The Best Restaurant in New York Is: The 9/11 Memorial & Museum
Caity: The twin reflecting pools at the National September 11th Memorial are just what memorials should be: vast, and arresting, and humbling, and sad. The museum is very expensive.
Rich: I was really surprised how moved I felt looking at the North pool, which is the one I came upon first. It's lovely, firstly: a giant rectangular chunk in the ground with a man-made waterfall on each side. People stick flowers in the names engraved on the surrounding stones. The memorial plaza is by far the prettiest thing we've seen so far in any of these tourist traps. Prettier than Lady Liberty herself. Prettier than Bevin's eyes.
The best restaurant in New York is
The café at the National September 11th Memorial & Museum
À la carte
Cost, including two $24 tickets for admission
Rich: The entry process to the museum suggested a phantom chaos that wasn't present on what I am guessing was an under-attended day. You walk a roped-off path to buy tickets, and then you walk the length of it back so that you can rewalk the length to get into the museum via another roped-off lane. If we ran it, it would have been Cross-fit.
Caity: The afternoon we went was beautiful—bright and clear and cold—but also very, very windy. Not a great day to navigate the blustering wind tunnels of downtown Manhattan.
Rich: Especially when you are walking under scaffolding in makeshift lanes to a street that barely exists.
Caity: The standard tickets required for entry are $24, with an $18 option for veterans, students, and seniors. According to the website, "access to the Museum will always be free for 9/11 family members."
Rich: I wonder if they make you prove it, or if it's just based on the honor system a la EPCOT.
Caity: There's also this: "Family members can bring two complimentary guests. Any additional guests will be charged standard ticket prices."
Rich: Technically we're all related.
Caity: Regardless of the specifics, no one seemed eager to scam their way into the museum that Tuesday.
The first thing you encounter in the 9/11 museum is a kind of meta exhibit about the long-term effects of 9/11, which forces you to go through post-9/11 style security before setting foot near the exhibits. It's like walking through an airport, or like walking through the Statue of Liberty ferry terminal, which is also like walking through an airport.
Rich: You have to take everything out of your pockets and remove your belt.
Caity: Coats and bags are placed in plastic bins to be scanned, and visitors are required to walk through metal detectors.
Rich: You are given the option of stepping through a regular metal detector or standing inside the genital-revealing, arms-over-head-so-hands-meet-in-diamond-formation, TSA full-body scanner.
Caity: It had such an airport vibe that I almost instinctively started to remove my shoes, before realizing no one else had. I heard someone else ask a guard if he should.
Rich: Yeah, I wondered if my laptop needed its own tray, and then I remembered that I wasn't carrying a laptop.
Caity: An employee directing foot traffic snatched up a water bottle long since abandoned in the security line and said to the Europeans behind me, "They always leave their water bottles. You can keep your water bottles!" I wasn't carrying more than 3oz of liquids, but I would have discarded them if I had been.
After walking in, we made our way to the second floor atrium terrace, where there is a small café that is mentioned almost nowhere on the memorial and museum's official website. If you do a search for the term "café," you get a few results of varying relevance: A guide for visitors with limited mobility explaining that the café is wheelchair accessible; a page advising people who want to contribute visual art to the 9/11 Memorial Artists online database to visit an Internet café or public library if they cannot access the web from their home.
Rich: The wheelchair-accessibility thing is a lie, by the way. There isn't really room for anything wider than a human body in that little strip of space that becomes increasingly narrow the closer you get to the cashier. It's like a funnel. Or a slaughterhouse designed by Willy Wonka. In fact, the entire floorplan of the museum is nuts. The floors are in the shape of irregular polygons made by a child who just learned how to draw and connect straight lines.
Caity: When we went, around 12:30, the triangular café area was crowded with high school students wearing yarmulkes.
Rich: I watched one kid make affectionate physical contact with no fewer than three of this classmates: two were boys! Kids today are so advanced.
Caity: A couple of them grumbled about me when I claimed the only table that mercifully opened up mid-visit. Kids today want my table and I was here first.
Rich: Yeah, those kids talked shit about you as they walked away. Kids today claim THEY were there first.
Caity: As you pointed out, I was on Earth first. I was also at the table first! Those kids don't even remember 9/11.
Rich: I was actually going to fight with them. DON'T TALK SHIT ABOUT MY FRIEND!
Caity: It would have been embarrassing to have to cut this review short because we got kicked out of the 9/11 Museum and Memorial for fighting, but at least we would have stood for something.
In any case, there was absolutely not enough seating up there to accommodate what did not seem like an astronomical number of patrons. Nor were there enough café employees (3) or registers (1).
Rich: Everyone was very anxious for pastries. There just wasn't enough anything.
Caity: The menu of the café consisted of savory pastries and sweet ones, cookies, coffees, and Boylan Bottling Company gourmet soft drinks. The Boylan sodas felt like an odd choice—more conspicuous than just offering Coke or Pepsi products, and to what end?
