Barnett on Business Travel



September 22, 1991 -- After going to seed for a few years, the core of the Big Apple - midtown Manhattan - is blossoming again.

Local trendies and bottom-line businesspeople who followed loft-dwelling artisans down to funky lower Manhattan are slowly migrating back up to the heart of the city - north of 42nd Street. And so are New York's visitors.

Midtown merchants who were charging stratospheric prices in the late '80s are wheeling and dealing. You can find genuine values in many stores and shops. New or redecorated hotels are plentiful and competitively priced.

Chic restaurants, historically friendly to regulars and sometimes snippy to outsiders, are now courting customers with caring service and more-for-your-money menus. Indeed, New York City's red carpet, ratty in recent years, has been redyed, vacuumed, fluffed up and unfurled.

Still, midtown Manhattan is hardly a squeaky-clean Disneyland, so here are some visitor ground rules culled from lifelong New Yorkers.

Avoid the gaudy, triangular Times Square environs - 42nd to 45th where Broadway and Seventh Avenue join. Despite a ballyhooed cleanup campaign and several new hotels, including $159 per night at the Embassy Suites, this fringe area in the theater district still has its fleshpots, greasy fast-food joints and junky souvenir shops. Only now the street people seem more menacing. Why risk a hassle?

Also, avoid subways at night and gridlocked taxies at rush hour. Manhattan has an excellent if unheralded public bus system at $1.15 a ride with transfers. In getting around midtown, it's faster to walk. Even on foot, the trick is to cut your traveling time and still savor the city.

A great example of the new excitement in midtown is on the corner of 51st and Lexington: the 730-room new Loews New York Hotel. Actually, it's the old Loews Summit, but Loews Hotels chief executive officer and civic dynamo Jon Tisch just sunk $26 million into this 30-year-old landmark and the difference is amazing. I know.

I had a nightmarish experience here three years ago that cost me $185 for less than a night and I vowed I'd never come back. But the hotel has been redesigned, renamed, restaffed, and has a warm new general manager, Rich Casale, a top hotelier from Hyatt.

Walk in now and the bellmen smile. A lobby wall was torn down to make way for the Lexington Avenue Grill, a terrific bar and bistro with deco-designed mahogany motif and comfortable chairs. Prices are great for New York City: $4.50 drinks (the Helmsley Palace is at $9 per cocktail these days) and delicious Caesar salads at $7.

On a recent Thursday, a customer had commandeered the microphone and was belting out a terrific version of the Sinatra classic "New York, New York." New York sports great Joe Namath, the legendary Jets quarterback, and former New York Yankee second baseman Phil Rizzuto, now the team announcer, were being inducted into the hotel's "Wall of Fame." A giant TV was screening the U.S. Open. Pure Big Apple, and lots of fun.

All the orchestrated fun is no accident. Tisch, a tireless New York drumbeater, insists the excitement "never left midtown but as hotels and store expanded, they went elsewhere. But now it's all coming back."

He spent $5 million on the lobby alone. And Tisch feels Loews New York is now equipped to "welcome home anyone who ever lived here or visited here."

Room prices at Loews New York and most other midtown hotels are flexible and negotiable these days, with the rock-bottom corporate rate at $125 a night. The 17th floor E.S.P. Lounge has a free breakfast, all New York newspapers, evening liqueurs, and a helpful staff headed by Ada Rodriguez who, cheerfully changes plane reservations, wangles tough theater tickets and wraps gifts.

The hotel has a serious health club with Stairmasters and Nautilus, Jacuzzi and sauna - all free and open long hours, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. There is a business center and even a 45- minute three-course $10 "express" lunch for the busy and the budget- minded.

A few doors away at 501 Lexington is The Roger Smith, a smaller, remodeled hotel that claims to be in the center of Manhattan, which has a corporate rate of $135 and most can get in. It has nice touches at no cost - a manager's wine tasting, overnight shoe shines and VCRs with a library of 2,000 videos. Splashy modern paintings cover the walls, and the small teak front desk has an exuberant multinational staff. The clientele seem to be mainly senior level U.N. types.

Eavesdropping in the lobby, I heard a distinguished gentleman whisper into his cellular phone: "Can we meet at the Indonesian Lounge in 10 minutes?"

No one dawdles in midtown. At the Instant Shoe Repair at 591 Lexington, Georgia will give you new leather soles and heels in 15 minutes flat for $28. Next door at the Pax Deli, buffet breakfast is sold by the pound at $3.29 per. "Customers serve themselves and it's fast, fast," says a smiling counterman.

There must be at least 1,000 camera and electronic stores in midtown, but the hottest at the moment is Brothers at 599 Lexington, which sells Toshiba laptop computers as low as $429.

"I check out the prices of all my competitors and try to price underneath them on everything,' contends General Manager Sam Mizrahi. He sells new Nikon 70/210mm telephoto lenses for $189 with warranty, down from $249.

New York City is always full of surprises, and to find them, just start walking. I walked into a new multilevel, combo hip haberdashery and bar/restaurant called Boogie's Diner at 711 Lexington. It looks like a cross between the Hard Rock Cafe and The Gab: a gleaming Harley- Davidson hanging from the ceiling, meat loaf sandwiches and California wine on the menu, and eye-popping colors galore.

I'm browsing the huge boot department - no shoes, only boots and there's a furor at the front door. Cher, in her trademark fishnet stockings and stylishly torn black leather aerobics workout wear, dropped in, I was told, to do a little shopping.

For civilized dining, Le Cirque, at 58 65th St., is one of Manhattan's premier French restaurants with 40 cooks in the kitchen. Usually, it's tough to get a reservation and conventional wisdom is the bill will give you indigestion unless you're an expense account diner. But not true. Le Cirque these days has a special fixed-priced, three-course lunch for $29.

Says Benito, the manager: "We take no shortcuts here. We work 16 hours a day to have the best restaurant that it's possible to have."

His competitors are working just as hard. The Regency Hotel at Park and 61st, birthplace of the so-called "power breakfast," just redesigned and reopened 540 Park, its centerpiece restaurant favored by show business and sports celebrities ranging from actor Harrison Ford to tennis superstar Jimmy Connors. And prices are not any more expensive than any fine big-city restaurant.

Indeed, enjoying midtown New York seems to be a little easier these days because the crowds are thinner. A lifelong New Yorker says she always checks out the half-price ticket booth at Broadway and 46th for Broadway and off-Broadway theater and usually gets a great deal. But don't expect to get seats for "Phantom of the Opera" or "Miss Saigon" there.

The Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center is a must visit for a quiet cocktail or supper club dining and dancing. After a multimillion- dollar restoration, it has recaptured the splendor of New York in the '30s and '40s. And it is not just a tourist haunt.

The night I was there, it was packed with Manhattanites. Service is friendly and professional and, again, prices are not shocking. Plus, you can't top the view.

Nevertheless, bring money - if only to do a little early holiday shopping. I was looking at Parker fountain pens in a camera store and was told prices start at $89. I walked away from the counter and the clerk called out after me, "Hey, would you pay $59?"

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union.

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.