October 13, 2002

Up All Night in New York
Can a city really be easier to see after the sun goes down?

   The premise was simple enough: New York prides itself for being "the city that never sleeps," and having spent much of our lives here, my wife, Joan, and I decided we would finally prove it ourselves. This was a chance to discover New York anew--on our terms. We would ignore the critics' choices-of-the-moment in favor of an eclectic mix of normally crowded landmarks where even experienced New Yorkers can feel dwarfed, and of less-visited gems that could make us feel as if the city had been created just for us.
But, of course, complications arose almost immediately. How to choose from New York's cornucopia of diversions in those dozen hours between dusk and dawn? Should we favor a Latino disco over an Irish music tavern, a Chinese banquet over gourmet Greek food, an art museum over a Broadway play?
We soon realized our journey to the end of the night required as much planning as any overseas vacation we'd ever undertaken. We confined ourselves to Manhattan because traveling to the other boroughs would take too long. Yet we wanted to visit as many neighborhoods as possible and expose ourselves to a broad range of culture, food, entertainment and just plain idiosyncratic behavior. All places had to be of considerable quality, not just selected because they stayed open late or could be shoehorned into our schedule.
Pacing and layering would be important as well. Encounters with frenzied revelers would alternate with locations where quieter, more reflective moments were possible. Homage would be rendered equally to an anointed palace of high culture and a cramped jazz cellar neglected by the going-out guides. We hoped all our careful calculations would still leave room for spontaneous, bizarre incidents that make any voyage more memorable. Finally we chose a Saturday night for the great adventure, because we would need a full day's rest before setting out and another full day to recover.
Our odyssey begins on the Upper East Side at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The huge main hall reverberates with a Mozart sonata from a string quartet hidden in the mezzanine above and the less sublime chatter of a very visible crowd below that is lining up for a Gauguin show. The Met is terrifically successful at drawing spectators to temporary blockbuster exhibits. But whatever hasn't been consecrated as must-see by the New York buzz tends to be sloughed off, including much of the museum's permanent collection.
This creates great opportunities for art lovers who want to luxuriate in virtual solitude. Until 9 on a Saturday night, it's possible to stand in front of a Velazquez or Rembrandt for a dozen minutes with few visitors in sight. What Joan and I have in mind, though, is to explore parts of the museum that draw few visitors during the day. Rather than meander aimlessly, we organize our very private tour under the theme of "residential interiors"--how the urban wealthy lived and entertained at home throughout the world and through the ages, achieving a calm amid chaos that many New Yorkers would find admirable today.
We start at the Nur Ad-Din Room, a reception space re-created from a 1707 upper-class house in Damascus. Here was truly an oasis. Residents and guests were isolated from the heat and noise of the streets in this serene, aesthetic setting of velvet cushions, marble floors and carved wood panels. The only sound was the soft, splashing water from a fountain. Filtered through stained glass windows, harsh sunlight became soothing and the room stayed cool even in mid-afternoon.
For a Chinese residence under moonlight, we visit a Ming scholar's retreat (between the 14th and 17th centuries). In a garden court with a bubbling stream and limestone boulders eroded into abstract sculptures, the master of the house and his guests sipped tea and dedicated poems to the moon. In the adjoining reception room, furnished with armchairs of purple sandalwood and wall panels inlaid with veined marble, the scholar sat on his couch reading, writing or conversing with visitors.
We wander through a late 17th century English bedroom, a French belle epoque dining room and a Colonial American drawing room. These spaces are spread across the museum, and we have to resist the temptation to be pulled off course by Monets and Manets, Medieval ivories and Renaissance jewels, Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, Maya and Inca ceramic figurines. We can spare the Met only 90 minutes because the rest of Manhattan beckons.
9 P.M.
We emerge from the Canal Street subway stop in Chinatown. When we were college kids, Chinatown was a mere 20-square-block triangle. But during the past several decades, the older Cantonese community has been joined by newer arrivals from Fukien, Hunan, Sichuan and other provinces. The neighborhood has burst its traditional boundaries and swallowed up almost all of Little Italy to the north and much of the formerly Jewish Lower East Side.
