Conventional Wisdom in N.Y.

Posted March 19, 2004 at 12:36pm

For the first time in GOP history, the Republicans are taking New York. From Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, the Republican National Convention will inhabit Madison Square Garden, drawing an estimated 50,000 attendees. New York City may be known as a Democratic stronghold, but that doesn’t mean that Republicans don’t have a rich history there — just look at who’s occupied City Hall the past 10 years, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

New York has hosted five Democratic National Conventions in the past — starting way back in 1868, when the first elevated railway opened, planning for Central Park was just starting and it was still possible to find streams and swamps (not to mention brothels) on the island of Manhattan.

The most infamous political gathering in the city’s history was the Democratic National Convention of 1924 (the first to be broadcast on radio). Despite a heat wave of 100-degree days (and no air conditioning) the convention stretched to a record 17 days as dueling delegates had to cast more than 100 ballots to nominate John W. Davis (who went on to lose to Calvin Coolidge).

It’s unlikely a contentious stalemate will erupt at this year’s Republican convention, which means delegates and other visitors can get a bit of time away from Madison Square Garden to explore this great city. Here are a few suggestions — beyond the obvious attractions such as Central Park and the Statue of Liberty — to get the most out of your stay in the Big Apple.

Part of the reason Republicans are gathering in New York for the first time is to support the city in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. So a moment of reflection at Ground Zero is probably in order. The former home of the World Trade Center (viewing platform at Liberty Street and Broadway, no tickets required) is barren now, but big plans are in the works, including a memorial, a 1,776-foot Freedom Tower and a $2 billion public transportation hub.

If you want to skip the major museums, the specialized collections at smaller museums can often feel more rewarding (and certainly less crowded). Art lovers should visit the Frick Collection, the former home of Henry Clay Frick, art collector, coal magnate, union battler and Republican backer. Check out the Vermeers, Rembrandts and Whistlers, or just enjoy the serene central court with fountain.

Of particular note for political history buffs is the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition about the life and career of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). The New York Historical Society also will host relevant exhibits, including one devoted to Alexander Hamilton.

“I think Hamilton will have a lot of appeal because of his role in making modern America,” says Rick Beard, the society’s chief operating officer. The offerings include manuscripts, portraits, furniture and the infamous pistols used by Hamilton and Aaron Burr in their fatal duel across the river in Weehawken, N.J. The society will also have a display on the history of presidential campaigning.

Within a nice summer stroll of Madison Square Garden is the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, housed on an 18-deck aircraft carrier. Displays include supersonic jets, World War II bombers, submarines and a retired Concorde.

Notable landmark buildings worth a visit include Federal Hall National Memorial, where George Washington took his oath of office. The original building, demolished in 1812, was the home of Congress and the departments of State, War and Treasury during New York’s brief run as the nation’s capital.

When you get hungry, the problem isn’t finding a great meal in New York City; it’s choosing among the 18,000-plus restaurants in town.

For a historical meal, tops would be Fraunces Tavern, the site where George Washington announced his retirement nine days after the Revolutionary War ended. The current building is a 1907 reproduction housing a museum and a well-received restaurant that serves — what else? — American fare.

One of the most romantic restaurants in town (don’t be surprised if you witness a proposal) — One if by Land, Two if by Sea — is housed in Aaron Burr’s former townhouse. Another storied place to dine is City Hall, housed in an 1863 landmark building.

Moving to the 21st century, the city’s rich and powerful have been flocking to the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, which features restaurants from famed chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller, Masa Takayama, Gray Kunz, Charlie Trotter and Noriyuki Sugie.

For other newly opened hot spots, try Marcus Samuelson’s Riingo, serving New American and Japanese, and David Burke and Donatella, complete with a smoking limousine parked on the street (smoking is now banned in all New York bars and restaurants).

Power players should also book tables at The Four Seasons, in the Seagram Building, which Zagat Survey New York Co-editor Curt Gathje calls “probably the top restaurant in town.” Across the street is the new Lever House restaurant. Media moguls such as Christie Hefner, Graydon Carter and Walter Isaacson lunch at Michael’s. For breakfast, try Regency in the Regency Hotel, which Gathje says has been “long known as a power breakfast spot for New York’s movers and shakers.” For downtown celeb watching, and to eat the most famous Japanese food in America, start calling now for reservations at Nobu in TriBeCa.

The area around Madison Square Garden may seem like a culinary wasteland, but Zagat editor Cathje notes that the area is also “steakhouse heaven, and I think Republicans can sink their teeth into that.” Try Nick & Stef’s, Uncle Jack’s or Keens, or a newly modernized diner/lounge HK near the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

For meals on the go, don’t forget to grab two local staples — pizza and bagels, beloved by every New Yorker except perhaps the late Dr. Robert Atkins. For pizza, locals prefer Grimadli’s, Lombardi’s, John’s or Patsy’s. For bagels, try H&H Bagels, Ess-a-Bagel or Murray’s Bagels.

New York also has its share of storied watering holes. The most famous is McSorley’s, the oldest pub in a single location in New York, serving since 1854 (and with almost enough dust to prove it). Also capturing the feel of old NYC is Chumley’s, open since 1922, which still maintains the speakeasy feel without a sign marking the entrance.

The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal is a luxe cocktail spot that was the office of New York Central Railroad trustee John Campbell from 1923 to 1941. Grand Central also houses Cipriani Dolci, Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and the classic Grand Central Oyster Bar.

For scene-watching spots to sip martinis or cosmopolitans, try Guastavino’s, Asia de Cuba and Bemelmans Bar. To see the latest in the city’s club culture, visit 2004 hot spots Crobar or Marquee.

To mingle with native New Yorkers as they partake in favorite summer activities, head to the Boat Basin Cafe for river views, burgers and beer, or hit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cantor Roof Garden for a side of culture with your glass of wine.

Wendy Mitchell is a freelance writer based in New York.