NEW YORK — Outdoor cafes aren't usually the first thing visitors think about, but New Yorkers consider alfresco dining one of the city's premier treats.
As with everything else about New York City, there are broad variations by price and by neighborhood.
Happily, there is sunshine dining for all.
The Upper East Side is a residential area, but it holds Museum Mile (along Fifth Avenue) and the city's greatest stretch of high-end boutiques (on Madison Avenue).
Visitors often dine there after experiencing the classic shop-till-you-drop effect or coming down with "museum leg," that can't-walk-another-step affliction of cultured people worldwide. In the summer, whenever it isn't too hot, the neighborhood's outdoor tables will fill up first.
If New Yorkers love only one thing more than New York itself, it's a bargain. Le Magnifique had its first summer season only last year, but by delivering a fine $20 three-course dinner (before 6:30 p.m.), it became an instant hit with those who want French food at American prices. Patrons appear to include a large segment of the French expat community.
The outdoor tables stretch along a charming and quiet block of East 73rd Street. As you dine on chicken paillard or a Kobe beef burger, and as you answer your waiter's French with the best you can muster, you can feel you're an American in Paris, even as others gracefully tackle being French in New York.
For a long time, the canteen of the upper class was Mortimer's. When the owner died, the site was transformed from a clubby den into Orsay, an authentic and airy copy of a French bistro. Orsay has always been fun, but it has recently rediscovered its culinary heritage with refined interpretations of classic French bistro dishes.
Dining outside in New York can be a challenge if your table is so close to the street that passersby get to nose into your food. (It has been known to happen.)
Orsay has raised the platform for its outdoor tables off street level and discreetly fenced it in, making the restaurant a popular alternative for summer brunches and dinners at what, by the neighborhood's standards, are generally moderate prices. If you go on a weekend, you will see a good number of local families, the grandparents doting over neatly scrubbed grandchildren, the parents ever on the watch for flung croissants.
One block east, virtually facing each other, are two places that offer outside tables for American cooking.
J.G. Melon is inexpensive, yet it serves what loyalists believe is the best hamburger in New York. It's popular for its publike feel, but in the summer, if you're quick enough (that is, if you come before noon), you can grab an outdoor table.
Across the street, Tony Fortuna transformed his popular Lenox Room into T-Bar Steak & Lounge.
T-Bar is a New York rarity, a steakhouse that has an active following among both men and women, because Fortuna is too skilled a restaurateur to fall into the black hole of steakhouse dining: the fatty porterhouse with creamed spinach. It's the kind of carefully balanced place where socialites can dress down and relax and where others can dress up and feel pampered.
The menu includes salads light enough to make a fashion model happy and a long selection of wines by the glass. There are few outdoor tables, but in the summer, the big windows are thrown open for lunch, and if you're sitting at a window table, you can have that cafe feeling while remaining air-conditioned.
Just up the road is the Atlantic Grill. Ordinarily, it's a seafood restaurant, but it's one of the most popular egg-based brunch venues in town because the prix fixe menu is cheap and includes the nearly obligatory mimosa. You're a bit exposed to street life when seated outside, but alfresco stalwarts like what they get.
You cannot write about dining on the Upper East Side without mentioning Italian food. One of the neighborhood's longtime favorites, Baraonda, has many outdoor tables, but such is the loyalty for good Italian among locals that they can easily book up during brunch and dinner.
Less well known, however, is the outdoor dining at the neighborhood's member in the three-restaurant Caffe Buon Gusto chain. The small group deserves its reputation for its always fresh and surprisingly inexpensive pasta dishes. When you arrive at the East Side location wondering if you can dine outside, you will see that there are a handful of small tables set up on the front porch. But if you know to ask, you will be escorted through a narrow, twisting corridor, past the kitchen and down the back stairs, to a quiet backyard patio, there to enjoy an open-air meal undisturbed by city life.
New York is about nothing if not surprises.
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