During my fashionista days when I worked for Calvin Klein, the running assumption was that the Garment District was this transitory wasteland which buzzed with life during the work day, but became a boring, deserted place when the people that worked there left. Now that my eye is fully trained on finding “untapped” gems around me, debunking this myth of the Garment District was top on my list. Here, in the oft-overlooked neighborhood of Manhattan, you can find restaurants tucked inside freight entrances, one of the skinniest shops in NYC, a millinery synagogue, faded ads, a drama bookshop, a lot of Spandex and more. Discover something new in the latest Untapped Guide to the Garment District.
1. Freight Entrance Restaurants
While there used to be a lot more of these spots, it’s still fun to spend a lunch in one of these restaurants tucked into the freight entrances of buildings and warehouses. Nick’s Place, the self-proclaimed “best kept secret in the Garment District” is the most well-known of these nooks, but the experiences at El Sabroso and Arie’s Cafe are much more unique.
El Sabroso has been open for 20 years with the same owner, or so he told me when we spent a Friday lunch there recently. The countertop seats and the owner’s friendly demeanor make this my preferred spot. There’s a full menu on the wall, but I usually ask him what he recommends for the day.
Arie’s Cafe doesn’t even have a sign out front, and you’d only know that the restaurant existed through word of mouth or by the long lines that start even before noon. The place is quite narrow, so the food lines compete with actual deliveries, and a knock-off DVD peddler in the back.
2. The Millinery Synagogue
The garment district was once populated by numerous Jewish-owned factories making hats and other millinery goods, and this synagogue was founded so workers could attend services in the neighborhood. Globalization moved a lot of garment production overseas, and what you’ll see on the internet is that this place is supposedly closed, but it’s been busy since I noticed it over a year ago. Out front, they sell bed linens as a benefit for the populations in need that come to the synagogue. Inside, 4-5 services are held per day. First and foremost, they’re trying to rebuild the Jewish community in this neighborhood, and they were very welcoming of my visit and my questions.
3. The Skinniest Store in New York City
There have been a lot of claims for the skinniest store in NYC, including those prevalent on Columbus Avenue in between buildings. This particular store has the added benefit of selling bootleg DVDs. I’ll keep the address secret so I don’t destroy someone’s livelihood, but if you’re interested in Asian DVDs and one of the quirkiest experiences in New York, this is your place.
For those who are into statistics, the well-known skinny store on Columbus Avenue, “The Amazing Store and Smoke Shop,” measures 46″ including the door frame, leaving 36″ of walkable space. This shop in the Garment District is 44″ wide, including the door frame, with only 22″ of walkable space. If you include the electronic equipment that blocks more than half of the entryway, you’re left with about 10″, all of which is blocked by the fire hydrants outside.
4. Spandex House/Spandex World
Just in case you were short on Spandex, along 38th Street are both Spandex House and Spandex World, both filled with all the Spandex one could desire. There are many extremely specialized shops in the Garment District, like Capitol Fishing Tackle on 36th Street, which was originally a cutlery firm from Germany in 1845 that moved to New York in 1897. The neon sign is from 1941 and has been recently restored, despite several relocations of the shop. Across the street is the oversized zipper and button sign from LA MCOM Complete Vertical Trim Manufacturer. Shindo is a good choice for ribbons.
5. Fading Ads
This is one of my favorite neighborhoods to see faded ads, which tend to have a millinery theme.
6. Drama Book Shop
Marked only by a small tin sign hanging from the storefront, The Drama Bookshop on W. 40th Street is worth a visit, even if you’re not an aspiring thespian or filmmaker. Clean and full of light, this store bears little resemblance to, say, the tables stacked high with bootleg screenplays run by scruffy, odiferous guys in broke-down creeper vans that lurk just outside of Tisch and Union Square. It’s clearly designed to be an artist’s resource–the shop’s merchandise includes books like Backstage’s Call Sheet (formerly called the Ross Report) and publications like Theatrical Index and New York City Casting Directors. The shop even sits on top of a performance space called the Arthur Seelen Theatre, where the staff hosts events and plays multiple times a week. Plus, any place that sells something as random and kick-ass as an Oscar Wilde action figure is good in our book.
7. Murder Mystery Mafia Dinners
We got drawn in here by the fun bookshelf wallpaper on the balcony level of Arno Restaurant (141 W. 38th Street), and then discovered that the restaurant hosts a 3-course murder mystery dinner theater called Murdered by the Mob. We haven’t tried it yet, but it’s on our list.
8. Subway Shops
You can find little shops in subway entrances in different places throughout the city, but I still find them interesting whenever I come across them. This is the barber shop on W. 40th and 7th Avenue, just under Midtown Comics.
And a slightly less wholesome sex shop and DVD store in the entrance of the A/C/E in 40th and 8th Avenue:
9. Art Nouveau in the Garment District
Websites like ScoutingNY and New York Press have all covered this little gem, but it’s always a pleasure to see it in person. It’s designed by Emery Roth, the same architect as the Central Park West San Remo apartments. According to New York Press, “in the 1930s it was a cigar store and later it was home to one of the gang members associated with the much-publicized “Capeman” killing in Hell’s Kitchen,” in recent years it was a sex shop and since 2010 it’s been a pizza shop, but the DVD lingerie shop still occupies a small portion of the storefront.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.