At two a.m. the Empire State Building goes dark. I’ve seen the lights dim while wandering the city during or after my overnight Lobster Shift at a newsroom in Midtown. The lights extinguish and the skyline edges closer to the eerie Gotham that this city once was. The past lingers below, on darkened streets where cabbies sip from Anthora cups, couples clutch each other and stagger home, manholes puff scarves of steam beneath high-pressure sodium light fixtures–a nocturnal landscape that may soon disappear.
South of the Empire State in Madison Square Park, the mellow amber glow from the Met Life Tower’s gilded peak is the piece of Manhattan that persists after my exit to Queens–always visible during my nightly walks home through Sunnyside. Its glow is so insusceptible to dimming that I like to believe the luminescence of its bigger sibling uptown hides there overnight, waiting.
When I think of those two towers, I think about a time in New York that lingers after dark. Like North Stars, they lead me to where people are awake, where there’s revelry and, importantly, food.
To the west of the Met Life Tower is what I think of as the Chelsea Triangle. Three diners there in a tight cluster cater to a crowd of raucous, carefree college students and a smattering of tepid, weary noctivagants (yours truly, plus haggard men twice my age). It’s best on weekends, quiet on weeknights, and always provides some of the best people watching in Manhattan. It’s also a wonderful place to meander and reminisce in the hours after the Empire State Building goes dark, as I did on several recent nights.
At Chelsea Square (368 W. 23rd St. #1), bracketing the corner of 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue, I sat at a table against the window on a cold evening. Everything about the place seemed crowded and tight, cramped but inviting.
The menu arrived—big, laminated, geriatric font—and I ordered a check with my coffee. The young man seated across from me slumped underneath his table, searching for a phone he’d misplaced.
“I can’t find it,” he muttered to no one in particular. One of the wait staff hurried over.
“Sir, sir,” the portly wait staff man said in broken English. “Where was it last? Who would have seen it? Should I call? Let’s call. We’ll find it, sit tight. This is going to work out just fine.”
On a different night, Chelsea Square feels like kicking back in my own living room. There’s a grace to what the staff there does. The food comes quickly and though it doesn’t always rise above common diner fare, but that isn’t why I’ve come. I’m there for the coffee before the main dinner, just a short walk away, at Good Stuff.
Good Stuff (109 W. 14th St.) tries to be what it is not—an after hours club. Despite the plush club-ready banquettes, the gaudy backsplashes, tiled walls and retro Googie-themed details persist. This is a diner. But that’s okay. I took a seat by the window that looks out onto an ever-present sidewalk construction shed. I knew this wasn’t my last stop, even as I consider the chicken shish kabob ($18.95), the roast beef and brisket ($19.95), the Manhattan clam chowder. The patrons here are in limbo. Unlike myself, they’re weighing the options of staying in or cashing out. The bar here is a bright and exposed wrap-around L-shape that is neither cozy or cramped. It’s a halfway house for a night out, wedged between the 1,2,3,L,F,M lines.
The art of the nightcap is one of both indulgence and practicality. I find that it requires ambiance as well as a generous pour, which no doubt exists at my final destination. At no point in the night is Hollywood Diner (574 6th Ave.) a bad call. An attractive hostess in thick-rimmed, burnished Lucite glasses said hello, expectant, waiting for directions, eager for me to choose a seat. Anywhere I’d like. Drinks and dessert, is all. I waved off the menu, a decorated hard-bound book meant to disguise the hallmark of all diners–laminated pages with peeling edges.
Baklava ($5). Cheesecake ($2.75). The latter is the real deal, vanilla base, not citrus. Crumb crust, not cookie. For $9.95 order one of the 12 specialty cocktails: Agent Orange, Mexicana, Hollywood Twist. The latter ties in the theme of photographs of Hollywood stars that hang on the walls, and of course, the diner’s name. A subdued vibe invites a mixed crowd, something akin to a late-night lounge, lights turned low.
I ordered a martini, and watched the hostess sit down across from two elderly men and strike up conversation in a language I could not understand. One of the men wore a light-brown duster and Burberry scarf. They were all laughing, sharing a secret. Then the man turned his voice down low and leaned in to the hostess and said, “Seriously, though. We have some papers for you to sign.”
My drink and baklava arrive and I ask for the check to stay mobile, footloose. I won’t be here long. The night’s young or old, whichever way you spin it. This is New York City during the small hours, the way I’m certain it’s always been, raucous and subdued, tempered but vibrant. A group of young women dressed to the nines stumble in. They seem to have parachuted in from a club in Ibiza. But they soon leave, taken by the night, and I with them.