The rising OK-ness of a table for one

“We love our single diners!” gushed the genial manager at Girl & the Goat in Chicago on a recent Thursday night. I believed her. She was sincere, direct and almost giddy.

I was eating alone, again, as I do when I travel solo, which is 99-percent of the time. Have no pity. This is something I relish, the quietude and solitude of dining companionless. Not that I don’t like eating with others. I do. But solo is its own sensation — cool, uncluttered, zen.


Look at this guy. He’s dining alone, and he still looks suave.

I’ve eaten alone in restaurants around the world scores if not hundreds of times. What once might have been a mite squirmy and self-conscious is now a cinch, and a joy. Like going to the movies alone (the best way), eating singly is woefully underrated. (Haunting bars solo is a lonelier proposition, but it’s still totally doable, at times even rewarding.)

Eateries have evolved and they are now equipped, ready and happily accommodating of the one-man show. I have no, er, reservations about making a reservation for one, and the staffers on the other end never pause, hiccup or flinch when they hear that some weird single guy is coming. Nowadays a table for one is entirely normal. Any uncomfortable vibes are coming from your end only. I’ve never felt strange or alienated dining out with me and myself.

9Go. Relax. Be seated and order a cocktail or a glass of wine. I used to bring reading material to the table, a magazine or travel guide — like the hapless fellow in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” — but no more. (For one, it’s invariably too dark to read anything. I’m at the point where I have to use the light of the table’s feeble candle to read the menu.) And I’m not one to obsessively tap, scroll and stare hypnotically at my smartphone. So I instead observe, look around and listen — the time-honored sport of people watching.

When it’s early, well before the dinner crush, I’m known to sit at the bar with my laptop and have a small bite and a beer, which I did last week at Longman & Eagle in Chicago, a winsome gastropub with a kicky, rustic flair. I emailed ahead for the best hours to pull out a computer and to confirm the place has free Wi-Fi.

Any stigma attached to the idea of lone dining is dated and moribund. At Avec in Chicago I sat at the bar with an unbroken row of single diners. A few chatted with the stranger next to them, others (me) kept to themselves and saved conversation for the empathetic, fiercely attentive server who coddled me just enough that I didn’t feel fawned over.

There are perils to eating out alone. Servers tend to have the urge to rush the meal, so if I’ve ordered three courses, instead of staggering them leisurely, the server will pile them on, and I wind up with three full plates waiting to be tackled at once. I call this shoving food down your throat and shoving you out the door (this has happened to me at least three times recently). Rushing the plates, it’s as if the lone eater cannot be left without something in front of him, lest he perish from loneliness.


View from the bar at Frenchie in Paris. Close to the action, with great, personalized interaction. That’s owner, head chef and all-around mensch Gregory Marchand. I had the best seat in the house.

Tip: Sit at the bar. Servers tend to be more attentive and personalized and there’s less of a chance of a plate pile-up because the area is busier and service slows somewhat. Communication, from illuminating details about the menu to cordial chit-chat, reigns.

Plus, the scenery at the bar is superior — a stool with a view. If you’re lucky, there’s an open kitchen, where you can witness the artful commotion of chefs in the tentacled frenzy of culinary creation. Bodies swerve and dodge, flames lick the ceiling, delicacies are chopped and seared and tossed, plates are decorated as meticulously as a Buddhist sand mandala. Art happens. For the wide-eyed foodie, it’s the frisson of salivating spectacle, a bonus main course, with extra dessert.


Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style


View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.


My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.


Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.


Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.


Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.


Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.


Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.


Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.


Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.


The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.


The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.

Second thoughts about the Second City? No way.

Small compared to my last few trips — London, Montreal, Russia — my jaunt to Chicago approaches with almost unnerving rapidity: in two days. It should be an “easy” trip — short domestic flight, no visas or sourball customs agents — though inevitably there will be a measure of that fly-the-friendly-skies folderol we all know and love. (Baggage fees — adorable.)


