved fingers. Her perfectly manicured French poodle (I learn from her conversation its name is Mimi) sits elegantly by her left heel. It would be the perfect French scene if the woman didn’t have a thick Jersey accent. Buvette is a great spot to start the day. It also serves a much-lauded lunch, but with only 15 tables, my itinerary suggests breakfast, as there is often a queue from noon.
Friday 11.00am Tribeca Sailing, Downtown and Staten Island
This is one of LOCALIKE’s pre-booked surprises, a private sailing tour on the historic yacht S/V Tara. We sail from North Cove Marina in the city to Staten Island, getting up close and personal with the Statue of Liberty and being treated to a picturesque vista of downtown Manhattan. As we skirt Staten Island, our captain points out a historic marina, Snug Harbor dock. He recommends a visit to the Botanical Garden there. The Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a must-not-miss, too.
Friday 3.30pm Aire Ancient Baths, Manhattan
Back in Tribeca, I’m ready for some relaxation after my exhilarating afternoon on the yacht. So this hideaway spa, located amid the amazing architecture of a former textile factory, is the perfect tonic. It brings together elements of Roman and Ottoman bathing cultures and has six different thermal baths. I put an end to whatever jetlag I have left in the eucalyptus steam bath and a handsome, skilled masseur rubs away my aches and pains.
Friday 6.00pm Gramercy Park, Manhattan
I have a date. It’s with a lovely lady – very unlike me. But she’s absolutely worth it, as she has a key to the only private park on the island. This is a LOCALIKE exclusive. It’s the only travel company with a key and it offers personal tours of the two-acre gardens behind the famous wrought-iron gates. The lady’s tour is an interesting insight into NYC high society. She’s had access to this bit of green since the 1960s, so she has a story (or 10) to tell about what and who she’s seen here. I am sworn to promise that whatever she tells me in the park stays in the park. I twist her arm for some unembargoed stories with the promise of a dirty Martini (it ended up being five) in the Gramercy Park Hotel opposite. The things I can now tell you about Karl Lagerfeld…
Saturday 8.00am The Metropolitan Museum, Manhattan
Nothing beats having one of New York’s breathtaking institutions all to yourself before opening time and, thanks to my contacts at the Met, combined with LOCALIKE’s choice of guide, I get to try the ‘Empty Met’ experience out for size. It’s an exclusive private tour of this stunning museum. What made it extra special was that my guide turned out to be an old friend, Andrew Lear – founder of Oscar Wilde Tours – who provides a unique inside track to the queer treasures of the Met Museum, as well as a fascinating overview of LGBT+ artists and themes from different centuries. Andrew also runs his tours for the general public during Friday’s late opening, but to have him and the museum all to myself was an unforgettable experience.
Saturday 10.15am East Harlem, Manhattan
My car picks me up and soon we’re heading north along Central Park into East Harlem, on Manhattan’s east side. I’ve never been as far east as the FDR Drive or as far north as 124th Street, where we cross the water on to Randall’s Island. It was allegedly once a notorious cruising spot for the city’s immigrant population. We traverse the island north to south into Astoria, Queens.
Saturday 11.00am The Steinway factory, Queens
I asked for something quirky – and something quirky I got. Since the 1880s, Steinway pianos have been made here in Queens to serve the North American market. This tour of how a Steinway grand is made, from selection of wood, to its polishing and final tuning provides an insight into the history of industry, music and European migration to Queens. Two-and-a-half hours is maybe a little long, but I like being surprised by something I wouldn’t usually do.
Saturday 1.45pm Rizzo’s Fine Pizza, Queens
My driver makes an off-the-itinerary suggestion. She wants to take me to one of her favourite local pizza joints, just up the road from the piano factory and famous for its square pies. I dive into a slice of Sicilian thin crust. It’s heaven on a paper plate.
