If you were to take just a couple of the writer Ross Kenneth Urken‘s recommendations after reading this, you would almost certainly feel like you’d stepped into a movie. His writing is magic, as is his New York.
Ross’s belles-lettres have graced the pages of Travel + Leisure, National Geographic, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York, and The Atlantic, among other publications.
1. Where do you call home
Manhattan’s Lincoln Square, which is perhaps a made-up neighborhood real estate agents branded to describe the savory sliver between Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side proper. I’ve been in my current apartment on West End Avenue for more than four years – that’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere besides my childhood house – and feel particularly at home here. I’m grateful it’s easy to run the Central Park loop to think through a story I’m writing. The area is also developing with particular momentum. It seems another high-rise apartment building pops up every month. The Central Rock Gym, Café 21 (a delicious, hidden new restaurant in the basement of a nearby luxury building), the wine bar Vin Sur Vingt, and The Landmark at 57 West movie theater (with recliner seats) are all welcome new gems over here. I’ve noticed a trend that New Yorkers love to reminisce about how they settled in a neighborhood before it was cool or whatever. When I lived on 80th and Amsterdam, my neighbor Steven, an opera singer, used to talk about the drug deals that would go on and the dens of iniquity that are now establishments serving bespoke cocktails and kale chips with kombucha pairings. I’d scoff and dismiss this as New York mythologizing. But now I do it too: “There was nothing here. Nothing but a vacant lot!” Now we have, if you’ll pardon my invective, a Starbucks and a Soul Cycle on our corner. I patronize those establishments verbally but not as a customer. But I do support the fact that they’ll bring more life to our quiet part of the city. The Urbani Truffles Lab is also down the way, and just the way a pizza parlor lures customers by wafting that scent of cheesy goodness through the vents, so too do the Truffle Overlords blast their own stank onto West End Avenue. Our block smells like Périgord. They hold private events, but I’ve never been invited. Hey, Truffle People! Are you listening? Anyway, because I travel a lot, I so value my time at home. My job requires me to be deeply immersed in an experience and “on” when meeting new people as I conduct interviews for a story, so I welcome the opportunity to be a homebody or a neighborhood-body when I can. I typically write at home on my chaise or the kitchen counter, but sometimes, I go to the New York Library for the Performing Arts. But it’s not open on Sundays when I’d most like to get writing done there. Can somebody change this? Do I need to call 311?
2. Most romantic New York meal
Taboon, a Lebanese restaurant on 10th Avenue and W. 52nd. My wife, the actress Tiffan Borelli, and I typically go to celebrate special occasions – anniversaries, birthdays, professional milestones – and the elegant simplicity of the environment (shabby-chic white wooden tables, flickering votive candles) paired with the savory cuisine, creates a magical combination. Starting from a young age, I’ve considered myself a bread fiend. What I’m saying is I was a fococious child. That’s why the house flatbread is such a draw. With its rosemary, sage, and fleur de sel, it makes you salivate just enough to tolerate the spicy schoog dip. The baked branzino is a must, as is the silan, a dessert that covers vanilla ice cream with puffed rice, date honey, caramelized pistachios, and shredded halva. Everyone should go. Just don’t make a reservation when I need a table!
3. First place you bring an out of town guest
My first stop is usually Riverside Park South along the Hudson not far from my apartment. It’s a paradise in the summer in particular (there are lots of concerts, movies, and other public events), and Pier i is a nice place to enjoy a pitcher of sangria and fries with Old Bay seasoning as you take in the sunset. The views of the George Washington Bridge up by the Boat Basin are iconic, and there is always a rotating assortment of sculpture installations. I think it’s a part of New York many tourists or out-of-towners in general don’t know about or don’t venture – it’s so far west! – but it’s a hidden, leafy secret I cherish and want to share with friends. You can see some of the most interesting people and scenes over there as you enjoy a walk and chat. It’s the perfect place to take in the energy of the city without being stuck in the middle of the mayhem. I have always liked living by the Hudson. It makes me think of Melville’s bit from the opening of Moby Dick: “There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes…[r]ight and left, the streets take you waterward…Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.” The Hudson has a certain calming magnetism. My wife and I love to walk along the water there together or with friends. (Don’t tell the Parks Department, but we have a lock on one of the piers). The winds coming off the water are fierce – welcome on a July day, painful in January. I know I’m close to home when I feel a gale-force current, but it’s become familiar and, maybe, invigorating. I also hear it as I go to sleep, as a gentle lullaby. Or maybe that’s just the whir of cars on the West Side Highway.
