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Upper West Side Story

In NYC, Boutiques, Bars and the World's Largest Cathedral

By Nicole Cotroneo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page P01

In downtown Manhattan, honking taxis slalom through traffic and swells of people plunge into the streets when the coast is clear. But on the Upper West Side, it's the baby strollers you have to watch out for.

They're all over, like shopping carts in a supermarket -- pushed by nannies in the daytime and parents in the evening, going north and south on Columbus, Amsterdam and Broadway and passing in between. Clearly, this is a family-friendly neighborhood, but what's extraordinary is that in the fastest city in the world there's a place where people -- whole families, even -- actually stroll.

The massive Time Warner Center, at Columbus Circle and Central Park South, now anchors New York's Upper West Side. (Kirk Condyles For The Washington Post)

The Upper West Side is densely populated, yet it seems quieter here. Brownstones face tree-lined streets, and even Broadway's surge is softened by a leafy median. Civic-minded residents have prevented their streets from becoming a blitzkrieg of blinking, flashing, mammoth advertisements for such cultural phenomenons as Christina Aguilera and french fries. Instead, eyes feast on soaring architecture like the fortress walls of the Dakota apartments at 72nd Street and Central Park West, where John Lennon was murdered, and the Gothic grandeur of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

While Central Park West is a star-packed Zip code -- Madonna, Michael J. Fox and Faye Dunaway have all hung hats here -- the Upper West Side is not the place to just see or be seen. It's a refuge in the city from the city. The area generally is defined as extending from Columbus Circle (59th Street) to 110th Street and beyond.

Visitors rarely come to Manhattan for the Upper West Side, but it would be wrong to leave without having visited this neighborhood of artists, intellectuals, up-and-comers and Seinfeld wannabes. And contrary to what the guidebooks tell you, there's more to discover than the fossil halls of the American Museum of Natural History and the medieval tapestries at the Cloisters.

Struggling to Stay Offbeat

One way to go is to seek out the haunts of some of your favorite characters of the big and small screen. The King of Nothing, Jerry Seinfeld, and his crew hung out all over the Upper West Side and practically lived at Tom's Restaurant at 112th and Broadway. You can also trace Meg Ryan's footsteps in "You've Got Mail," in which she plays the owner of a small independent bookshop forced out by the arrival of a mega-bookstore. Ryan's character breaks up with her boyfriend at Louie's Westside Cafe -- a garden party of a place with an abundance of plants, windows and light at 81st and Amsterdam -- and waits for a blind date (Tom Hanks, who happens to be the owner of the mega-bookstore) at the European-style Cafe Lalo on 83rd Street, a romantic, if pricey, spot to enjoy an evening cappuccino.

The plight of Meg Ryan's character is one familiar to the Upper West Side. The bohemian neighborhood was once peppered with quirky mom-and-pop shops. Now, only a comparative few remain struggling to maintain the neighborhood's offbeat flavor against the incoming tide of name-brand commercialism. Westsider Rare & Used Books is one, standing right across the street from Barnes and Noble on Broadway. It is perhaps one-sixteenth the size of its stalking giant, and though Westsider has been a bookstore for two decades, it looks as if it's been here for two centuries. A faux black raven guards the floor-to-ceiling shelves in this narrow, dusty bilevel shop, where you can find a copy of "Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre" near an original copy of the "Star Wars" soundtrack on vinyl record, still wrapped in plastic with the bonus picture book.

About 10 blocks north is Murder Ink, which claims to be the first bookstore in the world devoted to crime fiction. This savvy shop has had to modify its focus to survive against Amazon.com. "We used to sell a ton of mysteries in our catalogue, but now we specialize in signed first editions and out-of print paperbacks," says manager and buyer Tom Cushman, a nervous and witty man, who is constantly interrupted by customers and phone calls.

As co-owner of the adjoining Ivy's Books and Curiosities with Murder Ink's owner Jay Pearsall, Cushman prefers to go by the title of "the lesser fool." He has watched his neighbors close their shops as rent on Broadway skyrocketed. "The Upper West Side used to be chockablock with independent bookshops," Cushman says from atop the ladder he is using to shelve books. "They're all gone."

