When the Big Apple beckons — some tips

Our personal tour guide, Ronny Venable, and Sara Rose overlooking sights on the East River. I’m sure you can tell by looking that Ronny is the brother of Sam Venable, the longtime columnist and outdoor reporter for the News Sentinel.

My friends and I know how to maximize an experience.

When Sara Rose and Sheena McCall purchased an auction item at the Clarence Brown Theatre’s annual gala this summer, the offer was two nights in a hotel room for four people along with a walking tour of the city by Ronny Venable (a Clarence Brown alum living in NYC) and a fancy dinner as part of the New York City Wine and Food Festival. Oh, and lunch at Tavern on the Green.

The nights at the InterContinental Times Square, the lunch and the festival dinner were generously donated by Burton Jablin, COO of Scripps Networks Interactive.

But we ramped up the experience to include four nights, three plays, a jazz club and numerous restaurants and shopping stops — in addition to the tour and over-the-top dinner. In short, we maximized it!

Follow along here for our opinions on the good, the bad and the “meh.” And make your reservations! Nothing beats the Big Apple for fun!

Let’s start with the plays. They all were wonderful. We gave two an A-plus and one a B-plus, but it got bonus points for including a Knoxvillian in its cast!

“Dear Evan Hansen”

We paid $300 apiece for these tickets, but they were worth it. The play is an examination of the meaning of life and family and friendship and loneliness in this digital age — all set to music. It seemed to have an especially big effect on parents in the audience, many of whom were crying throughout. This was Sara’s favorite play. A-plus.

The opening set of “Dear Evan Hansen” is Evan’s bedroom.

“Come from Away”

When the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, caused all planes to be grounded, 38 of them landed unexpectedly in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland. This resulted in about 7,000 scared, desperate, frustrated passengers disembarking and immediately doubling the size of the town’s population. But the residents embraced and befriended them and, despite the strain on the town’s resources, displayed heartwarming human kindness that had me, for one, in tears. This was my favorite play of the trip. Again, an A-plus. Tickets were $200 each.

The set of “Come from Away.”


Don’t get me wrong. We loved this play about the employees of a pie shop. It had sad parts and happy parts. But, most important to me, it had John Cullum, a Tony Award winner from Knoxville who played the part of the curmudgeonly pie shop owner. I think we might have scored it higher if we hadn’t already been blown away by the previous two plays. Its sound system was a little muddy, making the lyrics hard to understand, and the plot was somewhat predictable. But we’d still give it a B-plus. Tickets were $200 each.

When one entered the theater, she was met with the aroma of apple pie wafting through the lobby! Clever.

The curtain of “Waitress.” Again, clever.

Folks were selling pies — in little Mason jars — in the aisles prior to the show.

John Cullum.

Taking a bow.

A Personal Walking Tour

Ronny Venable is an actor and fundraising professional originally from South Knoxville but living in New York City for more than three decades now. He also is a fantastic tour guide. As part of our “prize package” from the Clarence Brown, Ronny met up with us Saturday afternoon following our lunch at Tavern on the Green (more on that later).

First stop: Central Park (since that’s where Tavern on the Green is located). We cut through the park on the way to a subway stop.

Here’s our little band of merrymakers. From left, Sheena McCall, Sarah Kiely, Ronny Venable and Sara Rose.

We hopped the subway and headed to lower Manhattan and the financial district. We exited at Fulton Center, a new transportation hub and shopping complex.

On Broadway at Fulton Street, we looked at the markers in the sidewalk every few yards. This stretch is called the Canyon of Heroes, and the markers designate an honoree of each of New York’s famous ticker-tape parades. This is the stretch where they are held. Very cool.

Ronny pointed out One World Trade Center to us. It replaced the towers that were destroyed Sept. 11, 2001.

Seen here through the mist, it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

We stopped to look at the Red Cube at 140 Broadway. Loved it. A work by Isamu Noguchi, it was installed in 1968.

Next stop:  Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, a landmark administered by the National Park Service.