I also have started bringing friends to The Explorers Club, a society dedicated to scientific advancement of which I am a member.
4. Famous New Yorker, dead or alive, where would you take them for lunch and what would you want to ask them
This is New York – who has time for a recreational lunch? I have a demanding day job, two articles due, and a flight to catch tonight. Let’s make it after-work cocktails. And I don’t have any one boldface name in particular I’d like to meet. I’ve interviewed celebrities and notables for my work, and they can be supremely fascinating, but I’m much more interested in the people who actually make this, or any, city tick: the dude who rides a bike around Central Park and blasts Edith Piaf music from his speakers, my coffee cart baristas Adem and Bibo, who won’t stop inviting me to stay at their homes in Egypt if I ever do a story there. I want to sit down with those people, or friends I haven’t seen in a couple months, at The Aviary in the Mandarin Oriental. The drinks are way overpriced – like $25 – but holding court from a perch above Columbus Circle and Central Park with a performative presentation tableside – pyrotechnics z.B. – makes it a memorable experience. The ambience and elixirs allow for meaningful conversations high above the city.
But friends, stop inviting me to cocktails. Or if you do, please have the courtesy to cancel, even last minute. I have too much writing to do.
5. One way that your New York matches up to the legend of New York
One evening back in February, I was tired and due to fly to Istanbul the next morning for a story, but against my better judgment, I agreed to a catch-up beer with my friend Adam, a photo editor, at The Ribbon on W. 72nd Street. We had changed last minute from a spot in the East Village – a fact that will become significant in a sec – and, as usual, I arrived second. Adam immediately gushed to me that he had seen Jeff Bezos sitting in the private back room, and right when I was about to order, I saw Pinch Sulzberger, then publisher of The New York Times, enter and walk to said back room. “Ahhhh!” we screamed. Was Bezos purchasing The Gray Lady? “We’re buying Fireball shots for the richest man in the world!” I said. The waiter wouldn’t do it, so we called over the security – the bar was lousy with square-jawed guys with ear pieces. They wouldn’t budge. So we did what any good journalist would: we waited. When the group emerged, I jumped up and greeted Marty Baron, editor The Washington Post, and Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times. I introduced myself as a journalist, and they were gracious. They assured me there was no sale going on – that the rendez-vous was simply a meeting of the minds. Then Bezos came out with his entourage, and – I’m such a doofus – I called out, “Jeff!” He stopped. We went to the same college, and I led with that and the fact that I’m a Prime subscriber. (What was I thinking?!) We shook hands. Jeff Bezos has really soft hands. He smiled and was genuinely interested, it seemed, in my brief spiel about my writing. I gave him my business card that says Ross Kenneth Urken, Belletrist. (Have I mentioned that I kind of suck a little bit…it’s an inside joke with myself). Once he’d left, some guy jumped from his seat at the bar and said, “Was that…?” And I said, “Uh-huh.”
But that’s not an isolated incident in New York. That kind of thing happens often. Not quite weekly, but often enough.
The other day, while walking down West Houston with a friend after what I’ll admit was a lunch, but partly a business one, I passed a famous actress whose husband recently shot a TV show with my wife. That’s the feeling in New York. I’m somehow related to the chaos and excitement that’s happening but a degree or two removed. But this is a humbling city – and not like “I’m so humbled to accept the Pulitzer to go along with my EGOT.” It’s like: I’m the fourth best writer on my floor in my apartment building, and there are four writers on this floor.
There was also the time I literally bumped into Woody Allen on the way to the dermatologist on the Upper East Side. Had I been going to my shrink, I would have been convinced I was living in a simulation.
6. A travel writer who can change the way you see the world
Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard is a heart-wrenching elegy disguised as a romp through the Himalayas. The prose is so poetic, and I appreciate the range of side-line characters and narrative meanderings that double as emotional excavations. In my own writing, I aspire to take on an adventure but also be vulnerable at the same time. Of course, I also swear by H.W. Tilman’s The Seven Mountain-Travel Books. Nepal is one of my favorite places on Earth, and Bill Tilman provides such raw, detailed accounts of his peregrinations there while managing to inject mordant humor into his anecdotes of chance encounters and misunderstandings. I also derive inspiration for my travel writing from wordsmiths who come from other realms. Derek Walcott’s Omeros is so full of life – my litmus test for good writing is whether or not I’m envious of having not written a line… that happens with every other Walcott verse. And in April, Jenny Xie, another poet and dear friend, published the acclaimed Eye Level, a collection of poems that functions as a travelogue, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. I have found lines from that beautiful collection in my head all year. I am prolix by nature, and so I especially admire her economy of language: she can pack such power into just three words.
