Select Bus Service In-Depth: M23

M23 at 23rd St/2nd Av.  (C) 2012 C. Walton

M23 at 23rd St/2nd Av. (C) 2012 C. Walton

The M23, the Chelsea-Flatiron-Stuy Town Connector.

The M23 is one of the slowest of the slowest Crosstown bus routes in Manhattan.  Many of the 15,000 riders per day will agree with me on this.  It travels all the way across 23rd Street from Chelsea Piers to the FDR Drive, passing through the Chelsea and Flatiron sections of Manhattan.  Its eastern terminus is close to the VA Medical Center, Waterside Plaza, and Stuyvesant Town.  It passes right by the Flatiron Building at 5th Avenue and Broadway as well as under the High Line at 10th Avenue.

The fact that it runs through a trendy neighborhood, a center of commercial activity, a tourist trap, a few medical centers, and some high-priced real estate isn’t what makes the M23 a case for SBS, though.  It’s the traffic and loading and unloading of passengers at either end of the line which makes the M23 a great candidate for SBS.  (If you ask me though, I would have preferred another Crosstown line, such as the next one south of 23rd Street.  Namely, the M14A/M14D.  I’m pretty sure I mentioned it before somewhere.)  Frequently, M23 buses get caught in traffic on the East Side of 23rd Street, simply due to traffic attempting to access the FDR Drive.  That traffic includes MTA express buses that, with exceptions, use the FDR Drive during the evening rush hour to access the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to Brooklyn and onwards to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and Staten Island.  Some Staten Island express buses make a right turn at Park Avenue South to pick up passengers in Lower Manhattan, while some Brooklyn express buses use the FDR Drive to access Pearl and Water Streets in the Financial District.  There are numerous express buses that turn left from 5th Avenue and Broadway to 23rd Street during all hours of the day including numerous Bronx express buses, all of which add to the delays with eastbound M23 buses on the East Side.

As far as the West Side is concerned, most of the traffic is scattered around, mainly between 6th Avenue and 8th Avenue, with traffic attempting to make the right turn onto 6th or 8th Avenues heading towards the Penn Station and Herald Square areas.  There may be some occasional backups at 11th Avenue as the West Side Highway is less than a block away, as well as a few at 10th Avenue because of traffic trying to get to the Lincoln Tunnel or to bypass the area around Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

As far as Bus Rapid Transit in New York is concerned, I do not recall the M23 ever being talked about as a potential BRT corridor, unless it’s linked to the downtown east-west corridor scope of the project which would have included the M14.  The M23 bus line, though not my most ideal candidate for SBS, does have the issues that were present in the M34 and M86 crosstown lines and has been awarded the “Pokey” Award several times by the Straphangers’ Campaign.  It tells the story about poor bus service, with a range of issues including buses not coming on-time, buses bunching when they do arrive, overcrowding of the buses that do arrive, and the time it takes to travel from near one end of the line to the other.  If the M23 gets these improvements, this will be the 5th SBS corridor in Manhattan after the M15, M34/34A, M60, and M86.  As of right now, they are having conversations with M23 riders and members of the community boards in the areas where the M23 operates.  There is no implementation timeline yet as it is still too early in the process.

For the M23 to work, there should be a plan to implement some offset bus lanes at strategic locations and bus bulbs at the busiest stops, such as westbound at 23rd Street/1st Avenue.  If offset lanes aren’t possible, then carefully selected and crafted curbside bus lanes will have to do.  I wouldn’t call for any left-turn restrictions since designing them has been a headache in other parts of Manhattan (namely on 125th Street).  On 23rd Street at Madison Avenue eastbound should have a left-turn bay and a curbside bus lane to mesh with the current left-turn traffic cycle.  It depends on the street width which, in most cases on 23rd Street, is roughly 52-60 feet wide.  I can certainly see a healthy debate between community board leaders, merchants in the area, drivers, taxi and livery drivers, truck companies, and residents who want more bike lanes instead of road space..

