New York City's Meatpacking District is like a stage where the characters and set change every few hours.
In the pre-dawn hours, butchers and their helpers are packing boxes of hamburger patties and other meat products into trucks lining the streets. By 10, they are replaced by droves of shoppers bursting into one of the area's many boutiques in search of the perfect pair of leopard-print mules. Early evening is when mid- and high rollers in business attire start arriving for dinner at restaurants clustered along the streets. Around midnight, velvet ropes go up and hiply dressed young revelers begin clamoring for entry to throbbing nightclubs.
"If you hang around here for a couple of days and nights, you can catch a part of just about every possible scene," says Kyra Gaydos, concierge at the Gansevoort, the neighborhood's hot boutique hotel.
Until the late 1990s, this enclave between Chelsea and the West Village -- bounded roughly by 15th, Hudson and Washington streets, and West 12th to the south -- was best known as a stronghold of butchers and meatpacking plants. While a few of the meat suppliers have hung on, it has become better known in the past few years as a gathering place for edgy fashionistas and late-night partiers.
During a weekend visit a couple of months ago, however, I found that the area, officially known as Gansevoort Market, had the feeling of a village. Many of the resources I look for in an urban escape -- moderate to trendy restaurants, casual wine bars, cafes, clothing boutiques, jazz joints and late-night dance and pretty-people-watching hangouts -- are contained within a few square blocks.
David Rabin, owner of Lotus, a happening club on West 14th Street, promotes it as a destination neighborhood for weekend travelers. "We would like to think of it as a place where people can hop off the train, take a subway up and find everything they would want for a day or two without getting in a taxi," he said.
I put that challenge to the test. An early Friday morning arrival allowed me a glimpse of the workforce that gave the area its name. At Atlas Meat on Washington Street, loaders in long white butcher jackets and jeans were piling boxes onto a delivery truck. Otherwise the cobbled street of warehouse storefronts was empty. Although the number of meatpackers in the area has been whittled from around 100 in the early 1970s to a couple of dozen, they still have enough of a presence to give this corner of the city more working-class character than the Upper East Side or Wall Street.
Down the block, the Hotel Gansevoort was at the opposite end of the trendiness spectrum. The lobby was decorated with the bold colors and spartan furniture common in fashionable boutique properties. My room, spacious by New York standards, had a comfortable queen-size bed, big power shower and modern tech gadgets, including a DVD and CD player and a flat-screen TV. Best of all, it featured a view of the midtown Manhattan cityscape, including the Empire State Building. The guests were mostly young and upscale. Hans Jacobsen, a 34-year-old designer visiting from Amsterdam, was typical. "It's just the kind of place with a buzz I like to be in in New York," he said.
For brunch, I settled into a seat at Florent, an always-busy diner a couple of blocks from the hotel. This place, opened 20 years ago, is a suitable hangout for any Meatpacking District visitor. The setting -- Formica tables, long diner counter and booths -- is unpretentious, the clientele motley. A middle-aged couple with Texas twangs and cowboy boots were on one side of me, a party of Gen X-ers wearing birthday hats on the other. Although tempted by the blood sausage and other French dishes, I settled on a platter of blueberry pancakes. They were fabulous.
I cornered Florent Morellet, the engaging French owner who holds court here daily, for a chat. Our conversation ranged wide, from his roots in France to his discovery of the neighborhood in the 1970s when the night life consisted mostly of dark, seedy gay clubs. "Of course, these streets have changed," he said. "But it would seem superficial to peg them as just one thing or the other. To really get a sense of what's here, you have to explore a bit."
After lunch, I did just that. My first stop was Diane von Furstenberg's fashion boutique on West 12th Street. Bright and airy, the shop carried racks of the famed designer's latest creations: hot pink terry-cloth shorts for $110; red silk dresses with spaghetti straps for $345; jungle green body wraps for $285. The service was casual, low-pressure and friendly. Next I popped around the corner to Alexander McQueen's shop on 14th Street for a peek at his zippered leather jackets and body-fitting pants. Here the clerk seemed less patient with a customer who was clearly just looking. Finally, in search of a gift for a godchild, I ventured into Big Fun, a children's store on Hudson Street. The science games and other toys seemed original and affordable.
By late afternoon, a small crowd was beginning to gather on the rooftop lounge of the Gansevoort. I nudged in for a pre-dinner cocktail. Although my gin and tonic was lifeless and overpriced at $11, the grand view of Lower Mantattan at sunset compensated for it. For dinner, I sallied two blocks down the street to Spice Market, the Asian food emporium opened by famed restaurateurs Jean-George Vongerichten and Gray Kunz in early 2004. This place has attracted a steady flow of locals and visiting celebrities, including Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson. Two or three steps inside, and it was easy to see the appeal. The decor -- teak pagodas, soft golden lights, a dramatic wooden staircase and pillow-filled alcoves downstairs -- was spectacular. The fare was fine, too, particularly the spicy chicken samosas, succulent spareribs and mushroom egg rolls. These Asian street dishes made with Vongerichten flair are meant to be shared. But this struck me as a place to go more for the spectacle than the cuisine.
In spite of the thicket of clubs in this area, it's almost impossible to gain entry without maneuvering past jostling revelers and hefty bouncers. My list of the top options, as recommended by knowledgeable locals, was led by PM, Cielo and Lotus. I chose the last.
The long, narrow space, occupying three levels, was packed with mostly handsome young partiers. Some chatted with dates over cocktails. Others shook to the '70s and '80s tunes blaring from the excellent sound system. I settled in a corner, watched the party flow and wondered what the next act would be.