Review: Upper West Board Games and Beer: Dive 75

Dive 75 combines the best aspects of an over-21 lifestyle: it’s a laid back local bar with childhood board games and group activities. One of three members of the Dive franchise (Dive Bar on 96th St. and Broadway Dive on 101st St. are the others), Dive 75’s name refers more to a sea-dive theme than to a typical dive bar. Offering patrons a large selection of games to match the beer selection, Dive 75 is great bet for a weekday evening (it often gets too crowded to find a table on the weekends).

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Prepare for a night of Battleship, Scrabble, Connect Four, or Apples to Apples. Jenga is also available, although the toppling pieces make it a difficult choice when faced with sharing the table with liquor-filled glasses. Dive 75 is also prepared to satisfy your sweet tooth: If you know where to look, you’ll find free mini candy bars, usually toward the corner of the bar.

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The crowd is mixed and that makes it a lovable and reliable choice for a low-key, yet entertaining night on the Upper West Side. Dive 75 wins patrons over with its atmosphere and game-packed shelves and the bartenders keep up with the action. Most patrons come in groups to take advantage of the games, but it also makes for a no-pressure date-night spot, as long as you don’t try to squeeze your date into the Friday or Saturday night madness.

Find Dive 75 on 75th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam.

Grub Street Food Festival: A Festival for a New York Palate

The Hester Street Fair teamed up with Grub Street on Saturday October 16, 2010 in what was accurately named a “Food Festival,” at the intersection of Hester Street and Essex Street in downtown Manhattan. Food vendors and restaurants from around the city came together in the small yard of Hester Street to give New Yorkers and others a taste of their best food selections. While the Hester Street Fair is a weekly occurrence and offers a variety of irresistible gourmet food, this weekend’s Grub Street addition transformed the fair into a super-sized version, with crowds to match.

With forty different vendors in attendance, the small jam-packed space overflowed with lines for Kickstand Coffee, Wafels and Dinges (don’t miss out on their spekuloos spread), Luke’s Lobster, Pako Taco, and others. I sampled a “Ditch Dog” (a hotdog topped with macaroni and cheese) from Ditch Plains (visit them at one of their two permanent Brooklyn locations) and was not disappointed.

The Arancini Brothers were a hit, but it was nearly impossible to catch them at a moment when their rice balls were available. Patrons chose between Escarole and White Bean Puree, Tuna and Capers, Pumpkin and Mascarpone Cream, and Meat Ragu.

L’asso went through box after box of their original pizza flavors and a visit to their regular 192 Mott Street location is highly recommended after sampling a slice topped with gorgonzola, apple, and asparagus at the Grub Street Food Festival.

While the Grub Street Food Festival might only come once a year, check the Hester Street Fair weekly for many of the vendors and restaurants that were there this weekend, and for special events for the rest of the duration of the Hester Street Fair season (April through December).

Feature: Bluestockings– Bookstore, Fair Trade Café, Activist Center

I visited a bookstore called Bluestockings, located at 172 Allen Street, between Rivington Street and Stanton Street (they can be reached at (212) 777-6028). My intention was to contribute to my “Alternatives” series (see my article on Starbucks Alternatives), with an article on alternatives to Barnes and Noble Bookstores and Borders Bookstores. However, Bluestockings stimulated my mind, stole my heart and stole the focus of this article as well.

Bluestockings is much smaller than the aforementioned mega-bookstores, yet it provides much more. On their website, Bluestockings explains the space is a “books, Bluestockings has a coffee/espresso machine, snacks, and café tables set up at the front of the store, providing visitors with a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere. They also sell merchandise (patches, shirts, etc.).

Kimmie David, one of Bluestockings’ collective members, is proud of the store’s neighborhood feel She explained that many New School and New York University professors order a large portion of their course books specifically from Bluestockings to support the bookstore for its social vision, creative set-up, and cooperative mentality. The store is completely staffed by volunteers and it is collectively run by between four to six people at any given time.

The books are divided into categories, as in most bookstores, yet they are not the ones that might first come to mind. In addition to a straightforward “Fiction” section, Bluestockings has sections for “Animal Rights,” “Non-violence,” “Activist Strategies,” and “Sexuality.” After giving her a short description of the types of books I find appealing, Kimmie recommended I read Geek Love, a 1989 novel written by Katherine Dunn, which I purchased on the premises. The novel, though odd, was right on the mark.

