hose chicks on Sex In The City have it pretty good. They dress up all slinky and hit clubs where the drinks are pink, the guys are built like firemen (or else the guys are firemen), and everybody talks to everybody else. Ha. Maybe art imitates life sometimes, but the last time I went to a New York nightclub, I stood in the rain for thirty minutes before getting in, paid twenty bucks at the door, and proceeded to get ignored by about five hundred women dressed like dominatrix vampires. Don't get me wrong: I love dominatrix vampires. Plus, I have money. Plus, I'm cute. But I'm not ready to stand on a bar and yell: "Hello, slinky women! I have money! And I'm cute! Lower your hip social defenses and approach!" Well, maybe I'm ready to, but if I do, some bouncer-cum-fireman will toss me back out in the rain.
To be sexy in New York -- or anywhere, I think -- you have to be comfortable. You can be strutting Fifth Avenue or slumming in a pub, but you have to feel good about what you're wearing, whom you're with, what you're spending, what you're drinking, all of it. Call me crazy, but it also helps to be able to hear your own voice and that of the vampire next to you. So, in the name of sex, comfort and conversation, here are five hotspots to check out on your next trip to Manhattan. They run the gamut from the high style of Madison Avenue to the no-frills Bowery, but they're as sexy, romantic and just plain cool as anything Sarah Jessica Parker might suggest.
LeCirque 2000 (on Madison Avenue, between 50th and 51st Streets)
gets my high-end vote for the swankiest restaurant and cocktail lounge in town. Located inside the New York Palace Hotel, across from St. Patrick's cathedral, LeCirque is the posh circus that its name promises. At night, the courtyard's giant statues of animals sport hides of tiny white lights, and the twin glass torches in the cocktail lounge reach almost a story high themselves. The best bottle of wine in the house costs $9,000, but for eight dollars get yourself a glass of the delicious Moscato D'Asti.
At LeCirque, you can mix with the famous and the finely dressed (coats and ties are required for gentlemen), as well as with young lovers aching for a night of New York Society. In the last two years, my regular server in the cocktail lounge has waited on Bill Clinton, Michael Jordan, Bill Cosby and Kathleen Turner. Woody Allen has a favorite table, and Natalie Portman came in for her sixteenth birthday.
LeCirque specializes in that one word which every woman knows is the secret key to sex: chocolate. Dinner at LeCirque is pricey, elegant and delicious (especially the tuna tartare), but unless you're packing a few hundred dollars, come for drinks and dessert. Sit in the lounge on giant, high-backed banquette couches and order the Chocolate Fondant or the famous LeCirque Stove. This last is a mini chocolate stove over a chocolate coffee opera cake. The stove actually opens, and a favorite tradition has grown in recent years: a nervous young man will often arrive at LeCirque and pass a small jewelry box to the bartender. An hour later, as the young man sits with his beloved, a waiter presents her with the LeCirque Stove, her engagement ring hiding inside. (They've all said yes so far!).
The No-Malice Palace (on East Third Street between Avenues A and B)
The name alone should be enough to seduce you, but you won't find any sign or marquee outside this hip Alphabet City bar. Look instead for a single green light glowing beside the street door (it's just across from Mama's Food Shop). The Great Gatsby kept a similar green light glowing on the docks of his Long Island estate, and while The No-Malice might not offer you the swimming pools and love affairs of the Jazz Age, it has a mythical charm all its own.
Inside, The No-Malice Palace is as guileless and romantic as its name. Friendly, convivial bartenders pour Cosmopolitans and chat with anyone who bellies up to the bar. The main chamber is a darkened cave with red wall lamps and simple white candles on the tables. Patrons laze about on couches. The mood is that of a slightly Gothic drawing room, but if any vampires lurk at The No-Malice, they've left their blood-sucking days behind; now they just kick back with a bottle of Bass and listen to Moby.
Most of The No-Malice clientele seem like regulars, but, in my three visits there, I've never felt like an outsider. The owner, Phil, always mixes with customers, and if a small group books the Palace and secures a DJ, they have to allow strangers to wander into their party. Keep an eye out for Judy and Maria, two attractive and undyingly funny No-Malice regulars. They camp at the bar and offer a running commentary on the perils and pleasures of the New York work and dating scene. Note to guys: if you're lucky, Judy and Maria might send a wink or a wonderfully crafted insult your way.
