Thursday 29 May 2008

Grand Central Station Toilets Offer Visitors Truly Hectic New York Experience

Grand Central Terminal
Food Court Toilets
87 E 42nd Street
New York, NY USA

Where is it?

Head to the station's food court (which is a trip in itself, though if you follow the signs and try not to get swept up in the waves of people floating about, you'll make it without much trouble). Once there, look for the Zocalo food stand. The entrance to the bathrooms is down the hallway to the left of that stand.

What's it like?

As most people know, Grand Central Station is one of the largest and busiest train terminals in the U.S. It's a sprawling building filled with ornate architecture, towering arches and countless shops, eateries and stores tailored to the passing-through traveler.

The food court bathrooms, as you can imagine, are large, noisy and hectic -- some of the busiest I've experienced. And I imagine they're always like this, not just at select times (such as the dreadful toilets experienced on the Florida Turnpike at Ft. Drum and Port St. Lucie, which were busy during one visit and not so busy the next).

Of course, this being New York and Grand Central Station, a hub for public transportation (which normally doesn't offer much luxury in terms of bathrooms), you don't expect this place to be very friendly, clean or accommodating. That wasn't the case with the men's room. While it was certainly very busy, I found the place cleaner than I thought it would be and everything in working order.

This is a "P"-shaped facility (no pun intended), with the stem being the entrance corridor. When you walk in, you first see a row of urinals (about 4 of them) on the left wall. That's the base of the "P." The opposite wall has another set of urinals there.

In the center (around the loop of the letter, if you will) are two rows of sinks and mirrors, one facing the back wall and one facing the front wall, with a marble wall separating them. Across from each row of sinks are stretches of toilets. Marble dividers separate everything cleanly, and marble covers the floor as well.

The place is well lit. The sinks are made of stainless steel and in many ways look like a string of stock pots placed beside one another. The mirrors over them, one to each station, are oval in shape and well lit. Stainless steel doors serve as the toilet stall door, with the same marble dividers walling off each toilet area to ensure each visitor has some semblance of privacy.

As said, this place was pretty clean on this visit, a surprise considering how busy it was. (I had to fight through some crowds to get to the sink to wash my hands, and then I had to do the same when I wanted to leave.) Sure, I saw some mis-thrown trash, some spilled water and whatnot, but I really expected it to be a lot worse -- like what I experienced on the Florida Turnpike at Ft. Drum and Port St. Lucie.

Marks out of 10:

7. Busy and hectic, yes, but also surprisingly clean, bright and well-maintained.

Comments to the Management:

Outside of the hectic nature of the place, which I doubt can be fixed, given this is NYC and Grand Central, I'm not sure there is much I can offer in terms of help, since my experience was a good one here. Still, my companion (who used the ladies room) said it was horrendous in there, one of the most disgusting bathrooms ever visited and said she was literally jarred by the experience. (She refused to write about it, though.) However, without specifics I have little to recommend.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Beware the Mirrored Stairs at Ferrara Cafe

Ferrara Cafe
195 Grand Street
New York City, NY USA

Where is it?

From the street entrance, head all the way to the back of the place. Once there, you'll see a staircase going upward.

Go up those stairs (take care while doing so -- more on this later on) and turn left once you've ascended to the top. You'll find yourself in a small enclave, which will be dimly lit and filled with dark wood -- behind it is a mammoth dining room that looks like it handles special events only. The doors to the toilets will be right in front of you at that point.

What's it like?

This famous bakery, in New York's Little Italy neighborhood, bills itself as "America's first espresso bar -- since 1892." Those visiting get a sense of the history the minute they step inside.

The interior, a vast old-fashioned parlor area, is filled with brass fixtures, sparkling mirrors, glass lighting and plenty of friendly beiges and browns.

The centerpiece here is the large, elongated glass bakery counter on the left of the store (when you've got the entrance to your back). It's filled with hundreds of selections of sweets, each of which tempts you with its delicate appearance and flavorful aroma. If only I had more of an appetite when I came here....

