Greg Barila

Journalist. Editor. Social Media specialist.

Filtering by Tag: New York

Why Adelaide should embrace the good old American diner

This is what I’m talkin’ about. The California Club sandwich with pickle and coleslaw at Scotty's Diner on Lexington Ave, New York. Photo by Peter Holmes. Source: Supplied

I miss a lot of things about living in the US. Most of them are food-based and at least five of them, specifically, are sandwiches.
The last thing I’d want to do is imply it’s not possible to get decent sandwich in Australia. But saying Australians make sandwiches is like saying we make feature films and reality TV and participate in wars. We do. Just nowhere near as well as the Yanks.
In the US, a sandwich isn’t a square stop-gap between breakfast and dinner. And it isn’t designed for mobile consumption. It’s a party on a plate and everyone’s invited; oh look, a stack of fries, side of coleslaw and big salty pickle!
TELL US BELOW: What do you think a sandwich should look like?
I used to get one of my favourite New York sandwiches (chicken salad with sweet potato fries) from another great American institution I miss - the diner.
The Evergreen Diner, just down the street from News Corp. HQ and NBC, is frequented by every reporter in a 5km radius.
A good diner is every bit as romantic an image as any one you’ve ever seen depicted on American television, from Happy Days and Seinfeld to Twin Peaks and NYPD Blue.
The long counters, the pots of coffee, the dessert case advertising slices of cherry pie, the bus boys lugging crates of dirty plates, the always-rushed-off-their-feet waitresses with their notepads and secret code.
Forget efficient transport, grand sporting stadiums, hip coffee joints and fancy restaurants. The mark of a truly great city is the ability to order bacon and eggs at 11am and a serve of lasagne at 7am – and on this score, Adelaide is sadly lacking.
A few weeks ago, after working a long shift, powered by bad coffee and two slices of pizza, I went hunting for food and a taxi.
I ran the gauntlet of tiny skirts and stumbling drunks but couldn’t find a cracker.
Not a waffle on Waymouth St, not a kebab on King William or a curry on Currie. At 11pm on a Saturday night.
Thank god Adelaide’s famous pie carts are still around. Oh, wait…
The pie carts went away and drunk people everywhere have been sad ever since. Photo: The Advertiser.

Yes, I could have walked to Gouger or Hindley, the only two streets in Adelaide to keep anything like unordinary hours. But I was tired. I went home and ate noodles.
Adelaide is over-serviced by fast-food joints and posh, expensive eateries. But where are all the Greasy Spoons? The late-night joints serving up bacon sandwiches, coffee and pancakes, without the frills and for cheap prices?
I think Adelaide has an appetite for a place like that.
This column was first published in The City Adelaide and on advertiser.com.au

