Whether you’ve known someone for two hours or 20 years, a successful date requires two things: something to talk about and food good enough to make you shut up. With world-class museums and historic sites spread across the five boroughs, New York is a goldmine for history buffs and curious novices alike. Next time you check out a museum with your dearly beloved or possibly beloved, why not continue the conversation at a nearby historic eatery? Here are five pairings for your consideration.
1. Tenement Museum and Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery
The Tenement Museum tells New York’s immigrant story through the lens of a single apartment building: 97 Orchard Street, which was constructed in 1863. The building was condemned as a residence in 1930s, but because the shops on the ground floor remained occupied, the upper floors were sealed off like a time capsule. Discovered by historians in 1988, 97 Orchard has since been restored to reflect how individual apartments would have looked during different periods of the building’s history. Visitors can now take guided tours through the homes of meticulously researched Irish, Italian and Eastern European families who actually lived in the Lower East Side tenement.
After you and your date have immersed yourselves in nineteenth and early twentieth-century immigrant hardship, walk a few blocks north to Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery to fill up on some historically accurate comfort food. The knish has been called, “a quintessential New York food, one that filled stomachs for pennies on the dollar and granted immigrants an economic opportunity to build a future for their children’s children.” Yonah Schimmel began as a pushcart in 1890 and has been operating at its current address on Houston Street since 1910. With a working dumb waiter that still brings hot knishes up from the kitchen, dining at the bakery is a transportative experience. Traditional varieties like the dense, nutty kasha knish might have been familiar to Eastern European Jewish residents of 97 Orchard. Yonah Schimmel offers updates too. Topped with a flourish of gooey cheddar, the jalapeno version adds a kick to the starchy classic. By the time the meal is over, you and your date should be able to look into each other’s eyes and declare your mutual deep and abiding love for all potato-based foods.
2. Museum of Chinese in America and Nom Wah Tea Parlor
Photo courtesy of Nom Wah Tea Parlor via Facebook
Situated just north of Canal on Centre Street, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) offers a rotating set of interactive exhibits that tell the diverse stories of Americans of Chinese descent. Currently on display is an exhibit called Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America. Set up like an elaborate, whimsical dinner party, the exhibit presents the personal food histories of 33 Chinese and Asian-American chefs. On a long table in the center of the room, delicious-looking ceramic sculptures serve as artistic interpretations of the ingredients and dishes most important to the featured chefs. On the walls of the room, a three-screen projection of video interviews and photos supplies an interwoven oral history of Chinese American cooking.
You and your date will be plenty hungry after feasting your eyes and ears at MOCA. Next stop: Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which has been operating on crooked little Doyers Street since 1920. Nom Wah’s owner, Wilson Tang, is featured in the MOCA exhibit. Tang inherited the restaurant from his uncle in 2010 and has been committed to preserving the restaurant’s historic character while making some necessary updates in the kitchen. Nom Wah now serves delectable dim sum day and night. The turnip cakes are a true delight, as are the many varieties of sweet and savory steamed buns. Cozy up in one of the red vinyl booths and feast like it’s 1929—or ‘69 or ‘99—there are plenty of years in Nom Wah’s long history to choose from.
3. Studio Museum in Harlem and Sylvia’s Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Sylvia’s Restaurant via Facebook
Since its establishment in 1968, the Studio Museum in Harlem has showcased and promoted work by contemporary artists of African descent. A current exhibit features pieces created during the 1970s. According to the wall text of Circa 1970, “following the tumult of the 1960s, the 1970s brought further victories in…radical progress in culture and history, particularly for African Americans. Black artists who previously had been overlooked by their white contemporaries received recognition from major art institutions.” Situated in the Studio Museum’s own first decade of operation, the show includes McArthur Binion’s hypnotic crayon on aluminum work as well as photographs of the early years of Dance Theatre of Harlem, which made its public debut in 1971. Overall, Circa 1970 provides a view into an explosive period in black art, in Harlem and beyond.
The 1970s was also the first full decade in the life Sylvia’s Restaurant. Once you and your date have seen the Studio Museum, head around the corner for a meal that will change your life. Founded in 1962 by Sylvia Woods, Sylvia’s is a very big deal. Historian Paul Freedman named it one of the “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” in his book by that name. Serving up southern soul food in the heart of Harlem, Sylvia’s is emblematic of the Great Migration’s cultural reverb. Sylvia herself was born in rural South Carolina moved to New York City with her husband Herbert after the end of World War II. She worked in a factory and then as a waitress, eventually buying the luncheonette that she would transform into a hub of community and damn good food. Sylvia’s can count Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and Bernie Sanders among its diners, but don’t take their word for it. Try the chicken and waffles, try the catfish; order as many sides as you and your date can manage. Whatever you do, save room for the peach cobbler. Any cobbler you eat afterwards will suffer by comparison, but it’ll be worth it.
4. Merchant’s House Museum and McSorley’s Old Ale House
Photo courtesy of McSorley’s Old Ale House via Facebook
Built in 1832, the Merchant’s House Museum is New York City’s only nineteenth-century home to have been preserved in both interior and exterior. The house was occupied by the wealthy Tredwell family for nearly a century and became a museum in 1936, just three years after the last Tredwell inhabitant died. Visitors can now explore four floors of the mansion, which still contains original furniture, household objects, and even the family’s clothes. If that sounds creepy, that’s because it is. In a good way. Stepping out of bustling NoHo and into the eerily quiet Merchant’s House Museum is a surreal experience. Every time a subway train passes underneath, you can hear the soft clink of the crystal-hung candlesticks. In addition to normal visiting hours, tours and lectures, the museum offers a monthly candlelit ghost tour.
The upper class Tredwells would not have frequented nearby McSorley’s Old Ale House, established as early as 1854 (city records are inconclusive on the exact age), but their Irish live-in servants would likely have been aware of it. The servants, all women, also would not have frequented McSorley’s because it didn’t admit women until 1970. Nineteen. Seventy. Here in 2017, though, dates of all genders can pop in for a beer and a burger. McSorley’s is known for its house ales, no-frills cheese plate and simple yet satisfying made to order burgers. Tuck in and shake off the spooks.
5. Brooklyn Historical Society and Queen Restaurant
Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Historical Society via Facebook
Brooklyn Historical Society has been a hub for history buffs since 1863. Located in a gorgeous landmark building in Brooklyn Heights, the museum’s current offerings include an interactive timeline of Brooklyn’s anti-slavery movement and an exhibition of photographs by David Attie. Originally taken to illustrate Truman Capote’s 1958 essay Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir, the photos capture a bygone Brooklyn of Sunday luncheons and kid-ruled sidewalks.
1958 was also the year that Queen Restaurant opened its doors nearby on Court Street. Even if the decor is a bit reminiscent of a dated chain hotel lobby, Queen still brings it with the red sauce. Treat your date to a good old-fashioned Brooklyn Italian meal and reflect on how while most things change, others stay deliciously the same.
Molly Jean Bennett is a writer and multimedia producer based in New York City. Her essays, poems, and strongly worded letters have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atlas Obscura, VICE, and elsewhere.