Manhattan: Curtain up on the world’s biggest film set

Manhattan has set the scene for everyone from Carrie Bradhsaw to Woody Allen. But, however big the star, it’s the city that always takes top billing.

By Richard Burton, January 7, 2010
Backdrop: Sex and the city

Backdrop: Sex and the city

A group of us were in the Monkey Bar being stung the price of a cup final ticket for a bottle of fairly ordinary merlot when Keith Richard strolled past.

The smokers spotted him, ambling by with his daughter when they popped outside for a cough and a wheeze.

The following night Jessica Simpson sat a few tables away at Jean Georges, and in the morning in the lounge at Plaza Athenée, a waitress told me I was sitting in Sir Paul McCartney’s favourite seat.

All a bit pretentious, to be honest. But this was Manhattan and they drop names here like they do their aitches in Dagenham. I even had to negotiate the men in black at my hotel because Bill Clinton was giving a speech in the ballroom.

But this is a film set where the city’s the star and the rest of us, well-known or not, are mere extras who live, work or, like me, simply pop by for a walk-on part. And you don’t even have to do the Sex and the City tour to feel part of it. You just have to turn up and pay attention.

There’s lots to get you into the spirit: the steam does rise from the manholes over the subway; the cops, big as bears in boiler-suit blue, do say “have a nice day” and Yellow Taxi drivers are up for following that cab, partly because they’re nothing like our own black cabs, who know where they’re going.

The only things missing are the “Walk”, “Don’t Walk” signs that featured in everything from Kojak to Manhattan. Sadly, all 85,000 have gone, replaced by images of striding matchstick men and big red hands.

The key to doing Manhattan is to stay on set. You can walk everywhere and the cabs are as cheap as they are small and cramped. A stroll from Central park to Ground Zero, trust me on this, took two hours — and cost as little as $16 (£9.95) to return by cab.

This even allows for minor diversions to take in some seriously recognisable backdrops: Bloomingdales (The Mirror has Two Faces), Tiffany’s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) the Empire State Building (King Kong), Macy’s (Radio Days), not to mention the fact that, if you stick to Fifth and Broadway and make your way down through Soho where the atmosphere grows distinctly less Sex and the City and more Friends.

Of course, it helps if you get your personal location right. And if you’re looking for a movie star hotel, the Pierre on Fifth Avenue is a good start. It was in that Clinton’s ballroom that Al Pacino danced the tango in Scent of a Woman and, more recently, where Alec Badwin celebrated a prince’s birthday in 30 Rock.

Familiar: the Manhattan skyline and the iconic Brooklyn bridge as cinema viewers know it

Familiar: the Manhattan skyline and the iconic Brooklyn bridge as cinema viewers know it

Better still, it’s where Mad Men’s Jon Hamm discussed Jewish views on Israel for an ad campaign, which was fitting, given that this was one of was the first hotels to offer co-op apartments to New York’s Jewish community.

The nearby Plaza Athenée on East 64th Street also played host to the Sex and the City cast in the final few episodes. Sarah Jessica Parker may have lamented her ill-fated romance in the sister Paris hotel, but the bar scenes were shot in New York.

This Spring, a bit of Hollywood history will be brought back to life when the former Lambs Club reopens as a baby grand hotel in the form of the Chatwal on West 44th Street. The Lambs was America’s luvviest venue when it opened in 1874 backed by the likes of Cliff Robertson and Gene Autrey. It even banned theatre critics.

This could be the real show-stopper, given the luxuries offered to guests. There’s a hotly-awaited 90-seat restaurant, ablaze with red seating and white linen, all club-like, with booths befitting any Holywood setting.

There’ll even be homages to the original architect; one of the landmark suites has been named the Stanford White Studio, after the legendary lothario who had a red velvet swing in his apartment for use by scantily-clad girls, including actress Evelyn Nesbitt, America’s first It-girl. He was later murdered on the roof of Madison Square garden by her jealous boyfriend.

They’re all part of a hotel and dining revolution that’s revitalising the Upper East Side following a blip in the culinary landscape that saw nightlife take a step downtown last year.

The trendy Manhattan magazine had put the hippest restaurants and bars south of 14th street after top uptown chefs migrated to venues such as the Waverly Inn, Soho’s Balthazar and Minetta in the Meat Packing District.

But that’s all changing thanks to some serious competition from New York’s version of London’s Le Caprice, whose revolving Fifth Avenue doors opened in November to reveal potentially the longest and most stylish bar in the city.

Part of the Pierre, and designed by Martin Brudnizki who carved his name on The Club in London’s Ivy, it is fast becoming the place to be seen. Crisply finished in fabulous movietone black and white, with loads of gleaming glass and polished silver, those who know these things agree that it sets a seriously new standard in style.

Boss Jesus Adorno has bought his top team — and some kitchen specials — from London and even has 60s snaps of Jean Shrimpton on the wall, courtesy of David Bailey.

The Pierre itself also has its own restaurant called 2E, a darker, more snug and informal bar-like area with low chairs and small scattered tables inside its more discreet East Street entrance.

It’s recently undergone a $100-million facelift to reassert itself as the flagship of the Taj Hotel group. The rooms have been seriously upgraded and a new lounge and restaurant have been added to complement the Grand Ballroom which was completed two years earlier.

The suites are all period-style furniture, Indian artwork, leather headboards and flat-screen TVs in every room. The bathrooms are Turkish marble with glass-walled showers and steam-free shaving mirrors. Some of them include separate soaking tubs — and TVs you can watch while you soak.

It’s what I’d call international/traditional: attendants in white gloves even whisk you through the 41 floors in leather-padded lifts.

It’s one of those places the horse-drawn carriages that skip through Central Park look designed to pull up outside.

Now is a good time to visit. The sales began on Boxing Day and will last until the end of February. Expect discounts of 30-60 per cent at high street stores and up to 80 per cent in warehouses.

Barneys Warehouse on West 17th Street, hacks masses off labels such as Prada and Chloe.

Scoop, at 532 Broadway, is good for Earnest Sewn jeans and Sigerson Morrison shoes, I’m told. For non-designerwear, Saks, with its improbably vast shoe department, and Bloomingdales cut the mustard but, be warned, Macy’s, so female friends tell me, can be chaotic at this time of year.

And when you’re loaded with bags, expect to be seen by the Orthodox — especially on important Jewish holidays.

For this is a very Jewish city. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they blow the shofar for you as you emerge from the subway. On succot, they will get you to shake the lulav and the etrog or just want you to put on tefillin. It’s for you. But it’s also a mitzvah for them, of course.

I learned this over lunch in a small cafe at the side of Bloomingdales.

Having already enjoyed the best service the Upper East side has to offer, I pushed my luck with the waiter when I asked if it was possible to “rustle up something a little different”.

He shrugged and said: “What we got is on the menu. I’ll come back when you’ve read it.”

Thanks a lot. An hour later, I handed him a large note, expecting change. Without a backward glance, he trousered it and disappeared.

    Last updated: 3:42pm, February 11 2010