There are a few corners of Manhattan that time has treated kindly and where it is possible to catch some of the magic that makes New Yorkers wax nostalgic for what was.
From Irish bar to old-fashioned cocktail lounge to sidewalk cafe', a few of the favorite spots that have drawn locals for decades are: P.J. Clarke's at Third Avenue and 55th Street. This is the prototype of the New York Irish bar, and it's been around since 1892.
When the Third Avenue El rumbled overhead in the first half of this century, there was nothing much to distinguish Clarke's from the other Irish bars on Third Avenue. Then some of the scenes for a movie were shot there and it became known in the 1940s as the place were "The Lost Weekend," starring Ray Milland, was made.
I got to know it in the 1950s when it was famous for its hamburgers and young sophisticated New Yorkers were three deep at the bar at night. The only change since then has been the addition of a large back room. The bar and a tiny dining room adjacent to it with tables more suited to drinking than eating remain the same.
P.J. Clarke let the world know how he felt about change when he refused to sell out to a developer who built a skyscraper alongside his two-story brick building in the 1960s.
Clarke's is open from 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. 365 days a year. Hamburgers are $4 and imported beers are $1.80 a glass on draught. The Top of the Tower, 8 Mitchell Place, adjacent to First Avenue and 49th Street. The Beekman Tower's 26th-floor cocktail lounge is another drinking place where time has stood still. For $3.25 to $5 a drink (with a two-drink minimum on Friday and Saturday), you can sit and look out over mid-Manhattan in between skyscrapers that have cropped up since 1929, when this hotel was built.
The Top of the Tower's art-deco interior is unchanged, and although part of the outdoor terrace has been enclosed, al fresco drinking is still available. You can't buy food, but small appetizers are served with your drinks. Hours are 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Caffe' Reggio, 119 McDougal St., just south of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when my generation discovered it, Caffe' Reggio served only espresso coffee -- or if that was too strong, it was combined with milk and cinnamon to make cappuccino -- and some cake. Later ice cream was added. Now there is a whole menu served at the sidewalk tables, as well as inside.
The ambience is unchanged, however. The place has the look of 1927 -- and one of the awnings boasts that it's been around since then. The hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Grotta Azzurra, 387 Broome St. This Italian restaurant has been at the same location since 1908, run by the same family and serving the same food.
The name means blue grotto and is most appropriate for this small basement restaurant famous for its lobster Fra Diavolo. (Fra Diavolo means hot, explains Vinnie Davino, the founder's great-grandson, but you have to tell the waiter you really want it that way or the kitchen won't add the necessary spices.)
Unfortunately, while the blue ceiling and the murals of idyllic Italian scenes remain unchanged, the price of a lobster dinner has risen considerably since I was introduced to lobster Fra Diavolo in the late 1940s. Davino says a whole Maine lobster will cost $40 to $48, but could serve two people. Lobsters aside, he estimated dinner for two would run about $60 to $65, including wine.
The restaurant is open for lunch as well as dinner, but it is closed on Mondays. Like other restaurants in Lower Manhattan's Little Italy, Grotta Azzurra does not accept credit cards, only cash or travelers' checks. Eclair, 141 W. 72nd St. In another of the many ethnic worlds that existed in New York in the 1950s, Eclair, a pastry shop and restaurant, was considered a piece of old Vienna.
Opened by Alexander Selinger in 1939, it was soon filled with refugees from Europe. Selinger, who at 79 still runs Eclair, said his was a "literary cafe'," like the ones he knew in Vienna.
I've never been to Vienna, but I know the Eclair looks just as it did in the 1950s, when it was the place to have coffee, pastry and conversation at night. It's open from 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. Asti, 13 E. 12th St. If you like opera and can wait until September, you shouldn't pass up a chance to visit Asti, a restaurant famous for its singing waiters. (Unfortunately, Asti will be closed this summer, as well as on Mondays the rest of the year.)
The doors open at 5 p.m., but the singing doesn't start until 6:30. You can eat dinner, with entrees starting at just under $15, or drink at the bar, where a beer is $3. The food is Italian and the atmosphere unbelievably friendly.
I've never been in a place where people seemed to be having so much fun. It was that way in the 1940s, when my father took me there and I first saw Adolpho Mariani, the owner, use the cash register to accompany himself as he sang the Anvil chorus from "Faust." Adolpho's son Augusto has taken over from his father, and an old mechanical cash register is kept on the corner of the bar for this number.
Often the true stars at Asti are not the singing waiters, but the customers who sing for free -- whether they're stars from Broadway or the opera world, or just aspiring singers. I once heard the male lead of "Carousel," which was playing on Broadway, sing a medley of songs from that musical.
Robert J. Salgado is a photographer and free-lance writer in New Hope, Pa.