A sign asked patrons to pardon the café's appearance while it was under construction, but when I asked our cashier how long the café had been open, she said "a couple months." The sense I got was not that it was under construction, but rather that they were overestimating their continued enthusiasm for the project.
Rich: It's like the decision makers took the outcry over the proposed "comfort food" restaurant to heart and decided that the respectful thing to do would be to make eating at the 9/11 Museum as uncomfortable as possible.
Caity: I ordered a ham and gruyere croissant, plus a "semolina and olive oil cookie," both served room temperature. I also got a ginger ale in a glass bottle.
The croissant was fine. It would have been the star of any free hotel continental breakfast. The cookie seemed to be the result of an effort to create a joyless cookie. This, it achieved.
To my surprise, it arrived sandwich-style, with a thin layer of chocolate in the middle, and tasted mostly like olive oil.
Rich: Discomfort food blues. I got the Potato Onion and Sour Cream Danish; butter was its strongest flavor. My hazlenut macaron may have had praline involved—I'm not certain because it mostly tasted like a chewable vitamin. Imagine a macaron that tasted like a Flinstones vitamin and that's exactly what it tasted like. I ate the whole thing and I wouldn't be surprised if Momofuku Milk jumped on the tastes-like-chewable-vitamins bandwagon.
Caity: One thing that struck me as odd about the café is that many of its offerings seemed to be stored in large white boxes kept in plain sight.
Rich: Yeah, like at your uncle's 50th at a VFW or something. Imagine that kind of a party with a human being rammed up your ass the entire time, and that's what being in line for a lunch that couldn't satiate a cockroach was like.
Caity: Near the register was a display case filled with beautiful clean white bowls. My guess is that they were—at one point in time—intended to hold food, but now the café seems resigned to the fact that the bowls have become artifacts. "Empty bowls from the 9/11 Memorial & Museum café" displayed behind glass for all eternity.
A poster stuck to a cement column advised onlookers to call 9(/)11 in the event of a choking incident.
If you time your visit so that a table opens up just as you are completing your transaction at the register, you will find that the atrium itself is a lovely (if cramped) place to eat, surrounded by enormous, bright windows extending above and below your line of sight, where you can watch leaves soar up the empty equivalent of several stories and through the air. We sat directly across from two steel "tridents" that at one time formed part of the exterior structural support of the North Tower.
Rich: People were hovering, waiting for us to be done. A woman walked over rocking her baby wildly, practically swinging it, as if to say, "I can't control my child, but if I had a seat perhaps my job as a parent and human who doesn't drop other humans might be a bit easier to do." A very old person sighed something about dying before he ever got to sit down again.
Caity: Oh, dear. I was blithely unaware of all these people. I was reading the sign about the steel tridents. I was drinking a Boylan's Ginger Ale.
Rich: I was already agitated because had I burned my mouth on the latte that I didn't even order but decided to settle for because I didn't feel like waiting another 20 minutes for the cappuccino I did order. I guess I was just looking for trouble.
Caity: There's probably no "right" time to eat on a visit to the 9/11 memorial, but if you absolutely must, either for a restaurant review column, or because you have low blood sugar, I strongly advise doing it before you tour the museum. You will not be in the mood to eat after. You will not be in the mood to do anything except sit alone, quietly.
Rich: It's the kind of museum where you go to be reminded of what you already know. One of the first installations featured a bunch of voices overhead describing the day and keywords of theirs were projected onto columns. "It was very, very sad," said one man.
On the way down to the exhibits, a woman with three-inch flamingo colored nails side-eyed me as she was coming up on the escalator. I can't say I enjoyed that, but it was refreshing both attitudinally and sartorially in comparison to everything else.
Caity: I cried. I could have cried more, and I wanted to because it would have felt good to cry, but I knew we had to get back to work within the hour, so I held back as much as I could.
The area that houses the exhibits is very dark and quiet and warm. There are small stands bearing tissue boxes placed in some dark corners. There are lots of places to sit. It's a place that welcomes crying.
I expected there to be more people openly weeping. If people were crying—and I don't understand how they could not have been—they were discreet about it.
Rich: The In Memoriam room, which features portraits of everyone who died that day, a searchable database for more information on all of the victims, and smaller room with in the room where 30-second tributes are played at random, that room choked me up.
But mostly, I felt like it was surreal. As surreal as the actual day was, especially going through the giant exhibit that traced the day, basically, minute by minute.
Caity: I teared up in that room, and I really cried listening to a voicemail a man on a hijacked plane left for his wife.
Rich: Yeah, I refused to listen to that. I just read the transcript on the wall.
Caity: I was very matter-of-fact. Before I listened to it, I thought "Listening to this will make me cry." And then I listened to it, and it did.