The View From Time Warner

Antiques dealers used to be a dime a dozen, too, but now they have to be sought out. The ones that remain harbor dazzling finds, such as Venetian glass chandeliers at More and More Antiques on Amsterdam and mid-century furniture at Koch McErlain on 84th Street. Koch McErlain is one of the last estate houses in New York, and its pieces are frequently purchased by movie production companies. "That was bought for the new Denzel Washington movie they're shooting up in Harlem," co-owner John Koch says, pointing to a large walnut-framed mirror with a "sold" sticker.

A daunting sign of the times has risen at Columbus Circle, the southern gateway to the Upper West Side: the newly constructed Time Warner Center, a glass-sheathed monument to 21st-century one-stop shopping, appropriately staked across from Merchant's Gate at the southwest corner of Central Park. Within 80 stories and two towers are more than 40 renowned retail shops; several expensive destination restaurants; the lavish Mandarin Oriental hotel and spa; CNN studios; performance halls for Jazz at Lincoln Center; luxurious condominiums; and a subterranean Whole Foods Market.

It's not a mall, insists Kenneth A. Himmel, president and chief executive of Related Urban Development, one of the center's investors and a leading figure in mixed-use construction. "The word 'mall' takes on the feeling of a very large, very antiseptic, almost tomblike experience," he says. "It is the most anti-urban experience. . . . I've never done a mall."

Some residents and visitors beg to differ, though. "Manhattan has become one big mall," sighs David Lenin, a SoHo resident on his first visit to the center. His wife, Jana, surveys the marble floors in the first-floor galleria and the second-largest Williams-Sonoma in the country and adds, "This feels very touristy to me." In fact few people have come to the center to actually shop on this particular day. Many have come just to check it out, or to take in the sweeping views of Central Park's treetop hills and the carriage ponies queuing along the 59th Street corridor stretching all the way to the East River, which can be seen through the building's glass facade from second-floor lounge chairs.

But Allan Pollack sees something positive through his purple-tinted sunglasses. A shock of teased blond hair, he stands in the doorway of his flamboyant retro fashion shop, Allan & Suzi, on Amsterdam Avenue, and says, "The Upper West Side is becoming the new downtown. The mall is bringing people here. My business has been great -- more than ever."

Pollack's shop is one of several vintage and couture fashion boutiques that draw hipsters to his neck of the urban woods. A closet of clutter, Allan & Suzi brims with feather boas, go-go boots, "space-age" mini-dresses and vintage Emilio Pucci -- bold fashion that has attracted the boldest stars, including Madonna and Robin Williams.

They'll Drink to That

Ironically, it was the arrival of high-end real estate in other parts of the city that gave the Upper West Side a lift in the '90s. Solid merchants relocated to the neighborhood, where rent was more reasonable, and the area's crumbling face underwent rejuvenation. That's how Jimmy Goldsmith remembers it, anyway. He grew up on West 86th Street -- about three blocks from his new diner, Homer's World Famous Malt Shop on Amsterdam -- when the neighborhood was one "you'd want to run through," he recalls. Goldsmith moved out of the area but returned to raise his family, happy to see the dangerous streets of his childhood transformed.

It's 11 p.m. and Goldsmith comes through Homer's screen door with a clap. He tosses a bag of candy corn to one of the girls behind the counter and her eyes light up. For many of Goldsmith's teenage employees, pouring milkshakes at Homer's is their first job, and he takes care of them.

Homer's and many of the late-night spots along Amsterdam Avenue are extensions of people's living rooms. One evening during the 2004 presidential campaign, Goldsmith received several calls from people wanting to know if he'd be showing the presidential debate on his plasma screen. He did -- whatever his customers wanted.

A good televised political fight is an event to drink to in this neighborhood. Charged and jittery, like Super Bowl fans, the feisty literati who reside here pack into the no-frills Raccoon Lodge at 83rd and Amsterdam to experience the highs and lows together, elbow to elbow. They live in the dark corners of the Upper West Side's watering holes, usually swaying to the sounds of live jazz. Politically and socially aware students move in the shadows of Columbia University's neoclassic halls, perched on the hilltop of Morningside Heights. They flash their plumes in casual debates over coffee and linzer tortes at the Hungarian Pastry Shop at 1030 Amsterdam, across from the steps of St. John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world.

