Barbetta and The Heiress

Barbetta, on Restaurant Row, is the oldest restaurant in the city, located in an 1874 townhouse, owned consistently by the Maioglio family.Our amuse-bouche of salmon smoked in-house (to avoid the usual salt overload), was the most delicious smoked salmon we had ever eaten. Too cold a day for salad, hostess Laura Maioglio suggested a hot first course of tiny gnocchetti ai formaggi. The scallops in potato crust, rabbit alla Piemontese and agnolotti, a 1906 tiny-ravioli dish, warmed us up in a hurry. Flourless chocolate cake, a dessert that many restaurants do well, was, like the smoked salmon, almost too good to be true at Barbetta.

The setting is creamy and grand and used in many movies, including several by Woody Allen—you almost get a sense of déjà vu. Valentine’s Day is the day to be at Barbetta, with dancing to a “four-piece band.” You know it’s got to be amazing! We’d settle just to come back one perfect night in early summer and dine in the enchanting old garden, beside the fountain and the hundred-year-old tangle of wisteria.

The old world charm of Barbetta prepared us for “The Heiress,” by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, a bittersweet love story based on the Henry James novelette Washington Square. In the role of Catherine Sloper, the heroine who over and over again will turn down a chance to be loved, is the too-beautiful Jessica Chastain of movie fame. She plays the unappreciated daughter of the stern widower, Dr. Austin Sloper, fully embodied by Broadway veteran David Strathairn. What a pleasure to watch both actors go at it in this period piece!

The play takes place in one roomthe parlor of the Slopers’ Washington Square house. Henry James described this part of old Greenwich Village as having a “mild and melancholy glamour.” His childhood home was on Washington Square, where there are still a few row houses on the northeast corner. (If you want more of the setting, take a short trip to the Merchant’s House Museuma perfectly intact nineteenthcentury house that was the set designer’s inspiration.)

The real surprise of the afternoon was Dan Stevens. Who doesn’t love the dashing Matthew Crawley of “Downton Abbey”? We were expecting more of the same in his portrayal of the anxious young suitor, but he was quite different and kept us guessing. A terrific performance.

Becco Restaurant and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

On 46th St. between Eighth and Ninth, Becco looks like just another Theatre Row restaurant until you try to get a reservation and find it booked through to matinee time. We arrived at noon in order to find seats at the bar and ordered a bottle of wine from a long list of $25 bottles. Ah, is cheap wine the key to Becco's success? The Italian menu offered a prix fixe at under $20 (is this Restaurant Week?) and a 3-pasta combination, when ordered with another course for only $9. "For instance, order a salad and you can get the pasta combo," our waiter helpfully suggested.

Three waiters appear, each carrying a silver platter of pasta of a different shape and sauce. Later, seconds were offered, and we filled our plates again, only to ask for our leftovers to be wrapped up. We had to bring something home for our husbands' dinner, especially after we'd spent the entire afternoon drinking wine and sitting in a exquisite theatre, watching a classic American play, while they were hard at work at the office.

The courses are generous at Becco and flavored in a way that fresh sage and basil notes are there, but subtle. If there is any complaint to be made about this fine fare, served with a nibble of white bean paste and high quality bread, is that the chef has too light a hand with salt. Looking around at the packed restaurant full of theatre goers, many with white hair, perhaps it's not the cheap wine but a preference is for healthy, low-salt Italian fare that packs them in.

The small, pretty Booth theatre played host to the Steppenwolf's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," a play that has been regularly updated by Edward Albee, including a cell phone and words that never passed Elizabeth Taylor's lips, even when she played the reckless drunk, Martha. Amy Morton's Martha is just as strong but less of a lush. Tracy Letts, without Burton's accent, is a more sinister George, and a more comic one too. Carrie Coon gives a fresh delivery to the character of Honey. We are so impressed by Steppenwolf's not creating star vehicles and focusing on the story.

We reflected during the two intermissions that it would be difficult to perform this play twice a day (which they do on Saturday only). The schedule does not have both matinee and evening performance on Wednesday, allowing the actors to cool down, practice yoga, and be peaceful between harrowing performances.