7. A store you can't live without
I’m not a big shopper for myself, but in an occasional indulgence, I rely on Imparali, which makes custom suits and shirts for men. In fact, I had my wedding suit done there, and the attention to detail in the bespoke work is impressive. They’ll hook you up with the choicest gabardine lining and stitch in all the monogramming you need to satiate the egoist you are at heart.
8. What about New York inspires your writing
At night, the New York City skyline, as seen from I-95 on the Jersey-side of the Lincoln Tunnel, looks like a mini jewel case. That was always my vision of it as kid coming into and leaving the city. There’s so much light, and energy, and opportunity. Why else would people choose to live in a place without stars? Every day, the city presents a new occasion for creative fulfillment. It also makes you fight for your spot here. I like the fact that New York can reject you, smack you down, test your willpower, and then deliver in a big way to reward your persistence. Everybody is striving toward something. Nowhere else have I seen so many people crying on the sidewalk, yelling into cellphones, screaming triumphantly. We’re passionate here and put a lot of stock in our dreams. The sheer ambition of New Yorkers and collective grind as a community is inspiring. Boychik is just trying his best to stay afloat.
9. What makes an amazing hotel stay and which NY hotel does it best
My favorite hotels in the world are the following: Hoshinoya in Tokyo, Japan; GoldenEye in Oracabessa, Jamaica; Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikhel, Nepal; The Thief in Oslo, Norway; the Corinthia Palace & Spa in San Anton, Malta; and The Westbury in Dublin, Ireland. Beyond their luxurious amenities, they also serve as mini universes unto themselves – with top-notch bars, restaurants, spas, and activities – while also integrating the local culture into the environment. That creates a seamless transition when you emerge into the surrounding area. Hotels should be a sanctuary, a refuge, but they should have character, quirkiness, personality, sophistication that also gives an authentic sense of the locality. I don’t like anything generic. As a child coming in to New York from Princeton, New Jersey once every other month with my family, I always felt overwhelmed and intoxicated by the vastness of the city. We typically stayed in the Le Parker Meridian (now called Parker New York), so I have a soft-spot for the place and the tucked-away burger joint there. The NoMad Hotel in Flatiron is a bustling ecosystem, and its Library – low-lit with handsome wood walls – is a great place to write, meet a friend for coffee, or conduct an interview with a source for a piece. It’s full of such an international set of people just creating, collaborating, building, enjoying life. If I didn’t live here, I’d probably stay there or the Lower East Side’s PUBLIC Hotel, which has a similar vibe.
10. Where has been your favorite travel destination this year
I traveled to Tohoku, a region of Japan that suffered great destruction in the 2011 earthquake/tsunami. It’s since gained recognition for the samurai cuisine its newly minted Michelin-star restaurants serve, and I went to report a piece for Bloomberg on the phenomenon. My expectations for Japan were high, but the natural beauty and the kind, fascinating people I encountered far exceeded my wildest imaginings. In one particularly meaningful experience, I practiced shakyo, the meditative art of tracing Buddhist sutras, at Zuiganji Temple in Matsushima. I embraced the opportunity to learn to slow down and empty my mind while also activating a different part of my brain. I spent my days out reporting in the snow – even going to a kamakura festival where residents build and illuminate igloos to honor the Shinto God of Water – and my evenings soaking in the warmth of the onsens. The contrasting experiences enhanced each separate part and helped me eschew any freneticism and just breathe. Even when I bought a cast-iron incense burner in the shape of a lotus, the store clerk wrapped the gift as if a saint’s relic. There’s such attention to beauty in Japan and appreciation for the little elements in life. In fact, I developed such an affection for the country and culture, that I started taking classes at Japan Society when I returned to New York.
11. One thing you never travel without
As a rule, I bring a Moleskine for notes and observations, but my embarrassing confession is I also take along a headlamp, whether or not I’m going on trip that would require it. It makes me feel that I’m going on an expedition, and even if I never pull it from my suitcase, I’m still somehow in the mindset to explore.
12. Don't leave New York without...
…wandering. I feel that travelers too often have a set agenda and various attractions to check off a list. New York is such a spontaneous city, and you can catch some of the most interesting elements right on the sidewalk. Set aside at least a few hours, and maybe a whole day, and just stroll and sit – rinse and repeat. I make this a non-negotiable when I travel and find it’s enhanced all of my experiences. You can get a more genuine sense of a city by immersing yourself in the rhythms and habitats of locals.