Being an espresso bar, I can say that the brewed coffee is good here though the espresso drinks are much better -- some of the best you can get stateside without roasting your own beans, really. The atmosphere is busy, often tourist-filled, but friendly. Service is quick and professional. Not really a place to lolly with staff but certainly a great place to stop for a coffee and pastry while walking around the city.

The toilets, like those found at nearby Angelo's, showcase a modern design, even though the rest of the place feels very turn of the century-like in appearance. Here, you'll find white tiles with a black tile trim on the floor and walls, a rust-colored marble vanity counter and faux marble stall doors -- all of which make the interior look like a modest take on the toilets experienced at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. (Though, it should be said, that the toilets here aren't in that location's league.)

It's a clean place too, though while I was there the smell emitted from one visitor in the stalls was pretty strong. (That's more the result of that visitor, of course, though had I been in the Bellagio, that smell issue wouldn't have been a problem, would it?)

Because it's upstairs, too, you don't feel the hustle and bustle of the dining room much. And while the enclave outside is very dimly lit, the toilets themselves were bright and comfortable and welcoming.

Given that, the only issue I had with the place was with the staircase leading up to it. The lighting around the stairs, coupled with the many mirrors on the walls opposite it (so that this is the wall you're staring at when you head downward) make it difficult to descend, mostly because those reflections alter your perception some. It's also like this going up too, but the effect is not as bad, since you're walking into a darker environment from a brighter one; once those qualities reverse, the scenario becomes less predictable, especially as your eyes get drawn more to the lights and bright reflections around you.

As a result, you often experience vertigo while walking down those stairs to return to your seat -- which makes the descent somewhat dangerous. And I overheard several people complaining about this while there, so I can say my experience isn't an exception to the rule.

Marks out of 10:

7. Almost an 8, except for the perilous trip down those stairs after I completed my bathroom visit.

Comments to the Management:

The experience itself was good, and I appreciate the old-time feel to the place, but if possible there has to be a way to make that descent a little more easy-going. Perhaps dim the lighting more for the descent or cover up those mirrors so that the climb down is more linearly presented?

Friday 23 May 2008

Toilets at Historic Angelo's on Mulberry Street Beautifully Blend Old World Charm with New World Style

Angelo's of Mulberry Street
146 Mulberry Street
New York, NY 10013

Where is it?

From the front entrance, head to the back of the place. You'll pass through a narrow dining room along the way, as well as the entrance to the kitchen, which will be on your left.

About halfway down, you'll also notice a waiter station. Behind that, the restaurant opens up some to reveal it's back-of-store dining room. Just past the waiter station is a twisting staircase heading to to the basement. Take those stairs downward and you'll come to a small lobby, off of which are the bathrooms.

What's it like?

This establishment, located in the ever-shrinking neighborhood of Manhattan's Little Italy, has been serving high-end Italian and Italian-American cuisine for more than 100 years. The interior extends that sense of history, especially in its aged woodwork, hand-painted murals, dim lighting and friendly-yet-professional wait staff, many of which are from the Old Country.

The menu itself consists of dozens of well-prepared dishes, from fresh salads, breads and antipastos to pasta dishes to meats and desserts. Portions are enormous and a bit on the pricey side, but the quality of the food is so high and the ingredients so fresh that you feel like you're getting your money's worth.

I had a wonderful, flavor-packed pasta dish filled with big chunks of garlic, tomato and crab. My companion had a special of squid ink pasta with various cheeses in it. Both were otherworldly, as was the incredibly fresh Antipasto all' Italiana, assorted cold cuts and cheese that featured some of the freshest, creamiest fresh buffalo mozzarella I'd ever had in my life.

Given the Old World charms exuding from the dining room, you would expect the bathroom to be a throwback to the past, or at least a clever spin on the place's turn-of-the-century roots, a la Bennigan's or Macaroni Grill, if you will.

(And no, I'm not trying to imply that Angelo's and those chain restaurants have anything to do with one another, just that I was expecting the toilets to possibly have that kind of design.)

