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New York Minutes
Need a timeout from the whirl of Manhattan? We've rounded up cafes, restaurants, bars, joints and dives near a dozen favorite tourist haunts.

By Anne Glusker
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 1997; Page E01
   


Not too many years ago, I moved from New York, the city where I was born and spent virtually all my four decades, to Washington. Although I go back often, visiting is, more than I ever would have dreamed, nothing like living there.

For one thing, I find myself doing lots of pack-it-in purposeful rushing around, with little time left for the kind of meandering that I held so dear when I was a New Yorker. Slowly, it dawned on me that what every visitor to the city needs, in the middle of whatever crazed pleasure or business itinerary he or she happens to be on, is a place to stop and take a load off -- a place to have a cup of coffee, write a postcard, read the paper, drink a glass of wine, have something to eat. Sometimes it's a quiet place you crave, sometimes it's a noisy spot where you can space out as you give your aching feet and bustle-weary soul a rest. And you want this place to appear now, right now -- you don't have the time or the energy to go across town, or even down five blocks to find it.

So I pondered and I asked friends and I watched myself on a few New York visits, and came up with the following suggested way stations. Each recommended place is attached to a nearby landmark -- a "sight," a museum, a neighborhood -- that might well be the reason you're in the area to start with. Some have something good to eat, some a good bathroom, some an entertaining passing parade. The best have all three.

SOUTH STREET SEAPORT. To this native's eye, the development of the South Street Seaport marked the beginning of the Disneyfication of Manhattan: clean, perky, sanitized shops and restaurants that you could find in any mall in America. Still, nothing beats the view on a beautiful fall afternoon when you climb to one of the upper levels of Pier 17 and watch the tugboats and tall ships out in the East River. When you've had enough perkiness, walk a couple of blocks north to the inestimably sweet and wonderful Bridge Cafe. Tucked away right under the Brooklyn Bridge, the restaurant is housed in a brick-red wood-frame building dating from 1794. The straightforward New American menu features such dishes as grilled marinated chicken ($15) and seared yellowfin tuna with a cherry barbecue sauce ($20). The bar is small, cozy. Go for a drink, or for dinner or lunch. Just as long as you leave the mall.

Bridge Cafe, 279 Water St. at Dover Street, 212-227-3344.

CENTRAL PARK. Frederick Law Olmsted's handsome swath of green in the middle of the city is a great place to seek respite from all the concrete -- rent a bike (the park is closed to traffic on weekends) or take the kids for a ride on the carousel. Enter on 72nd Street from either the East or West sides and make your way to the Central Park Boathouse, headquarters for gondola rides and rowboat rentals. When you turn in your oars, head for the Boathouse Restaurant, snag a table next to the tree-fringed lake, lean back, breathe deeply, and say, "Ah, this is why New York is so great."

The Boathouse is not cheap by any means, but it does offer grown-up food, a civilized alternative to the ubiquitous hot-dog-and-pretzel carts that dot the park. On a hot day this summer, I found myself there with my best friend and her twin, not-quite-3-year-old sons. The boys were on the verge of meltdown, as were we, so when news of a 45-minute wait came, we weren't thrilled. But we were saved by a smart maitre d' who told us that there was a table in the bar area next to the water, and a limited menu was available there. The cheese plate came with plenty of fresh fruit, and the shrimp cocktail ($15) contained huge, delicious specimens. Peace reigned.

The Boathouse in Central Park, Park Drive North at 72nd Street, inside Central Park (just off Fifth Avenue), 212-517-2233. Lunch is served through Oct. 31, weekend brunch through Oct. 26; reopens March 21. Cafeteria-style "express service" is available year-round.

