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FOR ONE REASON AND ANOTHER, I found myself in Midtown Manhattan three times last week and — to my surprise — enjoyed it. Even when I lived in Manhattan eons ago, I was a downtown person, rarely venturing north of 14th Street. After I moved to Brooklyn in the late ’70s, my visits to “the city” grew more and more infrequent. Weeks could go by without my having any need or desire to cross the river (especially after Brooklyn got a few shoe stores).
Yet, there I recently was, three days in succession, suddenly feeling my eyes had been opened to something immeasurably rich, complex, and vibrant I hadn’t noticed before. I found myself searching for signs of vintage Manhattan, for remnants of the pre-skyscraper era, dwarfed now by towering neighbors but still standing proud, like the little house, top, in Virginia Lee Burton’s children’s book of the same name, that got gradually engulfed by new construction.
On Day 1, I had a doctor’s appointment in the East 30’s. I noticed a brick carriage house I had never seen before, below, and wondered how long old tenements with fire escapes, cornices, and storefronts at street level could possibly remain in place, unprotected by Landmarks and subject to the relentless march of commercial development.
There are some gorgeous intact rows of 19th century townhouses on the side streets of Murray Hill, but I also noted surviving row houses here and there on the avenues. The grimy pair on Lexington, right, have that forlorn look of Burton’s little house, but you know they won’t be moved to the country (as the fictional cottage eventually was) but likely torn down when the economy commands it.
I took pleasure in noting old one-story structures like the two, below. By sheer coincidence, I ended up having dinner with a friend two nights later in the Art Deco building on the right, which now houses Tokyo, one of the first sushi restaurants in New York when it opened in 1969. A welcome discovery, it will become my go-to sushi place in midtown from now on, with mostly Japanese patrons and bartenders in kimono who have clearly been there from the first.
The following day, I met a friend for lunch at Schnipper’s on East 23rd Street, but our timing was off. It’s fine when quiet — a cafeteria-style burger place with a self-consciously retro vibe — but this time, it was a madhouse. We couldn’t hear ourselves over the din and repaired instead to Turkish Kitchen on Third Avenue for authentic, scrumptious, and well-priced food. But I was still seeking signs of Olde New York, and later — for future reference when in need of a quiet, unpopular lunchtime spot — walked around in search of a place I had happened into one day last year, whose name I couldn’t remember. It was decidedly old-fashioned; I was one of the only customers, and I ate something like mushrooms on toast.
I found it under scaffolding on East 28th Street: a British pub called The Churchill, above, with a menu of fish’n’chips, shepherd’s pie, mushy peas, and so on. It was even quieter than I remembered; there wasn’t a soul in the place. It probably does better at happy hour.
The following day, early for a dinner date, I emerged from the B train at the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, looking forward to a walk through Bryant Park. Below, my favorite warm-weather outdoor lunch spot, The Bryant Park Cafe, shuttered for the season.
I found the park itself transformed for the holiday season. Instead of the quietude and fall plantings I expected, there was a tacky Christmas fair, with merchandise a half-step up from that on Canal Street, set up in booths around a temporary ice skating rink, below, over the expansive lawn. It was lively and possibly even “magical,” there in the shadow of the New York Public Library. But the music (think Frank Sinatra singing ‘New York, New York’) was hokey and I wondered when ice skating in the heart of Manhattan’s business district had become so popular that the nearby Wollman Rink in Central Park and the one at Rockfeller Center weren’t enough. (The Bryant Park rink is free; skate rentals $14.)
Then, naturally, I stepped into the library and spent the next hour leisurely enjoying its always-worthwhile exhibits. The current “Lunch Hour NYC,” open until February, is great fun. I actually learned a lot, including the origin of the term “lunch” (from the Spanish lonja, meaning a chunk or piece you can hold in your hand). There are etchings of Victorian-era Wall Streeters in top hats and derbies wolfing it down at an early lunch counter, and menus from diners to Delmonico’s. I watched all five film clips of scenes set in Horn & Hardart’s automats. and then signed up for my first New York Public Library card in decades (the last one didn’t even have a bar code).
My friend and I intended to meet up at one of New York City’s genuine hidden treasures: The Campbell Apartment, above, on the mezzanine at the back of Grand Central Station, a coffered-ceiling, intricately painted relic of the late 19th century, when railroad barons had their whiskey and cigars there. It being Friday night at 6:30, we were unable even to enter, so thick were the crowds. That’s when Barbara suggested Tokyo, where we sat for two hours at the bar sampling odd dishes that both the menu and waitress stated were “not recommended for first time.” But as we are old sushi hands, we loved them, as we did the Japanese rice vodka.
Altogether satisfied with my Manhattan experience, I’ve decided I am not bored with Manhattan. There’s still a lot for me to discover. Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson about London, that must mean I am not, after all (as I’ve sometimes feared), bored with life.