New York is a city I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with. First the hate: the noise level, which most Manhattanites seem not to notice, has me ready to chew off my own ears after a day or two — the incessant drilling of jackhammers; cabbies sitting on their horns even when it’s obvious they are going nowhere fast, and angry babel from multilinguals resulting from seemingly inane disagreements.
Truthfully, the Big Apple could stand a good polishing (as in cleanup) and I do wish the locals would wear a spot of color now and then … all that black can get a little funereal.
OK, enough grousing — now for the love. I am both a culture vulture and a lover of good restaurants, and it’s undeniable that New York satisfies both of those appetites like few other cities in the world.
I recently spent four days there getting my theater and opera fix, as well as savoring the delights of several legendary New York City restaurants. All of this began with an extraordinary package offered by The Chatwal Hotel, an anchor of the Great White Way for 113 years.
The Chatwal is almost as full of drama as the theaters surrounding it. Built by noted architect Stanford White in 1905 at the height of the New York Empire Art Deco era, it was home to America’s first professional theatrical club, the Lambs Club — modeled after a similar club in London.
Among its 6,000 luminaries — known as Lambs — were the Barrymores, Charlie Chaplin, Irving Berlin and Fred Astaire, who once famously remarked, “When I was made a Lamb, I felt as if I had been knighted.”
Their glamorous legacy lives on in the hotel’s restaurant, also called the Lambs Club in homage to its predecessor, where a cozy fire, red leather banquettes and caricatures of Broadway and Hollywood legends make up the decor.
The menu is courtesy of executive chef Geoffrey Zakarian, who began his career under Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque and has been a staple on television’s The Food Network. Zakarian’s menu is equally (and deliciously) divided between meat and seafood dishes, and the Prohibition-era cocktails are epic (both in flavor and in price.)
In 2010, the Chatwal underwent an extensive restoration by noted architect Thierry Despont, who also worked on the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and other high-profile projects ranging from the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles to Claridge’s Hotel in London.
The result is an intimate 76-room property that seamlessly blends the charm of the past and the creature comforts of the present.
I had a chance to experience New York’s early theatrical history during the Chatwal’s two-night “Beautiful” package, which in addition to accommodations, includes two premium tickets to see “Beautiful — the Carole King Musical” at the Stephen Sondheim Theater; a private backstage tour of the theater following the performance; a pre-theater dinner at the Lambs Club Restaurant, and a manicure at the inhouse Red Door Salon by Elizabeth Arden (package rates begin at $695 and continue through Aug. 1 for “Beautiful.”)
Despite being a Carole King fan, I was mostly familiar with her “Tapestry” days, so seeing this Tony Award-winning play was an eye-opener. I really didn’t know that before she rocked it with her head of unmanageable curls and made the perfect duo with James Taylor, a pony-tailed Carole and her then-husband and writing partner, Gerry Goffin, wrote a battery of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll hits.
This wonderful show chronicles the couple’s personal and professional ups-and-downs, all set to their most famous collaborations, including songs such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” written for the Shirelles; “Up on the Roof,” for the Drifters; “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” for Aretha Franklin … even “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” for the Monkees.”
To say that this was one of my favorite-ever theatrical evenings isn’t an understatement, and it was only enhanced by the choice seats that are part of the Chatwal package and the backstage tour available only to package guests.
FROM MUSIC OF THE 1950S AND 60S TO GRAND OPERA
My friend Ruth, a Manhattan-based magazine writer, is a massive opera buff and has seen every opera performance at the Met multiple times. Still, I was pleasantly surprised when she managed to score two tickets for the opening night performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” a tale of a gypsy woman’s bloodthirsty curse and how it affected the fate of a young noblewoman and her troubadour lover.
To enhance our evening, Ruth insisted that we also partake of what she described as “a quintessential New York experience.” We would join other opera-goers for a pre-performance dinner in the Grand Tier Restaurant located off the lobby and then return at intermission for dessert and coffee.
The restaurant is glamorous in the extreme — with two enormous Chagall paintings and chandeliers gleaming like starbursts reflected in the wall of windows overlooking Lincoln Center Plaza.
So rich in tradition is the Grand Tier that we felt like characters in an Edith Wharton novel, sipping our champagne and eyeing the soignee crowd.
For the three-course prix fixe dinner ($78), I chose crab cake with lobster beurre blanc, celery root remoulade, avocado mousse and winter citrus, and roasted chicken breast with truffled cauliflower, sunchoke flan and potato pave for my appetizer and entree respectively. Paired with a crisp sancerre, the excellent meal fortified me to cope with the operatic travails of the gypsy, noblewoman and troubadour.
At intermission, we returned to our table where our desserts — a chocolate mousse for Ruth and artisanal cheese platter for me — awaited. Again, the perfect sustenance to carry us through the inevitable tragic finale.
FROM OPERA TO OPULENCE
On a long ago visit to New York, I had lunch at what was at the time the power spot of Manhattan — the Pool Room at the Four Seasons Restaurant. On any given day, you could expect to encounter titans of industry, powerful politicos and Broadway icons enjoying a meal in the opulent setting. It was just so New York and when the restaurant closed, to say I was shocked is an understatement.
Happily, the restaurant in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue has been given a new lease on life. Re-opened last July, it is now known simply as The Pool.
Its stunning design combines the sophistication of the city with elements of nature that one doesn’t usually associate with New York. The centerpiece is, of course, the pool in the middle of the dining area that features both lush landscaping and an equally lush sound track allowing Brazilian jazz to be softly piped across the room (softly being the key word).
Suspended above the pool is Alexander Calder’s mobile, 3 Segments, which resembles an enormous fish. Another noteworthy design feature is the glass-walled nook, which on closer inspection contains bottles of wine suffused with an amber glow, making it look like a sculpture.
The restaurant decor is worthy of the Seagram Building itself, a collaboration of architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. If the Grand Tier evokes Edith Wharton’s 19th century New York aristocracy in their tuxedoes and boas, The Pool conjures up the 21st century “Sex and the City” quartet in their Jean-Paul Gaultiers and Jimmy Choos.
Couple this with the contemporary seafood dishes of chef Rich Torrisi and you have a memorable dining experience.
So, I tell myself — for memorable experiences such as these, I can put up with honking horns and an endless procession of black.
(Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)