The words “perfect” and “Madison Square Garden” are pretty counterintuitive. Undoubtedly, all New Yorkers have found themselves in the area with time to kill before a concert, sporting event, or a train to Philly—and discovered only fast-casual chains and grimy Irish bars. That’s where we come in.
My family and I frequent MSG to watch Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, and company attempt to win a few Knicks games during the season. I’m a bundle of smiles and cheers once I’m inside, but anger and anxiety take over while navigating through the touristy Herald Square crowds. That’s why I’ve put together a pre- and postgame plan so perfect you’ll almost forget you were knocked in the face with an orange foam finger on your way into the famed complex.
Step 1: Chow Down at Cho Dang Gol
When people head to Koreatown, they blindly line up at the popular barbecue joints like Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong and Jongro BBQ. It’s more fun, though, to explore other aspects of Korean cuisine while you’re in the neighborhood.
The atmosphere inside Cho Dang Gol reflects nothing of the boisterous crowds outside its doors. The tables on the right side are set snugly next to the exposed wood planks, creating an intimate dinner setting. Bits of tradition are strung throughout the restaurant: Twinkle lights in the shape of cherry blossoms, lanterns, and woven baskets adorn the walls.
It takes a moment to digest the menu’s large array of well-known options, as well as unfamiliar dishes like tkeokbokki, jeongol, and galbi jjim. While you narrow down your choices, the waiter brings small banchan snacks—kimchi, fried anchovies, sesame string beans, and kombucha sweet potato—plus its locally famous house-made tofu.
I like to order the seafood and scallion pancake to start. The pieces of shrimp, squid, and scallop are large and held together by a light and airy batter sprinkled with thick-cut green onions. Dip the pancakes with gusto in the tangy sesame sauce.
The octopus and bulgogi dish comes out next on a sizzling hot plate. Vegetables like slow-cooked onions and string beans are mixed in with a thick, sweet ssamgang sauce. Both the octopus and beef are cooked to perfection, and the chewy rice cakes subdue the sweet and spicy sauce deliciously.
Finally, plunge into the kimchi and tofu hot pot, a bubbling stew that becomes more rich as it simmers down: The broth is then more pungent, soaking up the flavors of the kimchi, and the vegetables and tofu soften.
Step 2: Take in MSG’s History, Architecture, and (Of Course) Craft Beers
Game time. As you’re being corralled into the arena, remember to look around. Madison Square Garden is an incredibly historic building, home to “The Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, Marilyn Monroe’s seductive birthday serenade to President John F. Kennedy in 1962, and a visit from Pope Francis in 2015. Although the new structure may not hold a candle to the original Beaux Arts Stanford White building, it still has some architectural merit: It was the first building to be constructed above the platforms of an active railroad station. With Penn Station now hoping to expand, MSG as we know it may be demolished and moved elsewhere—so take a mental screenshot while you still can!
Dining and drinking isn’t as limited as you would imagine inside the stadium. If time didn’t allow for the Korean feast at Cho Dang Gol, head to David Chang’s Fuku kiosk, outside section 119 on the main concourse, for a habañero-seasoned fried chicken thigh with butter pickles on a potato roll. Wash it down with a 19-33 pilsner from SingleCut Breweries, poured at one of MSG’s many craft beer bars.
Step 3: Sip Cocktails Good Enough for EMP at the Nomad Bar
After a rowdy time at the game, get immediately swept back into a more elegant New York. The Nomad Bar executes a perfect balance between neighborhood tavern and upscale cocktail bar, with a menu by chef Daniel Humm, who also helms the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park. The space is warm and welcoming, boasting dark red and green hues, tiled floors, and plush banquet seating. The bottles are framed in an almost altar-like space, with light cascading down onto the mosaic of alcohol-driven abundance. Two golden chickens—a nod to the Nomad’s famous Chicken for Two dish—lay on both sides this awe-inspiring selection.
Snag a booth across from the bar if you’re with a group, or head upstairs for an intimate date overlooking the action. If you are only ordering one thing (though we recommend trying more!), the classic burger is the way to go. It’s on the smaller side compared to some of the city’s jumbo-size burgers, but the decadent flavors of the dry-aged beef, Cheddar, red onion, and a sweet and savory “special sauce” more than make up for its size.
On to drinks! Bar director Leo Robitschek’s unwavering focus on ingredients is what really makes his cocktails stand out. His program ranges from twists on classics to expertly curated bottles of beer. Warning: These drinks are expensive. But think of it as buying a small taste of the genius behind EMP. I gravitate straight toward the Start Me Up, a soul-warming take on the classic old-fashioned (bourbon and orange bitters) with light hints of the tropics (ginger, lemon, and the herbaceous Liquore Strega).
Who knew a night around Madison Square Garden could be so swanky?