NEW YORK — For 15 years they've been calling it the Big Apple, which is fine. Yet that hardly conveys the virtues and complexities of a scintillating lady with the vivacity of Liza Minnelli, the freshness of Brooke Shields, humor of Lily Tomlin and, when she's at her very best, the classic beauty of a Catherine Deneuve.
Like most metropolitan areas, it has its problems. Climbing aboard a crowded mid-Manhattan bus with incorrect change for the fare box, we suddenly found half a dozen fellow riders riffling through pockets and purses to help solve our dilemma.
New Yorkers are in fact the most provincial of all humans, taking pride in or defending their town with all the fervor of a Balkan villager. Yet many of us have forebears whose first stop was in New York, moving on to the Hartford Valley as Teutonic toolmakers, Scandinavian wheat farmers to Minnesota, Mediterranean fishermen to Gulf ports, whatever. They all came.
So this is the quintessential American city, an amalgam of the good, bad, wondrous and worrisome in us all.
Here to there: TWA, American, Pan Am and United will get you to JFK, PeoplExpress to Newark, all non-stop, several others with stops. Take a bus from JFK to two stations in Manhattan, cost $8, or one from Newark, cost $4.
Getting around town: Bus or subway both cost $1. Our cab fares around Manhattan averaged $4-$5 with tip.
How long/how much: It's a city of superlatives: 100,000 hotel rooms, 25,000 restaurants, 150 museums, 12,000 taxis and almost 400 theaters on and off Broadway. Making even a small dent in this behemoth takes at least four days, better a week.
In a town where the average apartment rent is $1,050, and that held down by rigid control in some sections, hotel rooms don't come cheap. Dining can run from moderate to astronomical, depending on your style.
Getting settled in: The Wellington (7th Avenue at 55th Street; $72 double) has seen better days, but the location is great. Be sure to ask for one of the renovated rooms, others are rather iffy. Informal restaurant with red-checked tablecloths, long, friendly bar. The nearby Shoreham (33 West 55th; $85-$95) has a tiny lobby, same good location, neat and moderate-size rooms. No restaurant, but each room has coffee and tea makers, small fridge.
Near the Guggenheim and Metropolitan museums just east of Central Park, the Wales (1295 Madison Ave.; $50-$60) is a small one with charming lobby: crystal chandeliers, fresh flowers, marble staircase and fireplace. Rooms don't match the downstairs splendor but they're comfortable enough. Restaurant popular with locals.
Our own choice has to be the Algonquin (59 West 44th; $111-$118), a warm and revered gathering place that spawned the Algonquin Round Rable in the '20s and '30s, a witty, stylish, often arrogant and cutting group made up of such as Alexander Woollcott, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, and Harold Ross, founder and editor of the New Yorker.
Walls and a dozen columns of burnished wood, discreet lighting and an arrangement of comfortable furniture give the marvelous lobby the feel of a private club, which it seems to become every afternoon around 5 as the faithful gather for drinks. Lovely rooms, renowned restaurants, a civilized place if ever there was one.
Moderate-cost dining: With more than 3,000 Italian restaurants, plus a sea of others from every country, region and province on earth including Bangladesh, we'll try to aim you at a few that reflect the flavor and color of the city.
Hunan Garden (1 Mott St. in Chinatown) misses very little of the famous food of that province. Try the heng yang scallops with tree mushrooms, jade and ruby peppers; yo yang pork Hunan style with black bean sauce; shrimp in hot ginger and garlic sauce. There's an $11.95 house dinner with choice of soups, appetizers and 21 main courses plus dessert. New York Mayor Koch "blessed" the place with: "The food is pretty good here. You should come back."
Enjoy the playing fountains or ice skaters at Rockefeller Center's American Festival Cafe that celebrates U.S. food with succulent Maryland crab cakes, barbecued back ribs, Sonoma lamb steak, little neck clams and Key lime pie. Serves all three meals, always crowded.
The spectacle is almost as gala at DDL Foodshow in lower level of Trump Tower (724 Fifth Ave.), a building about as understated as a World's Fair midway. Excellent Italian food, rust-marble walls soaring around the atrium, a 90-foot waterfall, but no truth to the rumor that an Aztec maiden is tossed over every noon.
I Gattopardo (45 West 56th) has convinced us on two trips that owner Mario Gattorna serves some of the best Italian food, particulalry Genovese , in town. Very elegant, always filled with visiting Italians, a heavenly specialty of rack of veal stuffed with Fontina cheese and imported mushrooms, the bocconcini just as good.