By Lynn Edmonds
Most New York City residents know Astoria for its Greek food and culture. They come to Taverna Kyclades for grilled seafood, generous portions of lemony potatoes and traditional giant beans that are baked with tomato until they become butter-soft. City residents, Greeks and non-Greeks, will wait for over an hour to eat at one of the outdoor tables, even on a brisk early spring day. Sometimes, the servers at the family-style restaurant will give them a glass of free house wine while they wait in a line that occupies half the block.
Or they come to the quieter Agnanti, which offers a slower-moving and more sensuous dining experience. Next to Astoria park and a ten minute walk from the train, it attracts fewer visitors but boasts views of the waterfront and equally outstanding food.
But restaurants like these and many others, including E Taverna To Koutouki, Elias Corner, Loukoumi and Gregory’s 26 Taverna, just to name a few, are only a part of the Greek presence in Astoria. And Greek culture, the effect of a large migration of Greeks to the area in the 1960s and 70s, is only a part of what makes Astoria.
One of the defining aspects of many of Astoria’s main junctures, aside from the elevated train that clangs and squeals over the length of 31st street, is busy, bright streets with diverse storefronts. Whether its Broadway, 30th Avenue, or Ditmars Boulevard, these three neighborhood centers offer eye candy in the form of a businesses that could attract all different clientele: fish mongers, Greek cafes, barbeque joints and brunch spots, pharmacies, 99 cents and discount stores, Mediterranean food shops, a handful of different major supermarkets at different price points, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, several gyms, an indie bookstore, threading, waxing, hair and nail salons, clothing boutiques, consignment shops and a myriad of diners, most of which claim to be voted #1 in New York.
Additionally, while Broadway, 30th Avenue and Ditmars Boulevard are populated by a healthy dose of Greek restaurants as well as diners, American cuisine, Thai, Japanese and more, Steinway Street between 23rd and 28th Avenue, an area called little Egypt, is the place to for Halal meat at hole-in-the-wall, everybody-in-here-knows-each-other restaurants, Baklava (yup, it’s not just Greek!) and other middle eastern/Mediterranean sweets to die for, as well as Hookah bars.
The southwestern part of Astoria, called Hallets Cove, is industrial. A large apartment complex is planned for the area.
In Astoria’s Northwestern corner, across the river from the Upper East Side, it is the waterfront Astoria Park that defines the neighborhood. The park is a hub of community activity, drawing parents with young children, dogs owners, who let their pooches run free before nine in the morning and most of all runners. Hellgate Road Runners is one of the groups that can often be seen sprinting around the track on Wednesday nights or charging up and down the hill underneath the Hell Gate Bridge on Mondays (say hello!). The club was founded in 1996 by five runners, including the group’s coach, Jared Mestre and his wife Luann Mestre, a top athlete who places in her age group in New York Road Runners Races. The parks is also home to an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool, which is free and open to the public during the summer months, drawing hundreds of children and lap swimmers.
All year round, but especially in the summer, groups of friends, couples and families like to stroll the approximately 2/3 of a mile stretch of waterfront. Deep blue waters and the endlessly-breathtaking Manhattan skyline make the boardwalk beautiful whether the setting sun is turning the sky pink, the offices and apartments buildings are twinkling with lights in a black sky, or the morning sun is making the skyscrapers pop with vivid clarity.
North and slightly east of the park, the Con Edison factory provides a ghastly and fascinating sight for someone who’s not familiar with what a power plant looks like. Acres of weird, electronic-like objects stand in rows like corn along 20th Avenue. The company is a mainstay of the neighborhood and has contributed many jobs over the years. But power plants helped earn Ditmars Boulevard the nickname “Asthma Alley.” The most toxic plant was dismantled in 2013.
Other notable landmarks in Astoria include Kaufman Astoria studios, Socrates Sculpture Park, The Greater Astoria Historical Society, the Isamu Noguchi Museum, the Astoria Performing Arts Center and the first LGBT community center in Queens, the Queens Rainbow Community Center.
Astoria is also the access point for Riker’s Island. A bridge connects the island, which hosts the city’s jail, to the neighborhood at Hazen Street.