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Water Tables

New York has never been known for its waterfront dining. But with some new options along the shore -- and some irresistible old favorites -- the tide is starting to turn.

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The only thing better than a room with a water view is the view without the confining walls of a room. For a coastal city -- nearly an island city -- New York is woefully deficient in open-air waterfront dining. But the past year or two has brought some promising new developments to the urban shoreline. And if you're willing to explore some outlying neighborhoods, you'll discover that the city has its fair share of marine vantage points perfect for languid summer meals. At best, you might catch a glorious sunset over New Jersey or the entertaining juxtaposition of a vintage sailboat charting its peaceful course between the hulking Staten Island Ferry and the Beast, a crimson-colored water ride with teeth painted across the bow and passengers screaming from the deck. At worst, a seagull (or a flock of them) may invade your personal space, looking for handouts -- not necessarily a tragedy, since the food, with a few worthy exceptions, is rather beside the point. World Yacht and Spirit Cruises had a monopoly on floating restaurants until this year's arrival of Bateaux New York (Pier 61; 352-2022), a 208-footer built in Virginia and intended to evoke memories of those sultry bateau-mouche rides down the Seine. The ship departs from its berth at Chelsea Piers for a three-hour cruise around lower Manhattan and tries to distinguish itself from the competition by paying attention to the food, surmising (correctly) that its passengers do, too, no matter how spectacular the scenery. To that end, the company enlisted chef Scott Bryan, riding the crest of his recent success at Veritas, to consult on the menu; sommelier John Gilman (who just left Gotham Bar & Grill for Picholine) put together the wine list. So even though parts of this boat ride feel like a bar mitzvah (it seems to draw extended families celebrating something, and you have to place your entire order, including dessert, as soon as you leave shore), the meal doesn't have that bland catered feel.

You can't actually reserve a seat by the window, but -- chronic complainers be advised -- there honestly is no bad seat in the house: The glass walls curve into a glass ceiling, which permits unobstructed views of even the loftiest skyscrapers, not to mention the looming underbellies of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Between courses (or between songs, performed by vivacious cabaret singer India Galyean), couples wander out to the deck to sneak a few private moments, swept up by the romance of the sparkling city lights, the cool sea breeze, and India's spirited interpretations of such chestnuts as "Bewitched" and "New York State of Mind."

Considering that it was cooked in a galley, the meal is surprisingly good: a flavorful goat-cheese terrine with sprightly watercress, wild-mushroom strudel in a truffle-accented cream sauce, salmon with avocado and black beans, and a zesty pork loin with basmati rice in a tamarind-ginger sauce taste, happily, like real restaurant food, and cost as much. (A boat ride and three-course prix fixe runs $100 Sunday through Thursday and $115 on Fridays and Saturdays, drinks excluded; brunch is $60.) If you're prone to claustrophobia, keep in mind that you'll be held hostage until everyone -- that's 300 drunken sailors -- settles his bill at the end of the night. On one recent evening, an incipient mob threatened to kick the glass door down before the crew relented. New York state of mind, all right.

If you've long since abandoned Battery Park to that confluence of tourists posing in front of Lady Liberty and the peddlers and minstrels who prey upon them, you've been missing a surprisingly un-touristy destination restaurant. Wend your way through the ghost town that is the off-hours financial district until you arrive at American Park (Battery Park; 809-5508), the Parks Department storage annex converted last year into a sprawling food-service complex. There's a stylish restaurant and a banquet space above it, with enormous windows overlooking New York Harbor; a genteel terrace with tablecloths and proper china; an outdoor bar; and, almost at the water's edge, a cluster of tables ("the Grill") where Wall Street's thirsty warriors and their executive assistants congregate after the market closes to celebrate or commiserate, as the case may be. Chef Rad Matmati's cooking is actually good enough to distract you from the sunset, the bustling harbor traffic, even the nearly nude Rollerbladers rounding the tip of Battery Park. Almost everyone orders a towering seafood platter from the raw bar ($85 for the deluxe assortment), which comes with a pear mignonette and green-papaya relish. But that shouldn't be interpreted as a sign to forgo flavorful Mediterranean entrées like grilled yellowfin with hummus, red onions, and just-spicy-enough harissa vinaigrette, and Tunisian crusted lamb loin with curried couscous and chive-yogurt sauce. Prices are high (mains cost $24 to $35), but even the occasional drunken outburst from the Grill's cheap seats isn't enough to spoil the mood or the fabulous panorama.

Central Park has its Boathouse, but Riverside Park does it one better, and the locals want to keep their secret to themselves. "Don't tell the East Siders about us," says a waiter conspiratorially one balmy night at the West 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe (West 79th Street in Riverside Park; 496-5542), a semi-sheltered bar and grill run seasonally by O'Neals' Restaurant. By now, its third summer, the secret seems to have already gotten out, since there's almost always a wait for an umbrella'd table on the terrace overlooking the houseboats on the Hudson and the Palisades beyond. But you'll get the same view from an "inside" table, through one of the archways of the rotunda that houses the bar. Beer, burgers, and barbecued ribs with cole slaw and corn bread are the way to go, though the menu offers a respectable range of vegetarian options and $2.50 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for kids. The grill smoke gets in your eyes, the music blasts from speakers mounted on the limestone walls, and everything -- from utensils to chairs -- is plastic. But the service is personable and efficient, and the dog-friendly, neighborhoody vibe is almost as appealing as the moonlight shimmering on the Hudson.


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