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New York 2005

Icons: Meals With a Side of Legend

Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page P09

Manhattan wouldn't be The City without such landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, Broadway, Central Park and . . . the corned beef on rye masterpiece at Carnegie Deli. But how do N.Y.'s legendary dining haunts stack up? We revisited a few of the icons for a reality check.

Carnegie Deli. If New York City were a restaurant, it would be the Carnegie Deli: big, fast, no-nonsense and utterly over the top. Walk in and you're hit by the powerful smell of salty corned beef and sour pickles. Before you sit down, you'll stare in awe at the foot-high cheesecakes topped with glistening cherries that swirl in the glass cases. Grab a table and you'll instantly be surrounded by celebrities -- movie critic Gene Siskel and actresses Helen Hunt and Shirley MacLaine -- and those are just the autographed photos on one wall. They say the burgers are good, but you'd be crazy not to try the chicken soup with softball-size matzoh balls ($6.75), the famed cheese blintzes ($12.95) or a deli sandwich -- enough hot pastrami, brisket or corned beef for two if not three healthy appetites ($12.95). There's a $3 sharing charge, but it's worth it.

The Bar Room at the classic 21 Club provides some good cheer, and helps you forget the high prices. (Orient-Express Hotels)

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854 Seventh Ave. at 55th Street, 800-334-5606, www.carnegiedeli.com. Entrees $10.95-$22.95. Cash only.

Papaya King. No reservations needed at this standing-room-only hot dog joint; just queue up for "An Original Special 2 Frankfurters with Kraut, Onions or Relish, and a 16 oz. Tropical Drink -- $3.99" and wolf it down. Its exterior is bright yellow, orange and green, and the signs behind the servers claim that the frankfurters taste better than filet mignon. The quote-adorned cups have no less an authority than Christopher Columbus touting the benefits of papaya juice. We don't know what filet mignon tasted like in 1932, when the King was built, and old Chris, like us, may have preferred the virgin pina colada, but we do know that Papaya King's terrific franks -- topped with everything from "zesty chili" to "New York onions" -- have more than stood the test of time.

179 E. 86th St. at Third Avenue, 212-369-0648, www.papayaking.com. Also at 121 W. 125th St. between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell and (slated to open next week) 14th Street and Seventh Avenue. Hot dogs $1.65.

Sardi's. Our night at Sardi's didn't start well -- no one was around to take our coats, and a few way-too-casual diners in jeans and T-shirts didn't add to the allure. But the red leather banquettes at this venerable Theater District hangout beckoned, and we amused ourselves picking out Broadway stars from the famous caricature-covered walls (we sat beneath Jerry Lewis and Audra McDonald -- talk about your odd couple). If you hate crowds, go after 8 p.m., when the theater-goers have departed; at 9:15, just nine tables were occupied, out of about 60. The underutilized waiters were attentive and friendly. The $45 prix-fixe dinner menu includes a choice of appetizer (such as smoked salmon or Caesar salad), entree (rib-eye steak, chicken breast scaloppini, grilled pork chop) and dessert (New York cheesecake, vanilla profiteroles). We opted for the jumbo lump crab cakes with chipotle chile remoulade and roasted sweet corn ($27), which were excellent, if pricey -- but then, someone's got to pay for all those caricatures.

234 W. 44th St. between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-221-8440, www.sardis.com. Entrees $12.50-$34.

Tavern on the Green. This legendary Central Park perch, packed with tourists, anniversary celebrants and birthday boys and girls, has a lovely setting overlooking the park, with an opulent, multi-chandeliered main dining room and a vast outdoor garden (open May to October). The place is dripping with crystal, stained glass, mirrors, lattice work and spring flowers in pink profusion -- it's like eating dinner in a giant Faberge egg. Balloon bouquets and cameras abound. To get to the main dining room, you wend your way past a gift shop packed with commemorative ball caps, sweatshirts, teddy bears and other schlockery. All in all, not the romantic wooded hideaway you might have wished for.

The food seems almost secondary. Our cedar-planked salmon with horseradish crust was flaky and tender, and arrived with potato crisps, buttery spinach and cilantro-lime aioli ($24); a seasonal fruit salad was prettily arranged. There's also plenty for the unadventurous to choose from, all rather expensive: fish and chips, $21; spaghetti Bolognese, $21; roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, $23. Annoyingly, the bill specifies how much tip to leave (5 percent for the captain, 15 percent for the waiter), the restaurant seemingly assuming its guests are clods. What's more, you have to pay up front to check your coat -- apparently you're not trusted to tip when you retrieve it. Guess that's what happens when a restaurant is all about location, location, location.

Central Park at West 67th Street, 212-873-3200, www.tavernonthegreen.com. Entrees $17-$37.

21 Club. The venerable 21 Club, with its miniature jockeys presiding over the entrance and model airplanes and other toys hanging like mobiles from the ceiling, offers a bit of whimsy mixed with jacket-and-tie tradition (gents get a pass on the tie at lunch). No fewer than four people thanked us for coming to this former speakeasy before we even sat down in the Bar Room, where we were told that the newest trophy on display will be a North Carolina basketball to honor this year's winners.

Less fun are the prices. Though we could have ordered the three-course prix-fixe lunch ($33), we opted for -- and were glad we did -- two classics: the 21 Burger ($28) and the chicken hash with baby spinach and toast ($35). 21 is wise to the ways diners try to shave a few dollars off their tab; ordering an appetizer or salad for a main course or splitting a dish results in an extra 50 percent charge. We found that as good an excuse as any to order two desserts, a scrumptious apple pie and a crème brulée ($10.50 each). There's also Upstairs at 21, a 32-seat restaurant . . . upstairs. Good news for those headed to an 8 p.m. curtain: Pre-theater dinner can be prix fixe ($38), and the parking is free.

21 W. 52nd St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-582-7200, www.21club.com. Dinner entrees $39-$45.

-- Jane Black, Don McDonough and K.C. Summers

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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