MUSEUM MILE. Although upper Fifth Avenue has more than its fair share of museums -- the Frick, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Guggenheim, the Museum of the City of New York, to name just a few -- there aren't a lot of great places to stop and sit. One perfect spot for long, slow cocktail-sipping and people-watching after an exhausting afternoon of culture inhalation is the bar up on the balcony of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, open until 8:30 Friday and Saturday nights, with live music provided by a classical quintet. The outside world around the Met, on the other hand, is a difficult proposition, and I always end up at a dreadful coffee shop on Madison Avenue -- which shall go nameless -- for want of any better idea. But the elegant Stanhope Hotel, right across Fifth Avenue from the museum, has an inviting, if pricey, outdoor cafe. Noted chef Matthew Kenney recently became a partner in Nica's, the hotel restaurant, and the revamped kitchen was unveiled this month, making the place even more of a draw.

More casual options: An art world friend swears that next time I'm museum-hopping I should stop into Le Pain Quotidienne, just a few blocks from the Met, to take a seat at the long, shared wooden table and sip cafe au lait from a bowl. And a bit farther downtown, in the environs of the Whitney Museum, Sant Ambroeus is a glittering cafe that seems plucked right out of Venice, with a posh crowd and good espresso.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Great Hall Balcony Bar, Central Park at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, 212-535-7710.

Nica's, at the Stanhope Hotel, 995 Fifth Ave. at 81st Street, 212-288-5800.

Le Pain Quotidienne, 1131 Madison Ave. between 84th and 85th streets, 212-327-4900.

Sant Ambroeus, 1000 Madison Ave. between 77th and 78th streets, 212-570-2211.

BLOOMINGDALE'S. Two wildly different oases are to be found within striking distance of the shopping mecca that is the 59th Street Bloomingdale's. Serendipity, practically around the corner from the store, was much in vogue in the '70s and continues to be popular with kids and out-of-towners. It's known for its foot-long hot dogs ($5.50) and a concoction called frozen hot chocolate ($6.50) -- not to mention the vast array of tempting and overpriced toys with which the owners have craftily lined the entryway. But my reason for returning to Serendipity involves chicken salad and Irish soda bread. Serendipity makes an otherworldly soda bread and a mean and chunky chicken salad, and when paired, the sandwich that results is to die for ($10.50).

The Subway Inn, on the other hand, probably never had a vogue. It's a hole in the wall, a dive, perhaps a small step above a dump -- a real old-fashioned bar of the kind rapidly becoming extinct in New York as it gets cleaned up and prettified. Prices are sensible, and the bartender pours with a generous hand. Outside, the no-nonsense red neon sign with its squared-off letters sets the tone.

Serendipity, 225 E. 60th St. between Second and Third avenues, 212-838-3531.

Subway Inn, 143 E. 60th St. between Lexington and Third avenues, 212-223-8929.

CATHEDRAL OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE. Morningside Heights is home not only to Columbia University but to one of the city's most overlooked attractions, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. This truly sacred place went unfinished for years because the cathedral, known as a haven for liberal politics, had vowed that work would not proceed until no one in the world was left hungry. At some point, this edict was reversed, scaffolding went up and the stone-carvers went to work. Go and sit and listen to the organ or, for a truly New York experience, attend Easter services, where Harlem ladies in stupendous hats share the pews with Columbia academics in everything from saris to blue jeans. Afterward, simply cross Amsterdam Avenue for coffee and none-too-stellar pastry at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, a venerable student hangout where you can practically see the philosophical thoughts hanging in the air. For more substantial sustenance, V&T Pizzeria, a Columbia institution just up the street, has the spare look of a diner and a long list of pizza varieties.

For sustenance of the liquid variety, walk over to Broadway to the West End bar. Talk about history! This is where Jack Kerouac and his pals hung out during their Columbia days, and although it's now putting on a gentler face -- hosting kids' theater on the weekends -- it's still a great place to grab a beer and eavesdrop on conversations. There's food, though it's distinctly beside the point.

Hungarian Pastry Shop, 1030 Amsterdam Ave., 212-866-4230.

V&T Pizzeria, 1024 Amsterdam Ave. between 110th and 111th streets, 212-663-1708.

