New York has changed – but the spark, the spice and the hope remain

I’m on the Upper East Side with Frankie, my friend’s black and white Chiweenie, and it’s a gloriously autumnal morning in Manhattan.

‘ve just spent the past two hours strolling around Central Park with my furry companion, taking photos and imagining that I’m the leading lady in a rom-com.

How could I not?

We’re en route to my favourite bakery in the city, Sprinkles (sprinkles.com). Frankie is a good sport; he seems to know the way and is trotting along happily ahead of me.

As we reach the store, the door is locked, and I notice an iPad on a stand outside.

Pre-pandemic, it probably would have taken me a moment to figure out what it was for, but it’s just the norm now, isn’t it? So, I delve into the menu, looking for my contactless cupcake.

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Rachael Victoria with Frankie in New York

When I say that the red velvet cupcake from Sprinkles has lived in my mind rent-free for the past three years, I’m not exaggerating. During my last visit to New York in February 2020, mere weeks before everything changed, I took my commitment to the next level and carried one all the way home to Co Laois.

So, as you can imagine, while I stand here, scrolling furiously through the menu, I’m excited.

I find it, add it to my virtual basket and click “pay now”. $5.78 pops up on the screen, and I click back, thinking I’ve added two by accident.

But no, it isn’t a mistake. A single (delicious!) cupcake is about to cost me almost $6/€5.75, compared to a modest $4/€3.85 back in 2020.

I’m not even going to pretend I have to think about it. I check out and wait patiently for my fix.

This is only the beginning of my experience with New York’s price hikes. During the coming week, I would find myself handing over $5/€4.80 for a single poached egg, $14/€13.45 for a juice and almost $20/€19 for a slice of toast with a morsel of avocado. (More fool me? But a girl has to eat, right?)

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Manhattan’s skyline. Photo: Rachael Victoria

Inflation aside, a lot has changed in the city since my last visit.

Many of my go-to spots have disappeared into the Covid abyss. For example, the iconic hotdog diner Papaya King, which the great Anthony Bourdain crowned “the gold standard” of hotdogs, has sadly closed its doors.

The latest hotspots and pop-ups tend to go viral on TikTok

Oatmeal, the world’s first oatmeal cafe and my favourite breakfast spot, cited on its website that it closed its doors in January 2021 “due to the business impact of Covid-19”. It is sad news for this porridge-loving traveller.

But I promise you, it’s not all bad news.

Of course, there has also been a surge of new indoor, outdoor and rooftop dining spaces – and hidden gems don’t stay hidden for too long these days.

The latest hotspots and pop-ups tend to go viral on TikTok, making it easier than ever to find food inspo around the city.

For example, would I know about Raclette (raclette.nyc) and its cheese-covered menu if it hadn’t been for its recent viral moment?

No, probably not.

So, it’s not just that the foodie scene has changed in New York; how we discover new places to eat while travelling is also evolving, and honestly, I’m here for it.

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The Atrium at MoMA. Photo: Rachael Victoria

Now, I don’t know if the next change I’m observing is in my imagination, but there definitely seem to be more dogs in New York since my last stay.

Our four-legged friends are the “it girls” of the city. You’ll spot them riding the subway, jogging in the park, sitting quietly under a stool in a bar and chilling out in glamorous doggy day-care centres.

So, forget a green card; it seems, to me, that it’s really a dog you need to achieve peak New Yorker status.

And let’s face it, would you want to spend your Sunday morning drinking an $8 oat milk latte with anyone else?

I don’t think so.

Indeed, a lot has changed in NYC in recent years. New high-rises, new subway stops, and even new opening hours. The city that doesn’t sleep, in fact, now seems to have a better sleeping habit. Which I discover on Saturday night.

It’s a little past midnight, and after leaving a party on Wall Street, my friend and I head to Chinatown in search of some late-night fried food. (Dumplings, preferably, but I’m not fussy.)

The first street we try seems quiet. It takes a couple of seconds, but we realise quickly that everywhere is closed.

Very strange, but no biggie.

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Browsing the Strand Book Store in New York…

We try the next street over, and it’s the same – lights off, doors locked, from one end to the other. But we soldier on and continue our search of the neighbourhood, refusing to believe that Chinatown isn’t open for business.

“How is this possible?” I ask my friend. “It’s Saturday night in New York!”

He seems as baffled as I am. It’s been ages since he’s been around these parts late at night, but he concludes: “It’s changed, I guess.”

Eventually, after what feels like divine intervention, we find the only open place – Yunshang Rice Noodle House (yunsang.ca/web-en.html). Which, I can confirm, opens until 5am daily, so if you ever find yourself in Chinatown in the middle of the night, it’s one to have in your back pocket.

We order our noodle bowls and fried tofu (no dumplings, though, sadly) and thank the NYC food gods that we won’t go hungry after all.

Yes, a lot has changed.

In many ways, this is not the same city I visited back in 2020. However, one thing that has remained consistent, and I expect always will, is the illustrious New York energy. Even on the emptiest of streets, you can feel it. The spark, the spice, the hope. That city zeal has me in a chokehold and, despite all that’s changed, it’s what keeps me coming back for more.

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