"Walking in the city, we seldom look back."
—John Cheever, "The Five-Forty-Eight" 1954
For a time—that glorious, flush time now known as midcentury—Midtown Manhattan was a playland of gods and dreamers, where every ambition was attainable and Midtown streets teemed with lovers hungry to savor all it had to offer.
No one looked back then. And why should they? They were too busy reveling in a place where, on a dowdy corner of 53rd and Park, Mies van der Rohe and Gordon Bunshaft went toe-to-toe to create those twin citadels of Modernism, Lever House and the Seagram Building. They were there for the power lunch at the Grill Room in the Four Seasons, where heavy hitters dined under Picassos, Pollocks, and Mirós.
And then, somehow, it all started to fade. The buildings stopped going up. Restaurants settled into a dull routine. The men in the gray flannel suits no longer yearned to stay late in the city to grab dinner and drinks. Instead, they walked briskly toward Grand Central, and didn't look twice at what they were leaving: a drab, deserted nowheresville just barely chugging along on fumes.
But suddenly, and before our very eyes, Midtown has roared back in the 21st century. Now, as those same commuters make their way to the 5:48, they look back with grim regret, as if they know they're leaving the party too soon: Lever House Restaurant is buzzing, City Club's doormen are beckoning. Once again, Midtown has become the center of it all.
B'kfast, Lunch & Dinner
Sure it's the city that never sleeps. But New York is also the city that knows how to eat. And more than ever, some of the swankiest new joints are, where else? Midtown Manhattan.
If Damon Runyon were penning Guys and Dolls in 2004, Guy Heksch would surely serve as inspiration. In the circus of media and money that is Midtown, he always knows who's up and who's down. As the manager of db, Daniel Boulud's intime bistro, he knows the power players, celebs, and ladies who lunch, and likes nothing more than to keep them guessing about where they'll be seated. 55 West 44th Street.
Frankly, we prefer breakfast at Michael's. But if you can't do breakfast, come for lunch. Just be sure to do as Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger, and Walter Cronkite do, and order the Cobb salad. Eat it slowly and eavesdrop. 24 West 55th Street.
"Give me your tired, . . ." Not in Midtown, pally, where everyone seems to be running at full speed till all hours. Seek relief in the lounges at Town, the restaurant in the Chambers Hotel, where more than 100 globes of little Lady Libertys stand watch. 15 West 56th Street.
PRET A MANGER
Pret à Manger is the modern-day Horn & Hardart. True, it doesn't give you the Automat's thrill of selecting your food from a little compartment in those holes in the wall but they make a damn tastier sandwich. 400 Park Avenue.
We have rules regarding imbibing. Rule No. 1: Don't drink anything bright blue. That's gone out the window thanks to the Cerulean, served at 5757, the bar at the Four Seasons Hotel. It's a new kind of gin and tonic from a knockout combo of blue gin, lemon juice, and tonic. 57 East 57th Street.
Maybe it's a bit of Franco payback for the stupidity of "freedom fries"? If so, we'll gladly take Alain Ducasse's ingenious bar snack (and great riff on an American classic): PBJ and whole-wheat bread. Get it at Mix, Ducasse's latest restaurant. 68 West 58th Street.
Stop in to this tea salon on any given Saturday afternoon and you're as likely to catch men in suits and ties in the café talking business in French, English, or Italian as you are to find mothers and daughters having one of the hundreds of varieties of teas and treats. Are you in Paris, Milan, or Manhattan? Does it matter? Enjoy yourself: You're somewhere civilized. 442 Park Avenue.
The first time we were here it seemed we'd stumbled onto the set of 2001—we half-expected to see that Pan Am spaceship docking outside. But then we had our coffee, checked ourselves out in the bank of video monitors above the bar, and came to our senses. Good thing, too: Brasserie is the locale of choice for early-morning business meetings. Try the scrambled eggs with black truffles. 100 East 53rd Street.
Shop Here Now
What's the best way to take home a piece of Midtown? Well, you could try and fit Philip Johnson into your purse. If not, find something modern yet classic from Midtown's latest arrivals.
"If only she could convince him to change . . ." wrote Mary McCarthy in her famous Midtown vignette "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt." Well, the lady's finally got her wish. An Italian takeover has brought the classics, like that button-down shirt favored by Gianni Agnelli and Fred Astaire, back to where they should be: absolutely reliable, always chic. 666 Fifth Avenue.
Leave it to the family Ferragamo to bring a bit of the Medicis to Midtown. The New York flagship is a paean to all that's sleek and elegant. There is an art gallery too. 661 Fifth Avenue.
This is not your père's Façonnable. He will still find his favorite perfectly fitted, boldly patterned shirt, but the new 20,000-square-foot, three-story flagship store in Rockefeller Center also makes room for mère, with an expanded women's and accessories line. 636 Fifth Avenue.
This ultrachic and quasi-discreet facade always makes us feel we're walking into a Helmut Newton shoot. In 2000, Gucci staked its claim in Midtown with this William Sofield-designed store and jolted Fifth Avenue to life. Inside there's not a gray flannel suit in sight, just marble and mirrors, razor-sharp jackets, slim-cut pants, and a room full of handbags. 685 Fifth Avenue.
Of course there are Lesly Zamor's signature oh-so-modern arrangements, but now you can also buy the table to sit them on; a couch to seat your guests; and throw pillows, candles, and lamps. Not your average flower shop around the corner. 541 Lexington Avenue.
Now that Louis Vuitton has made Midtown the site of its biggest store in the world, how appropriate that a few items have been created exclusively for it. Take, for example, the gold leather bag. 1 East 57th Street.
The Neapolitan upscale clothier bought the neoclassical six-story Banco di Napoli building, gutted it, and rebuilt the interior with glass, steel, and Murano chandeliers. At long last, the best of the traditional (bespoke and ready-to-wear for men, and now women) in a shop of its own. 4 East 54th Street.
Past, Present & Future
No more is Midtown a sleepy neighborhood of anonymous sandstone ziggurats. Icons of midcentury have inspired a generation of architects to new feats of derring-do.
Is there a more perfect embodiment of the Midtown man? Tall, dark, handsome—the Seagram Building. Hang out in the Four Seasons Grill Room for lunch and you'll catch plenty of its human equivalents. 375 Park Avenue.
All is right in the heavens—now that decades of grime have been scrubbed from Grand Central Terminal's celestial ceiling. The renovation was almost an omen that, in every way, the night sky would be shining brighter in Midtown. East 42nd Street at Park Avenue.
Who would have thought those old boys (and girls) at one of the oldest of old boys clubs could be so, well, new? This addition to the Harvard Club, which opened last year, brings a very clear jolt of modernity to this stoniest of Midtown streets. 27 West 44th Street.
For years we've been saying, "Enough with the Diego Rivera mural in Rockefeller Center. How about something a little less . . . Marxist?" And then along comes Christie's with its 315,000-square-foot auction house and this Sol LeWitt mural. It's the only piece of art here that's not for sale. 20 Rockefeller Plaza.
The coolest showroom in the city was recently expanded to occupy a whole city block. Don't let the cars distract you from the fact that you're standing in a glistening jewel box designed by a quirky little architect named Frank Lloyd Wright. 430 Park Avenue.
How was it that for years the cradle of modern art in New York had all the majesty of an expo center in Cincinnati? While the Whitney and the Guggenheim stood bold and proud, MoMA was a bit of a faceless building. No more. Architect Yoshio Taniguchi's bold new home for the museum is rising. When it is completed in 2005, it will nearly double the size of the old MoMA, creating a home for the ages for the ageless art of the modern. 11 West 53rd Street.