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Making Summer in New York Feel Like a Breeze : Forgo museums in favor of river cruises, outdoor dining and nighttime music.

June 28, 1992|JUDI DASH | Dash is a New Jersey-based free-lance writer

NEW YORK — When a friend visiting from out of state recently asked to be shown a "fun weekend in the Big Apple," I knew just where to take him.

Not to the museums, the monuments, or the hottest shows on Broadway. Summer in the city calls for breezier fare--particularly for those who already have done the standard tourist things. What I planned was a less structured, more "Barefoot in the Park" tour of Manhattan, one that takes advantage of the island's waterfront and its inhabitants' al fresco response to warm weather. My itinerary encompassed three ingredients that will make New York sizzle this summer--and not just from high temperatures or the bustle of the Democratic National Convention. I was after good music, great views, and the magic of Manhattan outdoors.

We feasted under the stars at the American Festival Cafe at Rockefeller Center, swaying in our seats to live music from the '50s and '60s. We picnicked under a shade tree in Central Park as an Ecuadorean combo played sweet flute tunes to one side of us and a lone saxophonist wailed the blues on the other. We set off in a riverboat from the South Street Seaport and boogied to a New Orleans rhythm band as we glided past the Statue of Liberty, with the breeze on deck cooling the hot night air. We danced the night away doing the calypso and the salsa alongside the Hudson River at the Amazon Village, which comes complete with palm trees, a sandy beach, and views of the Jersey coastline. Finally, we had a late, lovely brunch at the River Cafe on the Brooklyn waterfront, where we soaked up the pianist's mellow tones and the view of yachts and tugboats gliding by the knock 'em dead Manhattan skyline.

We could have done much more had time and energy permitted. This summer, there's an abundance of options for activities that combine music, views and the open air:


The Summer Garden of the American Festival Cafe, Rockefeller Plaza, 20 W. 50th St.; (212) 246-6699. In summer, the famous Rockefeller Center ice rink becomes an outdoor restaurant, with a cascading fountain, live nighttime music from the '50s and '60s (Tuesday through Saturday) and, until September, one of the best dinner deals in town daily. The fixed-price menu ($24.95) is the "Down East Clambake Dinner"--a whole Maine lobster with drawn butter, steamer clams, mussels, red-skin potatoes, corn on the cob, cole slaw, corn sticks, biscuits and a blueberry crumble sundae. The mood is festive, there's usually a breeze and the Rockefeller Plaza backdrop--with the gilded statue of Prometheus soaring overhead--is very tony. (The $24.95 clambake also is available at lunch daily, but is a better bargain at dinner, especially on live music nights.)

The River Cafe, 1 Water St., Brooklyn, under the Brooklyn Bridge; (718) 522-5200. The River Cafe is no secret (it's undeniably romantic to dine on gourmet fare done up like works of art, with the Manhattan skyline glistening behind tugboats, yachts and tankers on the East River), but I was surprised by the friendliness of the staff and the discovery that there isn't a bad seat on this remodeled barge. Be sure to make a reservation well in advance and dress up for the occasion.

Prices are stiff. At lunch, my tiny little appetizer of three smoked salmon morsels cost $11--a bundle even though they were in the shape of a boat deck with a potato-crisp sail. Entrees are about double that, and more at dinner. No matter; the food was great, the service--though not particularly efficient--was pleasant, and it was all beside the point once the piano kicked in and the view grabbed us.

A tip for budget diners: The light fare out on the deck is a much cheaper way to go--$6 to $15. Or, you could just have drinks.

By the way, the cafe's publicist claims the cafe has the highest number of marriage proposals of any place in New York. Perhaps a return visit . . .

The Boathouse Cafe in Central Park, East Drive and 72nd Street; (212) 517-3623. Set lakeside, with striped umbrellas and park and skyline views, the cafe is an indulgent alternative to picnicking in the park. The food is northern Italian, the prices pure New York: $6 for antipasto, $13.50 to $22 for entrees. Tuesday through Thursday there's live jazz nights. Open daily noon to 9:30 p.m., to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are essential.

If all this isn't romantic enough for you, the Boathouse also operates a Venetian gondola on the lake that you can charter (with a sometimes-singing gondolier) for $35 for half an hour, sans food. The gondola fits up to six people (if you're so inclined), and you can buy a fruit plate and a bottle of house wine (about $30 for the bundle) to take along, but BYO is forbidden. Reserve well in advance.

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