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Exploring the Art and Eating Opportunities of the New Second Avenue Subway

Sandwiches, sushi, and more from Eater critic Robert Sietsema

It took nearly a century for the dream to be realized, and many believed it would never happen. Up and down the Upper East Side’s Second Avenue for the last decade, lanes were blocked off, pounding jackhammers deafened passers-by, great clouds of dust rose up, and acres upon acres of valuable urban space were sequestered behind chain-link fences. It was like living on an urban ranch. Finally, the three stops on the Q train that it took so long to construct are open and New Yorkers and visitors alike are treating them as tourist attractions.

All the stations enjoy dramatic settings, with dizzyingly long escalators, soaring hallways, and art-dotted walls. In fact, the art is the best reason to pay a visit. Most can be seen with a single fare by hopping from station to station, since much of the art is inside the turnstiles. Here is a rundown of what is on view, and, to complete your visit, suggestions for dining and drinking near each station.

72nd Street Station: "Perfect Strangers" is the title of a series of life-size mosaic portraits of New Yorkers by Vik Muniz, an artist who divides his time between Rio and New York City. The figures total nearly three dozen, and are mainly located on a three-block mezzanine one level above the tracks. Some (including chef Daniel Boulud) are recognizable, most are regular people. Many of the figures have a kinetic element, including a man chasing papers (Muniz himself) that have just blown out of his attaché case, and a child seemingly being pulled aloft by a small balloon. One particular attraction is a gay couple holding hands — said to be one of the first LGBTQ public art pieces in the city.

Dining Opportunities: Whether you emerge at 69th Street or 72nd Street, there are several good dining choices. Oita Sushi (1317 2nd  Ave., 212-535-0002) is tiny and inexpensive, but the fish is scintillatingly fresh and the chef creates some visually stunning rolls — including "mommy rose," which looks like a blooming flower. Founded in 1991, Jean Claude (1343 2nd Ave, 212-249-3400) is an old-guard French bistro with several varieties of steak frites, some nice meal-size salads, and nifty lunch sandwiches, served with fries. Also a great place to relax with a glass of rosé. Right next door, lamb and chicken kebabs, Persian-leaning vegetable entrees, and great dumplings are the forte of long-running Afghan Kebab House (1345 2nd Ave, 212-517-2776), which also boasts a branch in Hell’s Kitchen. For one of the city’s best and most unpretentious burgers in a pub setting, check out J. G. Melon (1291 3rd Ave., 212-744-0585), open every day for lunch and dinner.

Mommy Rose at Oita Sushi
Pan bagnat at Jean Claude

86th Street Station: If you are a Chuck Close fan, this subway stop at 86th Street and 2nd Avenue — the busiest corner along the route, and thus the station with the best dining opportunities and least dramatic entrances — is a chance to see the artist’s work in a unique and advantageous setting. A self-portrait of Close seems to be appraising passengers as they enter on the northeast corner of the intersection. A dramatic black-and-white representation of Lou Reed shows the singer in a somewhat mournful mood. Other subjects include Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Philip Glass, and Cecily Brown. There are 12 portraits sprinkled throughout the station, and finding them all is one of the pleasures of visiting the exhibit. If you’re interested in a hike, Carl Schurz Park and its riverside walk is three blocks to the east of 86th, along with the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion.

Dining Opportunities: Known as Yorkville, this neighborhood once housed a large German population, of which this corner is one of the few remaining testaments. Marvel at the 1937 German butcher shop, Schaller & Weber, then visit its sausage-serving offshoot — just a stand, really, with a small bar in back — known as Schaller’s Stube (1652 2nd Ave., 646-726-4355). Right next door find Two Little Red Hens (1652 2nd Ave., 212-452-0476), one of the Upper East Side’s best bakeries, famous for its densely textured cheesecake, but also for its red velvet cake and sour cherry pie. It opens by 8 a.m. seven days, and there are a handful of tables to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. Around the corner in the other direction is Ithaka (308 E 86th St., 212-628-9100), a restaurant with a décor that makes you feel as if you’re in Greece. The menu keeps pace with grilled octopus, stewed rabbit, roast lamb, and the usual garlicky bread dips. Open 4 p.m. on weekdays and 12:30 Saturday and Sunday.

Schaller Stube bratwurst

96th Street Station: Located on a stretch of Second Avenue that’s mainly medical facilities and high-rise condos, where dining opportunities and other commercial enterprises are few and far between, this station has the most dramatic topside presence, and tourists pause to take selfies outside it. The art inside is a single installation by Boston-born and SVA-educated Sarah Sze. Composed of over 4000 tiles, many outside the turnstiles but visible from within, the massive mural shows a blueprint cityscape that seems to be overtaken by a tidal wave.

Dining Opportunities: Directly across the street from the 96th Street entrance find Merrion Square (1840 2nd Ave., 212-831-7696), a gastropub named after a Dublin park. The lure here is a thoughtful list of craft beers and ciders. The food includes all the usual pub-grub offerings, including burgers, fried pickles, and shepherd’s pie. Kitchen open until 2 a.m. A short stroll south along Second Avenue brings you to A-Jiao (1817 2nd Ave., 212-828-8996), a distinguished Sichuan restaurant. For a cold day, there is nothing better than dumplings in hot oil or the beef noodle soup. Finally, climb up Carnegie Hill to 3rd Avenue to find Fillmore Delicatessen (1668 3rd Ave., 646-912-9488), assembling all sorts of cold and hot sandwiches, deli-style and serve yourself, with a blessedly quiet rear dining room. Around $10 gets you a nice hot pastrami sandwich of restrained size, along with free slaw and pickle. Open 7 a.m.

Bonus Art Opportunity: The subway station at 63rd and Lexington, now serving the Q and the F, was at least partly remade for the extension of the Q line. The new back entrance at 3rd Avenue features art by former Pratt student Jean Shin, featuring a look back at Manhattan’s elevated train lines, including — by the bank of elevators that take you way, way down to the stacked subway platforms — metallic-tinted photoprints of the rail lines themselves, and in mezzanine level, mosaic representations of pedestrians taken from historic 1940s photographs. The figures are haunting, including a girl pushing a baby carriage and a man with a homburg who fixes you in his gaze across a time span of 70 years.

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