It's a cool evening. At this hour, most tourists are gone, and Chinatown has stopped shoving. Shopkeepers hose sidewalks and clang down metal shutters. There are a few clubs on the eastern fringes of the neighborhood. But this is a time when Chinatown becomes the destination of serious eaters. Walking along Mott Street, we're tempted by the string of fashionable teahouses serving a rainbow-colored assortment of iced teas flavored with anything from litchi nuts to gelatinous tapioca "pearls." On nearby Pell Street, we consider Joe's Shanghai--home to arguably Chinatown's best Shanghai cuisine--but there's a waiting line of cognoscenti spilling out the door.
Instead, we dine at our favorite local restaurant, Dim Sum Go Go, at 5 E. Broadway on Chatham Square. Despite its name, this nouvelle Cantonese establishment offers inventive main dishes that often make us skip the dumplings. Good Cantonese cooking is famed for subtle sauces and dishes of such clarity that taste buds can identify every ingredient. We begin with shrimp sauteed with chives, and then some slightly spicy stir-fried long beans. Beef pan-stirred with young ginger slices melts with every chew. But the revelation of this evening is a new entree--steamed minced pork with cilantro, scallions, celery and topped with Chinese black olives--served in omelet-like wedges that launch salty, creamy, pungent waves across the palate.
11 P.M.
A cab drops us off at Broadway and 32nd Street, the heart of Koreatown. During the day, this is a street of consumer electronic shops. At night, the floors above the shops are lit by neon signs in Korean characters, Hangul, that often don't bother with English translations. Sometimes, all we have to do is follow our noses: the smoky aroma of grilled beef bulgogi and the garlicky scent of kimchi make it easy to guess what signs belong to restaurants.
It takes a bit more determination to decipher other neon scribbles. In one building, we get off at several floors that turn out to be karaoke bars, where middle-aged men belt out mournful Korean ballads between drinks with younger hostesses. At a hipper establishment, Blue, a bar bathed in neon, most tables are occupied by a private party that sings American country music. We order soju, a mildly alcoholic drink that looks radioactive blue in the artificial light but tastes pleasantly sweet and refreshing. Encouraged by the crowd, we join in a chorus of a recent Garth Brooks song, following the lyrics on a large screen.
Our intended destination is a nearby bar recommended by friends, the aptly named Third Floor Cafe, in a building at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue. The decor here is elegantly decadent: alabaster chandeliers, a wood floor and easy chairs and love seats arranged around coffee tables. The disco and soul music are soft enough to allow conversation. Out the window, just a block north, the Empire State Building is suffused in red, white and blue light.
We sit at the long, curving, lacquered wood bar and contemplate the golden Korean American youth around us. According to our bartender (the staff consists mostly of young women who seem cheerfully competent but whose job description surely must include sheer beauty), the Gap-jeaned, Polo-shirted clientele includes investment bankers, lawyers, junior partners in family businesses and MBA students. Men outnumber women by at least 5 to 1.
The patrons are all speaking English, and it occurs to us that, as first-generation Americans, they might be seeking a transitional space to call their own between an assimilated New York scene and a more traditional Korean club setting that their parents' generation favors. They display none of the boisterousness one expects from twentysomething males with money to spend on Saturday night. Most of them serve themselves premium beer from cold metal kegs set up like samovars at their tables. When cell phones ring, the owners politely hasten off to a corner to respond. Joan and I agree we will return another weekend night to enjoy again the flawless apple martinis served straight up in this sedate setting.
We find a brassier, edgier New York during Caribbean night at Club Pulse, a disco on East 54th Street. The neighborhood itself is quite anodyne--architecturally undistinguished apartment and office buildings and, at street-level, restaurants that cater to businesspeople. A convoy of stretch limos disgorges passengers at the club's velvet-roped entrance. Guards wielding metal detectors search for weapons. Inside Pulse, the bouncers, taking their jobs quite seriously, survey the crowd and murmur into walkie-talkies. Tropical-plant sconces on stucco walls underscore the club's Caribbean motif.