The price is wrong

Supersize me... On second thoughts, don't. Photo: News Corp. Australia

Hi, my name is Greg. This is my first meeting and I've got a confession to make.
“Hi, Greg!”
Recently, I spent a year living in the US and now I can’t stop complaining about the price of sandwiches and washing powder, bus tickets and cups of coffee.
All day long I moan about the cost of avocados and dry cleaning and quite frankly I’m driving my friends and family spare.
The cost of living in Australia is out of control – and it took me living in another country to come to the conclusion.
But not just any country, mind you. We’re talking about a country where the cost of things, food especially, is inversely proportional to the size of the portion; where eating is considered a National Sport and the People are prepared to bear arms to protect their God-given right to drink giant sodas.
Americans are big on value for money – you kind of get that sneaking suspicion the first time you order a waffle and discover it is an inch thick, is bigger than your head, comes with two scoops of ice cream you can’t eat and didn’t ask for and, at just $4, is basically free.
No-one pays for bread or corn chips in US restaurants (I think it’s enshrined in the Constitution, or something).
And if you don’t feel like you may be having a heart attack at least once during a meal, well, you’re not really trying are you? Or you’re having a snack.
One time, in Chicago, at a family-run Mexican restaurant, I had one of the best and biggest breakfasts I’ve ever had and between the two of us the cheque was all of $13.
Everything was so cheap we spent the first 10 minutes uploading photos to social media to send back to our friends on Planet Earth.
A man could get used to a life like that.
That’s why my first trip to an Australian supermarket after returning home was not just a rude shock, it was an Outrage! A bloody disgrace! A cause for a violent uprising!
But even adjusting for cultural inflation, I’m not the only one who thinks the cost of living in this Australia has reached a tipping point.
Earlier this year, when the Federal Election was called, adelaidenow ran a survey asking voters in South Australia’s 11 electorates to nominate the issues of most concern to them. Health, jobs, education, roads; respondents named a number of topics.
But in all 11 seats, the cost-of-living was number one across the board.
Our leaders know this. That’s why, in March - a year before the 2014 State Election and a few months before the Federal poll - Premier Jay Weatherill invited us to help his government ease the squeeze by submitting feedback to a cost-of-living discussion paper.
“I know many South Australians are struggling with cost-of-living pressures,” the Premier said.
“I want to ensure South Australia remains an affordable and attractive place to live, work, do business and raise a family.”
The recent fortunes of iconic brands like Holden, Spring Gully and Trims, and the exodus of smart young people across the border to more expensive (but more dynamic cities) shows just how big a job the Premier has.
Exactly why Australians struggle to make ends meet depends on a matrix of complex issues. Maybe your water charges are high because your state invested a motza in a desalination plant it only plans to use one non-rainy day. Or maybe you’re just a terrible manager of your money.
But a few things are universally true. Like that prices are higher in Australia because our wages and conditions are good, and a high quality of life comes at a cost.
That our system of “free trade” isn’t really free, nor fair – because our farmers and manufacturers are forced to pass their rising costs of production on to us, while our markets get flooded by cheaply made imports.
And that the supermarket duopoly in some cities and towns is not only bad for consumers but bad for processors and suppliers – all of them, employers.
The arrival of Costco and Aldi should go some way to easing the stranglehold on choice and price. But we need to know where the line is.
Ask 50 million Americans if they’d rather easy access to cheap hamburgers and running shoes or a decent minimum wage and affordable health care.
Sometimes you have to ask yourself who really pays the biggest price.

This column was first published in The City Messenger and on advertiser.com.au

Getting back in the old routine, after returning to Adelaide from New York

Start spreading the news... I'm home! Photo: AP

A FEW weeks ago, I got back to Adelaide after a year at News Corp. headquarters in New York City and, naturally, people have been lining up to ask the inevitable; how does it feel to be back?

It hasn't been the simplest question to answer.

If I were prone to sarcasm, I'd say this. "How does it feel to be back?? In Adelaide?? After living in the Big Apple? No, it feels awesome! Thrilled. Couldn't wait to leave the joint, actually. Who needs all that excitement, anyway? Not me. No siree."

Instead, politely, I say this: "Good, thanks".

But the truth is, gearing down from the pace of one of the world's biggest, most exciting cities isn't nearly as difficult as people may think or I might have expected.

I miss New York, of course, but if people have been expecting me to sink into a black funk while sobbing over a picture of an Everything Bagel, I'm sorry to disappoint.

Things like that only happen when you get into the dangerous business of comparing and Adelaide, it will shock you to learn, is not New York. Because no city in the world is.

So how does it feel to be back?

Let's see. There's a new building or three on the skyline (hallelujah!), the Liberal party is still a rabble, football is still the State Religion and South Aussies still regard the weekend trip to Bunnings a national sport.

Everything seems to be in its place.

I did find one thing odd; coming back to a South Australia not helmed by Mike Rann for the first time in the decade I've called this state home.

I followed the changing of the leadership from my apartment in Manhattan and there composed my single funniest tweet (so far): "Just checked the Weatherill forecast for Adelaide for tomorrow. Fine, no chance of Rann".

Being back in Adelaide means pretending fast, efficient and affordable public transport isn't possible in 2012. It means renewing one's membership to that organisation to which we're all forced to belong the Cult of Car Worship.

I'm getting reacquainted with a city that, like most Australian cities, is less social by design.

Where catching up with friends on the other side of town on a week night feels too much like work.

Where, because most of us are lucky enough to have our own backyards, its parks and squares are for merely looking at or passing through and seldom for using regularly in any real way that says community. No outdoor libraries, ping pong, tai chi or swing dancing. No jug bands or games of chess.

