As our yellow cab pulls up, an erudite voice declares: “This is The Plaza, and it’s 104 years old.” The dapper driver of a horse-drawn carriage, taking sightseers around Central Park, is spot on: the hotel was built in 1907. And there’s nowhere more stylish than this venerable grand dame of hostelries on Fifth Avenue at Central Park South.
Though it’s mid-March and spring has barely sprung, the weather gods have decided to bestow on New Yorkers a summer’s day. Luggage dumped, we cross the road to the Park, a huge space heaving with picnickers, walkers, joggers and cyclists in bare legs and spaghetti-straps on an unseasonably hot Friday afternoon.
Thoughts of renting bikes from an outlet near the Boatshed are soon quashed by the hilliness of the terrain; our cycling has been strictly limited to Singapore’s dead-flat East Coast Park. So, we find a table at a bar with a view of Boat Lake, great for people-watching over a couple of Buds as the shadows start to lengthen. The lake is a-splash with enthusiastic rowers, paths and banks teeming with sun-starved people soaking up the last rays. Tomorrow, it’s forecast to snow, and it does; “crazy weather”, agrees the doorman.
Compared with the unprecedented sum of US$12 million that was lavished on the original construction, the initial daily rate of $2.50 for a single room sounds piffling. In 2005, the hotel closed for a $400m renovation and restoration, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Those turn-of-the-century Americans were a fancy lot. In the public areas, there’s a general impression of chandeliers and acres of ceiling that have been pressed, panelled, painted and gilded to within an inch of their lives.
The hotel’s main restaurant – though it’s not open for dinner – is the Palm Court, famous for its exquisite stained-glass, lead-light ceiling. Unbelievably, a staff member tells us, it was taken down by Donald Trump when he owned The Plaza in the 80s; something to do with it interfering with the aircon. Kudos to its new managers, the Fairmont hotel group, for restoring the ceiling to its original splendour.
Previously a gentlemen’s club, the richly panelled Edwardian Room is popular for weddings, and – when they’ve set up the catwalk – it’s probably the poshest venue for New York’s annual Fashion Week. Upstairs from the Lobby is the Rose Room, an atmospheric old space made edgy with funky lighting; live jazz or a DJ plays on certain nights of the week. Our favourite, though, is the Oak Room, famous for being a set for North By North West. The corridor approach is lined with big, black-and-white prints of famous patrons: the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving for a masked ball, Jackie O striding along the slush-lined pavement outside. At a corner table with a twilight view across to Central Park we sip Californian brut rose and watch the current passing parade.
Food and Shopping
We quickly pick up a breakfast bagel habit – they’re just so good. Green Cafés are everywhere, and we recommend the one on 44th Street at Madison, opposite Brookes Brothers. It’s $6.50 for a bagel with all the works, oozing cheese and spilling lox.
That fortifies Roy for a marathon shopping stint at Brookes Brothers; he loves their original button-down shirts, and even more that he gets them for US$70 each rather than the S$175 you have to fork out here. Meanwhile, I trawl the adjacent Fifth Avenue block. Then it’s the 4, 5 and 6 subway line downtown to Fulton Street and Century 21, the massive top-brand outlet store. But it’s Saturday, and the place is crazy-full. So we head back uptown to the iconic Grand Central Station and its massive Oyster Bar: a platter of eight fat ones for $18, perfect with a glass of chardonnay to soothe jangled nerves.
Full marks to the Rough Guide: every one of its recommendations we try is brilliant, and most within walking distance of The Plaza. Starved of our favourite Greek food in Singapore, we find Persephone on 60th Street East for a simple yet perfect meal of mixed dips, char-grilled octopus, horiatiki, gigantes and potatoes, washed down with retsina. The place is packed; you need to book. It’s the same the next night at Quality Meats on 58thStreet, just behind The Plaza. Expecting a typical, old-fashioned steakhouse joint, we’re surprised by a chichi eatery over two levels, where first-class waiters and sommeliers serve us great sirloins on the bone, contemporary salads and a gorgeous claret from Napa Valley.
For a dose of culinary nostalgia, head for the well-worn Edison Hotel on 47th Street in the heart of the theatre district. Its atmospheric 1920s lobby is a living Art Deco jewel. Though the booths in the diner-style café have been serially renovated in formica and cheap leatherette over the decades and the floors covered with bland cream tiles, the walls and ceilings are still rich with their original Art Nouveau mouldings and sconces. A formidably blonde and leathery waitress earns her tip by barking at me: “A beer? You 18?” when I order Buds to go with my cheeseburger and Roy’s browned hash with poached eggs.
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