We squeeze onto the sunken dance floor, surrounded by lithe men in linen suits and satin shirts and shapely women in tight skirts and spike heels who move with a skill that soon turns us into spectators. Younger dancers favor acrobatic salsa steps in which the men hoist their partners onto their thighs. But we're riveted by the 30- to 40-year-olds who glide through merengues like ice skaters, impeccably in time with the music.
Suddenly, during a long percussive passage, there is a commotion in a corner. Dancers move out of the way as four guys kneel down and pound their palms on the floor. Next to us at the bar, the bouncer with a WWF build stiffens and draws a deep breath, a man inhaling trouble. But when the drum-and-cymbal duo ends, the youths, laughing and slapping high-fives, cede the space back to the dancers and return to their drinks. "Just their way of keeping time, I guess," says a patron sitting next to us. The bouncer offers his own explanation: "Buncha jerks."
Truth be told, Club Pulse is a fallback choice for us. We would prefer the Copacabana with its multiple live bands. But the Copa is closed and scheduled to reopen in new, larger premises this month. Though we have to settle for recorded music, we have no complaints about the deejay's selection of old and new: El Gran Combo, Sergio Vargas, La India, Grupo Mania, Olga Tanon...
3 A.M.
We leave our taxi at Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and walk a block to Smalls, an all-night jazz club. Manhattan's grid pattern is compressed into a fish skeleton here in the West Village, confusing even longtime residents. Smalls is located where West 10th and 4th streets--normally separated by six blocks--somehow converge.
Smalls is unique, and not only because it closes so much later and costs far less than more famous clubs. The nearby Village Vanguard and Blue Note function like clockwork, with every set on time, and draw the biggest names in jazz. Smalls is where not-so-famous musicians who have finished gigs elsewhere drift by to jam. It's also a place where younger amateurs, with stardust in their eyes, hope to be noticed by the pros.
We pay $10 each and step down into a classic, dark jazz cellar. Yellowing photos of great musicians line the smoke-stained walls. The only drinks served are coffee, tea and lemonade--free. Some customers bring their own bag-wrapped liquor, pouring it furtively into plastic cups. We're fortunate to find the last available table, and even luckier that Frank Hewitt, the veteran pianist, is onstage with his trio. Always a self-effacing musician, Hewitt accompanied Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington when he was young. It was one of his last performances. He died of cancer last month.
Between sets, we chat with a saxophonist and a bass player, both recent Middlebury grads who performed on the college circuit but are making their first appearance at Smalls, accompanying a pianist who is a bit older and more experienced. The sax player admits he's both excited and nervous because he recognizes a recording executive in the audience. "That guy sitting against the wall--he's from Verve," he says, gesturing to a semiconscious recording label rep in a tux with his bow tie undone.
It starts off badly for the Middlebury guys when they go onstage. The sax player cuts in several times during the piano solos, and the bassist misses his cue at least twice. But by the end of the set--with a plaintive version of "Good Morning, Heartache"--the trio gels. The audience, many of them friends of the aspirants, applaud so lustily that the Verve guy wakes up with a look of surprise and manages a few vigorous claps.
We stagger out of Smalls into the Sunday dawn. Even the most jaded New Yorkers would recognize the magic of a moment like this one. The streets are deserted except for songbirds. The early sunlight unveils ivy-covered brick townhouses against a mighty horizon of skyscrapers. A feeling that the city is ours alone induces giddy optimism and laughter. We consider breaking into a waltz or tango . . . if only we had a bit more energy. Instead, we opt for a restorative breakfast at Florent a few blocks north and west.
5:30 A.M.
Located in the meatpacking district, Florent is a 1950s-style diner with red vinyl stools, Formica-topped tables, and mirrors and metal walls that amplify the nostalgic music. The Supremes order us to stop in the name of love, and Sinatra has us under his skin. All around us are young Europeans comparing notes on their extended "lost weekend" in New York before flying home later today. "C'est pas vrai!" exclaims a Parisian woman upon being informed by friends that she missed out on a Lord & Taylor sale. At one table sits a cluster of transvestites. Wigs off, makeup streaking down their faces and dresses wrinkled, they demonstrate a touching camaraderie. When a waitress approaches, we realize we're famished and order the kind of breakfast we rarely have--scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes and a pot of strong coffee.
