Day 8 – Leaving Manhattan

It’s our final day in Manhattan. Here’s the return video with one last Bobby Short version of a Cole Porter song, “Take Me Back to New York.”
We say goodbye to our comfy room at the Algonquin Hotel and then dine in the lobby, dreaming of lunching with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other wits at the Algonquin Roundtable. At the reception desk we say goodbye to Hamlet, the Algonquin cat, and the other gracious staff who work at our New York home away from home.

Then it’s back to Penn Station. We always take a sleeper back from New York so we can enjoy some privacy and a final scotch. Unfortunately, Amtrak has eliminated the white tablecloth dining cars that were also a favorite part of our return trip. Out of the window we look again for our favorite sights: a last look at the Manhattan skyline across the Meadowlands, the Trenton bridge sign, the Philly boathouses, the Washington Monument. Then it’s back home to reunite with our five cats, who soon forgive us for leaving them for a week.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our virtual visit. It’s odd, but I feel almost as sad that this visit is ending as I do when our real trip ends. Here’s hoping we can make it back to Manhattan for real later this year.

Day 7 – Sunday in New York

Our last full day in New York begins with a light breakfast at the Red Flame then Mass at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on West 46th St. Here’s a link to an interesting video that showcases St. Mary’s beauty. And here is the video I’ve put together which begins with a clip of High Mass and shows why the church is nicknamed “Smokey Mary’s.” The video then adds some of the highlights from the rest of our day with background of “Sunday in New York” sung by Bobby Darin.

After St. Mary’s we will head down to the Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue & East 36th Street. We have often heard of this museum’s beauty and its grand collection of rare books, but we haven’t had the chance to visit it yet.

After the Morgan, we will walk up Fifth Avenue to the St. Regis Hotel for drinks at the King Cole Bar. This is one of the most beautiful bars in New York, named for the mural by Maxfield Parrish, which originally graced the bar room in the Knickerbocker Hotel at Broadway and 42nd St., which opened in 1906. After the hotel closed in 1920, the mural was removed when the building was converted to an office tower. (It reopened as a hotel in 2015.) The mural was put in storage for several years and was later loaned to the New York Racquet Club on Park Avenue. In 1935, it was installed in a dining room at the St. Regis. It was moved to the smaller bar room in 2005.

Famous drinks seem to follow the mural. The Knickerbocker claimed to be the original server of the Martini in the United States, while the King Cole Bar claims to be the originator of the Bloody Mary (originally labeled the “Red Snapper”).

Another historical tidbit, in the basement of the Knickerbocker Hotel was a grill room, where Fred and Adele Astaire performed in December 1915 during a break from their vaudeville tour, ten years before they danced at the Club Trocadero.

Advertisement from the NY Times, Dec. 13, 1915

After drinks at the King Cole Bar, we will head to Feinstein’s/54 Below, a nightclub in the basement of the space that used to be Studio 54, the famous/notorious disco club of the late 1970s. Today it is a beautiful space, perhaps the only remaining classic nightclub/cabaret in Manhattan. Last year we saw Michael Feinstein perform there, and in previous years we have seen Marilyn Maye and Emily Skinner, a Richmond native.

After dinner and the show at 54 Below, it will be back to the Algonquin for one last scotch in the lobby bar before we head back to Richmond on Monday.

Today’s Drink: Single Malt Scotch (Islay)
Tonight’s Movie: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Day 5 – Belmont

On Friday, April 24, we planned to take the Long Island Railroad from Penn Station to Belmont Park for the opening day of racing. Here’s our video tour. The soundtrack is Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “New York, New York,” the official song of Belmont.

After a full day of watching races at Belmont and wandering through the historic grounds and perhaps picking a few winners, we will head back to Manhattan.

Last year, after an exhausting day at Aqueduct, we dined at Osteria al Doge just down the street from the Algonquin, so we may try that again this year.

Today’s Drink: Belmont Jewel (Belmont’s answer to the Kentucky Derby’s mint julep is a blend of bourbon, lemonade and pomegranate juice).