The Cloisters (in Upper Manhattan's Fort Tryon Park)
Even the sexiest city dweller has to do something in the daylight hours. So, if the sun's out and you're up for some culture and magic, take the subway north to 190th Street and visit The Cloisters. It's a castle museum devoted to the art of medieval Europe, but it's most famous for its commanding view of the Hudson River and for the fairytale mood of its rooms. The walk alone from the subway to the castle is worth the trip: you'll wind along a cliff and through pristine, elaborate gardens. These gardens and The Cloisters castle itself have been featured in several New York City movies, including last year's Edward Norton romantic comedy Keeping The Faith and the 1970s Clint Eastwood suspense flick Coogan's Bluff.
Once you're in the castle itself, you'll feel a bit like you've wandered into Narnia, Middle Earth or some other realm of make-believe. There are staircases, crypts, ramparts, herb gardens, doorways that duck you into shadowed nooks, even a medieval treasury. One elegant chamber features a series of enormous hanging tapestries that tell in pictured sequence the tale of a unicorn being hunted by knights and hounds. (A certain fiction writer who shall remain nameless may even have set a key romantic scene of his new book in that very chamber).
The deepest charm of The Cloisters is its mood. There's a living, palpable silence to the place, as if the entire castle is holding its breath, waiting for something wonderful to happen. And wonderful things do happen at The Cloisters. Much more often than at any other museum in New York City, you'll see couples holding hands or nuzzling one another as they stand before an array of golden chalises or a display of hand-painted twelfth century Bibles. In fact, when I visited the castle last week, I happened to be with a beautiful woman, and we sat on the castle wall looking at the river and got a little kissing done, and suddenly, trying things medieval took on a whole new slant.
The Bowery Ballroom (on Delancey Street between Chrystie and Bowery)
No matter how much you love grinding to house or techno, you'll never hear the real soul of New York City unless you seek out live music. For the DJ-weened among you, live music is what occurs when scruffy musicians – actual people! -- take up their guitars and drums and rock the freaking house. And there's no better house to visit for wall-shaking sound than The Bowery Ballroom.
Located downtown on a grimy, unassuming block, The Bowery Ballroom surprises you with its blend of class and grit. Upstairs, it's a lovely, high-ceilinged theater that's been converted into a first rate rock venue; the stage is cut into one wall, there are balconies above, and the floor can hold a crowd of maybe five hundred people. I saw Matthew Sweet play there last month, and the audience featured die-hard fans dancing near the stage as well as couples standing draped over one another, kissing or singing along.
Downstairs, one floor below the stage, thirsty patrons can take a break from the chaos up above and idle around a fully stocked island bar or else sit in the corners on couches, flirting and chatting. Many live music bars in New York are cool but cramped; The Bowery Ballroom is just large enough and just small enough to let you feel intimate and anonymous all at once.
The real power of The Ballroom is in its line-up of acts. Most of the performers are bands, and most of those are some flavor of alternative rock. The bands' names may not be the most widely known, but they're never dull; in a given week The Ballroom might feature They Might Be Giants, The Heroin Sheiks, Self-Scientific, Pork Tornado and The Toadies. The Ballroom occasionally reincarnates itself, too. For instance, in May 2001, The New Yorker magazine will host part of its annual Literary Festival on The Ballroom stage. The main attraction at that sold-out show? England's own superstar authors, Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby.
The Evelyn Lounge (on Columbus Avenue, between West 78th and West 79th)
Everybody needs a great bar in his home neighborhood, and on the Upper West Side of New York, where I live, that great bar is The Evelyn Lounge. It's an uptown version of The No-Malice Palace, with a little extra wash of class and color. Try The Ocean Grill next door for a top-notch seafood dinner, then climb the steps and enter the dark but gentle lair of The Evelyn. Long red velvet curtains border the windows, brick and wood walls give the lounge a rugged flair, and a lighted hearth warms the taproom. There's also a jazz club downstairs at The Evelyn, but it's the upstairs lounge that has the more embracing atmosphere.
The main chamber feels like something out of the board game Clue or perhaps a Dorothy Parker social club; there are tables, couches, stools and chaise daybeds, so you can mix with a group or just bring a book and drink solo. The music is good but low and the cocktail servers are attentive and polite. On my last trip to The Evelyn, my waitress was a gorgeous young woman who'd just moved from rural Kentucky to Manhattan to become a Radio City Music Hall Rockette. If you're not familiar with The Rockettes, they're a famous troupe of tall, leggy Manhattan dancers, and I bet every male customer at The Evelyn would like to become particularly familiar with this particular Rockette, if you catch my meaning. But it's a testament to the comfortable style of The Evelyn that this waitress wasn't haughty, quick or standoffish, as so many of this city's beautiful people can be. Maybe when it comes down to it, I like the lazier side of New York, and maybe I should've called these five places not hotspots but warm spots, because that's what they are: warm, welcoming corners where the lights are low, where the spirits are right, where you can relax and move toward love in the dark.
Copyright © 2001 David Schickler