NEW YORK — Though Times Square may be heaven for musical theater buffs, for most of us it’s the ninth circle of hell. Navigating 42nd Street, with its throngs of tourists all curiously looking upward, can feel like negotiating your way through the storming of Carthage. On 46th Street, otherwise known as Restaurant Row, hostesses try to corral the masses into cramped quarters for quick meals.
Unfortunately, stress is an intrinsic trait of the neighborhood. “In theater district restaurants, there’s always the feeling of pressure up until 8 o’clock,” says Tim Zagat, founder of the Zagat Survey restaurant guide.
But if you can’t escape the tyranny of time, you can at least flee the madding crowd. There are unhurried, even tranquil, surroundings to be found in bars and restaurants surrounding Times Square, and you don’t have to hail a cab to reach them.
On 51st Street, tucked down a flight of stairs lies Tout Va Bien, one of the city’s last standing, old-school, no-frills bistros. It’s the sort of place where you might get into an argument about Godard, but you won’t have to fight through crowds. Classics like steak frites and coq au vin are executed well.
Barbetta, on 46th, takes its patrons as far away — aesthetically — from Times Square as possible. The century-old restaurant evokes old (that is, less-crowded) New York, and the garden in back, with its emphasis on greenery, is a welcome change from the flashing lights and billboards outside.
And then there is Le Bernardin, the four-star institution headed by culinary demigod Eric Ripert. The restaurant, which focuses loosely on seafood, has a reputation for quiet, subtle perfection. Don’t plan on catching a show if you’re there for a tasting menu. “Come at 6:00, you might still be there at 9:30,” says Zagat.
Just a few hundred feet from Broadway is Jimmy’s Corner, a boxing-themed bar known for serving journalists, as opposed to theatergoers. On a recent Saturday at 7 p.m., Jimmy’s had open seats at the bar.
If you’re feeling brave, venture east toward Hell’s Kitchen on 52nd, where you’ll find two opposing bars with similar themes: The Russian Vodka Room and the Russian Samovar. Though both are dense with patrons, this isn’t the theater crowd, as evidenced by their continued and frenzied activity past 8 p.m. They’re filled, rather, with Russians. Visit the Vodka Room for Russian dance and song (the clientele knows the words), and head to the Samovar for house-made flavored vodka that will make your cab ride home either very pleasant or just the opposite.
For quieter libations, consider the upstairs Library Bar in the Paramount Hotel. Though it overlooks the postmodern nightmare that is the Paramount’s lobby (medieval-style chairs upholstered with graphics of vicious dogs, accident-provoking mirrored walls in the bathrooms), the Library Bar boasts something in short supply not only in Times Square, but in all New York City: open space.
Recline on a sofa, sip one the bar’s impressive mojitos and resist the urge to glance out the window onto 46th Street. It will break the mood.