West End, 2911 Broadway between 113th and 114th streets, 212-662-8830.

EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. While some neighborhoods overflow with boites and spots and hangouts, others are bereft, like the area around the Empire State Building. Exceptions include Chez Laurence, which is packed at the prime weekday lunch hour, but is otherwise a great place to grab a table and have a debauch with one of the sumptuous-looking pastries in the display case. The coffee is pretty good, but the brioche are out of this world. The family that owns the place also bakes the brioche dough into loaves and slices it for sandwiches ($4.50 to $7.50). Try the mackerel with grated carrot -- sounds odd, but it's delicious.

Other choices: Hangawi offers a four-course, fixed-price, vegetarian Korean lunch for $17.95; and Abby, a very pleasant New American place, is worth seeking out for its inventive food. Its only fault: The wooden booths are way too hard on the posterior.

Chez Laurence Patisserie, 245 Madison Ave. at 38th Street, 212-683-0284.

Hangawi, 12 E. 32nd St. between Fifth and Madison avenues, 212-213-0077.

Abby, 254 Fifth Ave. between 28th and 29th streets, 212-725-2922.

THEATER DISTRICT/TIMES SQUARE. The theater district has an abundance of places to eat before or after a show, but even so, it can be hard to find a place to have a simple drink, take the kids, or eat on the cheap.

Ollie's is a no-nonsense Chinese place where you can definitely bring the kids and get out without losing your shirt -- and even try a new dish or two. A hugely successful mini-chain, Ollie's began life in an old Chock Full o' Nuts up near Columbia. Its mission: to bring the dumplings and buns that used to be available only in Chinatown to other parts of the city. The branch on West 44th Street is big enough so that you can usually get a table without much of a wait. The pork-filled "steamed little juicy buns" ($4.75) are exceptional.

For something a little more elegant, head west to Frico Bar. It has a full Italian menu, but if you're in a rush, or not that hungry, sit in the bar area and have a glass of wine and a frico ($7.50), a savory, greasy, soul-satisfying potato, cheese and onion concoction. If you're in a more down-to-earth mood, stop in at McHale's, another of the dying New York bar breed. Have a hamburger, have a Scotch, maybe some French fries. The old wood booths are a great place to settle in and talk for hours.

The bar at Cabana Carioca, on West 45th, is nowhere near as comfy, but oh, what a deal! This Brazilian restaurant has a full menu, but if you sit at the small bar and order from the small menu available only there, you'll get a wonderful chicken or pork or shrimp dish -- garlic guaranteed -- with black beans, white rice and garlicky sliced potatoes. The tab won't be more than $7 or $8. Order a killer caipirinha, made with the Brazilian liquor cachaca, and you won't need to go to the theater.

Ollie's, 200B W. 44th St. between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-921-5988.

Frico Bar, 402 W. 43rd St. at Ninth Avenue, 212-564-7272.

McHale's, 750 Eighth Ave. at 46th Street, 212-997-8885.

Cabana Carioca, 123 W. 45th St. between Sixth Avenue and Broadway, 212-581-8088.

HARLEM. If you're strolling 125th Street, perhaps on your way to the Studio Museum or the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Georgie's Pie Shop -- a stone's throw from the former -- is a must. The question of whether Georgie's glazed doughnuts are better than its jelly doughnuts will be debated by scholars for generations to come (55 cents each; $4.50 for a dozen). The shop also sells luscious sweet potato pies in three sizes and a limited variety of other baked goods. Although there's no place to sit down and munch, the psychic high -- not to mention the one provided by the sugar -- will revive anyone's flagging energies.

If you're in need of a real meal and a seat, go north a few blocks to Wells Chicken for a serving of its justly famous chicken and waffles ($9.95). The chicken is moist, the batter has just the right amount of zip, and the waffles are crisp and delicious.

Georgie's Pie Shop, 50 W. 125th St. between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, 212-831-0722.

