by David Sokol, 05/01/2009
- more neighborhood guides/
- more in hotels/
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- more in shopping/
- more in nightlife/
- more in arts & entertainment/
- more in gay/
The West Village long sat on the fringes of New York life—first as a rural refuge from the density and diseases of Lower Manhattan, then later as the arts haven that spurred progressive 20th-century movements ranging from experimental theatre to Beat literature. It is this open-minded, politically active neighborhood that many members of New York’s LGBT population have called home or hangout since the early 1900s, and where the modern gay pride movement got its start on the night of the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
The West Village held onto the LGBT spotlight in the years immediately following Stonewall, primarily as a social center and nightlife spot. More recently, with local gentrification and more pervasive integration, the West Village's population has matured and the neighborhood scene has quieted along with it.
Christopher Street still is a famous enclave for the LGBT community, and that and surrounding streets will be jam-packed with revelers at the conclusion of June's Pride March. Most other days you'll just as likely find stroller-pushing parents, professionals and empty nesters darting among boutiques or sipping lattes in any of a constellation of sidewalk cafes. More sedate? Sure. But the diversity of West Village denizens also means a rainbow of superlative experiences focusing on health and wellness, gastronomy, shopping or culture. Here, we provide samplings of these rich offerings.
Much of the West Village's charm rests in its building stock—town houses and mid-rise apartment buildings in the heart of the neighborhood, with low-slung warehouse structures scattered among the new luxury condos near the Hudson River shoreline. Yet the uniquely small scale of the West Village also means it lacks a roomy hotel in the center of it all. For that, head slightly out of bounds. The Maritime Hotel is just a few blocks from the West Village and, sitting at the crossroads of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, it is perfectly poised for adventures farther afield. Originally constructed as the headquarters of the National Maritime Union, the building's redesign by Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson plays off architecture that seems more Miami than Manhattan. That means a signature portal window in every room, a rooftop bar and a restaurant that pours onto the hotel's 6,000-square-foot patio.
A Morning Jolt
Every fantasy of the West Village—charming historic streets packed with historic buildings, creative people absorbed in conversation, closet-scale intimacy—comes to life at Tartine. This archetypal corner bistro is as small as they come, even in warm weather when sidewalk seating wraps the storefront, underneath green-and-white-striped awnings. Because Tartine's Lilliputian proportions usually spells lines, especially at night, consider arriving at opening hours for brunch. Opting for a morning meal is no sacrifice, since, like lunch and dinner, Tartine's egg dishes and other platters feature fresh ingredients prepared with little pretense, and the atmosphere is consistently jovial.
The pressures of big chain stores and online shopping have not kept independent booksellers from thriving in New York, and Three Lives & Company defines excellence in the field. Bibliophiles have been flocking to the den-like nooks and crannies of Three Lives since it opened in 1968. The store's small size is deceiving, since its breadth of selection and artful arrangement of new works and classics is as impressive as ever, and both big names and emerging writers participate in enthralling monthly readings. Every day, the Three Lives staff dazzles customers with their attentive care, insightful recommendations and expansive knowledge of the literary universe.
Dig into the pages of your Three Lives & Company purchase at The Spotted Pig. Like Tartine, this restaurant enjoys the kind of popularity that guarantees celebrity sightings and overwhelming crowds. So go for lunch, when it's easier to grab a seat at the ground-floor bar or a table beneath a lace-curtained window in the upper dining room. Although The Spotted Pig recently passed the five-year mark, what keeps New York's first gastropub both surprising and relevant is its extemporaneous approach to food. Chef April Bloomfield has done a tour of duty at Chez Panisse, and in that locavore spirit her approach to British and Italian cuisine is simple yet inventive, and constantly changing with the seasons. Despite the celebrities and crowds, Spotted servers are cheerful, generous with their time and suggestions, and adorably scruffy.
In the early days of the comic-book series, Superman battled a nemesis named Mxyplyzyk. Shopping at the Greenwich Avenue boutique that bears its name, however, will win you friends rather than enemies. Mxyplyzyk comprises two storefront spaces packed to the gills with merchandise, much of it affordable, easy to pack and dryly humorous—in other words, perfect gift material. This emporium of quirkiness specializes in modern housewares, particularly finishing touches like clocks and barware, and products range from high-concept bathroom accessories to handmade light fixtures. They sit cheek by jowl with practicalities and frivolities, from slinky neoprene carrying cases for laptops and wine bottles to an array of greeting cards and books heavy on double entendre.
Fashion designer Marc Jacobs is known for making big statements. The native New Yorker applied plaid patterns to silk and introduced grunge to the runway in 1993, hired Winona Ryder to star in an ad campaign following her shoplifting trial and had dropped trou in print. Another grand gesture can be found on Bleecker Street: the designer has ostensibly transformed that row into a shopping compound, with two freestanding stores devoted to his diffusion Marc by Marc Jacobs collections, another location that sells clothing by his namesake fashion house and a fourth filled with branded children's clothing.
When it opened in 1998, Mario Batali's Italian restaurant Babbo earned the kind of praise that would take others years to accrue. "What ultimately makes it so dizzily fulfilling is that the unexpected ingredients (smoked sable as Italian food?) never succumb to cuteness but rather expand the boundaries of a cuisine and of our desires," Hal Rubenstein wrote in New York magazine. Six years later, New York Times critic Frank Bruni checked in with the gastronomic mecca, confirming that Batali "bestows his most lavish favors and intense flavors upon an appropriately grateful dining public." The loud music and speedy service doesn't sit well with all diners, but the complex, intense dishes represent Batali at his best. Which also means there's little hope of walking in. Make reservations.
In 1955 Louis Schweitzer gave his wife, famed dramatic actress Lucille Lortel, the Theatre De Lys on Christopher Street as an anniversary gift. Lortel reopened the building shortly thereafter, and staged Threepenny Opera there for the next seven years. (The building was given its eponymous moniker in 1981.) The myriad Off-Broadway performances Lortel produced thereafter include seminal LGBT works, such as Tommy Tune's Cloud Nine, Gertrude Stein and a Companion, Falsettoland and The Destiny of Me by Larry Kramer. Since 1999 only nonprofit performances have been staged at this well-known playhouse; the theater also hosts the annual Lucille Lortel Awards, which honors excellence in Off-Broadway productions.
Although LGBT nightlife is dispersed throughout New York, the West Village still offers multiple destinations for girls and boys. Whereas Henrietta Hudson and Julius are no-nonsense, The Duplex revels in pomp. The City's oldest continuously operating cabaret serves drinks, drag performances and disco. At the ground-floor piano bar, The Duplex's multitasking waitstaff alternates between taking orders and belting tunes, and a 70-seat theater is busy almost every night. Patrons may strut their own stuff at an open-mic session, or just chill in the upstairs bar. Overlooking Sheridan Square, it is also an ideal perch from which to view the home stretch of the annual Pride March.