Inside St. John's endless nave, there are more tokens to humanism than to Episcopal theology. Its 14 bays are not dedicated to saints but to worldly things including sports, art, law and education. The altar is decorated with painted enamel vases from Japanese Emperor Hirohito, gilded chests from the King of Siam and two 12-foot menorahs.

While St. John's is impressive in its enormity and interesting with its artifacts, the interdenominational Protestant cathedral, Riverside Church, is arguably more elegant. The Gothic church was built by John D. Rockefeller in the 1930s when he was denied a seat on St. John's board because he was not an Episcopalian. Situated at 122nd Street on Riverside Drive, it borders Harlem to the north and east and, to the west, Riverside Park -- a four-mile ribbon of green, running the entire length of the Upper West Side shore.

Shopping in the Sunlight

Dotted with monuments and gardens, Riverside Park is a perfect place to stroll when the sidewalks get too crowded. During the warmer months there are festivals around the 79th Street Boat Basin, and residents know to duck beneath the Henry Hudson Parkway for a bite to eat at the Boat Basin Cafe, a seasonal outdoor restaurant within a tiled arcade. This decidedly un-Manhattan eatery serves food in baskets to be eaten with plastic utensils as pigeons dip through the archways.

But even in the winter months, you can find enticing food outdoors year-round. On Thursdays and Fridays, farmers throughout the state sell their produce in an open-air market in Tucker Square, a cobblestone wedge near Lincoln Center at 66th Street and Columbus, as part of the city's Greenmarket program to promote regional agriculture. These organic foods make for the perfect hotel-room picnic: "drippy sweet nectarines" and "super-duper crunchy empire" apples -- as their cardboard signs advertise; buckets of fragrant basil; and "anything you can think of turkey" from Ben Thompson of DiPaola Turkey Farm in New Jersey.

"At Thanksgiving there's a line around the corner," he says, opening a cooler to show a customer what's left. Only a few links of turkey sausage sit at the bottom.

Meanwhile there's a feeding frenzy at the Bobolink Dairy and Bakeyard tent, because cheesemaker Nina White is giving free samples of a pungent baudolino made from milk produced by cows that feed only on grass and hay. "We do something revolutionary," White says. "We let our cows out."

She is the picture of a country woman in her forties -- little white apron over a floral skirt with delicate pink rosebuds, brown ankle boots and strawberry curls pulled into a bun -- but she used to be a dancer. When an elegant, elderly woman steps up to the table, they converse in French.

"She had a sample on her way to the movies," White explains, as she slices a sticky wedge off the hunk of cheese. "Now she's buying some on her way home." Perhaps the French woman hasn't heard about the Whole Foods Market a few blocks south at Columbus Circle. Or maybe she just prefers to do her shopping in the sunlight.

For Details on New York's Upper West Side, see Page P11.

Nicole Cotroneo last wrote for Travel about Cuban food in South Florida.

Details: New York's Upper West Side

GETTING THERE: Many airlines offer service from the D.C. area to Newark, LaGuardia and JFK, starting at about $120 round trip, with restrictions. Train tickets from D.C.'s Union Station to Manhattan's Penn Station start at $76 one-way for regional trains ($147 for Acela) and take between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours.

Several bus companies travel the D.C.-NYC corridor for $20 one way/$35 round-trip, including Vamoose (877-393-2828, www.vamoosebus.com) or Washington Deluxe (866-287-6932, www.washny.com); information on other coaches is available at www.ivymedia.com. Greyhound has a matching Internet-only fare (800-231-2222, www.greyhound.com.). If you want to drive, it's about 4 1/2 hours from the Beltway.

WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel Beacon (2130 Broadway, 212-787-1100, www.beaconhotel.com), comfortable and modest, is a bargain by New York standards. Perks include a fully equipped kitchenette in every room. Special room rates until the end of January are $155 plus tax for a standard room, $205 per night for a suite. After that, standard rooms start at $180 and suites at $205.

