You can still find old-world elegance in modern Manhattan – here's how

·7-min read
Carlyle Rooftop and Tower at Sunset - Justin Bare
Carlyle Rooftop and Tower at Sunset - Justin Bare

My grandmother was an Upper East Side babe in her heyday, a chess-playing, fashion-loving sculptor who would dress to the nines just to walk the dog. My visits to New York from Miami in the 1970s and 80s were fun-filled but they were also tutorials in refinement, how to dress (no jeans!), how to eat and how to appreciate art.

Hilda would position me just outside her wardrobe and dispatch aphorisms as she accessorised. “You can’t make a second first impression,” she opined, cinching a Jackson Pollock-looking scarf at her neck. “Who knows who we will meet at the bank?” Another refrain: quality over quantity. “Trends come and go but a good bag is forever.” She loved jewellery and amassed quite a collection travelling to medical conferences with my grandfather, a cardiologist. “Amy,” she would trill as she popped on a cocktail ring, “polish doesn’t mean predictable.” With that, she added a turquoise Zuni squash blossom necklace and spritzed us both with Diorissimo.

Our days were infused with culture, piano recitals, Broadway matinees, a pop into The Frick’s Fragonard Room, a morning at The Met’s Egyptian wing. Over the holidays, ice skating in Central Park was added to the mix. Sweets always followed, ice cream sodas at the corner coffee shop or, more dazzling, fudge-slathered sundaes at Rumpelmayer’s, the famous teddy bear-festooned ice cream parlour. My grandfather adored dining out. The Oyster Bar at The Plaza Hotel was his favourite. Or Gino’s, where more often than not we would encounter locals such as Woody Allen enjoying veal parmigiana in the zebra-papered dining room.

Writer with her grandmother and cousin in 2000
Writer with her grandmother and cousin in 2000

Hilda loved to host Sunday brunch. To prepare, we hopscotched from Lobel’s for perfectly frenched lamb chops to the white-aproned man on 2nd Avenue for gravlax, then over to Greenberg’s for desserts, ending at E.A.T. for fresh-baked bagels and whipped cream cheese. The owners always inquired after Dr Koch and handed me a taste of some delightful morsel. Back at the apartment, we dressed the table (Colour! Texture! Statement flowers!) before friends would descend in a plume of Arpège.

It’s hard to imagine that this type of glamour still exists in a metropolis teeming with crop tops and chain stores. Yet, a smattering of classics ­survives, even a handful of my grand­mother’s prized purveyors. Here’s where to find old-world elegance in modern Manhattan.

What to eat

To get the feel of a neighbourhood, there is nothing like a classic coffee shop. Neil’s, which has been around for 50 years, serves up standard diner fare in a room that feels plucked from the set of Mad Men. Another old-school noshery, Viand (viandnyc.com), is known for all-day breakfast, overstuffed sandwiches, and “diet delights” such as fruit salad, cottage cheese, and melba toast.

Sadly, Rumplemayer’s is gone. But decades-old Serendipity 3 (serendipity3.com) is a stand-in for jumbo wedges of cheesecake and ice cream sundaes. My grandmother’s preferred bakery, William Greenberg’s Desserts (wmgreenbergdesserts.com), still sells old-fashioned brownies and cake-style black and white cookies. Also thriving is Eli Zabar’s E.A.T.(elizabar.com/eat-to-go.aspx), where society swans gather for smoked whitefish salad ­sandwiches.

The Palm Court Architecture
The Palm Court Architecture

Institutions such as Elaine’s, Swifty’s, and Le Cirque have shuttered, but Elios (eliosrestaurant.com) is still where locals and glitterati (Mick Jagger, Richard Gere, Gwyneth Paltrow) convene for clubby conviviality and $56 veal chops. Sant Ambroeus (santambroeus.com) ­ referenced ad nauseam in Gossip Girl is another Upper East Side fixture. ­

Pastry and espresso are available in the ­Milanese-feeling café upfront while Italian dishes such as vitello tonnato and risotto alla milanese are served in the bijou restaurant in the back. At The Plaza Hotel (theplazany.com), The Oyster Bar is long gone. But tea at The Palm Court (revamped but still lovely) under the stained-glass dome where JFK, Sinatra Marilyn Monroe, and F Scott Fitzgerald once dined, feels grand.