But, of course, they didn't. Though the dining room is very traditional, the toilets here are decidedly modern in design and very clean -- a surprise considering its age and NYC location. (You never know with this city, you know?) Granted, there were some cigarette buts in the urinal -- strange since NYC no longer allows smoking in places that serve food -- but otherwise the place was spotless and fresh smelling.

Sleek, gray, sandstone-inspired tile covers the walls, the grout line all but invisible, and light sandstone-colored tile covers the floor (in a way that isn't at all like the other red-brick-floored places we've visited), creating an almost futurist vibe in the place. The pedestal sink, toilet and urinals (two of them) are all white porcelain, but like at Sensi and Okada in Las Vegas, the sleek, futuristic-albeit-minimalistic wall design somehow makes the fixtures seem less plain, almost like pieces of art.

On the flip side, the toilets are a bit small for multi-person facilities. Not as small as what I experienced at the Petro Palace Hotel in St. Petersburg, Russia, mind you, or even Club Quarters Philadelphia and Marathon Grill in Philly (they were more the size of, say, Sharky's in St. Augustine), but they were somewhat small for multi-person facilities. I ended up sharing the space with a person on my first visit here (I made two in all) and it felt crammed with two people in there. I could see how this might make things uncomfortable if someone were there for a longer visit and another person came in.

Still, the cozy lobby just outside the toilets, featuring a well-worn padded bench and some homey artwork, makes for a good place to wait out any delays and give other attendees some privacy until it becomes your turn to go inside.

Marks out of 10:

8. Classy, sleek and small -- not what I expected in the least.

Comments to the Management:

It's a small space and you've done your best to cover it up. Just make sure the cigarette butts stay out of the urinals and you're golden.

Thursday 22 May 2008

Pizzoodles' Toilets Boast Very Low Ceilings and Locked Supply Cabinet

56 Royal Palm PT
Vero Beach, FL

Where is it?

This is a small eatery is in a cozy strip mall that's surrounded by a canal and a lagoon. Finding the toilet isn't hard.

From the front entrance, head to the back of the place. The dining room will surround you at first, and then an open pizza kitchen will be on your left; it takes up most of the back left corner of the dining room. To the right of the pizza kitchen is a small hallway leading to the other kitchen. Go that way and you'll find the door to the bathroom about ten feet down on your right.

What's it like?

This modest, homey pizza chain (there's another location in nearby Fort Pierce) is a throwback to the cozy pizza chains of the northeast, of which there are many in Florida but few that serve much in terms of quality food. This one breaks the mold on that, offering a friendly atmosphere and some great eats.

Also, the menu doesn't limit itself to pizzeria favorites, while those are available as well. The pasta dishes here (the name of the place is a co-joining of the words "pizza" and "noodles") are delicious and well-portioned. Try the delectable "anglott," plump raviolis stuffed with veal and ricotta, or sink your teeth into the pizzas, which include a bevy of upscale combinations as well as strong renditions of traditional favorites.

The bathrooms are cozy and comfortable as well, however the low ceiling makes them a bit tough for taller visitors. (I'm only 5'7" and even I felt a little oppressed by the ceiling here.)

The walls here are covered with white tile with a red trim -- a bit of a more simplistic look than what I've seen at similarly designed bathrooms (like at Big Boy Diner). The floors are covered in a dark, bluish tile -- quite a refreshing change from the standard black linoleum or dirty faux red-brick covering the floors of most places I visit.

The toilet doesn't have much in terms of decor -- just a fake ficus tree in the back corner. An ornately framed mirror hangs over the sink, with a black soap dispenser beside it. Fixtures are your standard white porcelain but are clean and in good working order. It's a very clean environment and odor-free -- an accomplishment considering the slight cave-like feel here. (Though it's not nearly as cave-like as, say, the Pulkovo International Airport toilet I visited in Russia.)