Rich: It's interesting how detailed our understanding of 9/11 is. Like we heard this guide tell these women about an elevator that stopped between floors after the first plane hit. One guy in there was a window washer whose squeegee allowed them to pry open the elevator door and then punch holes in the sheet rock. They all lived.
Caity: After she told the story, she invited them to go look at the squeegee in the next exhibit, though you and I were not able to find it.
Watching the news clips from the day made me remember watching them in my 7th grade classroom.
Rich: Yeah, you see Matt Lauer interrupting an interview with Richard Hatch and it's the moment everything changed in terms of awareness.
Caity: Matt Lauer looked so young.
It looked like footage from...13 years ago.
I remember our principal wheeling a television into our classroom, and I remember thinking it seemed like a really big deal to her. Everyone got picked up early from school, even though we were in Paxtang, PA, population 1,570, hundreds of miles from all the action.
Rich: Who could possibly concentrate?
I exited the subway at the northwest corner of Union Square, and had a clear view. And it was soooo early. And the first thing I thought was, "Did aliens attack?" People were standing around pointing and I saw some of them smiling, so that was really strange. And then I went to my terrible temp job just as the second plane hit, and they sent me home. Then I couldn't get home because the F stopped under the WTC and filled up with smoke. They backed up the subway to the previous station and we all got out. I walked to my friend's place and went to sleep, and when I got up, I thought, "This is still happening?"
One word about the museum gift shop: The pricing was so weird. $12 for a coffee mug is OK! I paid $25 for a Cher one, so this was a steal. $20.95 for a water bottle—now it's starting to get crazy. $95 for a scarf featuring the New York skyline? Outrageous.
Caity: I still remember what I was wearing that morning: A pink t-shirt and blue and lavender Hawaiian-print Miken surf shorts because it was 2001.
Rich: A lot was made of how beautiful that day was, and it's true. Some days are just so bright, crisp and perfectly temperate that it feels like 9/11, though you can't really use that as a descriptor because it's still too soon and people are still too touchy.
My favorite thing at the museum was an exhibition called "Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning." Here is the description from the brochure:
This artwork, created by Spencer Finch, is composed of 2,983 squares to commemorate the individuals killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. Each square is a unique shade of blue.
Really awesome way to talk about memory and aesthetic perfection. Because it was a perfect day, except for all of the tragedy and world-changing conflicts that came to a head.
Caity: That was beautiful. Everything was sad. The food was not memorable, but there were too many other things to remember.
Is Everything OK?
Questions About the Dining Experience
Would you go back?
Rich: Respectfully, no. There is a Duane Reade on practically every other corner in Manhattan, and a Starbucks on even more—there are plenty of more convenient places to visit if I want to burn my tongue on a latte and relive the heartiness of Flinstones vitamins.
Caity: The $24 entry fee is only one of many factors that makes the café at the National Semptember 11th Memorial & Museum a hard sell for an enjoyable lunch. I think I would probably eat at one of the food vendors you pass on the walk to the memorial the next time I find myself in the neighborhood.
Is it a good first date spot?
Is it a good place to have an affair?
Rich: If you could find a way to be turned on in the 9/11 Museum, that's your business and God bless you and I might want to interview you for a piece I'm writing so get at me (no homo).
Caity: No. There is no way to be inconspicuous in the atrium of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, although I did feel like I gained intimate knowledge of everyone I brushed up against while navigating my way through the crowd. I also noticed one couple engaged in an embrace that seemed more sexual than consoling in one of the darkened theaters on the lower level.
Is it a good place to bring a doll?
Rich: Outside the museum's main attraction, the September 11, 2001 Historical Exhibition, there was a warning that the exhibit contained scenes of violence and is not appropriate for people under 10 years of age. Think about what kind of doll owner you are or want to be, and heed those words.
Caity: No. While it might be comforting to have a beloved childhood toy to hug close to your chest as you walk through the exhibits, there is simply no place in the café for a doll to sit.
There are a bunch of restaurants in the world, including some in New York City. But in a city of over 24,000 restaurants, how do you find the best? You begin your search in places that are already popular: New York's hottest tourist destinations. In The Best Restaurant in New York Is, writers Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak attempt to determine the best restaurant in New York.
Previously: The Best Restaurant in New York Is: The Empire State Building; The Macy's Basement; Wall Street Bath & Spa; El Museo del Barrio; The Williamsburg Urban Outfitters ; The Central Park Boathouse; The Tommy Bahama Store; The Bronx Zoo; The Armani Store;The Crown Cafe at the Statue of Liberty; The Campbell Apartment inside Grand Central; The U.N. Delegates Dining Room; Play at the Museum of Sex; Le Train Bleu inside Bloomingdales; LOX at The Jewish Museum; The American Girl Café
[Images via Rich Juzwiak and Caity Weaver]