Meet 51st Street
Before I had a chance to begin my journey on 51st Street, I discovered a hidden stone staircase at the most eastern part of the street, which led me down to Peter Demtold Park. Engaging in conversation first thing in the morning with some of the neighborhood residents was the perfect way to get my adrenaline going. They encouraged me to wander across the walkway and observe the views of the East River, and beyond, before forging west.
It did not take long to find myself, once again, in another lush outdoor setting. Comfortably seated in Greenacre Park with its twenty-five foot wall of cascading water, I was able to contemplate both Ethos Gallery 51 – a Greek restaurant and art gallery whose entire interior, down to the beams that hold up the restaurant, come straight from Greece – and Le Bateau Ivre, a French bistro that could just as easily be on a side street in Paris.
Tearing myself away from this picturesque and tranquil scene, I moved into the heart of midtown at noon, where I observed professionals, streaming out of their office buildings in droves, in search of a little lunch and sunlight. Suit-clad men and women sat on the circular benches outside Rockefeller Plaza, and munched on sandwiches and salads from the numerous delis and eateries that surround this part of town. For those who preferred to eat indoors, the choices in steakhouses were plentiful. As I passed by each of them, they appeared to be filled almost to capacity including the newest on the block, NYY Steak, and the three in a row – Ted’s Montana Grill, Capital Grille, and Ruth’s Chris.
My time spent at Le Bernardin, prior to their guests arriving for lunch, allowed me the quiet pleasure to appreciate the majestic backdrop of this award-winning French restaurant. And, right around the corner, Le Bernardin’s sommelier opened his eponymous, Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, where the ambience is relaxed and playful.
As restaurants seem to dominate the streets in the 50s, I appreciated coming across three edifices that have strong histories unrelated to food. Sutton Place Synagogue’s story dates back to 1902, but it has only been on 51st since 1975. Spending time with the former executive director, I learned of the Jewish Town Hall Lecture series of 1981-1994. It was so popular that they had to close off the street and broadcast Elie Wiesel, Henry Kissinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer and a myriad of others as they spoke inside to a full house. I was intrigued by the collection that the Women’s National Republican Club has assembled since 1933 when they moved to 51st. The multiple floors were filled with antique furniture, tapestries, busts, photographs and paintings. It was the attractive red brick exterior that initially caught my attention as I approached the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus; but I then stood in awe as I entered and gazed up at the turquoise ceiling.
Although not historic, there were other businesses on 51st that I found fascinating. The FDNY Store and Fire Safety Learning Center not only has a fire engine for children to explore inside its retail shop, but there is also a brilliantly crafted fire safety room where families and school groups are encouraged to come in and learn, first hand, about the dangers of fire. A totally different experience came when I met Edie Connolly in her shop, Cakes N’ Shapes. Having arrived in New York from The Netherlands in the 1970s, she successfully built a career baking and decorating elaborate cakes for New Yorkers. And, wow, does she have some interesting stories to share.
Farther to the edges of 51st, the buildings grow shorter, the shops smaller, and the people less hurried. Scattered among distinguished looking brownstones, I found Vice Versa Restaurant and Bar, where I met owners Franco Lazzari and Stefano Terzi, two men who have been sharing their passion for Italian food on 51st since 1999. Braai, presented an intriguing change in menu with their contemporary South African cuisine, and Briciola has figured out how to maximize the limited amount of space they have and turn their Italian wine bar into an attractive spot for nearby residents to drop by.
Finally, at the far west of the street, I bumped into Dan, one of the staff members of the Irish Arts Center, who enthusiastically shared stories of some of the talent that has performed in this space. And right next door, I stood in front of what I considered to be the perfect end to my walk. Juan Alonso Community Garden, located in the midst of Hell’s Kitchen, was once a seedy vacant lot, but today it provides an area for community members to grow their own flowers and vegetables, a true testament to the city’s development and endurance.