Being back in Adelaide means the comfort of a real home and at least the opportunity to be saddled with a mortgage. Most New Yorkers will never have the chance to buy and will bleed rivers of money just for the chance to rent a shoebox.

When I'm sick here I'll make an appointment at my local doctor, same as they do in the Big Apple, only here no one will care much if I have insurance, and it certainly won't be the first question.

The coffee's better here, and while New York is a food Mecca, put me over a bowl of Pho from one of our many great Vietnamese eateries, or a plate of middle eastern grilled meat and flat bread from Lawash on South Rd, or an Ethiopian banquet from the Abyssinian on Henley Beach Rd and I am truly happy.

Happy. And home.

This column was first published in The City Messenger and on advertiser.com.au

Coming to America..... and finding McDowell's!

Before Eddie Murphy started making an ass of himself as the voice of a donkey in an animated film franchise he used to be COOL. And swear like a [censored] [censored]! 

Back then, at the height of his coolness, Murphy was a big shot actor and appeared in a string of iconic films - some of which were actually pretty good (see: 48hrs, Beverley Hills Cop).

In 1988, as anyone with at least 25 years under their belts will know, he starred in the romance/comedy Coming to America, alongside James Earl Jones and Arsenio Hall (Exactly. Who?)

Was it a cinematic masterpiece? No. Was it warm and comforting like mashed potato? Hell yes!
And clearly, with a critics rating of 65 per cent and audience thumbs up of 82 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, I'm not the only one who thinks so.
 
In case you've lost some of the threads that make up the complex tapestry that is the plot, Murphy plays a prince from the fictitious African country Zamunda who travels to America to find an independent woman who'll love him for him, and not because he's rich and royally loaded.

To keep his true origins secret, Murphy and his personal aide Semmi (Hall) pretend to be poor foreign students and Murphy gets a job at "McDowell's" a fast-food chain whose name and golden arches bear more than a passing resemblance to that other burger joint starting with "M".

A fast-food knock-off.. but of WHAT. McDavid's? McDowd's? McDels.. McDans... ARGHH!

Being just nine when the film was released (let's not dwell on that for too long) and living, as I did then, in a small country town in the time before McDonalds had hung up its first shingle in our main street, films like Coming to America were wondrous and educational.

How exotic did a cheeseburger seem to me back then? How strange and interesting were these people they call "African-Americans", so different in so many ways from everyone I knew or had ever seen.


Naturally, when I finally arrived in New York myself, I made seeking out the location of the famous "McDowell's" one of my first orders of business (Sorry, Empire State Building).

My research suggested a long and expensive cab ride into the dull and outer reaches of suburban Queens - but in the end finding the place wasn't much of a stretch. I recognized it right away.

"McDowell's, on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst, Queens is still serving up burgers, albeit now with
all the profits going to that other purveyor of fine burger products, Wendy's (see below).


I was surprised (and far more excited than I should have been) to discover the interior and layout of of the restaurant were exactly the same as all those years ago when Murphy used a mop to overpower Samuel L Jackson (who eventually gave up his life of crime and became an actor) when he tried to rob the joint.






Sadly, Wendy's hasn't bothered to note the significance of its location - no scenes from the movie, no signed memorabilia, no photos from the filming. Like Zamunda, it's like the place never even existed.  And yet there it sits. That ugly brown building on Queens Blvd, in Queens, in the city of New York. Good to know, if you're coming to America.



David Sedaris Live at the Strand

As the folks who work there like to say, New York's The Strand is "the 84-year-old home of 18 miles of new, used and rare books". It is also, we have happily discovered, the home of some wonderfully intimate events and lectures featuring some of the best and biggest names in books and literature.

We live, literally, a stone's throw away from this wonderful store of books and so wandering across the street after a day's work to enjoy an hour of stimulating intellectual argument and discussion from this famous writer and that has become a regular fixture of our social calendar.

To date we have listened to celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Michael White discuss the state of Italian cuisine in America and The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik eloquently discuss the true meaning of food in our lives.

Last night's lecture, by the American writer, broadcaster and humorist David Sedaris, was the first we have seen not strictly relating to food, but it was a discussion to savor, none-the-less.

Sedaris read from his book of funny animal stories Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, rejected magazine columns and short stories and extracts from his diary during a 43 city book tour of the US.

