R5 Hidden Gems of Yonkers

Hidden Gems of Yonkers

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Though it may still suffer with an image problem, the future looks bright for the city that offers a United Nations of down-to-earth foods, bustling art centers, and a soon-to-be revitalized waterfront with the best river vistas in Westchester.


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My father always used to get a kick out of people who refused to admit they lived in Yonkers. His sister would usually tell people, if asked, that she “lived in Westchester County.” It would take a heap of prodding to finally get her to say that she actually resided in Yonkers. But auntie would be quick to add, “Very close to Bronxville, of course.” 


A lifelong resident of Yonkers and employee of Con Ed for more than 40 years, Pop came home from work one day in stitches. The reason? A very “swellegant” matron called in frantically because her stove wasn’t working. The address she gave was technically in Yonkers, but she insisted that it was Scarsdale. About an hour later, after consulting every map he could, Pop decided that the lady had made an error very common for people in her neighborhood, namely, failure to admit they live in Yonkers. When he rolled up in the truck, she rushed out, yelling, “Why did it take you so long to get here?”


“Lady,” he replied, “if you had just told me Yonkers instead of Scarsdale, the damn stove would have been fixed by now.”

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Pop has been gone for more than 10 years, but it’s remarkable how similar the situation remains today.” Folks in South Yonkers still say they live “close to Riverdale.” My favorite acupuncturist, who actually inhabits a drop-dead gorgeous Spanish-style mansion in Cedar Knolls, one of Yonkers’s truly breathtaking nabes, insists she lives in Bronxville.


So if there ever was a city suffering from an image problem, it’s my hometown. But, boy, just you wait. Upwardly mobile Manhattanites are now flocking here in droves, and about the only bad thing about our city nowadays is that there are practically no homes available for sale.


Abit of history first. About 20 years after Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island, Adrian Van der Donck was given the Nepperhaem colony from the Dutch West India Company, and he built one of the first sawmills (does the name Saw Mill River Road ring any bells?) in the New World. Van der Donck was called Djonk Herr (Dutch for young gentleman), and his terrain Djonk Herr’s land. Thus Yonkers was born. The 19th century brought the advent of carpet mills like the monster Alexander Smith Mill on Nepperhan Avenue (my grandma, a master weaver at the shop, used to say she was educated at Alexander Smith College), Otis Elevator Company, the riverside sugar mill, and the first elevated mass transit system in the world. Today, some 200,000 residents live on this 18.3 square mile stretch of Westchester, making it the largest city in the county. But that’s not what you really want to know. What you want to know is: Where to go? What to do? And is there decent food south of White Plains?

You bet there is. So fasten your seatbelts for this whirlwind tour of the city that Gene Krupa and Art Carney used to call home.


The big buzz these days radiates from the city’s whopping Waterfront Development Project, where the best vistas of the mighty Palisades may be found. When I was a kid, each week my mom used to march me down to

Getty Square

, a stone’s throw away from diva Mary J. Blige’s former digs on

Palisade Avenue

. One of the reasons for the trip was to check out as many books as I could carry home from the old Carnegie Public Library on the corner of Nepperhan and South Broadway.


I’m sure Mary J. would be as surprised as I was to see the new, state-of-the-art, 75,000-square-foot Riverfront Library at One Larkin Center, designed by Highland Associates. It’s a lovely mix of high-tech computer terminals and old-fashioned stacks full of large-print texts, romances, mysteries and Spanish language books, as well as a second-floor children’s department. The architects clearly wanted to make use of the site’s spectacular river views: There’s a sky-high atrium so elegant it belongs in a movie shoot (more about movies later).


Next on the list of waterfront happening spots is the Philipsburgh Performing Arts Center, a 5,400-square-foot space where FDR once spoke and which used to be a tony dance hall in the 1920s. It’s my bet for the best shot at restoring Yonkers to its music and dance glory days. There are kids’ acting classes on Saturday mornings, an upcoming seniors social tea program (remember the dansants that were all the rage in turn-of-the-century Paris? The Hudson is prettier than the Seine anyway.), and a Web site, www.philipsburgh.org, with up-to-the minute listings of what’s happening.