What, me worry?

Easy though it may be, this angsty traveler is strictly a glass half-empty kind of fellow, and that applies to my journeys. With excitement I choose a destination. With a kind of giddy glee I chart an itinerary, winnowing down the sites and restaurants and museums and cemeteries I plan to visit. An anticipatory rush animates the research and planning, and I get revved all over again for the unpredictable adventure of unshackled travel.

I hold onto this fuzzy feeling — until I don’t. As the trip’s date nears a sort of existential nausea, a galaxy of apprehensions, sets in. I mildly panic. My mouth becomes a rictus of worry. I wonder if I’ve made a glorious mistake. Chicagowhat was I thinking? I fret about how nice the weather will be, how acceptable my room will be, how easily I’ll be able to get around. Is the city overrated — is there enough to do and see? Aargh.

I inventoried my neurotic travel niggles in a blog post last fall as I was heading to St. Petersburg, Russia. They have not improved. They have not been assuaged.

Why do I worry so? Because this mostly lone traveler has found some destinations — luckily very, very few — to be a little … lacking. Not bad. Never bad. Never uninteresting, and never without a laundry list of things to do and see. But here and there (say, oh, Boston) a place will offer too much dead air, too little to do to occupy one’s time, too little to enthrall. I get up late and stay up late. Entertain me.

I’m being a bit facetious. Just absorbing a city and the neighborhood one stays in is bracing — a concentrated dose of head-twirling newbie-osity.

I think I have Chicago down. Like, down. I’m staying in an Airbnb that happens to be a room in a luxurious downtown boutique hotel, not someone’s crib. It abuts the 360 Chicago skyscraper in the Gold Coast on Lake Michigan, in the same hood as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the (oh, yes) International Museum of Surgical Science.

It’s too early in the season for river boat tours, but not too early for a slew of city walking tours. I’m booked on the Famous Tastes of Chicago Food Tour, a three-hour amble of hot dogs, pizza, Italian sandwiches, chocolate and architectural superstars. I’m holding a hot ticket for the critically salivated-over play “The Wolves,” a finalist for the Pulitzer last year. My dinner reservations are otherworldly. The lush, star-studded Graceland Cemetery beckons. A brace of fabled bars, The Hideout and The Empty Bottle, are sure bets.

Just reading all that serves as verbal Xanax. Calmer, even optimistic, I can take care of business, like packing, which takes me approximately 12 minutes. Then what? Travel is what. It’s a drill I know well. Get to the airport, check in, blunder through security, get to the gate, wait, board, soar. The rest is the adventure, the big show, which should be joy-inducing, eye-opening, head-expanding. It is where worry and angst go to die.

Blue about the blues

I go to Chicago for a few days in early March, entirely for shits and giggles. I know what I’m going to do: the Art Institute, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, 360 Chicago, a food walking tour, a play, a clutch of acclaimed restaurants, the International Museum of Surgical Science — you get it.

And I know what I’m not going to do: the blues.

Famous blues joints pepper Chicago, the most popular being the craptastic cathedral that is the House of Blues, a theme park boasting Mardi Gras “all month” (Mardi Gras, the seamiest excuse for a party ever — a tawdry, tacky, ta-ta-baring bacchanalia, crawling and bellowing with professional alkies and aspiring harlots) and wincing Sunday gospel brunches, plus Chippendales (that just happened), and bands like Breezy Rodio and, heart-sinkingly, The Good, the Bad and the Blues.


House of Blues is an 11-city chain of clubs and restaurants with an eye-singeing, carnivalesque, Hard Rock Cafe ambiance that grabs you by the lapels with neon gloves then barfs a bacon double cheeseburger down your throat to the blaring tunes of some godawful blues-rock cover band. You want chili-cheese fries and extra harmonica with that? Yup, sure.

Yet I don’t blame that lame chain (or its brethren, the hyper-branded, overpriced B.B. King Blues Club & Grill) for my distaste of the blues. I blame the music.

