Autumn is nearly upon us, and as the tourist hordes ebb the indigenous population (that's you and me) begins to crawl out of its shell, and one of our first impulses should be to renew our love affair with the city by visiting a cultural institution or two. Curators perk up, too, responding to the challenge and scheduling shows they know actual New Yorkers will enjoy.
So join us at the city's museums and their ilk to rediscover art, science, and nature anew. There's nothing finer than an afternoon's exhibition crawl, followed by a light supper, or perhaps preceded by a heavy lunch. Accordingly, we've made it easy by laying out some itinerariessome already familiar, some admittedly on the weird-ass side. Where these institutions offer on-site cafés, we've reviewed them. Where none exist, we've gone into the neighborhood to discover good places to eat.
Return with us now to the days of Teddy Roosevelt, when humans needed to be protected from nature, rather than the other way around. When a fella would be congratulated for shooting a giant endangered animal, stuffing it, and putting it in a museum. Founded by Roosevelt, the American Museum of Natural History is just that sort of museum. Forget about the traveling shows like "Gold!" intended to dazzle, divert, and fleece the touristic massesand concentrate instead on the wonderful dioramas. These worlds-within-windows will transport you to other realms more certainly than an IMAX movie. Thrill to walrus calves lolling on the rocks in the Arctic, or Andean condors circling Argentina's MountAconcagua. And no airport delays!
The museum offers its captive audience three cafés. The Museum Food Court in the basement will remind you of a school lunchroom. The baked pastas are your best bet; the charbroiled hamburgers would be good, too, if the grill master didn't press his spatula down on the patties, evacuating all the tasty juices, making them as dry as desert dioramas. Behind the dinosaur exhibits on the fourth floor, Café on Four offers a meager diet of power bars, fruit salads, and cold sandwiches. Café on One, right next to the Giant Canoe, is superior, including panini, Reubens, and other toasted entities. You can even have a glass of wine with your sandwich, but be forewarned: The espresso is awful!
I like the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Park much more than the whiz-bang Liberty Science Center in Jersey City. A pair of booster rockets stand sentry in front, and you can also climb inside a Mercury space capsule. My favorite exhibit is the flock of microscopes that let you examine live amoebas, paramecia, and dileptuses, slithering and sliding under the lens like exotic dancers. An art gallery offers colorful photos of undersea creatures, while a supersaturated alcohol vapor chamber permits you to trace the paths of cosmic rays, as a disembodied voice warns: "There are even cosmic rays passing through your body right now!" The science playground in the rear of the museum is an exhilarating experience for kids.
Despite the excellence of the exhibits, the lunchroom is wretched. Aside from desiccated hot dogs, miserable nachos dripping yellow fluid, and chicken fingers that might be mistaken for pieces of chalk, the bill of fare is dominated by candy, chips, and ice cream, with virtually no salads or fruit in sight. If you leave the museum by the 111th Street entrance, turn right, and walk a few blocks to Roosevelt Avenue, you'll find Tres Potrillos, a sit-down Mexican restaurant in a glitzy diner. Offered all day, tacos, cemitas (Pueblan sandwiches), and egg dishes like huevos rancheros are a bargain, while the menu of southern Mexico standards like chicken mole poblano and pork ribs in green sauce are a bit pricier.
Who can keep up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art? The maze only grows more complicated, as the mother of all museums feverishly adds halls, galleries, balconies, and annexes, gobbling up more of Central Park, so that you need a GPS to navigate the museum successfully. The random wander is still your best strategy, looking for rooms less thronged.
The number of eateries has swollen, too, so that you can now gorge yourself in six separate lunchroomsthough the Trustee's Dining Room may be closed to you if you're not rolling in dough. In contrast to the many teetotaler museums, alcohol abounds, and you're never far from a tipple at the Met. The lunchroom (heralded by signs that say, rather discouragingly, Public Cafeteria) is actually quite good of its type, offering Black Angus burgers, well-browned fries, sauced tilapia, designer potato chips, and exotic juices and sodas. While the regular salad bar is wholesome but prosaic, the antipasti station offers such composed salads as beet with gorgonzola and couscous dotted with dried fruits. Not bad!
Even better is the more-upscale Petrie Court Café, offering more elbow room and a panoramic view of Central Park. Most recommended is a late lunch after 2:30, when the line is less long, and when you can order an English tea as your repast. It includes a selection of teas, finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and preserves, and a constellation of petits fours, all for $24. Meanwhile, you will be surrounded by solid Upper East Side burghers, who look like they just stepped off the portraits of nobility in the European galleries.
Despite the excellence of afternoon tea at the Met, the best combination of art and food in town remains the Neue Galerie, a Fifth Avenue mansion that specializes in German Expressionism and related movements. I'm talking Egon Schiele, Vasily Kandinsky, Gustav Klimt, George Grosz, and their pleasantly creepy pals. A current show centers on a painting of a Berlin street by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, with a collection of related works that could be described as "Crowds and Hookers," including some nudes that brought a blush to my world-weary cheeks.