Wells Chicken, 2247 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. between 132nd and 133rd streets, 212-234-0700.

UNION SQUARE/FLATIRON DISTRICT. The area around the fabled Flatiron Building has become a shopping mecca during the past few years -- ABC Carpet and Home, the fabulous dishware emporium called Fishs Eddy, among countless others -- and the Union Square Greenmarket (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) has become a ritual with lots of New Yorkers, even if they don't live in the neighborhood. A walk around the market on a fall or spring afternoon is a great experience -- albeit frustrating if you don't have a kitchen to cook in. Two nearby restaurants make good use of the market's produce.

In my ardent feelings for the Union Square Cafe, I'm not alone -- it's a perennial readers' favorite in the New York Zagat guide. I've had family meals here, romantic dinners, breaking-up dinners, getting-together dinners -- not to mention several luscious expense-account lunches. But my favorite memories involve middle-of-the-week dinners, eaten at the wide, burnished-wood bar with friends after working late.

The place can be expensive, but its embrace is always so generous that you're never looked at askance for only ordering, say, an appetizer and a salad -- and this strategy can ease the pain of the check. Although two people can easily spend more than $100 for dinner, appetizers range from $8 to $11.50. Certainly, at the bar, appetizers ordered as entrees and shared dishes are custom of the country. Go early or late if you can, and try to call ahead to find out when things are calm. Sit back, confer with the bartender about which glass of wine you should have (these people are knowledgeable), burrow into the fabulous bread basket, and watch as the big white napkin is spread over the space of bar in front of you, marking it as yours for next hour, or two, or three.

For less of a big deal meal, go around the corner to the City Bakery. The investment of time and money may be smaller, but the stylishness of the sandwiches and salads -- not to mention the tarts, which are almost artworks -- is unstinting. The place is a precisely rendered oblong box -- it'd be difficult to call its hard-edged architecture "homey," yet City Bakery definitely invites lingering. You serve yourself, cafeteria-style, and the huge selection of magazines rolled up into tubes lining the walls makes it plain that you can stay as long as you want.

Union Square Cafe, 21 E. 16th St. between Fifth Avenue and Union Square West, 212-243-4020.

City Bakery, 22 E. 17th St. between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, 212-366-1414.

EAST VILLAGE. What can you say about your old stomping ground? Preferably not too much, or we'd be here forever. Suffice it to say that if you take the subway to Astor Place, you find yourself in a part of the city so rife with cafes, bars, ethnic restaurants, and even a healthy sprinkling of white-tablecloth places, that you hardly need guidance. Ground zero for me when I was a weary neighborhood errand-goer was Cafe Orlin, and it'd make a fine resting place for a weary traveler as well. Sometimes the music is a little too loud, but the crowd is interesting-looking and -sounding, and the servers even more so. There's coffee, there's beer, there are a few hot entrees (all under $10), and a great babaganoush-on-pita sandwich for $4.95. There's nothing on a biting winter day like a cup of Cafe Orlin's hot cider. Best of all, it's only a block or two from the St. Mark's Bookstore, the Public Theater, St. Mark's Church and A. Fontana, one of the world's best shoe repair shops (if you've been walking too much, go visit: across from the church on 10th Street, just west of Second Avenue).

More? A block or so east on St. Mark's Place is Cafe Mogador, a Moroccan place that's more restaurant than cafe. The prices are more than reasonable, and the couscous is lip-smacking ($8.95 to $11.50). For a serious drink, hit what we used to call the Horseshoe Bar at Seventh Street and Avenue B, so called for its long, supremely battered, horseshoe-shape bar.

Cafe Orlin, 41 St. Mark's Place between First and Second avenues, 212-777-1447.

Cafe Mogador, 101 St. Mark's Place between First Avenue and Avenue A, 212-677-2226.

