Greek eats, sweets, and circus antiques
Delicious Greek mezze and sweets, delightfully strange antique shops, and chandeliers suspended in trees are only a few of the gems the vibrant Northwest Queens neighborhood of Astoria has to offer. Its bustling commercial streets and quiet residential pockets make up a community of over 150,000 people, a population so large that this corner of New York can hardly be called a neighborhood but can almost be thought of as a city of its own.
Founded in 1839 as Hallett's Cove, Astoria was originally a recreational retreat and resort for Manhattan's wealthiest citizens. In exchange for a $500 donation, Hallett's Cove was renamed "Astoria" after John Jacob Astor, developer of the famous Waldorf-Astoria and then considered the wealthiest man in America. As the story goes, Astor would spend his life looking out the window of his summer home on Manhattan's upper east side at the shores of Astoria, refusing to ever set foot in the town that was his namesake. And boy, was he missing out.
Thanks to 150 years of immigration from all over the globe, Astoria has become an incredibly vibrant community of trailblazing chefs, inventors, and artists alike. During the 1800s, a wave of German newcomers brought Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, the patriarch of the family who would soon found the famous Steinway Piano Company in Astoria in 1853. Fast forward to the 1960s and a large influx of Greek immigrants arrived, beginning what was to become a tradition of phenomenal Mediterranean eats and dotting the Astoria landscape with Orthodox churches and those iconic island blue doors.
Today you can walk from the end of the N line, Astoria-Ditmars, all the way down to Broadway and you've crossed through Greek, Egyptian, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Turkish, and countless other enclaves of ethnic and urban diversity. Translation: bring a seriously healthy appetite and be prepared to return and return again - if only to give yourself enough excuses to have another meal at one of the dozens of travel-worthy restaurants and food carts that Astoria has to offer.
Below are just a few of my recent favorite spots with many more to come, I'm sure. Happy exploring!
The surrounds, or what one charming blog affectionately dubs "Astoria Ugly"
"Astoria is many things, but it is not easy on the eyes. But brownstones and big trees are overrated. Astoria Ugly is where it’s at."
Awkward hand-written signs with misspelled English, lonely massage chairs dumped in the middle of a sidewalk, and structurally unsound building appendages are all part of the Astoria Ugly aesthetic that we know and sort of kind of maybe love (or not).
Either way, you can expect to experience the constant rumble of the elevated subway as background noise and for those nice sunset photos to more than likely be blocked by tangled power lines or unregulated signage. For the record, I'm on the "love" side of this argument and hope you're able to take the time to weave between, if not appreciate, the chaos and enjoy all of the fascinating things this wonderful part of town has to offer.
Travel-Worthy Greek Eats
E Taverna is a charming new spot that feels like some of the beach-side restaurants I ate at on the quieter sides of Mykonos. Max (that awesome Serious Eats guy) and I visited with a few friends before he wrote this review and had trouble not ordering all of the items on the menu. Our favorites were the charcoal grilled octopus (still one of the best I've had and certainly the best Greek-style) and the mussels. Both were cooked with distinctly Greek flavors: olives, tomatoes, capers, olive oil, etc and were absolutely delicious, certainly tempting a re-order well past our fullness.
Falafel that rivals the 53rd street halal champs
Most residents and visitors to New York have heard of the 53rd Street Halal Bros, the champions of chicken on rice with that perfectly addictive white sauce. Astoria's King of Falafel and Shwarma is posing a serious threat to the title, winning the 2010 Vendy and Peoples choice award. These guys are cooking up some phenomenal eats in their wacky patterned pants at their 30th and Broadway cart. Try the made-from-scratch falafel and rice plate with pickled vegetables and sauce and grab an overturned paint can in the neighboring parking lot to sit on while you enjoy.
Greek, Venezuelan, and Turkish delights
Artopolis has to be one of my favorite bakeries ever and yet again (a common theme here), I would travel just to Astoria for some of their Koulourakia (butter cookies coated in sesame) or one of their other cherry and cinnamon confections. If you're hungry for something a little more savory, they've also got what I hear is a mean Spanakopita (spinach pie).