This statue of George Washington was installed in 1882 at approximately the spot where he was inaugurated.

Inside, Ronny chatted up George.

“I’m glad you won,” Ronny told him.

The New York Stock Exchange was across the street.

We stopped by Fraunces Tavern at 54 Pearl Street at the corner of Broad Street. This historic building was where George Washington had his headquarters. It’s also where he famously said farewell to his troops after the war, a story that Ronny says brings tears to his eyes. “These men who had faced death together and laughed and cried together would never see each other again,” he said. That’s Sarah Kiely with Ronny in the photo.

We all loved the next stop. At 55 Water Street is a nondescript escalator that takes you to the Elevated Acre — a rooftop garden atop two office buildings.

Entering the Elevated Acre.

Walking toward the East River.

A peaceful sitting area.

Looking out over the river toward New Jersey.

And the Downtown Manhattan Helipad.

Back down on the street, we ran into a movie or TV filming taking place.

It was an early version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade!

Then, it was on to see the “Fearless Girl” statue.

Fearless girls!

Inside The Oculus. Can you see One World Trade Center through the skylight? The Oculus is a $4 billion transportation and retail hub.

The west concourse.

Ronny took us to the rooftop of his friend Jennifer Greene’s place in Battery Park. Jennifer is a Knoxville native, too.

From there, we could see the Statue of Liberty.

And a clearer view of One World Trade Center.

Jennifer and her dog, Max, were displaced by the Sept. 11 attack and fled to New Jersey for weeks. She actually saw the towers fall and saw people jumping to their deaths. Sixteen years later, she still can’t discuss it without crying. Ronny couldn’t take us to the actual September 11 Memorial because he found it too upsetting. “I just can’t take it,” he said.

Ronny is available for personalized tours. He’s a lot of fun! He can be reached at [email protected]. We highly recommend!

The food

We had a lot of it! Here’s a quick rundown.

Breakfast at Balthazar.

French. Fun. Delicious. Only downside: It’s pretty far from the Theater District where we stayed. Our cab got bogged down in traffic, and we had to get out and walk towards the end because we were very late for our reservation and the restaurant was about to close for a private event. And this was at 10:30 on a weekday!

First things first! The Bloody Marys at Balthazar were great, as my friend Sara Rose and I can attest.

Sara had sour cream-hazelnut waffles with warm berries. Yep. She loved.

I had “Eggs Norwegian,” which was a poached egg and smoked salmon with hollandaise on an English muffin. Yum.

The bar at Balthazar.

The Balthazar bakery.

High tea at The Plaza.

Yes, it’s expensive. About $100 each. But you gotta do it!

The Plaza Hotel’s beautiful Palm Court, where high tea is served.

Sara art-directed this photo. Good job, huh?

Close-up view.

My two favorite savory bites: lobster roll and caviar blini. OMG.

Our favorite sweet bite: A Kir Royale, which is crème de cassis gelée, blackcurrant Bavarian, and violet meringue. In two bites.

Quick dinner at The Stinger.

The Stinger Cocktail Bar and Kitchen is operated by Chef Todd English and is located in our hotel, the InterContinental Times Square. The drinks and the bar snacks are great and we had them almost every night.

But, on this night, Sara and I needed a quick dinner prior to opening curtain of a play. We adored the quick food we had at The Stinger.

Sara had the Tuna Nicoise sandwich.

I had the Stinger Cobb salad, the best Cobb salad I’ve ever had.

Lunch at Marseille.

Alan and I love Marseille, the French restaurant just a block from our hotel. I introduced Sara to it.

Cute. Seasonal. Festive.

We split some light, airy calamari, which was different from any we’ve ever had.

And French bread, of course.

Being a tourist at Tavern on the Green.

It’s fun to go there. But do it for the atmosphere — not the food.

Looking out from the dining room at Tavern on the Green.

Loved the cute little topiaries in the dining room.

The open kitchen was interesting to watch.

Bloodies were good.

Food was OK. Here are my Eggs Benedict, which I upgraded by adding lobster. It was fine.