Obviously H.O.B. is but one garish facet of Chicago blues. Classy clubs, holes-in-the-wall, hipster bars — a constellation of blues venues lights up this big city. And there are whole taxonomies of blues music, just as there are for jazz (swing, be-bop, Dixieland), rock (metal, punk, new wave), etc. It’s a prismatic genre. It’s just not very good.


Giving me the blues.

I do like some blues — Robert Johnson’s oeuvre, Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” and other classics — but I’m convinced the blues is an acquired taste. Jazz is too, I think.

Today I can take or leave jazz, but there was a serious stretch during college when I was an energetic jazz neophyte. I took an infectious jazz survey course (taught by the late Grover Sales, a cantankerous, spittle-flying savant) that made me a bit rabid. The first CD this inveterate hard-rocker ever bought was Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”

My Dad, an incurable jazz aficionado, made sure I saw an array of jazz greats performing in the Bay Area before they passed on: Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, the Duke Ellington Band and others. I was smitten. (If only I could have seen the late, great Gene Krupa, my elastic-limbed drum hero.) I also caught the classical music bug with Dad’s nudging. I’m still infected by its Beethovenian bite.

And then there’s the blues.

That one didn’t stick.

Many years living in Austin, Texas, exposed me to scads of blues at venerated shrines to the music like Antone’s and the Continental Club. It always sounded like the same guitar riff, same hi-hat shuffle, same plinky solos, coupled with growly vocals and, the nadir, infernal harmonica runs.

© Copyright 2014 CorbisCorporation

Must. Stop.

It still sounds that way. “It’s great for 20 seconds, and then I just want to go,” quips Fred Armisen in his new Netflix comedy show “Standup for Drummers.”

Armisen’s facial expressions are priceless as he feigns listening to a blues group, toggling from pleasant and expectant to baffled and bored and finally glazed.

On my 21st birthday in New Orleans, I tried to get lost in the local vibe in a blues bar. I had a beer and the band did its jammy, bluesy thing. My face sagged after the first song. Soon I was mummified in boredom.

(Surly sidebar: During two long-ago trips to Jamaica I was, naturally, subjected to endless reggae, which is as repetitive and predictable as the blues, and might actually be worse. I don’t think reggae will be an issue in Chicago.)


I have nothing but reverence for Chicago’s great, musically eclectic Chess Records, whose roster boasted Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy — some critical roots of rock ’n’ roll. I’m even considering taking a Chess Records tour.

Skipping the blues in Chicago, a naughty bit of blasphemy, I have my sights on a pair of bar-clubs known for multifaceted music bills, from rock and world, to country and punk: The Empty Bottle and the storied Hideout. There I hope to get my live-music fix, without the monstrous Planet Hollywood decor, baskets of mozzarella sticks and, god help me, the wheezing, whining plaints of a harmonica being tortured.

Getting my Goat, Chicago style

A couple of blogs ago I rhapsodized about two fine-dining dishes I’m already swooning over before a March trip to Chicago: crispy duck tongues and wood-oven roasted pig face.


Roasted pig face.

Served at the acclaimed Girl & the Goat, they sound so marvelously disgusting yet so tantalizingly tasty that my anticipation surges. My only fear is that the plates are so popular they’ll be out of them the night I order. I have no backup. It’s either fowl and swine or nothing. Keep your hamachi crudo and seared yellowfin tuna — I want barnyard animals! (Well, there’s always the titular goat. I ate goat once in Jamaica, with a complex of reactions.)


This is about Girl & the Goat. This post is then, in its adorable naiveté, free advertising. But let’s not forget: I’ve never been to the restaurant, never tasted its food. I’ve only read about it, drooled over photos of dishes (XXX food porn), watched Anthony Bourdain sing its praises and learned a bit about its chef and owner Stephanie Izard in the press. If I go and it even slightly disappoints, I will return here with a retraction, grumbling umbrage, quibbles and caveats. I am fair. And ruthless.