Strangely, the toilet (a one-bagger for both sexes) also seems to double as a supply closet. I found, behind the ficus, some high chairs stacked up, and the far back corner houses a six-foot-tall plastic deck closet, which was locked with a bicycle chain lock. (Quite a turnabout from, say, Country Ham 'n' Eggs, which seemed all too willing to show of the contents of its bathroom cabinet.) Why was it locked? I can't say. Perhaps that's where the safe it? Or where the secret recipe to the place's award-winning sauce is?

Of course, I should note that the ceiling is only a few inches higher than the top of that cabinet, so that gives you an idea of how low the ceiling is here. Just a smidgen over six feet, really.

Marks out of 10:

7. Cozy and curious, what with the locked cabinet and all. Still, the low ceiling.....

Marks out of 10:

I can't really ask you to increase the ceiling space, since that was given to you from the get go. Though you may want to add some more decoration here to make the place feel more lush -- in turn, making it seem more spacious as well. Also, if you can, consider moving your supplies and extra furniture elsewhere -- not sure if I'd want my kid sitting on a booster chair that has been near a guy who recently stunk up the toilet, if you know what I mean.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Polished Surface Can't Hide Grimy Undercurrents at Famous Phil's Toilets

Famous Phil's Cheesesteaks
7542 University Blvd.
Winter Park, FL USA

Where is it?

From the entrance, head to the back wall of the place, keeping the eatery's mammoth flat-top grill to your right. At the end, with the back wall in front of you, you'll see the fountain drink station and a hallway opening to the right of it (essentially in the middle of the back wall). Head down there to find the toilets -- passing several Philly-inspired posters along the way (like one of Rocky Balboa, etc.)

What's it like?

Orlando isn't exactly a haven for cheesesteak lovers -- and why should it be, given that it isn't Philadelphia. But when it comes to those greasy good and gooey sandwiches, few places in town do it better than Phil's. Not that people here have many other options, outside of Philly Connection (a competitor chain), various sub shops (who never quite get it right), Kappy's in Maitland (which has a great take on the cheesesteak but some horrific toilets) and the Fillin' Station (who makes a decent cheesesteak but makes a far superior hamburger), but Phil's is still one of your best options for satisfying a cheesesteak craving in O-Town.

Of course, having said that, the issue with Phil's is that its product is inconsistent. I've gone in and had wonderful sandwiches there, ones that rival the ones I've had in Philly, and I've gone in and had terrible sandwiches there (as well as a couple of so-so meals too). If they could keep it consistent, I'd be there more regularly, that's for sure.

Phil's itself looks like any other strip-mall fast food sandwich chain restaurant on the inside, with a narrow design that fits the elongated shape of the space and plenty of booths, as well as a couple of flat-screen TVs hanging on the walls. The catch here is that the decor consists primarily of Philadelphia-based items, like wallpaper showing certain landmarks and listing specific locations and pictures of various sites and stars from the region (like the aforementioned Rocky Balboa).

The toilet, at least upon first impression, is a roomy one-bagger that looks like another standard fast food joint bathroom (like Chick-Fil-A or Jack in the Box), only the color scheme here is a bit surreal, with tropical blue tile and bright green-painted drywall covering the walls and beige tile covering the floor.

As said, it's very spacious, but in a width-wise manner instead of a lengthy manner (as experienced recently at Golden Krust). When you walk in, you must go immediately right to head to the toilet and urinal (both white porcelain). The sink is at the opposite end of the room, and the the trash can and towel dispenser in the front corner. There are no wall decorations, just the tile and the fixtures.

It looks very clean upon first impression, however closer inspection reveals some well-built-up grime and wear and tear. Most noticeable are the many cracks in the grout here, especially behind the sink. Also, the toilets upon my visit were not flushed, and I had to dispose of the leavings in both the urinal and toilet before commencing with my visit. (Seeing that the place wasn't that busy, I assumed this was from the employees? Ick! Then again.... well, read on further for that.) Tile is chipped in places here and there, particularly in the corners and on the floor.

Also, the toilet paper holder, which accommodates two rolls at a time, was empty, and when coupled with the leavings found in the toilet, I wondered if the perp's actions were based in rudeness or were done because he was forced out because of necessity. Hmm....