Today’s Dish: Mushroom Risotto from Osteria al Doge

Tonight’s Movie: Meet Me After the Show at first we thought about Secretariat, because of its culmination at Belmont Park, but we are going to try this musical starring Betty Grable, because it has a fantastic song “Better Off Betting on a Horse.” You can see a clip of that number on YouTube.

Day 6 – Central Park

Saturday is our day for exploring the beauties of Central Park, the amazing jewel in the middle of Manhattan. Our favorite Central Park excursion was four years ago, when we were able to ride horses along the park’s bridle path from the Tavern on the Green to the Reservoir near 97th Street. Unfortunately, the company that offered the trail rides stopped doing so two years ago, so we’ll do carriage rides and bike rides instead.

Later in the day we would visit two of the museums that border the park: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of the City of New York, the later has a wonderful permanent exhibit called New York at Its Core, which covers the amazing range of the city’s 400-year history.

Our favorite lunch spot is Grazie at 26 E. 84th St. not far from the Met. We stumbled upon this café several years ago and fell in love with their delicate, flavorful omelets.

For dinner tonight we will visit West 46th Street’s restaurant row. This was once home to many fine restaurants just two blocks from Times Square and perfect for dinner before or after a show. It once had a wonderful Russian restaurant, but that’s gone, and the block has gotten a bit dingy in recent years. Our favorite is La Rivista, a classic Italian café at 313 W. 46th St.

Today’s Dish: Smoked Salmon Omelet

Today’s Drink: Prosecco

Tonight’s Movie: The Fisher King (1991) starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. A touching movie, perhaps Williams’ best performance, and it has meaningful scenes in Central Park.

Day 4 – Broadway

“The Great White Way” is our focus today. Here’s the video, with another Bobby Short song, “Broadway.” (If you’re curious about the song’s background, I’ve put some details about it at the end of this post.)

After breakfast at another French restaurant on West 44th Street, Saju Bistro, Barbara roams through shops, while I head to the Shubert Archives, a theatrical research library on the second floor of the Lyceum Theatre on 46th Street in what was originally the lavish apartment of producer Daniel Frohman, who opened the theater in 1903. I first visited the Shubert Archives in 2016, early in my research for a biography of Fred Astaire. The gracious and knowledgeable curators opened their files, and I found a cornucopia of undocumented letters from Fred Astaire early in his Broadway career. After two full days there in 2017, I wrote an article, “Steps in Shubert Time: Fred Astaire in the Shubert Archives,” which the Archives published in 2018 in their “The Passing Show” newsletter. With so much interesting material and such wonderfully helpful archivists, I always try to spend at least a few hours here whenever I visit Manhattan.

After a morning at the Shubert Archives, it’s appropriate to go to Shubert Alley, just west of Broadway, between 44th and 45th Streets, connecting the Shuberts’ flagship theatre, the Sam S. Shubert, and the Booth. There’s an interesting tiny gift shop, One Shubert Alley. A bigger and more interesting store focused on Broadway is the Theatre Circle, farther west at 268 W. 44th St., which offers scripts, books on theatre history, posters, and much more.

We head back to Broadway and walk north to 52nd Street and gaze over at Rosie O’Grady’s Saloon and the Manhattan Club on the northwest corner of 52nd Street and Seventh Avenue. In 1925 this was the Club Trocadero, a fashionable night spot where Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, danced each night after having already performed for two hours in the Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! at the Liberty Theatre at 236 W. 42nd St.

Advertisement from “The New Yorker” May 2, 1925.

We then head back up Broadway to 54th Street and walk past the location of the old Ziegfeld Theatre, where the Astaires also once performed. Then it’s up to 55th Street and east to La Bonne Soupe, our favorite inexpensive Manhattan restaurant at 48 W. 55th St. We always savor their escargots and French onion soup and often indulge in a chocolate mousse for dessert.

After lunch we return to Broadway in time to pick up discount tickets at the TKTS booth at Duffy Square on 47th Street and Broadway. People watching as we wait in line is always fun. In the 1920s, this square was nicknamed the “Palace Beach” for the Palace Theatre across Seventh Avenue. Dozens of theatrical agents had offices in the floors atop vaudeville’s most famous theatre, and “at liberty” (out-of-work) performers would linger on the “beach” hoping to catch the eye of an agent or producer and snag a new billing.