Saturday 2.15pm Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn
‘When this old world starts getting me down and people are just too much for me to face, I climb way up to the top of the stairs and all my cares just drift right into space.’ I sing Carole King’s famous song as I walk up to the largest urban roof farm in the world. Here, vegetables and salads are harvested on almost 2.5 acres of cultivation space. The farm is fascinating and, beyond all the bio-tech, I love the human story of how its president Ben Flanner and his co-founders came together to create all this in the middle of an urban jungle. It just goes to show that you can take the boy out of the country, but you’ll never take the country out of the boy.
Saturday 4.30pm Kinfolk, Brooklyn
As we drive north through Brooklyn, everything becomes more and more gentrified and decidedly hip. The epitome of this is when we pull into Williamsburg, to my next stop, Kinfolk. It’s a café, event space and menswear boutique stocking a number of hard-to-find labels and one-offs, including Maiden Noir, Bedwin & The Heartbreakers, Bleu de Paname, Maharishi and its own label Kinfolk. Many unisex accessories, home goods and vintage pieces are also on offer.
Saturday 5.45pm Pioneer Works Center for Arts and Innovation, Brooklyn
We make a final dash out to west Brooklyn to show me how this whole borough came back into vogue. After years of industrial growth, Brooklyn’s luck changed when the factories shut down. As with many ex-industrial neighbourhoods, the large, cheap spaces made it a mecca for artist communities, who revitalised the area. These days, in neighbourhoods such as Williamsburg and Greenpoint, many of those communities have gone because of over-gentrification. Artists have been replaced by city folk and their custom-built high-end housing. But here in Red Hook, a contemporary-arts project has taken over an 1886 steel factory. Exhibitions, workshops and residencies for emerging artists take place there.
Saturday 7.45pm Aska, Brooklyn
Everyone loves a Swedish chef – and back in Williamsburg, LOCALIKE has scored me an elusive reservation at this two-Michelin-starred restaurant with just 10 tables. At its helm is Fredrik Berselius, the golden child of Scandinavian cuisine. Like everything else in the area, the restaurant is housed in a 19th-century warehouse, but the food is what impresses: genuine, delicious home cooking without unnecessary frills. The perfect place for an aquavit to prepare myself for the night ahead.
Saturday 10pm 3 Dollar Bill, Brooklyn
This is a last-minute throw-in, again from my driver, when I ask her for an in-between bar. She has a look on her face that says she wants to show me a good time. She’s off the clock at 10pm, so she leaves me at this relatively new space, allegedly the largest queer venue in Brooklyn. The brainchild of Brenda Breathnach, who also owns the Phoenix in the East Village, 3 Dollar Bill aims to buck the trend of queer closures in the rapidly gentrifying borough. Located in a former brewery, the cavernous venue is party city by night and art space by day. My phone is taken away and sealed in a plastic bag. I’m a little on the early side, but as the venue starts to fill, I get the feeling that this is a place where anything goes. I instantly make new friends and know this is going to be one of those NYC nights…
Sunday 12.30am Kunst, Brooklyn
This is a collaboration between queen of NYC nightlife Susanne Bartsch and Gage of the Boone (Dreamhouse).I didn’t know who was spinning but the crowd was going wild. The party was also filled with performers and larger-than-life hosts. It was an immersive visual experience unlike any other.
Sunday 1.00pm The Refinery, Manhattan
My driver picks me up with a knowing look on her face as I don my dark glasses. Without prompting, she takes me up to my one stop of the day, designed to help me recover from the night before, up in the Bronx.
Sunday, 1.30pm An Beal Bocht, The Bronx
But first, a little surprise to get me back on my feet. We stop at a queer-friendly Irish café, a local, artsy gem, for an eye-opening
Sunday, 2.15pm City Island, The Bronx
This tiny island, only a couple of miles wide is a quaint little seaside escape – the perfect place to nurse my hangover. It feels a million miles away from the Brooklyn warehouses I spent yesterday at. This Bronx fishing village (sounds wrong, doesn’t it?) is full of yacht clubs and waterfront restaurants famous for its fresh seafood. It’s been a whirlwind, but I’ve really had my eyes-opened in more ways than one. Thank you LOCALIKE for helping me discover new sides to the city.
Photography courtesy of:
Sailing boat: Tribeca Sailing
Uwern: Martin Perry