This is clearly not your typical bookstore, nor should it ever try to be one. The best line on the Bluestockings Events brochure I picked up at the store is, in very small font, “You will not be turned away from an event at Bluestockings for lack of money.” Bluestockings provides numerous events that are either free or ask for a small suggested donation. The events span from readings and performances, to open mikes and poetry jams, to focused book clubs.

A visit to Bluestockings is highly recommended. Take the time to speak to one of the volunteers, ask for a book suggestion, and enjoy the quirky, appealing atmosphere of Bluestockings by sitting down for a small snack and the first few pages of a good book at one of the store’s window café tables.

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Feature: Manhattan Alternatives to Starbucks

With so much variety available, it kills me to think that so many New Yorkers can’t seem to pry themselves away and choose perhaps a Starbucks alternative.

There is something to be said for the consistency of Starbucks: the menu is always the same, the atmosphere differs only slightly from location to location, and with a systematized method for ordering, Starbucks provides customers with a necessary level of efficiency on the way to work. However, New York is also home to a variety of Starbucks alternatives, where customers can sit for a while, indulge in a homier atmosphere and unique décor, and enjoy coffee and a pastry at a slower pace. Each coffe shop is designed to showcase their character; this makes them worthy opponents to Starbucks, designed with the New Yorker in mind. Check out the Starbucks alternatives and start thinking outside the box when it comes to New York coffee shops. I toured some of these Starbucks alternatives around Manhattan and picked my favorites:

Starbucks Alternative Café Ost

Location: 441 East 12th Street

Contact: (212) 477-5600

Café Ost is a haven for the laid-back coffee drinker. Four relaxed guys in their twenties were working at the bar when I visited and they were enthusiastic about chatting while serving the line of customers forming for “take-out” service. The assortment of tables and couches, in addition to the leather booth in the corner, provide a comfortable oasis for customers. Many customers were focused on their laptops while others quietly conversed, enjoying their coffee and pastries. The chocolate chip cookie sandwich filled with Nutella is definitely worth ordering. In the summer the large wide-open doors only add to the uniquely airy feel of this café.

Starbucks Alternative Café 71 Irving Place Coffee and Tea Bar

Location: 71 Irving Place

Contact: (212) 995-5252

You will find the entrance to 71 Irving Place Coffee and Tea Bar down a few steps, past a couple outdoor tables perched under beautiful flowers. While the outdoor seating will lose its appeal as the winter months roll in, the café seating inside and the bar stools in the back of the coffee shop provide ideal alternatives. In addition to the list of coffee-based drinks (the café is connected to the Irving Farm Coffee Company and boasts “New York farm roasted coffee”), their tea list is more than adequate. Their collection of quiches and pastries is impressive as well. 71 Irving Place is an appealing place for a quiet afternoon of coffee and reading.

Starbucks Alternative Café The Grey Dog

Locations: 33 Carmine Street/90 University Place/242 West 16th Street

Contact: (212) 462-0041/(212) 414-4739/(212) 229-2345

With three different Manhattan locations, the Grey Dog is a Mecca for socialization over coffee and a relaxed hipster vibe. I visited the Grey Dog on University and found an impressively designed space with brick walls, wooden floors, and a picket fence surrounding the counter. Local artists’ work and white Christmas lights line the walls, creating a cozy, if not rushed, atmosphere. Music (though somewhat loud) is part of the hustle and bustle of The Grey Dog. While The Grey Dog serves full meals in addition to coffee and tea, their selection of sandwiches and wraps are irresistible, as are the banana and zucchini breads in the display cases.

Starbucks Alternative Café Bluebird Coffee Shop

Location: 72 East 1st Street

Contact: (212) 260-1879

Bluebird Coffee Shop consists of only three small tables inside, but the social, warm staff and the cozy set-up of the coffee shop is far more comfortable than it is constricting. A counter with barstools provides extra seating, and customers can fill up the seats on both sides of the counter that connects the inside and the outside of Bluebird. One staff member recommended the delicious chocolate shortbread cookies to supplement the coffee and tea, and they far surpassed my expectations.