We shall see.  We shall soon see.

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Fran’s Restaurant & Bar

Fran’s Restaurant & Bar
20 College Street
Toronto, ON, Canada M5G 2B3


Fran’s is the place to eat if you are looking for the quintessential Canadian diner experience in the busy downtown Toronto scene.  Located near the corner of College Street and Yonge Street, this restaurant is nestled underneath several office and retail buildings and conveniently located right in front of the Carlton Streetcar, the #506.  Half of the streetcar route runs on Carlton street, while the other half runs on College Street.  The route is divided right down the middle by Yonge Street, a small but bustling downtown Toronto Street that runs all the way north into the York Region.  There is subway service on the Yonge-University-Spadina (YUS) line, otherwise known as Line 1, at the College station nearby.  There is also bus service on Yonge Street, the #97 Yonge line, and on nearby Bay Street via the #6 Bay line.

There is a wide range of breakfast, lunch, and dinner options, but their breakfast and Italian dinner options are my favorite.  They use a great tasting sauce and there are fairly large portions.  Dessert is very sweet and smooth but not too sweet if sugar is not your thing.  Regardless, this is one establishment that tastes American but with Canadian hospitality.  Not bad for a restaurant whose owner was born in upstate New York…Buffalo to be exact!  The neighborhood is a mix of downtown office buildings, retail stores, and trendy restaurants with all different types of cuisine.  Fran’s is still there after 40+ years at the same address, regardless of the neighborhood around it changing.

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Brownstone Diner and Pancake Factory

Brownstone Diner & Pancake Factory
426 Jersey Avenue
Jersey City, NJ 07302

How to get there:
Train:  NJ Transit Hudson-Bergen Light Rail to Jersey Avenue Station
Bus:  NJ Transit #1, 81L, Montgomery-Westside IBOA bus

This isn’t any ordinary diner.  Well, okay maybe.  But, to be featured on the Food Network TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” it has to be a special kind of diner.  It’s also a pancake factory.  This diner sells normal diner food like deluxe burgers, eggs, waffles, pasta, sandwiches, steak, and grilled chicken, but what makes it famous is its pancakes.  We aren’t talking about any normal size pancake like IHOP or Denny’s.  We are talking massive pancakes that can easily take up a dinner plate, stacked up high above the plate (okay, you only get three), and are so fluffy and thick that you cannot finish them unless you walked in really hungry.  These pancakes have been made in this establishment since the 1970s, even under the former name The Newport Pancake House, whose owners worked at the same diner when it was called the M&A Diner.  The recipe for these delicious monster pancakes is still unwritten and was handed down for generations but to this day has never been and probably will never be revealed, but nonetheless once you eat here, you will never want to eat at IHOP again.

They make so many varieties of pancakes on their supersized menu that most of your time spent at the table is looking at the menu.  They make the traditional old-fashioned pancake, but they offer pancakes filled with different types of berries, nuts, chocolate, and even chopped and diced meats.  My favorites include the old-fashioned buttermilk pancake and the meat pancake with bacon bits, ham chunks, and sausage bits inside.  Those two and the chocolate chip, nut and honey, and banana pancakes are crowd favorites here.  As is that wasn’t enough, they offer what they call “pancake wraps,” which are breakfast or lunch items that are wrapped inside of a huge pancake much like a chicken caesar put into a sandwich wrap.  The Original Pancake Wrap is one that includes cheese scrambled eggs and bacon; the Country Pancake Wrap has cheese eggs, sausage, and home fries in it.  If you like a little heat, there’s the Triple D Buffalo Chicken wrap named after Guy Fieri, world-renown chef and star of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” who the wrap was named after and was featured on his show.  Everything is made to order and from scratch.