Marks out of 10:

6. All in all, not bad, but could still use a good sprucing up.

Comments to the Management:

Need to re-grout the interior and fix the cracked tiles. Also, give the place a good scrubbing over. Finally, consider policing it a bit more regularly to ensure supplies are always available and it remains as clean as possible for future visitors.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Linens-N-Things Toilet Not Nearly as Plush as Stuffed Animal-Filled Hallway Leading to It

1728 West Sand Lake Road
Orlando, FL USA

Where is it?

Go to the far back right corner of the store. Once there, look for a hallway that emerges from a display covered with blankets, pillows and sheets. Enter there.

Once you do, you'll follow a wall covered with stuffed animals, each looking more plush and squishy than the one that came before it. The bathrooms are located across the hall from that display of furry cuteness.

What's it like?

On the surface, Linens-n-Things has much in common with its housewares store cousin Bed Bath and Beyond: Both sell high-end and trendy items for the home. Both fill their stores will elaborate and tempting displays. Both regularly send out 20% off coupons in the mail, which are good for the junkier items in the stores but not for anything you'd actually consider buying without impulse.

Which is better, I'm not sure. I used to think BBB, but then I lately I've been finding more to buy at LNT, and often at a slightly better price. Perhaps I will say this: BBB certainly feels more upscale, and I've had better success with their customer service, but LNT isn't far behind.

As for who's got the better bathroom: LNT wins, hands down. BBB's toilets, for those who remember, came filled with lame product placements (allowing people to try their over-priced items in a live setting -- which of course should that the items worked poorly and were over-priced) and was also smelly and dirty. LNT's toilets are much cleaner and roomier, and the store designers definitely put a little more imagination into setting them up, as seen by the wall of stuff animals built just outside the facilities. In fact, it looks modeled after the toilets I found at Big Boy Diner and the lobby toilets at Sleuth's Mystery Dinner Theater than anything else. And seeing that those rate pretty highly on our scale, that's no diminishing comment!

But that doesn't mean these are high-end bathrooms either. Yes, they are somewhat clean (and way above the quality experienced at BBB), but I still found a good deal of trash on the floor here, especially inside the stalls. Also, the beige tile work here and the fixtures (white porcelain, of course, with one toilet stall and one urinal available to visitors) are slightly worn down in spots and could use a good scrubbing and some refinishing. The sink proved particularly problematic, as one of the faucets was aligned straight and the other curved off in a different direction; naturally, the latter was the one that worked properly.

Also worth noting is that the stalls themselves feature some of the widest gaps I've ever seen: You can easily look out into the rest of the bathroom while you're sitting on the toilet here, and that means anyone on the outside can look in on you without problem. Not exactly something I enjoy when I'm in a public restroom, mind you.

Also on the poor side is the bathroom's choice of hand soap: It was clammy and medicinal smelling and dried my hands out pretty well. Not as bad as the SANIS soap I've experienced at Hurricane Wings and Golden Krust, but still not very good.

Of course, having said that, I should emphasize that this isn't a bad place to make a pit stop. It's clean enough and quiet enough and removed enough from the rest of the store to provide some sanctuary. And unlike BBB, it doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. I have to recommend it for that.

Marks out of 10:

6. Much better than BBB, but not perfect.

Comments to the Management:

I like the simplicity here and the fact that it isn't overrun with product placements -- like at BBB. But it still needs a bit of scrubbing to feel cleaner and you need to fix the sink and make those stall gaps smaller.

Monday 19 May 2008

Hale! Hale! The Bathroom's Hard to Find Here!

Hale Groves: Wabasso
9250 US Highway 1
Wabasso, FL USA

Where is it?

Tricky to find, even asking for directions from the staff.

This warehouse store features three distinct sections to it: an organic grocery featuring plenty of fresh veggies and fruits, as well as specialty foods (unique jars of sauces and dressings, regional candies, etc.); a retail warehouse area housing locally grown citrus and other veggies; and a behind-the-scenes storage area where all the items are stored and organized before hitting the sales floor.