Joe Allen and Venus in Fur

“Venus in Fur” is David Ives's scary and fun two-character play, with Hugh Dancey (Claire Danes's husband) as the playwright who has adapted Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, Venus in Furs (stet -s). At the end of the casting call an actress, who begs to audition, sweeps in from a storm. Wearing a trench coat and carrying a broken umbrella, this unlikely actress evolves into the Venus of his fantasies, turning the tables, getting him to question his vanilla marriage. We love S&M as much as the next gal, but don't think Fifty Shades of Grey. The woman is on top in this production, played by Tony Award-winning Nina Arianda.

With its decor of Broadway shows that have flopped and a wait staff of would-be actors, Joe Allen is a 40 year-institution serving very American cuisine. Is might be the most famous Theatre Row restaurant, bustling at lunch and dinner with a clientele that includes the occasional famous face. We stopped there for Dirty Martinis, the twenty-five-dollar hamburger, chopped salad, and a Hot Chocolate Chip Cookie. 

Of course it's overpriced, but you don't do a show and a meal on Broadway without expecting to dig a little deeper. After all, it's the most exciting date that New York City — or any other city in the world, that is — has to offer.

Sardi's and Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor has provided laughs and insights on his Saturday night live radio show, Prairie Home Companion since the ‘70s. In 1989, for one brief year, the show broadcasted out of New York City as the American Radio Company of the Air. Even though he went back to Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, New Yorkers still love him, and he returns to peform two or three times a year with guests that included the fabulous, reclusive singer-songwriter Iris DeMent at the recent sold-out show at the historic Town Hall. Long may he rock and roll into Manhattan.

A Broadway institution, where announcements of the Tony award nominations are made, Sardi’s delivers more as an after-theatre date, rather than a pre-matinee lunch. (Most of us look better at night, in romantic lighting.) It’s memorable not so much for the food but for its red, jewel-box atmosphere, studded by caricatures of show-biz greats. The requirement is only that they played Broadway — many have passed through their doors and lit up the room. (Keillor’s frequent seasons on Broadway have earned him a place on Sardi’s wall of Broadway stars, but he’s not there!) Waiters will place your bottle of modest wine in an iced champagne bucket, just as they probably do in Lake Wobegon.

Alice's Tea Cup and Spiderman

Sisters, Haley & Lauren Fox, took their lifelong obsession of tea and turned it into Alice’s Tea Cup, which opened in 2001. They now own three Tea Cup cafes. My daughter and I dined at the original, on 73rd & Columbus Avenue, for a pre-theatre high tea before an evening performance of "Spiderman" at the Foxwood Theatre.

A varied menu included soups, salads and sandwiches, but we came for tea! The Mad Hatter Tea came w/a 3-tiered stand with yummy finger sandwiches (smoked chicken breast w/apples and goat cheese, egg salad infused with maté carnival tea and watercress) freshly made buttermilk and pumpkin scones, cookies and chocolate mousse. Christmas tea is available all year. We embraced the entire scene, wore the “house” wings, and allowed ourselves to be sprinkled with complimentary fairy dust. It was more food than my petite child could handle—we carefully packed up the leftovers for Dad.

As a native New Yorker my 7 yr. old has already seen a good deal of theatre. She’s girly so I was trepidatious about taking her to "Spiderman," which seems very boy. I could hardly contain her in her booster seat as she rocked out to songs and screamed when characters flew over her head. Yes, more than one character flies through the audience—some land in the mezzanine. As we walked home, she shouted from the street corner, “Best show ever!”

For my taste, the actors did not have strong enough singing or dancing chops. The real star of the show is the set. We’ve been hearing about all the technical problems that "Spiderman" has had and the long delay in opening so I was a bit concerned that some prop would fizzle or a set piece would drop out of the ceiling during the show. It was flawless and fascinating to watch the mix of larger-than-life comic characters, pop-up sets and costumes that came literally alive. Really a spectacular spectacle and worth staying up until 10:15 on a school night!