During Prohibition, Bill's Gay Nineties was one of Manhattan's most notorious speakeasies. Today, the laws have changed, but the old-fashioned atmosphere remains the same. Though the main dining room is underground, the front of the restaurant is open to the street, and we walked right into a dark room with low ceilings and a long bar on one side. The walls were covered with old photos and mementos, and ancient silver dollars were embedded in the wooden floor.
When we went exploring up several flights of creaky stairs in this 1890s townhouse, we discovered a stunning private room that can be rented out for special events. The decor was reminiscent of a gentleman's club, with a long central table, plush chairs, an ornate chandelier and even a fireplace.
The cocktails at Bill's are inspired by popular drinks during the Prohibition era, but the food is not exactly speakeasy fare, which was generally poor and took a backseat to the drinks. Bill's offers classic, upscale American cuisine - steak, burgers, fish, oysters, and pasta. "Drunkards may not inherit the kingdom of God," as a sign in the bar proclaims, but they'll certainly find solace here, and plenty to eat and drink.
In 2016, the restaurant came under new management and changed its name to Bill's New York City.
Bedecked with fresh flowers, Michael's simple, spacious design and elegant clientele combine to convey an impressive atmosphere to dine. Since opening in 1989, Michael McCarty has built his reputation as a hotspot for business meetings, and celebrity gatherings including those of markedly high profile shoulder-rubbers. For larger events, there is an expansive back room that leads into a stunning sculpture garden.The cuisine at Michael's is Californian, based on the original location in Santa Monica that debuted in 1979. Its wine list is a particular point of pride, including over eight hundred labels from California, France, Italy, and elsewhere, and targeted to please everyone from novices to connoisseurs. The real showstopper, however, is the phenomenal collection of art that hangs quietly on the walls, including pieces by Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Robert Graham and, of course, Michael's wife, Kim.
The building that houses Flute Bar & Lounge was once home to a speakeasy called Club Intime, run by the notorious chorus girl Texas Guinan. Today, Flute's owners pay homage to their predecessors with 1920's music and drinks served in mugs, as was the custom during Prohibition. The underground champagne bar has no windows and dim lighting, and its seating - plush sofas and ottomans clustered around low tables - give it a far more intimate feel than a traditional lounge.With countless brands from which to choose, champagne may be the focus, but Flute also serves a wide variety of cocktails - many of which feature champagne - and small accompanying food plates. Texas Guinan once called the speakeasy business an "essential and basic industry." Though her Club Intime was shut down after only six months in business, she would certainly be heartened that its spirit lives on in Flute today - especially on the last Saturday of each month when Wit's End celebrates jazz music and dancing with an assortment of talent.
The Neighborhood Playhouse is both a great community resource and an old-fashioned reminder of the timelessness of great theater. Virtually invisible from the street, the only clue to its existence is a red, unmarked door and a modest sign. Once inside, however, I discovered that this almost one hundred year old building holds within it a proscenium theater, a full-size dance studio, and plenty of dressing rooms and classrooms. What a fascinating tour I was treated to by Emily Duncan, the admissions administrator, where I learned about their history and mission.The lobby, with its shabby elegance, features photos of famous graduates, as well as scenes from plays over the course of the school's history. The top two floors of the building are devoted to a beautiful dance studio with wood floors and soaring ceilings. A lover of dance, I was particularly moved when Emily announced that I was standing in the former domain of dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner.I was also enrapt by Christine Cirker, the librarian, who proudly discussed their vast collection of plays and theatre criticism. Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the world of theater, she told me that she also teaches classes on script interpretation. Christine went on to explain the playhouse's claim to fame: the Meisner Technique, a method of acting that emphasizes that one should "live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances." Sanford Meisner developed his famous improvisation-based technique at the Playhouse in the mid-1940s, which continues to train actors to this day. It counts among its list of prominent alumni names: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen; and more recently, it has added to its roster, Allison Janney and Chris Noth.The playhouse trains about one hundred students at any given time, seventy-five first-years and twenty-five second-years who have been invited back as a result of a unanimous faculty vote. According to Emily, graduates have an easier time finding work than most aspiring actors due to their alma mater's extensive network of influential writers, directors, and actors. Much of the faculty is closely involved in the theater world, and as Pamela Moller Kareman, the playhouse's executive director, shared, "It's a big leap to become a professional actor; we want people to know that you can do this with your life." And from the time that I spent here, it became apparent that the staff at Neighborhood Playhouse is there to guide and support students every step of the way.
When legendary bartender Doug Quinn parted ways with his longtime employer P.J. Clark's a few blocks north, he marched right over to 53rd Street and began creating what he describes as "an iconic New York saloon restaurant." Doug's goal is to make Hudson Malone, named after his two young boys, the kind of neighborhood spot where people can feel at home. Whether the customer is twenty-one or ninety, "I like people to mingle with one another," Doug told me. His hope is to build something that he believes New York lacks at the moment.A big part of this is Doug himself, as I witnessed while visiting. His warm greeting to familiar faces and new customers was genuine and charming as he quickly ran behind the bar to fix them their favorite drinks. It is also in the small details of Hudson Malone, particularly the decor, where Doug has collected photographs of New York sports legends including the 1938 Yankees, a twinkling jukebox by the front of the bar, and a chalkboard displaying Quinn's Laws - "They're all things your Grandma should have taught you," Doug demurs.I was particularly drawn to the upstairs room, which has its own private entrance and features an intricately carved nineteenth-century center-piece serving as the backdrop to the bar. This is just one more example of the classic saloon decor. In addition to a wide selection of beers and cocktails, Hudson Malone offers a traditional American menu held to Doug's high standards. "I like putting on a show every night," Doug excitedly told me. "I want the food coming out of my kitchen to cause people to turn their heads."