Stephanie Izard

But back to our hopes and dreams. A Chicago native, Izard is, famously, the fourth-season winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where she was also named fan favorite. She opened Girl & the Goat in 2010 in the West Loop, followed by Little Goat Diner across the street and the Chinese-themed Duck Duck Goat around the corner. She’s become a mini-industry in Chicago, and G&G was nominated best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation in 2011. Izard won the Beard award for Best Chef Great Lakes in 2013 and was tapped one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2010.

I have meals planned at other admired restaurants in Chicago — Avec, Frontera Grill, Piece, Au Cheval — but for some reason Goat has me giddy. On paper, the menu’s a doozy, mouthwatering morsels and paradisiacal plates that can’t miss. I quipped before that I will only eat duck tongue and pig face. Not true.


Calamari bruschetta.

The calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) will be sliding down my gullet, as will the wood grilled broccoli (rogue smokey bleu, spiced crispies) and, if I don’t erupt first, escargot ravioli (bacon tamarind sauce, escarole and celery, crispy onions). (Please, god, let there be doggie bags.)

Girl & the Goat is but one more event in my ongoing daredevil dining excursions. It’s not that crazy, but its exoticism feels just right, and its menu is much more ambitious than those of the other eateries I’ll visit in the Second City.

Deep-dish pizza is great. Potato-goat sausage pizza is divine.

Dining out should be a thrill, a mini adventure. Not to get dopey or too obvious about it, but what’s the point of forking out for food that’s not extraordinary? When I buy a burger, I want that slab of beef to sing. I want the crispy Platonic ideal of fried chicken at The Wooden Spoon in Bloomfield, NJ, or the extravagant, inspired dogs at Ruffhaus Hot Dog Company in El Dorado Hills, CA, or the amazing mazeman at Ani Ramen in Montclair, NJ, and anything at Frenchie in Paris, France. I want my eyes to roll back in my head at each bite.

Girl & the Goat looks promising, and this will be the end of my unsolicited promotional pamphlet for the restaurant. Perhaps I’ll follow up with a report on how it all — duck tongues, pig face and all — went down.

I will follow in this little guy’s hoof-steps. He looks like he knows how to dine with panache.

me as i enter.png

Girl & the Goat mascot. How I intend to enter the establishment.

me as i depart.jpeg

The little fella after enjoying dinner. How I intend to exit.

Quack, snort and other adventures in dining

I’m a relatively adventurous eater — I’ll nosh bone marrow, chicken hearts, snails, frog legs, foie gras, raw oysters, sea anemone, roe, goat, buffalo, pigeon, octopus — but, like most of us, I cleave to a less exotic, much less expensive daily diet. Those delicacies are for singular occasions, mostly while I’m traveling and living a bit high on the hog. (Hog, too, I eat that.)


My grilled octopus, Barcelona.

Mulling a trip to Chicago, I’ve made a short list of restaurants offering casual to fine dining, from Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill (Mexican) to Paul Kahan’s Avec (Mediterranean). Squeezed between those is Stephanie Izard’s popular Girl & the Goat, an ambitious family-style spot located in the city’s Randolph Restaurant Corridor in the West Loop.

I always scan the online menus before I make a reservation. Pushing past the goat plates, two dishes at Girl & the Goat had this fledgling foodie hooked: crispy duck tongues and wood oven roasted pig face. After a flinch, I promptly decided I’m having both.

These delicacies are inarguably a vegetarian’s writhing apocalypse. I know. We must move onward.

I have of course never had duck tongue. Beef tongue, perhaps. No idea what to anticipate, so I’ll allow the gustatory gurus at Serious Eats explain the specialty:

“Surrounded by a faint hint of meat and papery thin layers of cartilage, duck tongue is predominately a vehicle for juicy pockets of fat. At barely two inches in length, the tongue may seem small and insubstantial, but its flavor is intensely duck-like. When freshly fried, duck tongues are positively addicting with a crisp surface and a creamy, slightly fatty interior that melts in your mouth.”