SOHO. After a hard day's gallery-hopping, a bit of sustenance may be in order. On Greene Street, just below Houston, up a couple of stairs that look as if they were once part of a loading dock, is the Espresso Bar, the hands-down winner of my personal Traveler's Aid award. The space is big, with the wood floors and white walls and art on the walls that make you think of . . . an art gallery in SoHo. The adjacent space is an art gallery, and you wander through there on your way to the bathrooms and the phones. The tea is piping hot, the fruit breads and sandwiches and tarts are all pretty and overpriced -- that's how you know it's SoHo -- and it's even licensed to sell wine and beer. The chairs are '50s funky moderne and the tables spaced a good distance apart. But back to the bathrooms and the phones: You could move into one of these bathrooms, and on occasion I practically have (lipstick application, tights-changing.) And there's also plenty of room by the phone. If only they'd put in a little telephone table, so you could balance your organizer and your address book while you talked and sipped your tea.

Around the corner, Fanelli is an institution that's been around since before SoHo was SoHo. There's a discreet red neon sign over the door and faded old black-and-white photos of boxers on the walls. Couples sit at the tables covered in red-and-white checked cloths, eating food that is for the most part pretty bad -- spaghetti or mussels or hamburgers. But nourishment isn't why anyone's here. In the back room, arguments flare, simmer, sizzle. At the bar, some of the guys are painters, some are just guys; there are even a few women, though not many. Some of them have been having their nightly cocktail at that bar for more decades than you'd care to know. Back in 1977, when I was working down the street at my first job, I ventured in one day, sat at a table in the back and pulled out my novel. Hard-bitten old Mike Fanelli came over and barked, "If you want to read a book, go to the library." The place has changed a little -- but not really all that much. It endures, and I never feel I've visited New York unless I've at least stuck my head in the door to see if anyone I know is at the bar.

Espresso Bar, 133 Greene St. between Prince and Houston streets, 212-260-6677.

Fanelli, 94 Prince St. at Mercer Street, 212-226-9412.

LOWER EAST SIDE. The Lower East Side -- roughly, the area south of Houston Street and east of the Bowery -- divides along an old/new fault line. If you're interested in the old historic Lower East Side, you might end up visiting the Tenement Museum or poking around Orchard Street (which still closes to traffic every Sunday and is crammed with stores and stalls offering every kind of deal imaginable -- whether they're really good deals, you'll have to judge for yourself). If you want the taste of vintage Jewish deli, head for Ratners on Delancey Street, and make sure you have an onion roll. And then there's Katz's Deli, where the serving fork in the help-yourself sauerkraut is chained to the counter so the bums won't come in and walk off with it. The pastrami is very good, the frankfurters -- "Katzdogs," as an old flame of mine once dubbed them -- tasty, and the rude-to-gruff countermen straight out of Central Casting.

For a taste of the new neighborhood, walk down Ludlow Street between Houston and Stanton, stopping in at the Pink Pony for a coffee, or the Ludlow Street Cafe for a drink. At the corner of Ludlow and Stanton streets, El Sombrero/The Hat manages to encapsulate both old and new. Although a good part of the clientele is made up of leather-jacketed Anglos, the neighborhood Mexican community is represented as well, and the jukebox blares Latin favorites. In the summertime, nothing beats one of the Hat's frozen margaritas, along with the not-too-salty, not-too-greasy chips and chunky guacamole. For dinner, try the tacos al carbon or the carnitas (both $8).

Ratners, 138 Delancey St. between Norfolk and Suffolk streets, 212-677-5588.

Katz's Deli, 205 E. Houston St. at Ludlow Street, 212-254-2246.

Pink Pony, 176 Ludlow St. between Houston and Stanton streets, 212-253-1922.

Ludlow Street Cafe, 165 Ludlow St. between Houston and Stanton streets, 212-353-0536.

El Sombrero/The Hat, 108 Stanton St. at Ludlow Street, 212-254-4188.

Anne Glusker is a content developer for washingtonpost.com's soon-to-be-launched arts and entertainment guide. She last wrote for the Travel section on New York's Little Italy.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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