After picking up our tickets, it’s back to the Algonquin for enjoying a scotch in the lobby, more people watching, and getting ready for tonight’s show.

Afterwards, we complete our day of Broadway nostalgia with a late dinner at Sardi’s. We always start with a Stinger, followed by a light dinner, and more people watching, as well as browsing the hundreds of classic star caricatures on the walls.

Today’s Song: “Broadway” from Bobby Short’s fantastic album, Songs of New York. The song was originally recorded by Count Basie in 1940. The song was written by Bill Bird, Teddy McCrae and William Henri Woode.

Today’s Drink: Stinger (Sardi’s)

Tonight’s Dish: French Onion Soup (La Bonne Soupe)

Tonight’s Movie: Love Is a Racket (which has scenes at Sardi’s)

Day 3 – Midtown Mélange

After Day 2’s long march from Lower Manhattan to Midtown, we stay within less than 10 blocks of the Algonquin today and spend much of the time indoors, enjoying one of the best breakfasts in New York and visiting more legendary spots. Here’s the video.

Breakfast begins at Café Un Deux Trois, located at 123 W. 44th St., across from the Lambs Club. They make superb omelets and crepes, but today we will partake of their vanilla cornflake-crusted French toast.

After breakfast we head east on 44th Street to Fifth Avenue and then down to the main branch of the New York Public Library. Three years ago, when I spent a week in Manhattan researching my Fred Astaire biography, I loved my hours in the Rose Reading Room and other areas in this special place. It’s second only to the Library of Congress for its beauty and massive collections. Today we will simply absorb the atmosphere and browse in its lovely gift shop.

After a brief walk through Bryant Park, it’s back up Sixth Avenue to 46th Street in time for Noon Day Prayer and Eucharist at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. We’ll post more on this beautiful, historic church on Sunday, when the High Mass with plentiful incense demonstrates how it gained the nickname “Smokey Mary’s.” The Wednesday service is quiet and intimate, usually with just a half dozen participants.

Afterwards, we walk back to Fifth Avenue and head to the Channel Gardens at Rockefeller Center and then visit the Concourse to browse in a few shops before heading to 52nd Street for two more treats: Lunch at the 21 Club and an afternoon at the Paley Center.

There are many reasons why we love the 21 Club: the jockey statues out front, the nearly 100-year-old history of this classic speakeasy, the diverse decorations that fill the Bar Room, and the even odder murals in the Men’s Room. But most of all, it’s the gracious service and the wonderful food. They make some of the best soups in New York, and the classic 21 Club Caesar Salad and the Steak Tartare are superb. The 21 Club inspires both the song for today’s video (Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor” sung by Mable Mercer, which includes a reference to the club) and tonight’s movie (Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster, which has key scenes inside and outside of the 21 Club.)

After a lingering lunch, we head next door to the Paley Center for Media. We maintain an annual membership at what used to be known as the Museum of Television and Radio and visit here every year for several hours of viewing their collection of obscure old TV shows, things you can’t find on YouTube or MeTV. Several years ago, I spent two full days here, when the gracious curators gave me special access to tapes of a BBC Radio biography of Fred Astaire produced in 1975 that are available nowhere else in the world. When we first started visiting the Paley Center, 20 years ago, you searched a computer database for the shows you wanted to see and then went to a different floor and sat at special TV consoles in partitioned desks to watch the shows that were piped from a central control center. Today, with almost all of the archived shows digitized, you search the collection and watch the show on the same computer monitor, listening through private headphones.

After several hours of viewing old TV shows (this year we would have been looking for Fred Astaire in “The Imp on a Cobweb Leash” (1957) and Victor Moore from a 1949 episode of “The Ed Wynn Show,” as well as any other serendipitous search results from the collection), we head back to the Algonquin to enjoy scotches in the lobby before heading to dinner.

Tonight we will visit for the first time Wolfgang’s Steakhouse at 4 Park Ave. It is in the basement of the former Vanderbilt Hotel and features the tile work of Rafael Guastavino, an early 20th century building engineer, whose unique tile work can also be seen in the Grand Central Oyster Bar and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In 1914, during the dance craze that swept Manhattan and the nation, the space was called the Della Robbia Room and featured a weekly club meeting where crowds performed the latest steps.

