Saturday, June 6, 2009

Accomplishment #32: Dine High End on a Low Budget (#22)

Last week I was in New York City. Ahhhh... I love New York. There is nowhere in the world like it. Walking down the street I feel like That Girl, ready to fly a kite or twirl a floral umbrella or wink at a mannequin. Or something.


Frank Sinatra was right -- when you're there (or not), you want to be a part of it, old New York. You can't help but think of all the books and movies and music and glamor and squalor and history. On Fifth Avenue, you think of Holly Golightly at dawn in last night's finery. In the Village you think of beatniks and jazz, baby. At the Met I think of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the lower East Side I think of The Alienist, and of course Midtown is Dorothy Parker and her Round Table compatriots or Deborah Kerr racing to meet Cary Grant atop the Empire State Building. Then there's Woody Allen and Seinfeld, When Harry Met Sally and Harriet the Spy, Paul Auster and Holden Caulfield, CBGB's and "21." (And Paul's Boutique by The Beastie Boys when in Brooklyn -- awwww, yeah!) The list goes on and on and on. It's the pulse of the world, the capital of dazzle and substance, the epicenter of excitement...

And it's super, super expensive. Like, crazy expensive.

I'm lucky -- I was there for work, so it all wasn't out of my own pocket. But I'm a good girl (or try to be), and I try not to take advantage of my company, eating as cheaply as possible. Which isn't all that easy to do -- it adds up, and fast. Even fast food restaurants are way more expensive in Manhattan, though "street meat" is cheap but let's face it, risky.

So last week when I had gotten in I had been starving and had grabbed a bite, using up my quota for the day. After resting a bit and attempting to brush my hair, I walked up to Times Square from my hotel (on 7th across from Madison Square Garden) to meet my old friend Suze. The city had blocked off Times Square to traffic, rerouting cars, and had set up lawn chairs in the street. It was thronging with tourists and sailors for Fleet Week, and the lights are so bright that even though it was 9 o'clock, it was like daylight. We sat on the red neon steps under the Coca Cola sign and took it all in.

Manhattan May 2009
our view from where we were sitting

While it was exciting, there is a fact about having that many people around: elbows and feet in your face. So we took some touristy pictures and decided to go find something to eat.

We poked around the Great White Way, sneaking into theaters to ooh and ahh over their intricate ceilings and loges, and marveling at all the star-studded Broadway productions that are going on right now. West Side Story, 9 to 5, and Blithe Spirit with Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury and Christine Ebersole (she was THE BEST in Grey Gardens, the only show I've ever seen on Broadway proper). It's astonishing really, how many shows there are. (And remember -- expensive!)

We didn't know where to eat, but I was happy wandering aimlessly, turning onto W. 44th St. And there was the legendary Sardi's.


Sardi's is one of those New York institutions, the kind of place you dream about getting all snazzy and ordering filet mignon and Baked Alaska. Founded in 1927, it has always been thee restaurant for the theee-aaaa-tah crowd, attracting actors and audiences alike. The Tony Awards were founded there, and it still is thee spot for opening night parties and photo ops. Its trademark is the caricatures of all the stars, everyone from Helen Hayes to even Clay Aiken ("the Gayken"), framed and hung in the dining rooms and bar.

And it's even been a star in movies itself -- here it is in Please Don't Eat The Daisies with Doris Day and David Niven, 1960:

Fast forward to the 5:37 mark -- Sardi's!

"Oooh, Sardi's!" I breathed, like the tourist geek I am. "Can we go in and just have a drink? I've always wanted to..."

"Sure," Suzie shrugged. She lived in New York for years and is an actress -- she is far worldlier than I. She swung the door open and we went in, leaving behind the New York street sounds and stepping into hushed voices and clinking silver and glass, and quiet, jazzy music.

I felt a little thrill of excitement. I was going into the venerable Sardi's! I have always just dreamed of dining at Sardi's with the hoi polloi, while wearing a taffeta Dior dress with gloves and ankle strap heels, my laugh tinkling (not cackling), sharing witticisms and martinis with Cole Porter. (Okay, fine, my Sardi's fantasy is circa 1952, but STILL. All my fantasies are, if you haven't figured that out by now.) But instead of a taffeta Dior and ankle straps and opera length gloves... I was... I was... oh God...

...I was wearing a SWEATSHIRT.

