7.06.2010

A Walk from The Plaza to The Waldorf: A Guide and a Map

The Plaza Hotel
Walking from the historic Plaza Hotel to the equally historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, with stops at points of interest nearby, is so easy that the stroll can be accomplished in dress shoes or in the highest of high heels. Indeed, fancy shoes would be appropriate, considering the dressed-up venues along the way, if only for the sake of a little play-acting. As anyone who has ever studied My Fair Lady or Breakfast at Tiffany's knows, affecting membership in the wealthy classes requires a few props and a tweak of the accent. Visitors may also want to tuck in their shirts. Or not. Even if you don't dress up, act like you own the place.

I've been curious of late to see if the Plaza Hotel has regained any of its older flair, being one of those people more than disappointed with its renovation. As a member of the shabby genteel, I can state with some assurance that the old hotel is lost, and a recent visit did not help allay my fears. A great hotel needs a great hustle and bustle in its lobbies and a rapid movement in and out of revolving doors - many people at the hotel desks, people sitting in the lobby chairs, families waiting on the late ones so they can go to the museum, a concierge explaining availability of tickets to a Broadway play, business people heading to the bar, and so on. The whole place should smell of old roses, a variety of perfumes, mildew, and cigar smoke from fifty years ago. The Plaza, which once had everything going for it, is lacking in these areas.

The hotel, though seriously gutted of its Old World ambiance, at least now has Todd English's Food Hall, a fairly interesting market that offers a variety of foods and counter service. The handsome Boston celebrity chef has brought us a wine bar, a place for charcuterie, a cheese and dessert bar, a pasta bar, and a nice three-quarter-sided dining counter for seafood. Even if some of the market items are available at any New York grocery store, the counter space is welcome, especially for light fare and a glass of wine. I can see the Food Hall working really well in the holiday season. For those who remember the old Plaza and miss the wonderful feeling of its lobby, I recommend revisiting the space through the cinematic magic of movie rentals.

Louis Vuitton
Speaking of the movies, the Food Hall at the Plaza is a good place to grab a snack before settling into a seat of the nearby Paris Theatre just to the south of the hotel on W. 58th Street. In fact, a pleasant way to spend a city afternoon could consist of a light lunch at the Food Hall, a screening at the Paris Theatre, and then a walk down to the nearby Pond in Central Park. Conventional tourist advice would add shopping visits to Bergdorf-Goodman, FAO Schwartz, and the Apple Store, all nearby, to these activities.

We're looking for the smell of old hotel lobbies, the kind of thing that should be sprayed into new hotels to make them more authentic, so we'll press on with our walk. We'll walk south on Fifth Avenue to 57th Street and turn east, stopping to look at the charming window display at Louis Vuitton in honor of the great French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue. This designer homage to the photographer, best known for his youthful images of Paris, celebrates the enduring whimsicality of the Eiffel Tower, especially the sort of luggage it takes to get there.




Borders/ Ritz Tower
Next up - the Four Seasons Hotel (not pictured). Suffice it to say that this isn't the sort of old school hotel we're looking for, but please venture into the entrance and tell me this is not the most intimidating hotel entrance on earth. (I dare not describe the experience fully, for I wish readers to go there themselves, but I left there with my knees shaking and a set of instructions to go find the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.) Before leaving E. 57th St., check out the Borders Bookstore on the east side of Park Avenue. From 1957 to 1971 the space was once home to Le Pavillon, one of the greatest French restaurants in New York. 

E. 57th and Lexington
Continue walking to the corner of E. 57th St. and Lexington Avenue, staying on the north side of the street. Here we'll stop at a round Renaissance structure, a product of the 1980s, cast our eyes southward, and then contemplate why we love Lexington Avenue so much. The answer is "affordable food." After crossing Madison Avenue and its expensive places and Park Avenue and its nonexistent spaces, Lexington arrives as a godsend, loaded with eateries, both large and small. This stretch of the avenue, from here down to 42nd Street, is wonderful for architecture, too. Among the attractions of the built environment, look for the Central Synagogue, the Citicorps Center (with its sunken public plaza), the Miami-like Doubletree Metropolitan Hotel, and across the street, the Art Deco General Electric Building (once the RCA Victor Building). Notice the Art Deco sign for the Subway on the south side, and while there, take a walk over to Park Avenue to see St. Bartholomew's Church (or "St. Bart's," as it's affectionately known), one of the city's most ornate churches.

Citicorps Center

Citicorps Center

General Electric Building
If Citicorps Center follows the guidelines for successful public spaces - moveable chairs, a water feature, the availability of food, art, etc., then the Waldorf Astoria Hotel has found the comparable formula for that elusive Old New York ambiance. The sort of qualities lacking at The Plaza appear in abundance when strolling into the shared spaces of the Waldorf - the concierge explaining the Broadway tickets, the faint smell of scotch emanating from the bar areas, the soft retro lighting in adjacent corridors, soft but clear notes on a piano, the rich bouquets of flowers properly set in vases. The sense of continuity between generations of New Yorkers seems unbroken.


For those for whom lingering in hotel lobbies may be too old school, I suggest a walk to the Roger Smith Hotel, an arts-friendly hotelier, and an elevator ride to its terrace bar on the 16th floor, Henry's Rooftop Bar. It's open Monday through Friday from 5 to 10 p.m. There, looking out over an old working section of the city, it's possible to have a drink and contemplate what's new in old Manhattan, and how, back in the day, they didn't have such clean air and so many rooftop bars.

Back on ground level, it's easy to find your way home via Grand Central Terminal. Pick up cooked meals to go at the Grand Central Market. At the end of such a walk, everything smells so good. Who knew such a glamorous walk would begin and end at a food court?


View From the Plaza Hotel to Grand Central Terminal in a larger map

Before going home, look at the Graybar Building in the late blue light of the closing day. Isn't it beautiful?

Graybar Building

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple made with the iPhone 4 camera.

3 comments:

Tinky said...

I do like the sound of the Todd English food hall, but I'm not sure I could bear to see the Plaza in general as you describe it. Of course, I could LIVE at the Waldof; couldn't agree with you more about it. (I guess a better word would be "would"; I couldn't afford it.) And let's not forget to mention that those piano notes from from Cole Porter's piano!

Lovely walking with you as always. I, alas, could no longer do this one in heels, though.

NYC, Style and a little Cannoli said...

I love this area! It is really nice to walk around these spots as I have stayed at the Barclay hotel and it is really so homey! I love Crumbs now at Grand Central and I did a post on the Food Hall in the Plaza. Food was excellent and Todd happened to be there the day my friend and I went. He looks real good in person! Great post!!

Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

Sometimes reading your posts is the most exquisite torture, Teri. I am a New Yorker trapped in a Chicagoan's body. Another delightful walk hitting all the right notes, my friend.