What to do

Just as in the 1970s, matinees are an affordable way to access Broadway ­theatre and thrift-seekers such as my grandmother can still turn to the TKTS booth located in Times Square for half-priced, day-of tickets. The shows have changed, of course; on now are Hadestown, The Book of Mormon, The Tina Turner Musical, and Dear Evan Hansen, while The Kite Runner commences ­previews on July 6.

Central Park remains quite unchanged. If it weren’t for the hordes of athleisure-attired selfie-takers, parkland pastimes such as picnicking on the Great Lawn and cruising across Central Park Lake beneath the Manhattan skyline by rowboat are a throwback to days gone by. In the evening, Shakespeare in the Park productions (this summer it’s Richard III, produced by Robert O’Hara) unfold exactly as they did at Delacorte Theater when theatre maestro Joseph Papp first introduced the free event to New Yorkers in the 1960s.

An Anthology of Fashion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Anna-Marie Kellen
An Anthology of Fashion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Anna-Marie Kellen

Legging it up the piazza-like steps to The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org) today, I clearly remember the routine I had decades ago with Hilda. We would pick just one exhibition to visit and keep our stay to under an hour. I was told to select my favourite work, which would then be discussed at the Met’s Dorothy Draper-designed restaurant, famous for its muse-themed reflecting pool. This dining spot has since closed but the art remains. Currently you’ll find the likes of Louise Bourgeois: Paintings; A New Look at Old Masters; In America: A Lexicon of Fashion; and an Afrofuturist Period Room that brings a 19th-century community of predominantly black landowners inhabiting land west of The Met to life.

What to wear

Hilda frolicked in a Mrs Maisel-like universe flecked with houndstooth and double-faced cashmere. While she favoured designer clothing, overspending was frowned upon. Why pay full freight at Bergdorf Goodman when slightly less au courant duds could be procured at an overstock shop? Her haunts have disappeared, but La Boutique Resale (laboutiqueresale.com) would have thrilled her. The two-story consignment boutique sells “gently used” discounted Hermes, YSL, Etro, Chanel, Prada and Armani clothing. For dramatic, heirloom-feeling baubles similar to my grandmother’s collection, try DK Bressler (dkbressler.com) where an appointment is required.

Where to stay

Since 1930, The Carlyle (rosewoodhotels.com), which has served as a base for countless dignitaries, celebrities, and every US president since Harry Truman, has upheld its reputation as the most civilised hotel in New York City. Most things remain unchanged; the black and white marble lobby, the Renzo Mongiardino-designed Gallery with its come-and-linger red fringed velvet chairs and dazzling Turkish-themed wallpaper, and Bemelmans Bar (named for the Ludwig Bemelmans murals adorning the walls), still an Art Deco time capsule for classic cocktails and performances by pianist Earl Rose. But every grande dame needs a nip-tuck. Tonychi studio has refreshed guest rooms with black lacquered panelling and textured wall treatments, plus creamy, modernist furnishings to set off the sweeping views. Also new is Dowlings, a 1940s-inspired restaurant with a focus on tableside preparations of dishes such as salt-crusted branzino and Steak Diane.

Bemelmans Bar - Don Riddle Images
Bemelmans Bar - Don Riddle Images

Another option that smacks of old-school Manhattan is The Lowell (lowellhotel.com), which began serving the well-heeled in 1927. Its 74 rooms are classic luxe with cosy, pied-à-terre touches, while Michelin-starred Majorelle beckons with French/Moroccan flavours and turn-of-the-century glamour. For more inspiration on where to stay, read Telegraph Travel's guide to the best hotels in New York City.

Where's your favourite place in Manhattan? Please let us know in the comments below.

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