Almost every afternoon, as I go to collect the kid at school, I run into a foreign couple at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 94th Street. They have a guidebook in hand. And yet they are lost.
"Looking for the ICP?" I ask, meaning the International Center of Photography.
"It used to be here," I say. "Then a hedge-fund billionaire bought the building and spent $50 million renovating it as a town house -- he even added a lead-lined room to protect against a chemical, biological, or dirty bomb attack. The ICP is now at 43rd and 6th Avenue."
They look glum -- they realize their guidebook is old and discredited, and the ICP is miles away -- so I tell them about the Frick Collection, a pleasant walk down 5th Avenue. "The most beautiful museum in the city," I say. "Turners. Vermeers. An interior fountain."
They look grateful, if still befuddled -- their guidebook didn't rave about the Frick -- and they dutifully head toward 70th Street. (They'll never get there. At 88th Street, the Guggenheim will seduce them. It always does.)
If they'd been carrying City Secrets: New York City, they'd know nothing about the ICP -- but they'd learn quite a lot about the Frick. They'd know you can see the entire collection in 30-45 minutes, or spend a lot more time with its pictures, atrium and fountains. They'd find praise from Agnes Gund, President of the Museum of Modern Art, and two painters. And they'd get an art historian's description of the "spiritual ecstasy" conveyed by Giovanni Bellini in his painting, Saint Francis in the Desert.
The City Secrets guides -- there are also ones for Books and Movies that make HeadButler.com seem positively lowbrow -- are created by a Manhattan architect named Robert Kahn. He knows a lot of smart people in the arts and media, and he leans on them for their best expertise. The rest: the most interesting guide to Manhattan since Hidden New York.
[Warning: City Secrets: New York City is not for first-time visitors to New York. If your itinerary is the Empire State, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square and Chinatown, a standard guidebook will do quite nicely. Buy Zagat Restaurant Guide and a Metrocard, and you're set.]
Kahn's book is rich in lovely little facts that enhance a visit. Ellis Island, for example. As you enter, you must climb a flight of stairs. That was by design -- as a museum architect explains, immigrants who had trouble making that ascent were immediately led off to doctors for further investigation. Anna Quindlen recommends the Peking Duck House, where you can order the specialty without calling in advance; another suggests the Bridge Cafe, an old haunt of mine. A film producer urges you to ignore "a particularly American species, Frat Boy," who thinks he owns the Corner Bistro -- press beyond those tables and settle in for a great burger, fries and a beer. [You'll even learn about that great Village restaurant, Chumley's, which has no sign. Sadly, it's closed.]
Kate Spade needs 300 words to praise Bemelmans Bar sufficiently. The Metropolitan Museum of Art fills 16 pages -- I was happy to see that there's a full page about a small, magic room called the Gubbio Studiolo. The good news: These 550 pages make time for the hawks in Central Park and Nathan's hot dogs.
You don't have to come to New York to learn from City Secrets: New York City -- it's equally enjoyable as a glorious armchair travel guide. And, with a fast Internet connection, you can drop in at most of the destinations. Seen that way, this is a colossal bargain.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]