Frequent travelers might think they know everything about what’s hot and what’s not in New York City; they most certainly don’t need to hear from me about the exclusive restaurants uptown and the sexy clubs downtown. These spots have been written about, and copied and pasted about, for years. But for the more adventurous travelers looking to find something less discovered in the Big Apple, I recently traveled outside the lines for a different kind of NYC trip.
My boyfriend and I took off from Dallas and spent a few days in Queens to discover just what this underrated borough has to offer. We had both traveled to New York many times and were looking for a different experience outside of Chelsea and the Upper East Side. I knew NYC was much more than the clear-cut tourist path I had tread before, so we threw out our usual map. I'm so glad we did.
Situated right on Vernon Boulevard (which would turn out to be my favorite area for foodie finds), the Wyndham Garden Hotel (44-29 Ninth Street) is central to the best that Queens, has to offer while still giving you easy access to Manhattan (take the N,Q, or F trains). The staff was very friendly and knows about the best gay bars and clubs in both boroughs. The rooms are casual, comfortable, and feature stunning views of Manhattan and the Queensborough Bridge. Sure, it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton, but it satisfied all of my needs as a picky gay man without robbing my 30-something budget from anything else that I wanted to splurge on during my trip.
If you are anything like me, the best part of any vacation is finding secret culinary finds. There would be no spinach salads with the dressing on the side on this trip, so we started walking and looking for a restaurant that looked promising. After just a couple blocks, we found the quant but stylish L.I.C. Market (21-52 44th Drive). This farm-to-table concept had an easy menu that focused on elevating the classic dishes we all love.
L.I.C. Market features an ever-changing menu showcasing seasonal vegetables and classic dishes. The pulled-pork sandwich, their artisan take on the Cuban, had the perfect profile of slow-cooked pork and sweet and tangy fixings. But the best part of our lunch was the array of vegetable side dishes we ordered. The broccolini with bacon and fig, the shredded Brussels sprouts with roasted tomatoes, and the braised green lentils were so delicious and decadent that they could have been a meal by themselves. And coming from a Texan who loves his beef, that is saying something.
In the evening, we stumbled upon Woodbines Craft Kitchen (47-10 Vernon Boulevard), a local restaurant serving authentic pub food with a modern flare. Within minutes, we were invited to a table of friendly strangers for a complimentary whiskey tasting. We might have been the only gay couple at the table, but we might have not. The scene in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens is a hippie-chic, come-as-you-may style that will have you asking yourself, “gay or hipster?” The good news is, it doesn’t really matter.
Located just next to Woodbines Craft Kitchen, Spokesman Cycles (49-04 Vernon Boulevard) is a full-service bike shop that offers rentals for just $7 an hour. Vernon is only a block away from the riverfront, which is full of bike trails, parks, and sprawling views of Manhattan. And it is a far cry from the crowded streets and bike trails located in Manhattan. The city felt like our own, and we were quickly transformed into two kids, with the city acting as our playground.
We started on the boardwalks of Gantry Park (4-09 47th Road), a stylish homage to the industrial history of Queens with monuments of loading docks once used for rail car floats and barges. We meandered through a variety of tree-filled city parks, including one with a futuristic playground (which we had a little too much fun at). Then we ended our city expedition at the Socrates Sculpture Park (32-01 Vernon Boulevard), an internationally renowned outdoor museum filled with large-scale exhibits and multimedia installations. Oh, and a healthy amount of gays to boot.
Whereas Long Island City has an eclectic and industrial feel that nods to the gay consumer, Astoria has developed into an unexpected homo hang-out. Historically, the area was known for its strong Greek influence and blue-collar appeal. But a lot has changed in the past decade. Before the conservative vibe would have scared off many of gay men and lesbians from showing outward affection. But today, LGBTs are running amuck, hand in hand, hitting up Astoria’s newest gay clubs, world-class museums, and inspired bistros.
This is where you will find Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue), a one-of-a-kind peek into the history of visual media. Located on the edge of Astoria and L.I.C., this is the only museum of it’s kind that is devoted the art of film, television, and digital media. And there is enough gay-related nostalgia and interactive play in the MMI to keep all of your senses satisfied. Here, you can gawk at the get-ups worn by Sarah Jessica Parker and marvel at the wig worn my Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Don’t worry, butch gays, there is plenty here for you, too.
Just down the street from MMI, we found quite possibly the best place for contemporary comfort food in the entire city. The Queens Kickshaw (40-17 Broadway) is a relatively new establishment that caters to the serious foodie who has a palate for fancy beer and an affinity towards skinny jeans. Their menu features specialty coffee, fancy grilled cheese sandwiches, scratch cooking, craft ales, and ciders from around the world. And any gay man or women will appreciate the effortless style and ambiance that TQK has to offer. The one thing that did scare me on the menu was the kimchi lasagna. Now, this curiously contrived menu item is all I can think about a week later.
Astoria’s newest gay bar, Icon (31-84 33rd Street), is also probably the best of its kind in Queens. It manages to be both open and intimate and balances the glamour of an upscale lounge without the bother of a dress code. We chatted for a while with the owner, a delightfully eccentric New Yorker who created the club so that the people in his own neighborhood wouldn’t have to trek over the river to find a good gay bar. The bartenders are hot, the décor is fun and the attitude is close to none. This is a far cry from some of the other places in Chelsea, and that’s a good thing.
Jackson Heights also boasts a huge appeal for the LGBT traveler. With the second largest gay population in New York, this neighborhood’s nightlife has all the energy of the gay bars in Manhattan but with a Latin flare and rhythm all its own. When we ventured into the Music Box (4008 74th Street), one of Jackson Heights' longest running gay establishments, we didn’t quite know what to expect.
The door opened and we were immediately greeted with the music of Thalia booming throughout the place, a shirtless bartender greeting us is Spanish on a microphone and two hot dancers bouncing up and down on the bar. Once we gained our bearings, we ordered a strawberry hookah (conveniently delivered by a cute, shirtless boy), ordered a drink and took in the ambiance of the Music Box.
The neighborhoods that can be found Queens are distinct in their flavor and unique in their appeal. But LIC, Astoria and Jackson Heights share the common thread of progress, culture, and inclusion. A trip to Queens may not always be at the top of your list when concerning your next NYC trip, but it should be.