This …


… becomes this:


Duck tongue with tuna and black bean poke, crispy wontons and piri piri.

Like duck tongue, no appetizing euphemism masks what pig face actually is: the meat and fat sliced off the face of a pig. I may have eaten pig cheeks before, but this is different, a full facial. Again, Serious Eats explains:

“It’s the multitude of harmonized flavors and textures that make the roasted pig face of one my favorite dishes ever. From the succulent wood-fired pig face patties, sweet maple gastrique, and tart tamarind vinaigrette, to the crispy potato sticks and gooey sunnyside-up egg, it’s clear why this is one of Girl & the Goat’s signature dishes.”

This …Cannon-and-Cannon-Meat-School-pig

… becomes this:


Wood oven roasted pig face with sunny side egg, tamarind, cilantro, red wine-maple, potato stix.

As I momentarily salivate (daub, wipe), it strikes me that both meals are commendable for their use of animal parts that might otherwise, and usually are, thrown out with the beaks and snouts, offal rejects. This is mindful, sustainable cooking, but it’s also, let’s face it, delicious, deeply indulgent cooking, sinful, decadent, irresistible. (It’s a lot like the bone marrow I adore, seen below from my recent Russia trip.)


Right, I haven’t tasted the duck and pig yet — maybe I’ll gag into my linen napkin — but my experiences with exotic, zany foods comprise a solid track record of gastronomical daring and concomitant success. In other words, I enjoy this kind of food, and I’m not only amenable to it, I’m beguiled by it, too.

Omnivorous by nature and choice, I will pursue my culinary escapades for the foreseeable future — that is, a very long time. Vegetarians may scowl and harrumph, and I get it. I can only respond with a lusty chomp and gulp and the thrill of tasting whole new worlds.

Museums of mortality — spooky, sublime

Last year I paid visits to those twin emporiums of ick and awe, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and the smaller but almost equally macabre Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Festooned with bullet-riddled skulls, deformed fetuses crammed into jars, gnarled, twisted skeletons, diseased human organs, rusty surgical tools and random gangrened digits, these palaces of the perverse satisfied the ghoulishly curious. They were extravagantly ack-inducing, deliciously quiver-making. Paradise.


He’s checking his texts.

As noted earlier, I’m deliberating my next journey, and, because I went large last year, I’m thinking small this year. Which means I might go to Chicago, a 2.5-hour flight away. And which means, more importantly, the International Museum of Surgical Science, a less squishy warehouse of medical wonders than the two above, but still a marvelous assemblage of stuff that spurs contemplation about our mortal flesh and all that can go wrong with it via disease, accident and sheer shitty luck.

Highlights include a vintage iron lung machine (can I climb inside?), an exhibit about pain and anesthesia through the ages and one about the history of wound healing (“From the use of herbal ointments and therapeutic clays among prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Galen’s treatment of injured gladiators in Ancient Rome, the care of wounds is among the earliest applications of medicine”), and the museum structure itself, an elegant, historic lakeside mansion. And who could pass up the exhibit “A History of Blood Transfusion: 350 Years of Apparatus Advancement”?

Caesarean section.jpg

Mural of early Caesarean section. Gleefully gruesome.

Reviewers note that the four-story manse is compact and, naturally, its array of freakish displays is no match for Philly’s world-class Mutter. Small is all right; I enjoy a good bite-size museum, especially one of such narrow scope. Sort of like the Russian Vodka Museum or Tokyo’s Meguro Parasitological Museum.


Iron lung machine. May I?