Under the direction of chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, Café Sabarsky occupies half the main floor, and offers spruced-up Viennese fare that ranges from composed salads to sandwiches to hot dishes to elaborate pastries. Conventional choices include bratwurst with roasted potatoes, and the boiled beef called Taffelspitz, but why not go kinky with a sausage salad, or vegetarian with spaetzle and wild mushrooms? Alasthe pastries arranged along the marble sideboard now look a little dry and shopworn.
At the corner of Prospect Park, a quartet of attractions can make a perfect afternoon's romp. If you can stand the newfangled entrance (the architects should be shot), the venerable Brooklyn Museum has one of the country's best Egyptian and Assyrian collections, and always manages to put up a whimsical special display or two in a Red Grooms or Judy Chicago vein. The European painting and African collections are formidable, too. Skip the lackluster café at the museum, and head straight for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, right next-door. There, the late-summer pleasures include plenty of outlandish water lilies, dinner-plate-size red hibiscuses, white and pink crepe myrtles, and the rose garden's final blown blossomsbut your real reward lies in the outdoor Terrace Café. Oft-vegetarian, and oft-fantastic, the soups are loaded with vegetables that the menu assures us are "garden fresh." Your menu choices include decent burgers and even better sandwiches of herbed tuna and mozzarella, tomato, and basil. Afterward, take a tour of the mind-warping bonsai collection, in a greenhouse at the northern end of the glassed-in complex that the café sits in the middle of. You might want to drop acid first.
Two other stops beckon, and if you could jump the fence from the botanic garden, you'd be right there. Instead, exit by the under-utilized south gate, take a right, and propel up Flatbush Avenue into the park. Soon you will encounter the picayune Prospect Park Zoo, where colorful exotic birds are one of the highlights. It will remind you of what zoos were like before they went high-concept. Just north of the zoo, our last stop is the Lefferts Homestead, an 18th-century Dutch farmhouse that will put the history of Brooklyn into perspective.
Last year, I fell in love with the Bronx Museum of the Arts . Housed in the ground floors of a pair of conjoined buildings on the Grand Concourse, the museum presented a show of Brazilian avant-garde art from the 1960s. Partly, it was like holding a cracked mirror up to American psychedelia. Upcoming shows include a retrospective of the work of Cuban/Dominican artist Quisqueya Henríquez, whose work encompasses performance art, installations, sculptures, drawings, photos, and videos, with an emphasis on issues relating to the environment and feminism, but always with a humorous outlook. Opening September 16.
The Grand Concourse is devoid of food in these latitudes, but the side streets abound with Jamaican bakeries and Dominican diners. One of my favorites in the former category, especially noted for its jerk chicken and carrot cake, is Concourse Jamaican Bakery. There's no seating, so you'll have to find a curb or stoop to perch on.
Downtown Manhattan possesses a wealth of museums, many virtually unknown to the general public. It's the perfect place for a serial museum experience, since the distance between attractions is slight, and the foot traffic that might impede your progress is light compared to, say, the East Side's Museum Mile. In addition, the museums downtown are small and eminently doableno death marches through dozens of galleries you might feel compelled to pursue at places like the Met. The Skyscraper Museum is one such small gem. Located at the bottom of Battery Park City in the ass-end of the Ritz-Carlton, the museum is confined to a couple of small rooms. These rooms are loaded with info, though. The current show (through the end of September) centers on the currently under construction Burj Dubai, which will soon be the tallest building in the world at 2,300 feetnearly twice the size of the Empire State Building. Included are 3-D renderings, aerial photos, and schematics in a breath- taking presentation.
Walk a few blocks west to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, which has been recently overtaken by modern museum methods, so it's not just a heap of baskets and blankets anymore. The best partfree admission! Other museums in the area you might consider: the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the New York City Police Museum (where you can lock yourself inside a real cell), and, for actuaries on holiday, the Museum of American Finance.
None of these small museums possess a cafeteria, but your culinary salvation lies on nearby Stone Street, which has turned into a pedestrian-only campus of middlebrow eats. Among the better choices are the gastro-pub Ulysses, where the fare goes way beyond burgers and Buffalo wings, and Adrienne's Pizza Bar, where the standard square pie has a crust midway between Neapolitan and Sicilian, the cheese is especially good and gooey, and Saturday and Sunday boast a brunch with an over-the-top pie featuring four cheeses and four sunnyside-up-eggs. Yum! Consider it a Museum of the American Pizza.
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th St.
New York Hall of Science
47-01 111th St., Corona, Queens
111-16 Roosevelt Ave., Corona, Queens
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
1048 Fifth Ave.
1048 Fifth Ave.
200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
1000 Washington Ave.
Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn
Prospect Park Zoo
450 Flatbush Ave.
Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Lefferts Historic House
Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Bronx Museum of the Arts
1040 Grand Concourse
Grand Concourse, the Bronx
Concourse Jamaican Bakery
252 E 167th St.
Grand Concourse, the Bronx
39 Battery Place
National Museum of the American Indian
1 Bowling Green
Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place
New York City Police Museum
100 Old Slip
Museum of American Finance
58 Stone St.
Adrienne's Pizza Bar
54 Stone St.
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