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Breakfast at the Breslin, Then a Walk

The streets near Madison Square Park and north to Greeley Square represent an aging section of the city, replete with great dowager buildings of glory years past and the fading songs of a hundred years ago. The streets serve up their own specialties - Tin Pan Alley itself on W. 28th between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, Korea Way on W. 32nd Street, and Broadway functioning as a wild wholesale district selling every whatnot imaginable.

Streetside views take in the splendors of the Flatiron Building from all angles and the ubiquitous over-the-shoulder shadows of the Empire State Building from above. NoMad, the name often given to this section of Manhattan north of Madison Park, managed to hide from the wrecking balls of mid-century, so several ornate buildings dating from the 1860s give the streets a slightly French air. Grizabella, the aging feline, and the Madwoman of Chaillot would be comfortable wandering the streets. As with Jean Giraudoux's play, I wouldn't be surprised if NoMad had its own aging Countess.


View Between Greeley and Madison Squares in a larger map

This eclectic hotel-centric neighborhood features accommodations of every sort, from high-end glamour to funky efficiency. Chain hotels normally associated with bland roadside architecture are dressed up here in elegant Beaux Arts exteriors. The NoMad name is particularly suitable for a place frequented by temporary residents. The restaurants here are varied, and many are amazing.

Nothing warms the hearts of old New Yorkers more than a great big fixed-up hotel lobby and accompanying restaurant, especially the kind that pays homage to history rather than erasing it; hence, the pleasures of the new Ace Hotel on W. 29th Street and its much-hyped restaurant, The Breslin. The husband and wife team of the design firm Roman and Williams have wisely allowed the former interior of the 1904 building to breathe a little, its ceilings and walls open here and there for admiration.

Essentially, the designers playfully inserted a new box in an old box, with the new box feeling like a dark and sexy private boy's club that has recently voted to let in the girls. When you think "hotel lobby," I know your mind instantly wanders to library tables, antique file cabinets of curiosity, taxidermies of skunks and specimens of dead birds, n'est-ce pas? A lobby bar, comfortable sofas and chairs, artwork, a photo booth (!), hi-tech-looking side tables on wheels, and more curious objects are set amidst oversize round columns and a traditionally-patterned tile floor. Giving your guests a variety of things to do, the chance to be social or to sit and read quietly, is a great gift. The hotel is welcoming and comfortable.

New Yorkers claimed the Breslin as their own at the time of its opening, and its democratic policy of no reservations means that diners must wait their turn. Designated an "it" restaurant by the forces of local food journalism, the gourmet hot spot gets rather busy for dinner. Breakfast is a good time to dine at the Breslin. While breakfast away from one's own kitchen is uneconomical in general terms, sometimes it's pleasant to start the day in lovely surroundings with someone else preparing the eggs. While there on a recent morning for breakfast, I enjoyed quietly sipping tea at a comfortable table while letting my eyes wander to the curiosities of the room. They have a nice fine arts collection of cow paintings, this Ace.

Now, let's walk. Rather than a fixed route, freestyle wandering best matches the spirit of NoMad. Across the street from the Ace Hotel entrance, be sure to look at the ornate Gilsey House, an apartment building that was formerly a hotel. Other lavishly ornate French style buildings dot the neighborhood, including the Hotel Wolcott (check out the lobby), the Radisson, and the La Quinta (yes, really).

Two churches just down the street from the Ace Hotel are worth noting. See the Marble Collegiate Church at 29th and Fifth Avenue, built in the 1850s, the church of Norman Vincent Peale (think positive!) as well as the romantic Church of the Transfiguration (right), also known as the Little Church. The latter has a long history with actors. One building near Madison Square, the Supreme Court Appellate Division, looks like it could collapse under the weight of its many classically inspired sculptures.

Adding excellent restaurants to this map proved to be a surprisingly lengthy process. I could have mapped many more by stretching the boundaries a block in any direction. Restaurants that did make this geographical cut include Hill Country for Texas barbecue, Les Halles and Artisanal for classic French, Tabla for Indian, Eleven Madison for fine dining, and Hangawi for Korean vegetarian. The neighborhood is easily accessible by subway.


Things have changed since those times, some are up in "G"
Others they are wand'rers but they all feel just like me
They'd part with all they've got, could they once more walk
With their best girl and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York.
- from "The Sidewalks of New York," by James W. Blake (lyrics) and Charles B. Lawlor (composer). 1894. A song from Tin Pan Alley.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple taken with her magical iPhone. More photos of the area in this slideshow on Flickr WOTBA.





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