After the talk, Sedaris sat down at a small table next to the podium as dozens of fans formed a queue to get a book signed and just say "hi".  Sedaris looked relaxed as he chit chatted casually, signing his name and scribbling funny little pictures based on the person standing in front of him. A woman's head on a turtle body, that kind of thing.

More than once I saw him outline a serrated knife in black pen, before choosing gold and grey pens from a container on the table and filling the knife in. Just before he began the signing, a little blonde girl walked up coyly and Sedaris asked "Who are you here with?". The girl pointed to her mother standing a short distance away.

The line for the book signing was long and some the people looked impatient but Sedaris was unperturbed, spending a long couple of minutes talking to the girl, who was visiting from Spain and spoke three languages.

"I've got something for you," Sedaris said as he pulled out a calico bag and fished around inside.
He pulled out a small box which he opened and retrieved a couple of colored bangles, a small toy monkey and a pair of plastic children's sunglasses with clusters of sparkles on the front.

Which one would she like? Why didn't she take all three with her? She could give one of the items to a friend as a gift from New York. It was a lovely moment. Sedaris was thoughtful and sweet with his young fan. Shly, the girl looked towards her mother who instructed her to choose just one thing.

For some reason I didn't see what she finally chose, but as we were leaving, I saw the girl in the lobby. She was wearing those sparkly sunglasses. She was smiling.

Below is an audio recording of the lecture in full.



Adam Gopnik: Live at the Strand

 Adam Gopnik: ImageThe Strand

Adam Gopnik, essayist and staff writer at The New Yorker, live at New York's The Strand Book Store, November 14, 2011. Gopnik's lecture was about the power and meaning of food in our lives . His new book is called The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food. Go here for more in my Talks and Lectures series. And let me know what you think by leaving your thoughts and comments below.


David Simon on the fall and fall of American civilization




David Simon, creator of the critically acclaimed HBO TV series' The Corner, The Wire and Treme on the disintegration of civil society in American cities like Detroit, his native Baltimore and New Orleans.
Simon, a former crime reporter with the Baltimore Sun, was speaking at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City, on August 31, 2011. Find out more about the Lab, a mobile ideas space, traveling the world over six years to inspire innovative ideas for urban life.

I Survived Irene and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

“I think I’ll have a T-shirt printed: “I survived Hurricane Irene and all I got was a lousy night’s sleep” - and enough food to power a small pacific nation for a couple of weeks.
Any port in a storm: I slept on my kitchen floor 

As some had been saying all along, Hurricane Irene proved not be the thunderous apocalypse some elements of the media, and the authorities, had billed her as.
But it could have been much worse, and having never lived through a hurricane before it is an experience I will never forget.

As a resident of New York for just short of a month, my timing was impeccable.

In fact, lately, I’ve been forced to consider my luck, and whether I am cursed or blessed when it comes to overseas travel.

Somehow, I seem always to find myself at the center of some International Emergency.

Just two days before Irene stole headlines, the city of New York was shaken by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that had its epicenter under the state of Virginia.

The circumstances were surreal.

My colleagues and I had been eating lunch a diner near our work when the quake struck, oblivious. Not a single plate of piece of cutlery moved.

We only learned about the event when we returned to work and colleagues asked “did you feel the building sway?” Um… pardon?

On July 7, 2005, I found myself in London, the day terrorists struck the public transport system, killing 48 innocents.

Just a few kilometers down the road, I was comfortably on the couch in a friend’s flat in South London watching Pimp My Ride on MTV.

Life’s funny like that.

That’s how I found myself in a strange flat in a new city, battening down the hatches for a hurricane as wide as Texas.

New Yorkers began taking the threat of Irene seriously on Thursday afternoon.

There were scenes of ordered chaos in the supermarkets, which continued until Saturday afternoon when the shelves had been virtually stripped bare.

On Friday night I took photos of near empty shelves, which two days ago were abundant with bread, meat, beans, water and fruit.

Shops reported a run on items like batteries and torches after the city urged New Yorkers to prepare a “Go Bag” with emergency supplies.

On Saturday the streets were calm and quieter than usual, the weather fine, giving few clues as to the threat to come.