Jim Pinto, the dynamic young head of the waterfront project, is working to get a Barnes and Noble here. “This downtown project is jump-starting everything else,” says the Yonkers Economic Development office’s financial visionary Ed Sheeran, who is optimistic Peter Kelly, our favorite Yonkers-born chef, will be bringing his primo cuisine riverside soon. Caught pre-dinner rush the other day at his landmark Xaviar’s restaurant in Piermont, Kelly declared: “I’ve been waiting to open a place in my home town for ten to fifteen years, and now is definitely the right time. We’ll be moving our new restaurant, which will have an emphasis on Hudson Valley products and seafood, into the second story of the Yonkers Pier next summer, Since I was raised on

Schroeder Street

, not far away, I’m really excited about this.”


Now, for the movie thing: If you were wandering around lower Westchester in October or November and saw huge, hand-painted signs with the name MONA, it wasn’t a bridal shower or tag sale it was directing you to. It was the set for Julia Roberts’s new movie, Mona Lisa Smile, shot at the Alder Manor, the outrageously stunning mansion on  North Broadway. Its wrought iron balustrades, parquet floors, and French marble parlors, once belonged to magnate William Boyce Thompson, who built the estate in 1912. Today, the Manor hosts the Tara Circle Irish Cultural Center, which draws crowds to its music, language, dance (Riverdance sensation Padraic Moyles will be giving a few lessons), and Irish history classes. Look for famed tenor Ronan Tynan in concert in the coming months. 


Farther down the street, there’s Untermeyer Park, home of the Yonkers Philharmonic Orchestra, a 65-piece semi-pro ensemble that plays five times a year, and the Yonkers Shakespeare Festival, a summer delight for locals hankering for a dose of the Bard under the trees. Next season’s productions include As You Like It and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Keep heading south on Broadway and you’ll find historic Philipse Manor Hall, one of the county’s oldest surviving structures dating from 1682, a Georgian mansion that’s open April through October for weekly tours, concerts and kids’ programs.


Down toward the river, there’s the Hudson River Museum and Andrus Planetarium, both with offerings that should please kids and grannies alike. There are frequent lectures, art workshops and the hoppin’ summer jazz series of concerts, all at nominal fees. And if you’re broke on a Friday night,  go to the Planetarium for the free 7 p.m. star show.


If nature’s your thing, we’ve also got the Beczak Environmental Education Center on

Alexander Street

, offering a series of tours, walks and lectures on the river’s flora and fauna. According to head educator Cynthia Fowx, it’s a hoot to watch the grade-schoolers dredging the Hudson in their mini test-waders.


And if it’s nature of the equine variety you’re after, visit Yonkers Raceway, a harness track since WWII, now owned by the Rooney brothers of Pittsburgh Steelers fame, and offering simulcasting from thoroughbred races throughout the U.S. (The Raceway will feature video lottery machines in a few months.)


What to do with your winning jackpot? Walk around the corner to Mitchel’s Antiques and pamper yourself with one of his clocks, cute antique dolls, Tiffany lamps, or pieces of sailing memorabilia. Or if you’ve just bet the farm and lost, across the street from the track at 521 Central Park Avenue is Katie’s Cottage, a shebeen (Gaelic for a really grungy bar), where on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights a woman from the ould sod will tell your fortune with tea leaves. Hey, didn’t she say Dr. Piper in the fifth at Belmont?


By now you’re hungry, and probably thirsty, too. Not to worry. You’ve come to the right place for high quality, reasonably priced grub and grog.


On the run and want to pick up something to nosh on at home? Yonkers’s best-kept secret is hereby out of the bag: JB & Sons pasta and homemade cheese. You can watch them pulling exquisite mozzarella in the back of this tiny, out-of-the way shop, and there’s nothing in the world like the shop’s delicately milky, freshly made ricotta. A friend of mine puts a swirl of cocoa in his for dessert, but I just take out a spoon and enjoy it straight from the container.