Arepas Cafe not only makes a delicious arepa, but also an indulgent Venezuelan rice-based drink called Chicha. Imagine sipping what has the consistency and taste of a cinnamon milkshake and then realizing its just rice. Amazing.
As if you need more spots to tempt the sweet tooth - I'll throw out one last one which is a slightly more mainstream interpretation of the classics. Güllüoglu Baklava & Cafe has all the honey-soaked pastries you can imagine as well as Salep (a hot milky drink made from flour produced by the tubers of an orchid plant - trust me, its good) and Turkish coffee.
Secondhand circus costumes and other local treasures
Charmingly quirky shops and antique stores are scattered all throughout Astoria, surprising you on residential streets and in quiet corners where you'd never expect them.
TOCA NYC is the sort of bizarre storefront that of course you'd happen to find on a residential street with two giant red monarch-like chairs sitting in the middle of the sidewalk in front of it. Walk inside and you enter another world of circus props, Ringling Bros posters, and elaborate velvet and gold ribbon based costumes. The proprietor of this place, who himself looked like something inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean meets Marie Antoinnette, travels around the world looking for all of these strange and wonderful items. He and his wife work for Cielo, a club in the Meatpacking, supplying the dancers, actors, and performers with all of their elaborate costuming.
Loveday31 (left) is great for high quality vintage fare. My friend purchased a beautiful leather Bally side bag and I certainly had my eye on the dress rack for whatever next occasion I'll need to buy for. Nook n' Crannie (right) is a lovely little antique shop full of all sorts of nick nacks, furniture, and kitchenware. And, even better, all proceeds go to Betel of America's program for drug and Alcohol addicts. Both of these spots are two local treasures I'm happy to support any day.
Touring the original Steinway Piano Factory
Ever since Henry Engelhardt Steinweg and his five sons set up shop in Astoria in 1872, their famous grand and upright pianos have been manufactured the same way, each requiring a full year to complete to perfection and always produced in their original Astoria factory. Tours of the live operations (named by Forbes as among the top 3 factory tours in the nation) are offered once a week on Tuesday mornings (~9:30am until noon). To reserve your spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-721-2600. I haven't yet been due to the weekday timing but am dying to go. In the meantime, Chris Payne at Untapped Cities did a great first hand review.
Museum of the Moving Image
Old school video games, the birth of the reaction GIF, and behind the scenes movie editing are only a few of the topics and treasures covered by the Museum of the Moving Image. And, don't forget the more than 400 film screenings hosted each year, with custom music even arranged for some of the silent films on file. Stop by if you're interested in film or even if you're just in the mood to play the original version of Ms. Pacman.
Socrates Sculpture Park
This awesome waterfront park has come a long way from its days as an abandoned riverside landfill and illegal dump site. Thanks to a group of artists and community members, it was transformed in 1986 into an open studio and exhibition space for large scale sculptures. The exhibits change all the time, but I had a chance to see Toshihiro Oki's crystal chandeliers hanging from trees and the playful work in the picture below - a giant red megaphone of sorts that is able to bring out the little kid in pretty much anyone.
To relax after a long day of exploring: cider tasting and grilled cheese at the Queens Kickshaw
The Queens Kickshaw is a new Astoria hangout for your twenty something hipster or young couple, offering all the gourmet cheese and hand poured coffee you'd find in an East Village hot spot. Its also a sign of the rapid gentrification occurring in this part of the neighborhood, now a mix of bodegas and strip-mall style shops as well as gourmet eateries catering to a more up market crowd. Even so, this cafe bar seems to be creating a great center of community and is certainly worth a visit, especially for the extensive cider menu and delicious grilled cheeses.
Mapping your trip
Astoria is a huge place with multiple central areas to explore. Visiting all of the above in one day would be quite the accomplishment (and would require almost constant eating!) I'd suggest picking a few spots for an afternoon and making plans to return and return again.