Though they have some very appetizing pancakes worth trying, let’s not forget about everything else they serve.  Their pasta is tasty and filling, the way an Italian-style dish is supposed to be, their breakfasts are your typical items such as waffles and bagels, but their dinners are quite the surprise.  The pork chops (three of them) are enough to come back for more than just pancakes, though almost everything is worth a second visit.  Even though the staff has changed a few times over the last decade, the recipes and the friendliness of the staff are still the same.

It’s all just steps from transportation.  Located at Grand Street and Jersey Avenue, it is a block away from the Jersey Avenue Light Rail Station, so anyone coming from Hoboken or Exchange Place can just hop on the light rail and walk over to the best pancakes you will ever have.  Also nearby is the Jersey City Medical Center, which often brings customers to the restaurant during lunch time.  Surrounding the neighborhood are new luxury condominium developments which are centered around the light rail stations as a form of transit-oriented development (TOD), which make it easier to get to nearby office buildings near Exchange Place, Harborside Financial Center, and the Newport district.  PATH service to Manhattan is nearby at Grove Street or Exchange Place via the light rail.  Buses to Newark and Bayonne are available as well, though they don’t run as frequently as the HBLR or PATH.  The Brownstone isn’t a place to watch buses or trains go by while you eat, as the restaurant’s blinds are partially shut to create a quierter, more personal dinner environment, but it’s a great place to eat along transportation.   Just come hungry.

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Soul Fire BBQ Restaurant

Soul Fire
182 Harvard Avenue
Allston, MA 02134

How to get there:

Train:  MBTA Green Line “B” Branch to Harvard Avenue Station
Bus:  MBTA #66 via Harvard Avenue

Soul Fire is one of Boston’s best barbecue spots, if not THE best barbecue spot the city has to offer.  Featured on the Food Network, this Afro-soul-themed southern comfort food restaurant has sizable portion, but you get much more than what you pay for.  Everything is cooked to order, mostly from scratch and the meal sizes are very filling.  Each bite of anything, and I mean ANYTHING, on their menu will send you to another place.  They offer such tasty entrees as chopped and sliced beef brisket, pulled pork, fried chicken, chicken tenders, turkey breast, fried fish, and pork ribs.  Their appetizers include fried macaroni and cheese cubes, chili cheese fries, corn dogs, and a delectable Soul Fire chili.  Side orders include mashed potatoes, rice & beans, potato salad, and oh-so-delicious collard greens (if cooked properly, which these are).  A typical meal will run you about $10-20 depending on how many meats you choose to order and the type of platter.  Rib platters cost more than chicken platters, but everything comes with two side orders and some corn bread.  Let’s not forget the 5 choices of barbecue sauce:  Pitboss, Soul Fire, Sweet, N.C. (for North Carolina), and Fiery.  Each sauce has more vinegar, more spice, or more molasses than the others, and each goes well with certain food items.

My favorite appetizer is the fried mac and cheese because it’s the goodness of a creamy mac and cheese inside a nice crispy but not too oily batter.  A small serving is 2-3 cubes while a large serving is 4-7 cubes.  My entrees of choice are usually the chicken tenders, the sliced brisket, and the pulled pork.  I always put sweet sauce on the brisket and N.C. sauce on the pulled pork, so as to have a taste of North Carolina and Tennessee on the same plate.  Sometimes I would put Pitboss on everything, but I reserve it for the chicken tenders.  I usually go for the mashed potatoes with gravy on top and some butter for that rich, smooth texture, and the mac and cheese by itself for that taste and texture that I grew up with when my family made it at home on the stove top.  Soul Fire’s mac and cheese is made with tiny pasta shells, creamy mild chedder cheese, and crumpled barbecue potato chips.  As much as I do not enjoy collard greens, this restaurant makes them soft and a bit sweet, unlike most places that overcook them and give off an awful stench.  As far as dessert, the award goes to their cheesecake, which has the consistency of whipped cream and not overly sweet, though do not sleep on the fried dough, with its fluffy but not too flaky texture and that cinnamon/honey/sugar combination that is nothing short of divine.