The Excelsior (45 W. 81st St., 212-362-9200, www.1excelsior.com) is a more sophisticated option near the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. Rooms are decorated in floral and leafy patterns, and the hotel boasts a stately library and a well-equipped fitness room. Winter rates range between $159 and $179 for a standard room, between $229 and $249 for a suite.

The Mandarin Oriental, New York (80 Columbus Cir. at 60th Street, 212-805-8800, www.mandarinoriental.com) is a tempting and extravagant splurge. The lobby and restaurant, Asiate, offer top-notch views of Central Park. Guest rooms are available with Hudson River or park vistas. Most feature Asian-accented decor, flat-screen televisions over soaking tubs, seamless glass showers and binoculars to take full advantage of the views. Swim in the 75-foot lap pool or get a treatment at the spa. Standard room rates are about $625 per night; rooms with the best views range from $700 to $12,595 for the presidential suite.

WHERE TO EAT: It is nearly impossible to pass by Popcorn, Indiana (2170 Broadway) without the aroma of air-popped kernels luring you in for a paper bag of lightly salted "Drive-In Movie Natural" popcorn or the ultra- decadent "Chocolate Chunk N' Caramel." A six-cup bag of fresh popcorn ranges from $3 (plain) to $4.50 (chocolate caramel).

Amsterdam Avenue offers a veritable menu of the world's cuisine, but Monsoon (435 Amsterdam Ave.) is a sure bet. Decorated with tasteful Indochinese accents, the Vietnamese restaurant offers an extensive, moderately priced menu with comprehensive descriptions supplemented by a helpful waitstaff. For an introduction to taste and texture, try the assorted appetizer platter with grilled lemon grass chicken, sugar cane shrimp, beef satay and more. Entrees range from $8.95 to $18.95.

For old-fashioned soda fountain fare, stop by Homer's World Famous Malt Shop (487 Amsterdam Ave.). Open late for midnight munching, Homer's offers comfort food such as sweet potato fries and deep-fried Twinkies, and video arcade games for round-the-clock amusement.

Ruby Foo's (2182 Broadway) offers imaginative Pan-Asian cuisine in a cavernous space that is -- like most things New York -- over the top, with a sweeping staircase and ostentatious Eastern decor. The dim sum is a favorite; try the Ruby Foo cocktail, the plum sake version of a Cosmopolitan. Main plates run from $10.50 to $24.95.

If you are a foodie with a fat wallet, reserve a table (or dare to try) at a restaurant in the Time Warner Center (Columbus Circle). Renowned chefs include Thomas Keller ( Per Se), Masa Takayama ( Masa and the more affordable Bar Masa) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten ( V Steakhouse).

WHAT TO DO: City lights may make Manhattan nights too bright to see stars, but the Hayden Planetarium (inside the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, 212-769-5100) brings the Milky Way to you. Combined passes to the American Museum of Natural History, the Rose Center and a planetarium show are $22.

Jazz, opera, ballet, film, theater -- there's always something on at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (Broadway between 62nd and 65th streets, 212-875-5456, www.lincolncenter.org). For more information about Jazz at Lincoln Center at the Time Warner Center: www.jazzatlincolncenter.com.

For some nontraditional exercise in this vertical city, find the Harmony Atrium (61 W. 62nd St.), where you can scale the city's largest climbing wall. Staff members from ExtraVertical (212-586-5718, www.ExtraVertical.com) assist novices young and old.

Jerry Seinfeld has been known to stop in at Stand-Up New York, (236 W. 78th St., 212-595-0850, www.standupny.com), a comedy club that has featured talent ranging from television stars to the Next Big Thing. Tickets range from $10 to $15.

An Art Deco landmark, the ornate Beacon Theatre (2124 Broadway, 212-496-7070) hosts performers from heavy metal rockers to gospel choirs. Tickets usually range from $25 to $100, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a bad seat in the house.

INFORMATION: NYC & Company, 212-484-1200, www.nycvisit.com.

-- Nicole Cotroneo

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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