How To Enjoy 24 Hours in the Hot Mess That is Midtown Manhattan

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It takes the very thinnest of excuses for me to get on a plane to New York. I’ve done it for a poetry reading whose honorarium was 1/3 of the cost of the ticket. Happily. I’ve slogged through New Jersey and Pennsylvania on a bus in sleety rush hour traffic for a single meal. I have walked from Mott Haven to the Village in a downpour—yes, on purpose—and grinningly asked the maître d’ of some little trattoria to seat my sodden, umbrellas-are-for-weenies little self away from the drafty doorway because, as he could see, I was dripping wet.

The parts of Manhattan I love the most are the Upper West Side and the cluster of neighborhoods below Union Square. This poses a problem, however, because between them is the choked, tourist-infested, piss-smelling, get-outta-my-way nightmare that is Midtown. As a Californian, I am not schooled in the secret insider-workarounds that allow people to enjoy a quiet meal at a great little spot a stone’s throw away from Times Square. I have always seen this section of Manhattan as something to get through. Literally and figuratively.

Brethren: I have been born anew.

Keen to see friends en route to western Massachusetts and with only 24 hours between me and a date with the devil (by which I mean Penn Station), I checked into the newly renovated Renwick Hotel. Like, super “newly.” The restaurant’s not quite open yet, “newly.” (It will be. With John DeLucie at the helm).

I had it on good authority that this East 40th street spot was a particularly fun destination for writers. In the past, the building had been an artist’s space and was the longtime home of Thomas Mann. Luminaries including Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald spent significant time there. (Imagine the weird artifacts they found renovating that place). The new design pays homage to its artistic and literary past in a number of ways.

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Comfortable, stylish, clean and fresh without sterility, and full of personality, the Renwick lived up to it’s reputation. Every piece in every room, from the artwork to the furniture to the bath products, is custom made for the hotel by New York artists and craftspeople—oh and by the way, it’s all for sale. That sculpture? You can buy it; they’ll just commission the artist to create a new one. Win-win. Desk blotter, lamp, bathrobe, Manhattan-skyline-printed window treatment? Negotiable. You like the bed? Talk to management. Seriously. As a practicing artist, I am behind this business model one thousand percent.

Gregory Siff is the man responsible for the amazing mural on the lobby wall (and the tagging of the truck outside) that mesmerizes you every single time you get out of the elevator and come face to face with it. The place is playful but sleek, inviting and comfortable. And for anyone interested in the art and literature history of the city, it’s a great place to stay.
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Photo courtesy of Fabrick

After getting acclimated, I met up with my friends, and was treated to the gastronomic spectacle of David Burke’s new place, Fabrick, in the nearby Archer hotel on West 38th street. Already familiar with Burke’s downtown flagship (and his sommelier fatale, Natalie Dulaney), I knew to expect tasty. But … candied bacon clothesline, this was good.

I hate the “bacon-is-king” trend, and I hate the new “bacon-is-deadly” trend, too, but even I was seduced. And that’s before I found out that someone educated at Hogwarts is working the line back there because it takes mastery of the Dark Arts to do what they do to a cauliflower. Go. Eat the cauliflower, the perfect seared scallops, and the delicious lobster bites.

Everything is served with impeccable flavor profiles, great intelligence and a wonderful sense of humor—an ingredient that is in short supply in upscale NYC eateries because people fail to recognize its seasoning power. Oh, and the bar is gorgeous, the wine list perfecto, and they know their way around a cocktail too. The restaurant is intimately scaled, and … well, it kicks ass in that way that David Burke does.

Stuffed to the gills it only seems reasonable to take a little passeggiata to recuperate (slightly), reading to each other from the Library Way sidewalk placards that adorn 41st street like a much classier Hollywood boulevard walk of fame. Then, oops, we stumble into the elevator to the rooftop bar at the Library Hotel on the corner of Madison Avenue and 41st street. The Library Hotel is a beauty, too, and the bar on the roof is a sanctuary not to be overlooked. The blood orange Champagne cocktail I ordered was dispatched at a very undignified rate of speed.

It was getting late, and, let’s face it, one more calorie and we might’ve popped. So we walked back to the Renwick. I said goodnight to my friend, and treated myself to a very hot bath, yummied up with ginger-scented potions from Apothake. The bed was enticing enough that the worst part of this trip was that I was there solo. A well-earned and somewhat champagne-infused sleep is always a good thing, though.
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Photo by Paul Hawthorne/Getty

Morning. OK, New York? Listen. You are sine qua non in many respects, but even Gourmet magazine was able to admit that you’ve always pretty much sucked where coffee is concerned. The West Coast kicks your ass in this department and visiting San Franciscans have a tough time saying “thank you” for the cup of bongwater you have just asked them to pay actual money for under the pretense that it is coffee.

Yes, there has been the Williamsburg Renaissance (with plenty of help from Blue Bottle and other Californian companies), but in Midtown? Panic attack.

I knew of one coffee shop north of the Brooklyn Bridge that passed muster, Bluebird, but it was on first and first. I was going to expire if I tried to walk all the way down there for a cappuccino before I’d … well, had a cappuccino.

Culture Espresso on West 38th came through with their decent pastries, beans not roasted to ash and baristas who have some skills without the extra attitude. I had a latte that tasted very much like a good latte. Rejoice! The last Midtown Dilemma solved!
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Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty

Once you’ve committed to stay in Midtown until your midafternoon train leaves, you suddenly realize how many taken for granted treasures there are between 30th and 50th streets. I could spend days inside Grand Central Station, staring at the constellations on the ceiling, exploring the weird little tunnels and crevices, ordering too many oysters from that amazing seafood bar, and just watching life wash over me in endless, endless tides. So, I did that for a while. Then, like any literary type, I hit the main branch of the New York Public Library just to inhale the scent of old paper and wood, and history. It’s a marvel. A leisurely walk through the garment district, and I’m starting to wonder why I always considered Midtown a big boring annoying obstacle.

OK, now I’m hungry, but I’ve exceeded my candied bacon quota for the … um, year. I allow gravity to take me right on back to the Library Hotel. Madison and Vine is hopping. There’s one seat left, felicitously, at the bar.

The server is a drop dead gorgeous Florentine expat who is a life coach when he’s not dishing out dirty martinis. My next door neighbor at the bar is a 90-year-old attorney on his third cocktail who is still trying cases for underprivileged youths not getting their due in the education system. He is as eager to tell me about his grandson’s “amazing, wonderful gay wedding” as he is to turn and yell, “What the hell is this shit on my burger? You people do this to me every Goddamn time” at the unflappable barman. Barman: “You know, I think they do it because I put it on the ticket every time that it’s for you. They like to see you get angry.”

I have a perfect plate of garlicky pasta and glass of wine in front of me as I watch the lunch rush ebb around me feeling oddly peaceful.

The nice people at the Renwick have sequestered my bags for me, so while I wait for them I take one last look at Gregory Siff’s stunning mural. “Write drunk; edit sober,” it reminds me.

Thanks, Hemingway. I can at least try.

An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book A Modern Herbal was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot.

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