Bryant Park

Tourist Trap Smackdown

November 19, 2005
Chris Erikson, The New York Post

The city's tourism bureau says this will be the most popular November ever for tourists - with about 3.7 million visitors invading New York.

Luckily, there are more choices than ever if you're entertaining Aunt Mildrid and Uncle Burt. The Top of the Rock, the newly reopened observation deck at the apex of Rockefeller Center, now rivals the Empire State Building for views of the city. And Bryant Park opened a new skating rink in Midtown, just a few blocks south of the legendary Rockefeller rink, where tourists have glided in the shadow of the giant Christmas tree since 1936.

So which offer the perfect New York experience for visiting family and friends? We investigated the tourist hot spots - from toy stores to theme restaurants to delis - and came up with this head-to-head comparison.

And don't worry. They'll leave soon.

Peak experiences: Empire State Building vs. Top of the Rock

Does working at a high altitude make people cheerful? You may find yourself wondering this after a visit to Top of the Rock. Its army of black-shirted attendants may well be New York's most friendly and helpful staff, to the point where you might wonder exactly what city you're in.

From the greeter at the front door (on West 50th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues) to the chatty attendants at the top to Cleave the elevator man, who pumped us up on the ride up and shook our hands on the way down, there's a genuine warmth here that makes a trip to Top of the Rock a pleasure. And this place operates at peak efficiency - I was whisked along through the ticket line and looking down on the city in no time.

At the Empire State Building (Fifth Avenue at 34th Street), the workers are pleasant at best and indifferent at worst, and you're corralled through an endless maze of roped pathways and crammed into two different elevators (with no Cleave to lift your spirits).

Worse, you can feel like a mark here. The basic charge is the same ($14), but they make you smile for a photo that they later try to sell you for $15, give you a hard sell for the $6 audio tour ("You're gonna need this," I was told) and route you straight into the gift shop when you leave the elevator.

But the bottom line is that you're going for the view, and on that score the Empire State Building takes the prize.

Make no mistake, the Top of Rock is not chicken feed - the view from 70 floors up is hard to top. The Empire manages, though; from its windy observation deck you get an exhilarating feeling of being at the very top of New York. While the sedate Top of the Rock feels removed from the city beyond, atop Empire you can look right down on the avenues below, and watch the matchbox-sized yellow cabs coursing up and down those arteries like the city's pulse.

Slip-sliding away: the Rink at Rockefeller Center vs. Bryant Park

Tourist experiences don't get any more iconic than skating at Rockefeller Center. Between the massive Christmas tree, the great golden Prometheus statue and the throngs of rosy-cheeked tourists, it's a veritable Currier and Ives scenario in the middle of Midtown.

It's a lot of fun to take a spin around that ice, too - it's worth doing at least once for tourists and natives alike.

But for our money, the new Bryant Park rink (Sixth Avenue at 42nd Street) has the edge. To start with one major advantage, it's free, thanks to underwriting from Citi. (Skate rentals cost $7.50; at Rockefeller Center they're $8, and the skating fee is $14.)

Even without the cost advantage, Bryant Park offers a more pleasant experience. The dressing area is bright and roomy, with a wall of windows looking out on the ice - a big improvement over the cramped quarters at Rockefeller Center. And you can take a timeout here for coffee or hot chocolate.

The Bryant Park rink itself is larger too, which makes for more relaxing skating. At the Rockefeller Center rink (near 48th Street in the plaza between Fifth and Sixth avenues), we spent too much time dodging boisterous Midwestern teens. Granted there's no Christmas tree at Bryant Park, but there's more to look at than in the Rock Center fishbowl, including the park's lovely fountain, the rear of the majestic main library and the stately, gold-leafed Bryant Park Hotel.

There's one downside to keep in mind, though - while both rinks draw spectators, the tourist-to-native ratio is lower at Bryant Park. So if you fall on your butt, your humiliation is more likely to be witnessed by the hot number from the art department on lunch break.

Rye and mighty: Katz's Delicatessen vs. Carnegie Deli

Pastrami is serious business in this city, so let's get straight to the meat of the matter: Katz's gets the nod.