For Arabic delights, try Daily Pita on South Broadway for some crispy, fresh-from-the-oven pitas and baba ghanoush or hummus for a healthy snack. Sprinkle some zataar (a blend of sumac, cumin and other spices) over it all and you’ll find out why the imam swooned.


If Eastern European food is more your thing, stop at Yonkers Misarnia on Lockwood Avenue, or the Polish Deli on Nepperhan, for a stupefying array of kielbasa and smoked meats and your choice of meat, cheese, mushroom or, the number one seller, potato pierogi. Traditional fried dough cookies and crusciki from the legendary White Eagle Bakery are a perfect dessert. But I’d mosey over to the corner of Nepperhan and Elm Street to the decidedly downscale ABC Polish Deli, where they don’t speak too much English, but if you point at that huge, pillowy, golden brown thing dusted with powdered sugar, they’ll give you a paczki, the most delicious donut you’ve ever eaten, filled with enough gooey strawberry jam to squirt out onto your Armani jacket when you bite in. You did remember to wear Armani, didn’t you?


If it’s salsa you’re craving, try La Fonda Poblana on

New Main Street

for Mexican staples like pork tacos with green sauce or pozole, a hominy stew that’s warm and satisfying. A few blocks away, you’ll find the home of the best NoMi (North of Miami) Cuban sandwich at Panchitos on South Broadway, where any of the daily specials are dirt cheap and come with a mountain of rice and sweetly tender, fried plantains. Doggie bags are a must.


Also on South Broadway is Silvio’s, offering a super kid-friendly ambiance and humongous portions of classic crowd-pleasers like lasagna and spaghetti; call (914) 476-2000 to see when it is having its next Murder Mystery Night.


Lovers of Portuguese fare will find hearty dishes at Lusitania on

Lockwood Avenue

, where the specials are a Flintstone-sized steak topped with prosciutto and fried egg, pork with clams, and codfish with egg extravaganzas. For dessert, Cafe Porto, where you can sit and enjoy traditional Portuguese egg and coconut pastries, is a must.


Since pizza wars are common in our county, Yonkers falls in line with its Dom & Vinnie’s versus Catania’s. Both are super purveyors of time-honored, tomato and cheese pies, the chewy but crisp-crusted variety: nothing weird, just the basics, please. After a really bad Thanksgiving turkey, a local got in his car and went down to D & V, banged on the door, and got two pies, which he brought home as a consolation prize to his still-hungry family. The oohs and aahs the pies brought forth are still ringing in my ears, as I was the unsavory turkey’s cook and the D & V patron was my brother.


If it’s a little more luxe you’re looking for, there’s Ricky’s Seafood Restaurant, where Mark Fonte, a CIA-trained chef, offers a classy martini shrimp with orzo and tomato, a bouillabaisse that’s renowned, a Napoleon of vegetables, and a simple but elegant crème brûlée. Also in the cozy but swanky category is the softly lit, hard-to-find La Lanterna on Gray Oaks Avenue (it’s right by the Saw Mill Parkway), where you may see a few local politicians dealmaking while enjoying the house favorite, cavatelli, or the gargantuan veal chop.


The hardest choice for me on my birthday is deciding between Tombolino and Valentino’s restaurants, both landmarks in Yonkers, where the fare is what I call—with all due respect—old-man’s red-sauce style. You won’t find Mario Batali’s chichi pork cheek ravioli here, but you will get fine preparations of classic dishes like eggplant parmigiana, veal piccata, and fettuccine al fredo, and it’s a real tossup between the sweet Sinatra on the Muzak at Valentino’s or the bottle of anisette they place on the table gratis with your espresso at Tombolino. Try both, and you’ll just have to walk off those extra calories doing a pub crawl of the 20 or so McLean Avenue Irish bars.