Two folks at our table had Tavern scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. The eggs were supposed to be creamy. They looked overdone to me.

Arguing about Esca.

From left, Sarah Kiely, Sheena McCall and Sara Rose outside Esca.

Esca, a Mario Batali eatery on W. 43rd Street, is one of Sheena’s favorite restaurants. The word esca is Italian for bait and a lot of the fish is served raw. “I love raw fish!” Sheena exclaimed. Well, I don’t. And I’d been to Esca once before and found the cooked food almost too salty to eat. (Click here for a post about that visit.) But, being a fair-minded person, I decided to be a good sport and give it another shot.

I was careful about my order and, this time, the food was a lot better. But the noise was cacophonous. We literally could not hear each other talk. It was so bad that we chose to forego dessert just so we could get the heck out of there.

But Sheena loved her raw fish! She substituted a lightly cooked shrimp for the sea urchin that was supposed to come with this dish.

It was grilled octopus for me. I liked it.

The gnocchi got rave reviews.

Spaghetti with one pound lobster, chilis and mint.

Linguini with briny clams, red hot pepper and pancetta.

So, the food was great. But the noise was terrible. I recommend picking another restaurant. Sheena likely will disagree.

Miscellaneous other adventures.

We loved the Birdland Big Band at the legendary jazz club across the street from our hotel.

Birdland Big Band.

I was happy to see a female trombone player.

Sara had her makeup done at Saks. They said it would take five minutes. It took 30.

But, doesn’t she look great?

Thanks to Selvie of Laura Mercier.

Here’s a little known fact for you. Most of us who know Sara Rose know her as an executive with Bush Brothers or with Whittle Communications, her previous job. But did you know that she also was for five years a handbag purchaser for the retail industry? She knows everything about handbags — and how to pick a good one. She helped me find my new one at DKNY — and I love it. She knew more about handbags than the sales staff! (I think they were a little intimidated.)

This is not the handbag I bought, but a cute little panda purse we saw at Saks.

No comment.

Next post: An evening in Chef David Bouley’s Test Kitchen. Amazing.



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10 Responses to When the Big Apple beckons — some tips

  1. Katie Kline, on October 23rd, 2017 at 12:26 pm said:

    What a great and fun-packed trip! Balthazar is one of our favorite restaurants. We’ve been there for lunch and for brunch on a Saturday before a play. G&Ts not bad either!

  2. Cynthia Moxley, on October 23rd, 2017 at 12:38 pm said:

    Thanks, Katie: Good to know! Might try one of those next time!

  3. Monique Anderson, on October 23rd, 2017 at 1:11 pm said:

    Those pastries look sooo good! Sara’s makeup job was great! Such a fun trip!

  4. Cynthia Moxley, on October 23rd, 2017 at 1:12 pm said:

    Monique: You need to go with us on our next girls’ trip!

  5. Mickey Mallonee, on October 23rd, 2017 at 1:59 pm said:

    What a great group. Looks like too much fun.

  6. Cynthia Moxley, on October 23rd, 2017 at 2:08 pm said:

    Mickey: Next time, you should join us!

  7. Sara Rose, on October 23rd, 2017 at 2:24 pm said:

    I had so much fun! Great traveling companions!

  8. K-Kin Fairbank, on October 23rd, 2017 at 2:43 pm said:

    Awesome Trip! Thanks for sharing your reviews on the plays and restaurants! Sounds like such fun was had by you all in the big Apple. 🙂

  9. Cynthia Moxley, on October 23rd, 2017 at 3:07 pm said:

    Sara: You were an awesome roommate. Let’s do it again soon.

    K-Kin: It was a wonderful trip. I’m so glad Sheena and Sara purchased it — and invited me! And so grateful to Scripps Networks for donating it. Stay tuned for the post about our $400-per-person dinner at Chef David Bouley’s Test Kitchen. Courtesy of Scripps.

  10. Maria M. Cornelius, on October 24th, 2017 at 1:13 pm said:

    Plays sound awesome. And love those fearless women!

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