Don't get us wrong - the pastrami at Carnegie Deli (854 Seventh Ave. near 54th Street) ain't chopped liver. Piled astronomically high on a couple slices of rye bread, it's moist, deep red and luscious. The pickles on the table are top-notch, and the movie-star photos on the wall are a likely tourist-pleaser. (You might even see an actual movie star - Laura Linney was in the house on our visit.)

One downside of the Carnegie is having your meat anonymously sliced on a machine behind a partition. An essential part of the experience at Katz's (205 E. Houston St. at Ludlow) is the ritual of taking your ticket at the door and waiting in line to have your sandwich hand-sliced by the countermen. You watch, salivating, as they fork the peppered briskets out of the steamer and go to town with their knives, expertly building your sandwich (first offering you a taste of the fatty pink meat on a little dish).

The hand-slicing improves the texture, and the flavor here is a shade deeper than at Carnegie, the meat slightly moister. Plus, the old-school atmosphere at this cavernous Lower East Side holdout can't be beat ("Send a Salami to your Boy in the Army!"). And while the sandwich is about the same price ($12.45 at Katz's vs. $12.95 at Carnegie), there's no sharing charge. And sharing one of these behemoths is not a bad idea.

Toy Stories: FAO Schwarz vs. Times Square Toys 'R' Us.

Let's face it: If you're in town with little kids, you're probably going to get dragged to both of these. But if you've only got the time or the inclination for one, head for Times Square.

It's slightly painful to say that. After all, FAO Schwarz (767 Fifth Ave. at 58th Street) is a New York classic, where you probably went as a kid yourself. Toys 'R' Us (1514 Broadway) is a corporate chain of the type Midtown - and the universe - is way too full of.

FAO is tasteful and (for a toy store) elegant; Toys 'R' Us is loud and garish, and you can't throw an Elmo doll without hitting an oversized brand logo or a promotional movie tie-in.

But do your kids care? Hell no. They'll love the giant Jurassic Park dinosaur, the plasma-screened computer games and the full-on Ferris wheel in the middle of the store. You might even enjoy it yourself.

Variations on a theme: Jekyll & Hyde vs. Hard Rock Cafe

Want our advice on New York's theme restaurants? Avoid them. They're brutally overpriced, the food is dismal, and you'll be crowded in with the kind of people who lack the imagination to eat somewhere better in the world's greatest restaurant city.

If you insist, though, skip the Hard Rock and go to Jekyll & Hyde (1409 Sixth Ave. at 57th Street). The publike atmosphere is not unpleasant, and the various amusements - a band of skeletons that breaks into song, a mad professor who does a Frankenstein-monster skit, scary masks and talking mummies - are well executed. And they're sure to be a hit with the junior set.

Our $14 chopped salad and $12 kid's menu grilled cheese were no better than fair (and at those prices the $2.50 per person "entertainment charge" adds insult to injury). But that still puts them a significant leg up on the Times Square Hard Rock Cafe (1501 Broadway at 43rd Street), where we endured rubbery and tasteless shrimp and a brutal french dip sandwich involving leathery roast beef and an industrial-grade dipping sauce.

There are some genuinely cool things to see at the Hard Rock, including the Beatles' suits, old Springsteen set lists and guitars that belonged to everyone from Elvis to Nikki Sixx. So take a stroll through and check it out - then go somewhere else for dinner.

Hidden city: Lighting the Empire State Building

The top 30 floors of the Empire State Building were first illuminated with floodlights in 1964, to mark the beginning of the New York World's Fair. Twelve years later, colored lighting was introduced to celebrate America's bicentennial.

A system permitting a wider range of colors was introduced on Oct. 12 a year later, when the lights burned blue and white to celebrate the Yankees' 1977 World Series win.

The lights currently shine yellow, red, white, green and blue in various combinations to honor charities, holidays and special events. Some color schemes are obvious: green for St. Patrick's Day, red for Valentine's Day.

Others are more obscure: green, red and white on May 1 commemorates the feast of St. David, the patron saint of Wales; red white and green on April 18 honors the memory of Chico Simone, a Sicilian who months earlier had won the Empire State Building Run-up in his age group (90-99).

Visit esbnyc.com/tourism for a complete schedule of lights.