A black hooded sweatshirt that I had put on that morning, covered in cat hair and Munchies crumbs and airplane germs. And jeans and Hush Puppies and messy hair. Now, I know that casual wear is de riguer now -- one doesn't even have to wear a tie to even "21" anymore (which I lament -- I wish there were more places that upheld outdated civility) -- but COME ON. A sweatshirt? Cole Porter was spinning in his grave, and Cecil Beaton and Lily Dache were giving me the ghostly stinkeye.

But the bartender was very nice, and laughed when I stammered that I wouldn't normally wear a sweatshirt to such an establishment. And the maitre d' let us sit in the dining room to sip our drinks, since the shows hadn't let out yet and it was virtually empty. We gawked at the caricatures ("Look, there's Lucy!" "Awww, there's Dom Deluise!"), craning our necks and twisting in our seats. All decorum and nonchalance was abandoned, and I felt like the two rube suburban girls in Catcher in the Rye, silly and guileless in the Big City. Such rubes, in fact, that the busboy took our picture.

Manhattan May 2009
Tourist geeks

"Let's look at a menu for fun," I said, and the waitress brought us the post-theater supper selection, and we perused the twenty dollar hamburgers and forty dollar steaks. But when I saw they had French Onion Soup for under ten dollars, I realized that this would be my Accomplishment, dining high end on a low budget. And I would actually eat at SARDI'S.

So I got the soup:

Manhattan May 2009

Suzie got french fries:
Manhattan May 2009
Starchy goodness

And ate lots of good French bread.
Manhattan May 2009

And this was our bill:
Manhattan May 2009
Probably the lowest bill they had all night. And NOTE: My work did NOT pay for this!

People started trickling in as the shows were letting out, and it started filling up. And Rupert Everett came in, dressed even worse than I was, and sat beneath his own picture. Talk about ego! And no, we didn't take his picture. We're tourists, but not that bad. Now, had he been, say... PATTY DUKE... that's another story. ahem.

And since we were paying customers, we felt entitled to poke around the closed upstairs dining room and bathrooms, where we took lots of photos:

Manhattan May 2009
Aren't these beautiful?

Manhattan May 2009
Just THINK of who used these booths, before the advent of cell phones...

Manhattan May 2009 Manhattan May 2009
Anita Loos, Shelley Winters

Manhattan May 2009
Sammy and Dick!

Manhattan May 2009 Manhattan May 2009
Myrna Loy, Farrah and Liz

And then I discovered that I'd actually been there before, in the guise of The Gooch:

Manhattan May 2009
Peggy Cass, aka Agnes Gooch

Manhattan May 2009
Uncanny, isn't it?

Except she is wearing pearls, NOT a sweatshirt.

So as Auntie Mame told Agnes Gooch, "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death," we ate -- CHEAP -- at that banquet. I highly recommend it.

French fries: $4
French Onion Soup: $9.75
French Bread: free
Dining at Sardi's for less than $20 and being able to say you ate there: priceless

Manhattan May 2009
Such a glamorous Accomplishment!

Thirty-two down, 65 to go.


alix said...

LOVE this post dahlink. That Goochie illustration was amazing. Totally you!

New York really is an amazing place, huh!
What is your work, may I ask?

Sparkleneely said...

Alex -- isn't that a scream? of course I wish I were more Auntie Mame, but you know, the Gooch LIVED!

I love New York. I've been lucky and was there twice this month! I work for a publisher, so May is our big month for selling our new frontlist to reps, and last weekend was Book Expo America. There were all these publishing parties, but I wound up doing stuff like eating soup at Sardi's and hanging out with friends. Can't complain!


Dusty said...

I haven't been to the Big Apple in ages but it truly is a special place. The first time I stood in Times Square, I couldn't believe it. I thought Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, and Jules Munchin were going to drop from out of the heavens in their sailor costumes from Anchors Aweigh and start singin' and skippin'!
Great post as well!

Sparkleneely said...

Dusty -- SAME HERE! Or Trini Alvarado! And of course the line, "The Bronx is up and The Battery's down, New York, New Yoooork!" is on constant replay in my head the whole time.

It's an amazing place. I hope you get back there soon!

larajanepark said...

you always amaze me Karen...

nora leona said...

Great photo essay - I also love New York and try to soak up all of the energy while I'm there.

I always treat myself to tea or a cocktail in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. I try to channel Dorothy Parker and look sophisticated. Or to not trip over the cat.

You look hipper and more pulled together in a sweatshirt than I do on a dress-up day.

The Sardonicist said...

it says a lot about a city that can contain references to "breakfast at tiffany's", the beastie boys, jerry seinfeld, and the met all in one paragraph. it says even more about the person who can make that connection.

fantastic post!! i LOVE how you are a celebrity at sardi's, even if only by proxy. (your comparison photo has made my entire week!!)

