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.
Residents of DUMBO are already organizing against the proposed $300 million redevelopment of the Brooklyn waterfront that extends for a few deserted cobblestone blocks between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. But even if the plan, which includes a hotel, a multiplex, a health club, stores, and, worst of all, parking garages, is ultimately rejected, neighborhood activists need look no farther than the six-week-old French café Le Gamin (1 Main Street; 718-722-2979) for signs that their once-industrial neighborhood is going the way of seventies-era SoHo. Not that the spacious café, located on the ground floor of a new loft conversion, is anything fancy. In atmosphere and clientele, it’s the polar opposite of its Brooklyn Bridge counterpart, The River Café, whose picturesque landscaping, valet parking, and dress code make it a special-occasion haven – not exactly the sort of place where French expats might gather for a game of fooseball, as they do on the huge, split-level premises of Le Gamin. After you take in the expanse of the city-agency parking lot across the street, your view extends to the hulking bridges and the cityscape beyond. Maybe the bread isn’t exactly oven-fresh, and the iced chocolat froid is tepid, but the crêpes, both savory and sweet, are luscious, and the coffee’s good. There’s a rack of semi-current magazines to peruse, and not a bridesmaid in sight.
Soak up the pre-gentrified atmosphere afterward with a stroll through Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, an anomalous greensward that extends under the Brooklyn Bridge all the way into the River Café’s driveway, which is where you’ll find all the bridesmaids. Or, for the tastiest, cheapest outdoor meal in the area – with the most unobstructed water view – skip the cafés and order a brick-oven pizza to go from the legendary Grimaldi’s (19 Old Fulton Street; 718-858-4300) around the corner. Claim a bench or a plot of grass and have a picnic, Brooklyn-style.
Even if the voyage lasts just fifteen minutes, as the one does from East 34th Street to Water’s Edge in Long Island City (44th Drive and East River; 718-482-0033), a ferry ride feels like an instant vacation. This one happens to be free if you’re having dinner, or even just drinks, on the slightly stodgy premises, where the American menu is livelier than the mature clientele. But if you make the trip, take a detour for a sunset drink at the Fila Sports Club around the corner. During the week, and on weekends after five, the tennis center’s outdoor bar and grill, Doubbles (44-02 Vernon Boulevard; 718-937-3001), is open to the public and offers, if not exactly gourmet fare, a lovely view of Roosevelt Island, the Queensboro Bridge, the United Nations complex, and midtown Manhattan. Make your way past the resort-worthy swimming pool, the clay courts, and the country-clubbish bar to the plastic tables set up on a lush green lawn. Stick with beer or a cocktail, and save your appetite for the New American menu next door.
The New York Waterway ferry across the Hudson is even faster than its East River equivalent: six, seven minutes tops from 38th Street to Port Imperial, the hub for Weehawken commuters and the home of Arthur’s Landing, owned by trucking magnate Arthur Imperatore Sr. (who, incidentally, also owns the ferries, the shuttle buses, and most of the surrounding real estate) (1 Pershing Road, Weehawken, New Jersey; 201-867-0777). When the boat docks, you walk through a pristinely landscaped park, fragrant with flowers (did we mention Imperatore’s nursery?), past a marina where a family of ducks occupies an empty slip. The glass-walled restaurant has been a date mecca for ten years, as much for the spectacularly romantic setting and picture-postcard view of Manhattan as for the pricey American food. But if you’re not willing to pay a value-added vista tariff, you can snag a seat at the bar, which shares the dining room’s glass-walled view, without a reservation and order a burger or fried calamari off the cheaper bar menu. Or better yet, have cocktails even closer to the water’s edge outside on the terrace, where all the bar stools face Manhattan. You won’t find a better deal on prime waterfront real estate anywhere.
Nick’s Lobster (2777 Flatbush Avenue; 718-253-7117) is the kind of fish market and family-style restaurant you’d expect to find in Maine or Montauk, not downstream from Kings Plaza Shopping Center in southeastern Brooklyn. Fish-delivery trucks are parked outside; inside, huge lobsters lumber around their crowded tanks. A canopied deck carpeted with Astroturf and outfitted with checked tablecloths and plastic chairs overlooks Mill Basin, a narrow body of water that empties out into Jamaica Bay. Lower, for one summer night, your Le Bernardin-trained seafood standards and order – as everyone else does – lobster with corn and steak fries off the no-frills fish menu, and a pitcher of Miller. Sit as close to the railing (and as far from Flatbush Avenue) as possible, soak up the salt air, and contemplate all that coastal quiet – until the next Jet Skier comes blasting by.
If Nick’s is a laid-back neighborhood hangout, Johnny’s Reef (2 City Island Avenue; 718-885-2086), at the tip of City Island, is a riotous summertime feeding frenzy. Fish-fry lovers make the pilgrimage to the overlit, no-frills cafeteria in the Bronx for some of the best, freshest, most affordable seafood around. The fried soft-shell crabs, filet of sole, lobster tails, and calamari are delectably crunchy, the corn on the cob succulent and sweet, the custardy ice cream an apt conclusion to the greasy feast. Carry your cardboard tray outside to a picnic table on the enormous patio with a sweeping view of Long Island Sound.
Until now, the terrace at Giando on the Water (400 Kent Avenue, at Broadway; 718-387-7000), the old-school Italian restaurant and catering hall below the Williamsburg Bridge, has been open only for private parties. But beginning next month – pending the arrival of a shipment of patio furniture – cocktails will be served outside, right next to the decrepit remains of some wooden docks that lend even more atmosphere to the East River views of lower Manhattan. But the mood inside the dining room, with its saggy pink upholstered chairs and garish chandeliers, is too reminiscent of a banquet hall. None of the traditional Italian standards – pastas, chops, seafood – merits a special inter-borough trip. Try, if you can, to ingratiate yourself with the tuxedo-clad maître d’, who might, if the dinner rush is over, grant you a premium window table for coffee and one of the best Italian cheesecakes in town – or just wait till they open the terrace for dessert.