For more grim exhilarations, I pivoted my research to Chicago cemeteries — I’m always up for a calming stroll through deathly opulence — but decided to skip the offerings. Several notable cemeteries pock the area, boasting the resting holes of everyone from Al Capone to Jesse Owens, Emmett Till to John Belushi, Gene Siskel to John Hughes. I sought out film critic Roger Ebert’s grave, but he was cremated and his ashes are kept by a private party, most likely his lovely widow Chaz.

We should all be so lucky. Cremation is the way to go, although I don’t want my cremains kept by anyone but the wind and the water -— whoosh. Thoughts like these will surely visit me at the Surgical Science Museum, a place rife with death and decrepitude. But they won’t get me down. They’re wondrous in their way and, far from depressing, something of a mind-reeling, soul-stirring tonic for the living.


Visual antidotes to winter’s vicious freeze

With my love of cold weather, my fervent devotion to fall and winter, to thick jackets, chapped lips and goosebumps, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am part polar bear, part moose.

I relish the big chill. I rather enjoyed the “bomb cyclone” that recently tormented the entire East Coast. Undoubtedly, the swirling mega gusts and ravaging ice storms truly unsettled. I’m actually no fan of voluminous snowfall. Slush, mush, argh. But give me some solid 30s and 40s F and I get to bundle up, thrill with the chill and, this is critical, not sweat.

Yet things are warming up, and this week the New York area will enjoy an inhumanely balmy 60 degrees — a wee too warm, but my survivalist instincts will kick in.

It is said winter lovers are a rare breed, anomalous, daft. I ask: Why don’t more people hate summer? Baffling. I loathe the warm months. It’s a me thing. Shorts and I are on rancorous terms.

I’ve traveled wide and far in positively scorching, humid, sweat-sodden climes and I thought this quintet of watery photos from said journeys might warm up the cold-adverse reader, reminding you of the great thaw to come, soon. All too soon. Splash.


Boy leaping into river in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.


Vietnamese kid after his plunge.


Girl splashing in fire hydrant, summer, Brooklyn, NY.


Boys in Istanbul, Turkey.


Those Turkish boys, loving it.

Overrated travel spots? You decide.

Stumbling through the web today, my eye caught a bit of click-bait I couldn’t resist. Headlined “Overrated Places That Aren’t Worth Visiting,” and located at YourDailyDish, it appealed to my love of lists, penchant for snark and discriminating view of world travel.

A pithy, withering litany of 21 so-called overrated spots, laced with a pinch of snide drollery, the dishonor roll is little more than a light-hearted provocation for easily distracted web surfers. There are surely a billion such lists out there, better, funnier, more substantive, more informative. But this one, despite some dubious grammar, boasts surprising off-the-beaten-track locales that may raise eyebrows.

The list is pure meringue that you can’t take too seriously, and you can make a sport of comparing your impressions of a place to the shamings here. I, for one, can attest that Miami, Las Vegas and contemporary art museums earn their slots. The Great Wall of China, not so much.


The list follows below. Each name is a hyperlink to its web page. (Caveat: the pages are larded with obnoxious yet easily dodged ads.)

  1. The Terraced Rice Fields in Vietnam
  2. Seasonal Waterfalls
  3. The Great Wall of China
  4. Manneken Pis in Brussels
  5. La Bocca Della Verità in Rome
  6. Four Corners Monument
  7. Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts
  8. Contemporary Art Museums
  9. The Confucian Temple of Shanghai
  10. Empire State Building, NYC
  11. Leaning Tower of Pisa
  12. Miami
  13. Niagara Falls
  14. Mount Rushmore
  15. Venice, Italy
  16. Las Vegas
  17. Statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen
  18. The Hollywood Walk of Fame
  19. Champs-Elysees, Paris
  20. Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
  21. Blarney Stone, Ireland



The welcome problem of where to go next

Wanderlust is a malady, chronic and unquenchable. It’s a greedy thing. It wants, desires. It pulses with passion. A lust to wander — exactly as advertised. Lust isn’t a neutral word. It implies the untamable, the uncontainable. It’s hot to the touch.

