In Search of Queens’ Quirky, Unique Places

This diverse borough of New York City beckons with a dynamite food scene and many surprises
March 26, 2018 Updated: March 26, 2018

NEW YORK—Food writer Joe DiStefano received a couple of beatings in the process of researching his new book, “111 Places in Queens That You Must Not Miss.” But they were presumably good for him.

DiStefano, known for his food tours of Queens, took to the heat of Russian banya-style Forest Hills Spa, which, like the borough of Queens itself, is host to a melting pot of folks from different cultures. What they had in common was, first, most certainly a belief that this was good for them, and second, possibly, pain. DiStefano underwent a detoxifying “platza” treatment, which entailed getting beaten by dried oak leaves, lightly at first, then in building intensity. The co-owner told him the cleansing treatment is good for the endocrine system.

With 2 million residents, and almost half of them foreign-born, Queens is full of places that plunge you into a completely different world. The Russian bath house was just a taste. As a fellow Queens resident, I couldn’t wait to see what recommendations DiStefano gave in his book.

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The 7 train, which takes riders through Queens, is also known as the International Express. (Clay Williams)

“People have always thought of Queens as where the airport is,” DiStefano said. But that’s been changing—Queens topped Lonely Planet’s list of best U.S. travel destinations for 2015. Visitors may commonly make a beeline for the Rockaways beach scene in the summer or admire the Manhattan skyscape from across the East River at Gantry Plaza State Park, but there is plenty more to uncover.

If you’re looking for lesser-known neighborhoods, DiStefano might point you to historic Addisleigh Park, formerly the home of Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, among many other African American celebrities, or Richmond Hill, rich in West Indian culture.

“I think that Queens is one of the last places in New York City where there is a sense of neighborhood,” DiStefano said.

One weekend, as I headed to my former neighborhood of Astoria for brunch, I looked up what DiStefano had written about it. Only a few blocks from where I used to live was Uke Hut, a little shop devoted to ukuleles that had opened since I moved away. I made a point to stop by. When I walked in, the man behind the counter was picking some notes, and ukuleles in many shapes and sizes hung from every space possible. The owner walked in not long after and told me about his conversion from the guitar to the ukulele—and how there was no going back.

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Ukulele aficionados won’t want to miss the Uke Hut in Astoria, Queens. (Clay Williams)

History abounds, too, in Queens—and may come as a surprise to some visitors—whether in the form of landmarks marking the beginnings of American religious freedom, in Flushing, or the childhood home of President Donald Trump, in Jamaica Estates.

Manhattan may get the bulk of visitors, but should they wander into Queens, they won’t find a shortage of surprises.

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DiStefano knows many of the best restaurants in Queens. He recommends getting a bowl of kari laksa at Curry Leaves in Flushing. (Clay Williams)

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