New York insider: Top Hotel – Cultural: Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor all made it their temporary home.
Source of popular lingo: “Strut like a peacock” was coined by turn-of-the-century wags back when society dandies promenaded down the so-called “peacock alley” connecting the original Waldorf hotel with the neighboring Astoria.
Then there’s the legendary world-class customer service, today due in no small part to the hotel’s chef concierge of 22 years, Michael Romei.
Top concierges are called “chef” — it’s the French word for “boss” or “chief” — and Romei is one of Manhattan’s ultimate insiders.
He says the concierge profession hinges on “a passion to want to make people happy.”
And his “life force” is a dedication to discovering New York’s every nook and cranny.
“I want to know what’s around the corner everywhere I go,” says Romei, who also runs training seminars for concierges.
And so he constantly plays tourist in his own city, seeking unique experiences even as he walks to and from work.
Romei passed us these “helpful hints and tidbits” that make any visit to New York memorable.
The Empire State Building’s VIP experience
According to Romei, among visitors, this art deco landmark is probably “the second most requested attraction” after the Statue of Liberty.
Incidentally, the iconic skyscraper is located on the site of the original Waldorf Astoria hotel buildings, which were knocked down in 1929.
Sure, you could join the lines outside, but to make your visit extra special, Romei suggests ratcheting it up a few notches.
Many hotel concierges “have special cards we give [guests] so they can enter without waiting in the line outside. Instead, they go to a special VIP desk on the second floor to buy an express ticket.”
Spending double the regular price ($32) means VIPs “can enter at any time, on any day and use a separate elevator.”
Additional tickets to a smaller observation deck on the 102nd floor are also available and “most people don’t know that Thursday through Saturday, the main 86th floor deck has a live saxophonist, who plays until 1 a.m. and takes requests.”
La Esquina for insiders
Romei recommends this trendy cantina on the border of SoHo and NoLiTa that serves “very good Mexican food and wonderful house-made sangria.”
A secret entrance is hidden behind a taco stand.
The uninitiated might hesitate, but those who plow through will find a waiting attendant who’ll open a red velvet curtain — for those with reservations.
“Guests then go down stone steps right through the kitchen where the chef says hello. It’s a unique experience.”
The eatery is crowded with “models and upcoming celebrities” and getting in is difficult.
New York restaurants usually don’t take reservations more than 30 days ahead — so if you try to make a booking straight on the 30-day mark, you’ll have a good chance of getting in.
If that doesn’t work, same-day reservations sometimes open up due to last-minute cancellations.
“Most people go to the middle and lower end of Central Park,” says Romei.
He suggests checking out the northern area where visitors will find “a very special garden.”
Located on Fifth Avenue and 104th Street, the Conservatory Garden features six acres of seasonal English, French and Italian-style plantings.
Visitors enter Central Park’s only formal gardens through an ornate wrought iron gate that once graced the Vanderbilt mansion.
Romei also enthuses about Greenacre Park, privately funded by Abby Rockefeller Mauze’s Greenacre Foundation.
This “hidden surprise” in the heart of the city — 51st Street between Second and Third Avenue — has won numerous awards, likely due to the “maintained seasonal garden, sculpture and 25-foot waterfall that cascades all through the back.
“You can meditate there and take a little retreat from the craziness.”
Private dinners with a chef
For a unique culinary experience, Romei recommends dinner at one of the “numerous Chef’s Tables” in New York.
“We have a tasting right in the Waldorf’s kitchen, which is one of the largest in the world — spanning almost two floors.”
The hotel’s kitchens are also responsible for the invention of Waldorf salad, red velvet cake, the can’t-live-without concept of 24-hour room service and, some say, chop suey.
Prices begin at about $1,000 and up, depending on the number of diners and choice of courses.
These dinners are usually arranged through the concierge and advance notice is key.
It’s best to check with other upscale restaurants regarding their policy.
The North Fork wine region
Feel like a quick day trip?
Just 150 kilometers outside of the city, “a very special wine experience” awaits either by renting a limousine or private car to Long Island.
Romei likes Sparkling Pointe Winery, which, fittingly, specializes in sparkling wines.
The bubbly “makes for a more luxurious experience,” he says.
“Plus, it’s lovely to sit at the estate vineyard. You feel like you’re in Napa Valley or even France.”
Staten Island Ferry
“A simple thing a lot of people don’t think about is a boat ride … on the Staten Island Ferry,” says Romei.
“The ferry runs every 30 minutes practically 24 hours a day and it’s free of charge.”
The real draw?
“The beautiful view—you see the skyline going back and forth.”
Margaret Heidenry is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and Boston Magazine. She can be tweeted at mheidenry.
Trekkingnew.com @ By Margaret Heidenry, for CNN