Wander first to the Shamrock Gift Shop, where you can buy a silver or gold Claddagh ring (an ancient Celtic symbol of love) for your sweetie or richly embroidered Irish linens for your table. A block away, you’ll find the Bodhran Pub (a fave spot for lovers of traditional Irish music), Heritage (the best for Irish football), and Kelly’s Pub (big with the younger crowd, featuring hipster NYC acts like The Nerds). Rory Dolan’s is probably the best known and most presentable of the lot. But I’d try The Hibernian or Granuaile for a pint of Guinness.


A stone’s throw from McLean is what I think is the most beautiful area of all in my city, Park Hill. Many of its homes were built in the early 1900s, and it’s currently being considered as a certified historic landmark district. In my younger days, my almost-fiance and I would drive around for hours and dream of how we would someday be able to own one of the area’s stately eye-catchers, preferably the outrageously ornate, stucco Fr. Divine Mansion, with 10 bedrooms, five baths, and a lawn tailor-made for summer tea parties. Father Divine, a flamboyant African-American preacher and millionaire, is now gone, but the house is still standing, and it’s just been purchased by a Manhattan family for more than a million dollars, so my hopes for a grandee’s lifestyle, along with the almost-fiance, are gone with the wind. Every two years, there are tours of historic homes in the area. For more info on Park Hill, Fr. Divine Mansion, and the 18 other Yonkers buildings that have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as the informative Yonkers Historical Society Newsletter, contact the Yonkers Historical

Society at (914) 965-0401.


So, move over SoHo and TriBeCa, SoYo and NoYo are on the way up. And besides, we’re closer to Zachys than you guys up in Chappaqua.


Maria Bennett is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Daily News, Journal News and the Utne Reader. She was born in Yonkers, shops in Yonkers and eats in Yonkers, but might relocate to Maui if given the opportunity.


Yonkers Highlights


Historical Sites

• Fr. Divine Mansion

369 Park Hill Avenue


• Philipsburg Performing

Arts Center

2-8 Hudson Street

(914) 964-8977


• Philipse Manor

99 Warburton Avenue

(914) 965-4027


• The Alder Manor (

Tara Circle

Irish Cultural Center)

1061 North Broadway
(914) 964-8272


Cultural Sites

• Beczak Environmental  Education Center

35 Alexander Street

(914) 377-1900


• Hudson River Museumand Andrus Planetarium

511 Warburton Avenue

(914) 963-4550


• Riverfront Library

One Larkin Center

(914) 337-1500


• Untermeyer Park

945 North Broadway

(914) 377-6450

• Yonkers Raceway

Yonkers & Central Park Avenues

(914) 968-4200


Retail Stores

and Delis


• ABC Polish Deli

105 Elm Street

(914) 966-7331


• Daily Pita

538 South Broadway

(914) 964-0040


• JB & Sons, Ltd.

564 Mile Square


(914) 963-5192


• Mitchel’s Antiques

800 Yonkers Avenue

(914) 423-2600


• Polish Deli

225 Nepperhan Avenue

(914) 476-1183


• Shamrock Gift Shop

914 McLean Avenue

(914) 237-3223


• Yonkers Misarnia

39 Lockwood Avenue

(914) 965-1665


• Bodhran Pub

850 McLean Avenue

(914) 237-1800


• Granuaile

790 McLean Avenue

(914) 237-6956


• Heritage

960 McLean Avenue

(914) 776-7532


• Katie’s Cottage

521 Central Park Avenue

(914) 965-0422


• Kelly’s Pub

942 McLean Avenue

(914) 237-0202


• Rory Dolan’s Bar & Restaurant

890 McLean Avenue

(914) 776-2924


• The Hibernian

641 McLean Avenue

(914) 964-9665



• Café Porto

837 Midland Avenue

(914) 963-6700


• Catania’s

2260 Central Avenue

(914) 779-5105

• Dom & Vinnie’s

351 Saw Mill River Road

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