MANHATTAN Idyllic island excursion among the skyscrapers

April 04, 1993|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

NEW YORK — New York--When a friend visiting from out of state last June asked to be shown a "fun weekend in the Big Apple," I knew just where to take him.

Not to the museums, monuments or hottest shows on Broadway. Summer in the city calls for breezier fare -- particularly for those who already have done the standard tourist trek. What I planned encompassed three ingredients that make New York sizzle, and not just from the summer swelter: music, great views and the magic of Manhattan outdoors on land and on water.

We feasted under the stars at the American Festival Cafe at Rockefeller Center, listening to live music of the '50s and '60s. We picnicked under a shade tree in Central Park as an Ecuadorean combo played on our left and a lone saxophonist wailed the blues on our right. We set off on a riverboat from the South Street Seaport and danced to a New Orleans rhythm band as we cruised past the Statue of Liberty. We danced the calypso and the salsa alongside the Hudson River at the Amazon Village, a club bedecked with palm trees, sandy beach and views of the Jersey coastline. Finally, we had a late, lovely brunch at the River Cafe on the Brooklyn waterfront, accompanied by a pianist's mellow tones and a view of yachts gliding by the Manhattan skyline.

We could have done much more had time and energy permitted. This summer, there's an abundance of options combining music, views and the open air. Here's a sample:

Dining

* The Summer Garden of the American Festival Cafe, Rockefeller Plaza, 20 W. 50th St.; (212) 246-6699. The famous Rockefeller Center ice rink becomes an outdoor restaurant in the summer, with a cascading fountain, live nighttime music (Tuesday through Saturday) and, from mid-May to September, one of the best dinner deals in town. Daily for $24.95, you get a "Down East Clambake Dinner," a whole Maine lobster with drawn butter, steamer clams, mussels, red-skin potatoes, corn on the cob, coleslaw, corn sticks, biscuits and a blueberry crumble sundae. The mood is festive, there's usually a breeze, and the Rockefeller Plaza backdrop -- with the gilded statue of Prometheus soaring overhead -- is very tony.

* The River Cafe, 1 Water St., Brooklyn, under the Brooklyn Bridge; (718) 522-5200. Isn't it romantic to dine on gourmet fare done up like works of art, while a pianist plays classic love songs and the Manhattan skyline glistens behind tugboats, yachts and tankers on the East River?

The River Cafe is no secret, so make a reservation well in advance and dress up for the occasion. I was surprised by the friendliness of the staff and the discovery that there isn't a bad seat in the house.

Prices are stiff, however. At lunch, my appetizer of three smoked salmon morsels cost $11 -- a bundle even though they were in the shape of a boat deck with a potato-crisp sail. Entrees are about double that, and more at dinner. But the food was great, and the service -- though not particularly efficient -- was pleasant, and it was all beside the point once the piano kicked in and the view grabbed us.

A tip for budget diners: The light fare on the deck is a much cheaper way to go -- $6 to $15. Or, you could just have drinks.

* The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park, East Drive and 72nd Street; (212) 517-3623. Set lakeside, with striped umbrellas and views of the park and skyline, the cafe is an indulgent alternative to picnicking in the park. The food is Northern Italian, the prices pure New York: $7 for antipasto, $13 to $25 for entrees. There's usually live music Tuesday and Thursday nights. Reservations are essential.

The Boathouse also operates a Venetian gondola you can charter (with a sometimes-singing gondolier) at $35 per half hour, sans food. The gondola holds up to six people, and you can buy a fruit plate and a bottle of house wine (about $30) to take along, but BYO is forbidden. Make reservations well in advance.

* Harbor Lights Restaurants, Pier 17, Third Floor, South Street Seaport; (212) 227-2800. The thought of dining on the outside patio above the East River overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge was music to my ears even before I learned dinner would be accompanied by a soulful piano player. The regular menu is pricey, but the grill menu of hamburgers, spicy Buffalo wings and pizza was under $10 an entree and well-prepared. And the maitre d' and waiters were very nice, going out of their way to accommodate my fickle sense of seating and an order change. This is a great place to take a break after a stroll around the seaport and its seemingly endless mall shops. We came here after a river cruise for a later dinner and sat gazing at the glittering Brooklyn Bridge long after we'd paid our bill.

Music and entertainment

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