An article on New York's theater district and an accompanying map in the Oct. 20 Escapes column incorrectly said that "Wicked" is playing at the Helen Hayes Theater. It is playing at the George Gershwin Theater, 222 W. 51st St. (Published 10/21/04)

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.

Marquee Eats

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.)

Cheaper eats can be had up and down West 44th, at Virgil's (for ribs), Ollie's (for Chinese) and John's (for pizza) -- all in the $20 range. The merlot-and-burger spot of the moment, however, is Angus McIndoe (dinner: $30 range), also on 44th, right next to the St. James Theatre, where a tiny here-today, gone-tomorrow show called "The Producers" is playing. You'll find any number of actors and playwrights nursing wine or fizzy water at the tables (the ground floor is the most desirable). Like Joe Allen, McIndoe bar is great for post-theater star-gazing. Nathan Lane hangs out there a lot. Well he should; he's an investor in the joint.

Before you eat, you may want to secure your tickets for the evening. If your concierge hasn't already done that for you, in Duffy Square, a triangular island wedged between Broadway and Seventh Avenue, you'll find the TKTS booth, where Broadway and off-Broadway productions dump their unsold top-priced orchestra seats (normally $75 to $100) and offer them on the day of performance for 25 to 50 percent off. Don't be put off by the ludicrously long lines that wrap around the square. Tickets are sold almost until performances begin, and some shows hold back seats until late in the day. (The booth is open Monday through Saturday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sundays from 3 p.m. to "closing," and for a few hours before Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees.)

Some popular shows, such as "Avenue Q" and "Wicked," also offer day-of seats at deeply discounted prices in a box office lottery. To enter, you must get to the box offices 21/2 hours before curtain time. If selected, you can get bargain rates for front-row orchestra seats ($25 for "Wicked," at the Helen Hayes, 240 W. 44th; $21.25 at "Avenue Q," at the John Golden, 252 W. 45th).

Shopping and Snoozing

Times Square is New York's Grand Bazaar of schlock, and the area's souvenir stores specialize in trinkets of the tackiest varieties. But a few haunts remain for the theater-obsessed. There is, for instance, a good emporium of theater memorabilia at Theatre Circle (268 W. 44th); the attractive shop offers theater posters, Broadway CDs, toys and sheet music. For my money, though, the primo place to kill an hour is the Drama Book Shop (250 W. 40th). The bilevel store stocks the works -- scripts, anthologies, stage biographies, acting manuals -- and the people behind the counter are extremely knowledgeable.

Hotels ring the Theater District, and all of the reliable chains (Hilton, Westin, Doubletree, Marriott) are prominently represented. Those nostalgic for a taste of Old Broadway can book a room at the Algonquin (59 W. 44th, doubles from $229), once the haunt of such stage royalty as Alexander Woollcott and Edna Ferber. Those who crave a bit of European-style minimalism are welcome at the Paramount Hotel (235 W. 46th, doubles from $285), where drinks on the balcony that rings the Ian Schrager lobby are an elegant end to a theater evening. I love the convenience and efficiency of the Millennium Broadway (145 W. 44th, doubles from $279); the rooms are not lavish, but they are a good size, and when you step out onto the street, all of theaterland is right before you. Also agreeable is the 420-room Warwick (65 W. 54th, doubles from $254), an older hotel on the northern edge of the district. It needs a new look, but the service is good and it's a two-minute walk to Fifth Avenue.

It's Showtime, Folks

Almost forgot. Broadway: That means actual shows. The season is just kicking into gear, with a spate of new productions moving in through the fall.

It appears to be a time for going it alone; Billy Crystal ("700 Sundays"), Dame Edna ("Back With a Vengeance"), Mario Cantone ("Laugh Whore"), Whoopi Goldberg ("Whoopi") and Eve Ensler ("The Good Body") are all bringing in solo shows.

Meanwhile, Edie Falco, on hiatus from "The Sopranos," co-stars in a revival of Marsha Norman's " 'Night, Mother" with Brenda Blethyn; Brooke Shields joins "Wonderful Town" until Jan. 3; B.D. Wong is featured in a new production of Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures"; and the musical version of "La Cage Aux Folles" is returning, this time with Gary Beach and Daniel Davis. Original work is arriving, too, most notably, August Wilson's new "Gem of the Ocean" with Phylicia Rashad and a musical adaptation of "Little Women" with Sutton ("Thoroughly Modern Millie") Foster.

The "snob hit" of fall, though, is likely to be Michael Frayn's new "Democracy," the story of the late Willy Brandt, former chancellor of West Germany, and the East German spy he unwittingly hired as his chief aide.

The new offerings are not only good for those who want to laugh with Broadway, but at it as well. "Forbidden Broadway," the musical spoof of all things theatrical, continues at the Douglas Fairbanks on West 42nd. It's the sort of cheeky revue that can make even fleeting visitors to Broadway feel as if they really, really belong.

Brooke Shields, left, performs in "Wonderful Town" at the Hirschfeld Theatre; she joined the show last month for a 14-week run. Above, Times Square, the heart of New York's Theater District.