Here’s the part that I really like:  It’s close enough to transportation that you can go in and stuff your face to then come out and roll your way back on to a “T” bus or Green Line train back home.  The restaurant is in between the block, so you can’t see the Green Line trains go by, but if you like buses, the #66 Harvard Avenue crosstown bus runs frequent enough so you can see and ride buses all day or all night.  I would only use the #66 when I am coming from an area with no subway service or the other side of the subway network south of South Station; the 66 is a great crosstown route from Dudley Square.  On its way from serving Dudley Station on the Silver Line and Ruggles Station on the Orange Line, the #66 hits every single Green Line Branch (B, C, D, and E) before it hits Soul Fire and then continues across the Charles River to Harvard Square on the Red Line.  No matter what part of the Boston area you are in, Soul Fire is easy to get to.  If the #66 gets caught in traffic on Harvard Avenue, as it almost ALWAYS does, there’s a Soul Fire location on Huntington Avenue, served by the Green Line “E” branch and the #39 Huntington Avenue crosstown from Copley Square.

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Home of Chicken & Waffles Restaurant

Home of Chicken & Waffles Restaurant
444 Embarcadero West
Oakland, CA 94607
(no website found)

How to get there:

Train:  Amtrak California to Oakland Jack London Square Station
Bus:  AC Transit #72 San Pablo, 72M San Pablo/MacDonald, 72R San Pablo RAPID, 58L MacArthur Limited (weekdays only)

This is a great spot for Southern-style comfort food, including potato salad, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and the all-famous chicken and waffles combination.  Who knew that the combination of crispy fried chicken and waffles with syrup would be such a winning combination?  This place claims to be the home of the combination, even though practically every diner or restaurant serves both chicken and waffles, albeit separately and during different times of the day.  The fried chicken is as crispy as it gets, and the waffles are a typical large Belgian Waffle with your choice of syrups; I always choose good ol’ fashioned pancake syrup…with a little extra butter.  The sides are not the largest portions, but they are filling and are made to order.  The restaurant doesn’t have a fancy marquee or a huge billboard advertising the place, but most hole-in-the-wall places don’t always need the fanciest signs or most expensive publicity if the food is tasty enough to sell itself.  Right across from Jack London Square, the locals can’t help but notice the place as they walk across the Embarcadero to the waterfront.

One of the greatest thing about this place?  Train tracks close by.  Very close by.  Not a block away, or even a half block away.  Right in front of the restaurant, in the center of Embarcadero Way.  Yes, the tracks are in the middle of the street.  The entire length of the street.  Complete with railroad crossing gates at each intersection.  Quite a few trains per day use this stretch of double track.  Amtrak’s San Joaquin, Capital Corridor and Coast Starlight trains use these tracks to get from Sacramento and points north to Oakland and points south such as San Jose and Los Angeles.  Along with Amtrak trains, freight trains from Union Pacific use these tracks to transfer good up and down the state and even across the Rockies and the Plains.  These aren’t small freight trains taking empty cars from one yard to another; these are long trains, with 3-7 locomotives and 100+ cars carrying goods.  They take up the entire street and then some.  Not to worry, there is an overpass from the city to the waterfront…the ONLY one, which goes from a local parking garage to the marina.  When there are no trains, it’s a safe street, with one lane of traffic in each direction on either side of the train tracks.  At night, when there are less trains, the Embarcadero’s many restaurants, including Home of Chicken & Waffles, light up the area.

AC Transit’s San Pablo Avenue routes run right by the place and terminate nearby at the Oakland-Jack London Square Amtrak Station.  These lines originate from Contra Costa and Berkeley and travel through the heart of Downtown Oakland on Broadway between 8th and 19th Streets.  The MacArthur Limited bus runs out to Eastmont and San Leandro, also through Downtown Oakland.  With Jack London Square accessible to many parts of Oakland and beyond, this restaurant is right smack in the middle of the East Bay region.  A great place to eat and a great place to watch trains, as much a winning combination as chicken and waffles.

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