6:30 A.M.
For the finale, we choose, almost inevitably, a round-trip on the Staten Island Ferry. From the rafters of the terminal on the southernmost tip of Manhattan, cooing pigeons survey the waiting passengers below. Most are youngsters who, after a night of revel or work, just missed a ferry back home and doze on the hardwood benches. A half-hour later, as the next ferry pulls away from the dock with a foghorn blast, we move to the foredeck to enjoy the bracing air as we cross over to Staten Island. Even this early on a Sunday, the harbor is alive with sailboats, passenger cruisers and enormous container ships. During the 25-minute ride, a 40ish Latina, wrapped in a bright-colored batik skirt, preaches to her captive audience passages of Jeremiah from a dogeared, leather-bound Bible. When her sermon ends, she smiles warmly as a young woman steps forward. A convert, we wonder (and perhaps the preacher did as well)? But the young woman, with typical New York chutzpah, only wants to know where the preacher bought her skirt.
On our return voyage, as the ferry approaches Manhattan, we see the oxidized blue copper roofs and temple-shaped corporate boardrooms of older skyscrapers and the sleek, curving smoked glass surfaces of newer buildings. Joan and I both realize it's the first time during the entire July evening that we've thought about the missing World Trade Center towers.
We pass close enough to the Statue of Liberty to see her hooded eyes and noble nose and the almost sensuous folds of her bronze-green robe. Nearby rise the spired domes of Ellis Island, gateway to this country for my grandparents and about 12 million other immigrants between 1892 and 1954, and now restored as a museum. On the deck around us are the faces of more recent immigrants: turbaned Sikhs, bearded Pakistanis with Muslim caps, older Chinese ladies in dark pajama suits, all on their way to jobs. And we're reminded that not only is New York the city that never sleeps, it's also the city that never stops working.
After Dark in New York City
Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for these parts of Manhattan is 212. All prices are approximate.
Getting there: American, Delta and United airlines offer nonstop service from Los Angeles to New York. Direct service is available on American, American Trans Air, America West, Continental, Delta, National and Spirit. JetBlue Airways has nonstop service from Long Beach to New York.
Where to tour, dine and dance: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, entrance at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street, 535-7710, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, and until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. A $12 contribution per adult is recommended.
Dim Sum Go Go, 5 E. Broadway, 732-0796, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Dinner for two, with beer or soda, $40 to $60.
Blue, 9 W. 32nd St., no phone. It's best to arrive after 10 p.m., and it stays open until 3 a.m. on weekends. About $10 per drink.
Third Floor Cafe, 315 Fifth Ave. (at 32nd Street), 481-3669, stays open until 2 a.m. on weekdays and 4 a.m. on weekends. About $10 per drink.
Club Pulse, 226 E. 54th St., 688-5577, is open 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. on Saturday. The club features a variety of music, including R&B, hip-hop, reggae and Asian techno. Admission is $10 to $15, depending on the occasion, and drinks are $4 to $12. The larger Copacabana is scheduled to reopen this month at 560 W. 34 St., at 11th Ave., 239-2672.
Smalls, 183 W. 10th St., near the corner of 4th Street, 929-7565, is open from 7:30 p.m. until dawn. The $10 admission includes coffee, tea and lemonade.
Florent, a bistro at 69 Gansevoort St., between Greenwich and Washington streets, 989-5779, serves French and American fare. It's open until 5 a.m. weekdays and 24 hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Lunch and dinner for two without drinks, $40 to $50. Breakfast for two, about $15.
The Staten Island Ferry (Bowling Green stop for Number 4 and 5 subway lines and Whitehall Street stop for N and R trains and South Ferry stop for Number 1 and 9 trains) departs from the Battery at the lower end of Manhattan. For schedules, visit www.siferry.com. Free.