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

You're the only other person I 'know' who read 'The Alienist.' That being said, I loved this post and if I ever get to New York I'm going to the Exact Same Thing. Les Petits will have to wait outside on the sidewalk.

Sparkleneely said...

Oh Lara, you amaze me, too. And your itinerary hasn't been to shabby the past few years -- far more glam than soup at Sardi's! xoxoxo

Nora -- SAME HERE!!! OMG, The Algonquin is like my church! I go every time! Even after we went to Sardi's, we walked down 44th and I took Suzie to the Gonk to say hello to Matilda. I'd had drinks there a few weeks ago so I didn't this trip, but it's a tradition. The Brandy Alexanders are my favorite... And I usually wind up having a few too many and start getting weepy at the majesty of it, because Dorothy Parker is my patron f-ed up saint. I'm so happy to have "met" someone who does the same thing -- but you probably don't get all teary saying, "No! You don't undershtand! Thish ish my dream come true!" and no one says, "Um, okaaaay, Nora..." ;)

Sparkleneely said...

Skorpeo darling -- now, you KNOW that I love San Francisco. But eating a croissant while wearing a tiara in front of The Tiffany in Union Square is NOTHING compared to eating a croissant in front of the mothership on Fifth Avenue. NOTHING. New York is a hellluva town. How I wish I had moved there when I was younger, just to try it out. (And how I wish I were stinking rich and could have done it all.) And thank you... I'm a big nerd. What can I say? ;) xoxoxo (PS I miss you, and am looking forward to baby Skorp.)

Tessa -- I LOVED "the Alienist." (Couldn't get into the sequels, though.) It was so fantastic, and I really do think of it, more so than other books. I want to go back and read it again -- it's one of those books that at the end of each chapter I'd gasp and keep reading, staying up til 3 am. It's been a long time since I've felt the pull of a book like that. And I'm glad I "know" someone else who's read it -- and remembered it -- too! And yes, DO this. Les Petits can come in and eat some bread if they must. ;)

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

Oh dear, I get so hungry every time I scroll down those pictures of french fries and onion soup! I've given you an award over at my place.

@MoLo_ said...

Yeah, totally uncanny!

Oh, now I'm hungry. Thanks! ;(

carrieswing said...

Live? LIVE??

Awwwww that really was priceless, and I am just in tears now! (OK the Agness Gooch did it for SURE!)

Brilliant as usual Darling!

Mimi Pond said...

Karen, did I tell you the story of Patty Duke picking up Lulu's friend's mom when she was a teenager hitchhiking through Laurel Canyon? Patty had a bottle of wine on seat next to her!

Nick Rossi said...

Nice post. I haven't quite got this down. It would seem every time I attempt something similar in NYC (The Four Seasons, The 21 Club), I end up going carpe diem rather than a la carte and usually spend half of my vacation budget. Oh well. Lesson learned. Again. Thank you teacher.

Dane said...

What a wonderful post!

There is more than one sequel to the Alienist?? I LOVED that book, and didn't mind at all the Angel of Darkness.

Monica said...

WOW that was cheap!!! I never ate there! it looks like fun!! a reason i dont go to the city EVER, its just too darn expensive! i used to go all the time! i just go in when my boyfriend has a wrap party (free!!) and thats about it!

Robin said...

Oh my gosh! TOO FUN!! I loved reading about your trip!
Loved the pics, too. You DO look like the Gooch!!

I was enjoying the last pic with you girls outside and my eyes scanned down the photo to your adorable white socks when I squealed, "My purse!"

What fun!! :)

Siouxsie said...

What a wonderful and wonder-filled night the Big Apple whisked us into! We always find our adventures Kai or they find us....xxo!

TJB said...

I'm a bit late to the party, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the posts of yours that I've read, and particularly this one about my darling New York.

When I moved here as a naive but knowing 18 year old in 1994, I expected it to be the 20th Century Fox version, circa 1953. It wasn't, of course, but beyond the gray reality, there are still traces of The New York That Used To Be (And Might Never Have Been).

It tickles me that you still felt that sense of glamour and sophistication on your visit(s); I think the point is that you have to have the proper sensibilities in the first place. If your fantasy is to hobknob with Cole at Sardi's or "21" whilst wearing a Dior cocktail dress, then you'll have a completely different perspective of New York (or anywhere, for that matter) than the visitor whose big dream is to, say, eat at the biggest TGI Friday's in the world.

Keep up the fabulous posts, and if you have some extra time on your hands, please check me out at

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