Walking around New York City often leads to sensory overload. First, you encounter the smell, which takes on different hints of putrid, depending on the season. Then, the sights—taxis almost running over bikers, bikers almost running over pedestrians, perhaps a rat or two.
Finally, let’s not forget about the sounds: sirens all day long, music blasting from your upstairs and downstairs neighbors, the awkward conversation of that couple clearly on their first date at the table next to yours.
But underneath all of this, what supports and alleviates this city’s mad scents, sights and sounds is its charm and its history, which might not always be top of mind even if it’s staring you in the face every day.
History is alive and well in New York. All in all there are more than 36,000 designated historical buildings and sites in New York City alone. Recently, I got up close and personal with one, The Benjamin Hotel, when I visited to celebrate its admission to this heralded crew.
(NB: To receive such an honor, a building must be at least 30 years old and have “a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, state, or nation.”)
Originally opened in 1927, The Benjamin is an Emery Roth-designed hotel that prides itself on its personal, residential feel. Think roomy suites—some REALLY roomy—with kitchenettes featuring fully stocked fridges and snack drawers.
Plus, there’s a one-of-a-kind personalized sleep program, Rest & Renew, created with sleep expert Dr. Rebecca Robbins. A few weeks after my initial visit to the hotel, I was invited back for a stay and—surprise, surprise—brunch at The National Bar & Dining Room, Geoffrey Zakarian’s grand café at the hotel.
Midtown East might not be the most desirable location for New Yorkers, but for out-of-towners, the hotel’s location at 50th and Lexington is conveniently located near many touristy go-tos: shopping on Fifth Avenue, UN Plaza, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Central Park, and the Empire State Building, to name a few.
More charming than the neighborhood, the hotel itself is a warm, inviting space with an attentive and kind staff. Check-in was a breeze, and soon after arriving at my room, I was gifted with fresh fruit and a stand of macarons—a welcome (and nutritionally balanced?) treat.
The room itself was more spacious than I’ve experienced at other trendy boutique hotels elsewhere in the city, with room to actually walk around the bed and then some. The bathroom’s heated floor made me want to linger inside and stare at all the toiletries I’d laid out on the counter.
After perusing the hotel’s pillow menu—a specially curated selection of various-shaped pillows that cater to any sleep need you might have—and hanging out in the room a bit, I headed down to The National for dinner with a friend.
There, we indulged in (almost) one too many Sidekick Margaritas, a dangerously delicious blend of Avion Reposado Tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime, spicy agave nectar, and fresh passion fruit. We also enjoyed a carnivore’s dream meal: a petit filet mignon and a cheeseburger. Then it was out for a night of dancing and typical Saturday-night shenanigans to work up an appetite for brunch.
The next day, brunch began, as always, with cocktails. Two-thirds of our party of three started off with blood orange ginger mimosas. A mix of Moscato d’Asti, Solerno orange liqueur, fresh ginger, and orange juice, this was an absolutely delicious version of the classic brunch drink—not too sweet, not too tart. Swipe right on these, my friends.
Alas, the Royal Sangria—Pavan French Muscat liqueur and Dorothy Parker gin mixed with yuzu, fresh berries, ginger, and mint—fell squarely in the too-sweet category. But when we put in our second drink order (are you surprised?), my friend requested the restaurant knock the sugar levels down a notch and was much happier with the result.
For an appetizer, we split the steak tartare, a dish Americans order to sound fancy but then push around on their plate because it’s literally raw beef, and what are we, animals? As a matter of fact, yes.
To our delight, The National’s rendition of the dish was surprisingly delicious and edible, thanks to the addition of my favorite snack of the moment: cornichons. Scooped up on a little circle of toast with a bit of balsamic drizzle from the plate, this tartare made for the perfect salty bite, and my smart (American) mouth was very pleased.
The NTL Benedict was next: crispy Berkshire pork belly, pickled Fresno pepper, hollandaise, and, allegedly, “herb salad.” (Is that what we’re calling chopped chives these days?) My friend gave this dish a solid rating of “meets expectations,” which I suppose is better than not meeting them.
I tasted it and liked that the pork belly and hollandaise were flavorful—at least compared to my bland avocado toast. (Thank goodness we’re leaving that trend behind in 2017.)
Next up, the “Ugly” burger, which was rather good-looking, in my opinion. (Its name comes courtesy of NYT food editor Sam Sifton, who apparently called it a “delicious, ugly mess.”)
A thoughtful combination of flavors meant to enhance the 80/20 blend of chuck and sirloin, the pickled jalapeño, NTL Sauce (mustard, mayo, and BBQ sauce), housemade pickles, Bibb lettuce, and bacon are layered atop the patty and placed in between a brioche bun. The burger was so good, it even inspired a first-bite photo shoot, but I’ll spare you those photos.
Last but not least, my rather uninspiring avocado toast, which ended up being a fitting way to say farewell to this food trend at the end of 2017. This toast was in serious need of a flavor makeover, and I only ended up eating half of it because I found the avocado purée, tomato slices, queso fresco, poached egg, and—is that herb salad?!—to be incredibly lackluster and honestly not worth the effort.
The Bitches say: B. We weren’t supremely bowled over by any of our dishes and the service was slow at times, but the large, accommodating space, and menu with something for everyone, make The National a good spot for brunch with the parents or meeting large groups in a central location.
The National Bar and Dining Room
557 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10022
The National serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.