I’m forever locked in wanderlust’s fevered clutches, craning my neck in search of the next journey somewhere far away. I need to move. I demand experience. I devour culture. I like airplanes.

This year found me bounding near — D.C., Philadelphia, Boston — and swanning far — London, Montreal, St. Petersburg, Russia. Last year was Spain, for the second time; the year before, Paris, for the fifth time. If all that hadn’t broke the bank, I’d now be giddily racking my brain and scanning maps to locate my next adventure.

Let’s do it anyway. Where next?

Obvious contenders are places I haven’t been, from Central and South America to Kenya and Iceland; from Indonesia and Ireland to Singapore and Stockholm.

But I’m picky. I won’t name names, but some places just don’t seem culturally rich enough, or they’re too mojito-on-the-beach boring, or they’re totally repellent in an I-don’t-want-to-be-beheaded way. Too hot. Too cold. Too aesthetically barren. Let’s not forget places with unconscionable alcohol bans.

Though I enjoyed insanely sweaty jaunts in Thailand, India, Egypt and Vietnam (the latter was best), I mostly spurn hot, tropical climes. I don’t do palm trees. Sand: the great deal-breaker. No matter where I go, early spring and early fall are my optimal travel times.


Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I go for cities, jostling, clamorous metropolises, be it Shanghai or Barcelona, Berlin or Mumbai, Tokyo or Hong Kong, Istanbul or Marrakesh. That to me is where the action is, not enveloped in frothing seawater on a Boogie Board or panting across sinuous mountain hiking trails.

Before choosing Russia for my recent fall trip, I looked hard at South Africa, but decided it was both too expensive and too outdoorsy. There is fairly cosmopolitan Cape Town, known mostly for its seaside “scenery” — cliffs and water and the like. Victoria Falls and overpriced safaris could not seal the deal. I’m not mad about seeing hyenas in their natural habitat, when all is said and done. (Why do tourist safaris seem so canned, so kind of phony?)

Some time ago I came close to buying tickets to Argentina — zesty Buenos Aires! Wine! Steaks! — and Brazil, until I peered closer at the year-round temperatures and the Brazilian proclivity for volleyball and Speedos. Only Rio’s storied favela piqued my interest in the end, so I swiftly looked elsewhere for the next journey.

I picked Istanbul for its European patina and Ottoman exoticism, and, once there, was instantly won over by its luminous culture, wonderful people, Old World beauty, dazzling mosques and cobblestone-y charms. A weekend trip to the fairy-tale cave village of Cappadocia topped a perfect two-week vacation. I have since returned to Istanbul, and will surely go back.


Blue Mosque, Istanbul

But not now. I’m looking for the new, the untouched, the virgin vacation. Japan oddly beckons, but I’ve been there twice, though I’d like to dedicate more time to Kyoto; I think I rushed it. Swaths of Northern Europe — Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark — fail to excite. I’ve come close to trying Hungary, mostly for the Gothic visions of Budapest, but there doesn’t seem to be enough cultural ballast to sustain a full trip. Prague is near Hungary, but I’ve done that and wasn’t bowled over. A bit too touristy, a bit too lightweight.

I’ve been to Poland, Mexico, China, Austria, Nepal, Cambodia, Beirut and Israel. But I’ve never been to Australia, and I don’t yen to go, for many of the reasons noted above. (“Sun and fun” as an ideal does not compute.) Toronto looks … meh. Indonesia seems too balmy, if unspeakably gorgeous.


Angkor Wat, Cambodia

This is a crazily superficial, obscenely first-world conundrum to be stuck in. I’ll pry myself loose when the time comes, when I’m ready for the next big trip (Chicago? Taiwan? South Korea?). Meanwhile, I gaze at my suitcase with longing, hoping to fill it soon, even if I have nowhere to go. Wrote Stephen Sondheim: “Stop worrying where you’re going … If you can know where you’re going/You’ve gone.”