Here I am, at the crossroads of the world, and not another soul in sight. Well, there are a few people around. But still, walking in Times Square on a breezy Friday evening, as the thundering herds rumble along nearby sidewalks, clutching their cameras and theater tickets, I've found the closest thing to pedestrian nirvana. I am, in fact, on my way to the theater myself, moving at a pleasant clip.
Let me explain about the Short Cut. Running parallel to New York's Broadway from West 44th Street to West 49th, this is a bypass around what feels like the most crowded stretch of real estate on Earth. Snaking through alleys, tunnels and hotel lobbies, it is the insider's way to travel. In the heat of battle -- during the mad rush to make a curtain, say -- it saves precious minutes and a lot of wear and tear on the psyche.
The Short Cut is one of the secret handshakes of Broadway, a tidbit you pick up after years of combing the nooks and crannies of Times Square, the spiritual and commercial homeland of the American stage. As a native New Yorker -- and now frequent visitor -- who has been going to these theaters since I was 5 and writing about them professionally for a decade, I've learned a few things about negotiating the "Square." Technically, that refers to the sliver of concrete that sits under One Times Square, the building that once housed the New York Times and atop which that big ball drops every New Year's Eve. But it has become synonymous with a wider area, the Broadway Theater District, which is bounded by West 41st to the south, West 52nd to the north, Sixth Avenue to the east and Eighth Avenue to the west.
Within that area are 38 theaters, ranging from the 597-seat Helen Hayes to the 1,933-seat Gershwin, that are considered Broadway houses (the only theaters, for instance, that qualify for the Tony Awards, with two exceptions just outside the district: Studio 54 on West 54th and the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center). Within the district, too, is one of the country's brassiest playgrounds, the rehabilitated 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. The block is teeming neon overkill, but it is also, gratifyingly, the site of three renovated theaters that have been added to Broadway's roster in recent years: the New Amsterdam (home to "The Lion King"), the American Airlines and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
On weekday evenings and matinee afternoons, the area is so choked with people it could induce a phobia in the hardiest constitution. It's not, consequently, the best time to get a real feel for the area. Still, if it's the only time you have, and your interest in theater goes deeper than keeping your 4-year-old from jumping into the lap of the terrified lady next to you at "Beauty and the Beast," you owe it to yourself to get on slightly more intimate terms with the neighborhood.
A simple first step is to find the right place for a bite or a sip. And if your goal is to soak up the flavor of Broadway, maybe even eavesdrop on an actress as she downs her second cosmo, Times Square offers all kinds of options.
At lunch, for instance, you are likely to bump into a table of actors you recognize at Cafe Edison, a coffee shop in the dowdy old Hotel Edison (228 W. 47th St.). To the theater world, it's known as the Polish Tea Room, an affectionate putdown of a nickname derived from the pricier Russian Tea Room that once drew Broadway's well-heeled and is now closed.
Cafe Edison is such a beloved institution that Neil Simon immortalized it in his play "45 Seconds From Broadway." Immortal may be pushing it: The title describes just about how long the play lasted on Broadway. Try to flag a crazed waiter -- he seems to be doing everything except actually taking your order and bringing your food -- and ask for one of the homemade soups (the matzo ball is nonpareil). Also, try to snare a table up front, by the dingy, roped-off alcove. This is, I kid you not, the VIP section, reserved for producers and other self-designated big machers.
A block south and a bit more upscale are two theater eateries (theateries?): Orso and Joe Allen, next door to each other on 46th between Eighth and Ninth avenues (Nos. 322 and 326, respectively). Orso is the tonier possibility; it's favored by an older crowd of talent agents and advertising people, but Arthur Miller once rushed past my table as well. The plainer Joe Allen is the Old Ebbitt Grill of the New York theater scene, filling with playgoers in the high-volume pre-theater hours of 6 to 8 p.m. (book days in advance if you want a weekend table); the bar attracts an endless chorus line of actor types after 11 p.m., when the curtains have come down. Orso's menu is classy Italian; Joe Allen's runs to comfort foods like meatloaf and banana cream pie. The walls of Joe Allen -- plastered with framed posters of Broadway flops -- are more delicious than some of the entrees. I'm not sure if "45 Seconds From Broadway" has earned a spot.
The Theater District has never exactly been a must for Michelin guide critics, but over the past decade, dining options have expanded hugely. Among the best: Osteria al Doge, serving rustic Italian, on 44th between Sixth and Seventh; seafood-conscious Blue Fin, on the corner of Broadway and 47th; the Mediterranean Marseille, down on 45th and Ninth, and the adventurous Italian Esca on 43rd and Ninth. (Dinner for one, with a glass of wine, is in the $35-$50 range at each.)