To find the bathroom, you must go into the organic grocery and specialty foods area, which, when facing the building, is the section furthest to your left. Once inside, head to the wall that is furthest left and find the cashier set along the back wall there. Notice that there is a door behind that cashier station. The bathrooms are behind there -- but not directly.

First, to go to the toilet, ask the cashier if you can use the toilet. They will open that door for you (otherwise it's locked and you won't be able to get in) and tell you to head beyond the storage area and employee break room there until you find the toilets.

Of course, you'd think it's be easy to find the toilets from that point, but it isn't. The storage area and break room, while separated by a wall, house several doorways, and of course none of them house the toilets, which makes finding the bathroom eventually become a futile toilet-inspired take on "The Lady or the Tiger?"

Still, pass through the break room, heading to the back wall. Along the way, you'll pass a manager's offer and a storage closet or two, along with several openings to the main storage area and it's abundance of foods.

Once you're at the far back wall, turn left down a hallway opening. The bathrooms are there, on your right.

What's it like?

Hale Groves is one of Florida's top grapefruit pickers, and their fruit is usually very juicy and sweet (when people say they like Indian River grapefruit, they usually mean grapefruit from Hale Groves), and if purchased from their warehouse, you tend to get great fruit at bargain prices (especially if taken from the U-Pick bins out front). So do visit for their fruit.

But not for their toilets. The bathrooms aren't -- shall we say -- hot spots for freshness. This is a bland-looking facility that looks like it would belong better in a mobile home office. It's functional, yes, but outside of that it offers little for you to remember except a foul smell.

The drywall walls are white and without character, and they do little to block out the sound around you. If people are working in the storage area, or are relaxing in the break room, you hear them. Similarly, because of the bland, basic design, you never once forget once while in here that you're in a temporary structure. Granted, it's a roomy place, with plenty of chances to stretch your legs, even roomier than the toilets at Golden Krust, though they are not as clean and well put together as those.

The toilet is in the far back corner of the place, and the sink, mirror and towel dispensers are in the middle of it, fixed to the back wall. The toilet and sink are white porcelain, and while the toilet was generally clean (not spotless though) and in working order, the sink had an issue with water flow, in that when you turned on the water a majority of the water came straight down out of the faucet but a bit of it also sprayed violently to the left, which in turn got you spritzed a little.

Also, as mentioned earlier, the place smelled a bit off, part of it due to the lingering odors of a recent visitor and part of it due to the fact that Hale sells agriculture and it requires special sprays to keep its stock free of insects and vermin. While not as ever-present as what I detected at the Little Pee Dee State Farmer's Market or Polk's Fresh Market, it was still pretty noticeable.

On the plus side: The place provides a few air freshener sprays for use, the easiest to spot being the one atop the paper towel dispenser. Though, having said that, the spray didn't really do much to actually "freshen" the air around me; instead it only lessened the power of the stink.

Still, it's better than nothing. I've recently visited worse places in ritzier locales that smelled worse and offered no defenses to visitors (including the supposedly uppity stores of the Total Wine retail chain).

Also worth noting: The place has a hand sanitizer dispenser fixed to the side of the door, which made for a nice addition before exiting. Really, the best use of hand sanitizer I've seen at a public restroom since I visited Bryce Canyon in Utah. (Naturally, the worst use of hand sanitizer I've experienced happened at Uncle Bubba's Oyster House in Savannah, which offered sanitizer instead of soap -- not the best choice considering the large amounts of peel-n-eat shrimp served there. Ick.)

Marks out of 10:

5. Nothing special and quite a trek to get to.

Comments to the Management:

I have an idea few customers actually use this place, since the store itself has a strong roadside attraction feel to it. But that doesn't mean you can skimp on comfort. Some kitschy wall decorations (Florida Cracker stuff, for example) would be great here. Also, how about using a Glade Plug-In-styled air freshener that pumped in citrus smells? And how about fixing that sink?