I ventured out a couple of times for a few last minute supplies but spent much of the day in a nervous holding pattern, anticipating Irene’s arrival.

I monitored the TV news closely, watching every new briefing by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and noting the address of the nearest evacuation center in case I was forced to flee.

Safely on the 8th floor, there was no risk of flooding – my biggest fear was the windows.
Would they shatter? Be smashed by flying debris? I had no clue, so I prepared as best I could.

I dragged the bed away from the windows, as close to the front door as possible.

“Probably over-reacting,” I thought, so I put the bed back.

Later I’d drag it back again. Those nerves!

I stayed up as late as exhaustion would allow and eventually spent the night on some cushions on the kitchen floor.

An alcove, well away from windows, the kitchen offered the best protection. It was better to be safe than sorry.

I woke around 5am on Sunday and counted my limbs; still intact.

It soon became clear – Irene had largely spared New York her fury, although places like
New Jersey and Philadelphia weren’t so lucky and were badly flooded.

Around 1pm, Mayor Bloomberg addressed the press with the latest on Irene, now longer a hurricane, downgraded to a tropical storm.

For the first time in four days, he cracked a wry smile and I knew the worst was over.

Now, about that T- Shirt.

Start Spreadin' The News, She's Heading This Way

Irene preparations 
No, Irene hasn't already passed through, just thousands of scared Americans.

An edited version of this article ran in Adelaide's Sunday Mail, Sunday, August 27. 

An earthquake and a hurricane hit New York City in the same week.

It sounds like the cheesy plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. But this was the very real storyline, of a very strange week, in the Big Apple.

Coverage of Irene, a dark force, rolling slowly towards the east coast of the US and promising untold devastation, began in earnest on Thursday afternoon.

It was, if reports were to be believed, a ticking time-bomb, packed with terrifying winds and as much as 8in (20 cm) of rain.

Tuesday’s earthquake was a Truman Show-style non-event, real only because we saw the TV coverage and read the papers the next day.  Would Irene be a fizzer, too? Nobody could say.

Authorities told people to get busy preparing. New Yorkers should prepare a “Go Bag” with important documents, non-perishable food items, water, a battery-powered radio, a “flashlight”. 

They also issued evacuation warnings to residents in low-lying coastal areas and “hurricane zones”.

According to the map, my 8th floor Manhattan apartment appeared not to be in the danger zone. Flooding was unlikely.  But maybe I should heed the warnings, just in case?
A colleague told me she planned to stock up food in case she was stuck inside the whole weekend. A good idea. 

After work, I headed to the nearest supermarket, where already there were scenes of ordered chaos.

The checkout lines were long, looping around the store as New Yorkers filled their baskets with bread, beans, tea, fruit and water. One guy grabbed a six pack of cheap beer. 

I liked his thinking. When all else fails, get drunk.

“The supermarket owners must be rubbing their hands together”, I thought. I felt somewhat silly about the whole thing, too.

Yet there I was, reaching for a couple of extra chewy bars as I stood waiting in line. 

The streets were heaving with people carrying bags of groceries as they headed home to gird themselves for Impending Doom.

By the end of my shopping trip, Irene had already exacted $80. Food $30. Torch $20. Radio $21. Batteries $5. Let’s leave the cost at that, ok, Irene?

On Friday morning I filled the bath with water and left for work.

The weather was glorious and warm. A hurricane? Really? The calm before the storm. By 1pm the air outside work would look brown and smoky.

I was watching the girl at the cafe make my morning coffee.

“Like, I really don’t feel prepared,” she said, scrunching up her nose before returning to the Dire Straits song she was singing.

“You hurricane proofed?” I asked as colleague and fellow Aussie Shannon rolled in to work.

“Well, I haven’t done anything, yet,” she said, clearly unperturbed. “I’ve got to take the BBQ off the balcony. I should probably get some DVDs. It will be such an anti-climax if it’s just… a rainstorm.”

Rose, at the next desk thought, the whole thing was a media circus.

“I think they’re, like, overdoing it, they’re scaring everybody,” she said, in her thick Noo Yawk accent. “It is what it is,” which wasn’t to say nothing at all, she stressed.
“New York City, I’m telling you, it’s gonna be a mess on Monday.”