Today’s Dishes: 21 Club Caesar Salad and Wolfgang’s Steaks
Tonight’s Movie: Sweet Smell of Success

Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, 4 Park Ave.

Day 2 – Take Plenty of Shoes

Our first full day in Manhattan typically begins with breakfast at the Red Flame, a classic New York diner just a few steps from the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. We then walk to the Times Square subway on 42nd Street, taking the R train to City Hall and walk a half block to the Fountain Pen Hospital at 10 Warren St. For lovers of beautiful fountain pens, this store is nirvana, and Barbara enjoys trying out different pens and inks under the advice of the amazingly gracious experts in residence.

We then embark on our annual hike through Manhattan, which typically takes us on a winding trek through different neighborhoods and visiting different spots. This year we planned on walking down to Battery Place to visit the Skyscraper Museum, then past the Freedom Tower and the Oculus and up West Broadway to Washington Square Park. Eventually we would wind our way uptown, stopping by the Strand Bookstore (“18 Miles of Books”), the Flatiron Building and west on 23rd Street, where the Astaires lived in 1905 when they took their first dancing classes. Here is a short video with an annotated/animated map of our hike and the sites we would visit. The hike’s soundtrack includes two songs. The first is an antique novelty “Take Plenty of Shoes” (recorded in 1909 by Arthur Collins), and the second is the better known “Sidewalks of New York” sung by Bobby Short.

After the hike back to Midtown, we cap Day 2 with dinner at La Grenouille, a classic French restaurant on East 52nd Street. For years we walked by this restaurant every year on our way to the Four Seasons in the Seagram Building at Park Avenue. We always gazed at the flower-filled window, but we never dined there until the Four Seasons closed several years ago. The extravagant service and the exquisite food have since made this our favorite expensive restaurant in New York. We always request the pistachio soufflé, so tonight I’ll be trying my hand at one. Here’s the recipe.

Tonight’s Movie: The Belle of New York, starring Fred Astaire, dancing around and atop the Washington Square Arch

Day 1 – Traveling to NYC

The first day of our trip to Manhattan always begins with a trip on the Northeast Regional Amtrak train from Richmond’s Staples Mill Station up the East Coast to Washington’s Union Station (where the locomotive is switched from diesel to electric) then to Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and finally a glorious view of Manhattan across the Hudson and going down through the Hudson tunnels and emerging into the frantic busy-ness of Pennsylvania Station.

The sightseeing highlights of the trip are passing through Ashland’s Randolph-Macon University campus, where Barbara went to college, and then Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania campus, where John attended. After leaving Philly’s Pennsylvania Station, there are beautiful views of the Philadelphia Art Museum and the boathouses along the Schuylkill River. Soon there is the quirky “Trenton Makes … The World Takes” slogan on the bridge across the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We’ve posted a short video on YouTube highlighting these sights, with an audio track from James Taylor: “We Are Riding on a Railroad.”

After arriving at Penn Station, we take a taxi to the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street. The taxis nearly always take the same route, so we have created a short video using the Apple Maps “look around” feature of the trip, with an audio commentary about two of the often overlooked sights on Sixth Avenue. [You can find more details here.] The background song is the jazz tune “Call Me a Taxi” recorded by Bob Crosby and the Bob Cats. (Yes, he was Bing’s brother.)

After checking in at the Algonquin, we enjoy a scotch while unpacking, and then we always take a walk west on 44th Street to Times Square and then to Rockefeller Center and a late dinner at the restaurant adjacent to the ice skating rink. We have recorded another short Apple Maps video and added a favorite New York song by Bobby Short: “My Personal Property.” On the walk, we always gaze up at the historic Lambs Club on 44th Street and the I. Miller shoe store on 46th Street because of their Fred Astaire connection. [You can learn more about those bits of history here.]

Today’s NY Drink: Scotch (while unpacking at the Algonquin)

Today’s NY Dish: Hebrew National Hot Dogs (our usual Amtrak lunch)

Tonight’s NY Movie: “The Clock” starring Judy Garland with scenes at the original Penn Station