by Seth Kugel
FASHION WEEK kicked off this weekend, and even visitors who couldn't care less about what the hot look for next spring might be will surely notice at least two changes around town. Thanks to the models, average female thigh circumference has been reduced by about half; and thanks to the media you'll hear endless mentions of Bryant Park, that seven-acre swath of green nestled between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas between 40th and 42nd Streets and that for a few days is the city's tented center of couture.
Bryant Park has come far since it was rescued from urban decay in the 1980s. There's the vast green lawn, the shade of London plane trees, plentiful green chairs and tables you can move as you'd like (try that in the '80s), an outdoor Reading Room, a carousel playing French music and the Manhattan equivalent of a Saharan oasis: public bathrooms so clean and attractive that you'll think they must be a mirage. (The private organization that runs the public park, the Bryant Park Corporation, should give classes on urban bathroom management.)
The park is mostly known as a place of respite for lunching Midtown workers and for its Monday night outdoor movies in the summer - and come winter, holiday shops and an ice skating rink set up shop. But it makes for a great base of weekend operations, either at the Bryant Park Hotel if you can afford the $400-plus room rates, or at one of the other, cheaper hotels in surrounding blocks. Tucked as it is between Broadway theaters and Fifth Avenue's department stores, it's missing the oppressive bustle of either. Should you hit town on a sunny weekend, you might be tempted to avoid both shows and shopping and spend a good chunk of your weekend in the park and taking in the attractions and eating places of its immediate surroundings.
O.K., maybe not its immediate surroundings. With some exception, the businesses right across from the park are a nightmare web of nationwide chains - Chipotle, Verizon Wireless, Staples, Starbucks, Jamba Juice - that threaten to turn any Weekend in New York into a Weekend in Wherever.
But stretch out in one block in every direction - south to 39th Street, north to 43rd Street, and out toward Seventh and Madison Avenues, and you're back in New York.
One block away is a spot that even regular visitors who consider themselves avid museumgoers may have inadvertently left off the list: the International Center of Photography. An exciting series of exhibitions starts on Sept. 19, with works from Susan Meiselas (known for her work in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s), Cornell Capa (who established and directed the center for years and died in May) and W. Eugene Smith (who photographed World War II for Life Magazine).
The other main cultural attraction is staring you down at the eastern end of the park: the main branch of the New York Public Library. The library is as much museum as repository of knowledge these days, and in the next two weeks, two exhibitions open: "Art Deco Design: Rhythm and Verve" on Sept. 12, and, on Sept. 19, "The Stadium: Daily News Photographs of the House that Ruth Built," which coincides nicely with the final games being played at Yankee Stadium and provides a counterpoint to the Mets Clubhouse Shop across the street on the north side of the park.
When it comes time to eat, you'll notice that unless you count the Bryant Park Grill, which looks out over the park but generally gets mediocre reviews, or Koi, the pan-Asian palace attached to the Bryant Park Hotel, which couldn't muster even a star in a 2005 review by The Times's restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, the area does not lend itself to higher-end sit-down dining. So make the park your permanent picnic spot.
You can pick up a good sandwich or salad at the 'Wichcraft stand in the park, but that's hardly the end of your choices. Tucked just south of the park on the gritty block of West 39th Street between Fifth and Sixth is the beginnings of one heck of a multiethnic picnic. The Kati Roll Company, which also has a branch in Greenwich Village, serves its Indian flatbread wraps - from mutton to paneer cheese to chicken and eggs, all under $6 - to Midtown-worker mobs during weekday lunch hours, but is calm on weekends. And just down the block is Szechuan Gourmet, which won an unlikely two stars from Frank Bruni in July.
Just south of the park is an odd choice for Italian: Simply Pasta. Even the most barely honed Manhattan restaurant instinct will tell you to shy away from this place, which has an awful name and a worse slogan ("A nice place to mangia"). But the place is surprisingly popular at pretheater time, and with careful take-out ordering, you've got the makings of a great picnic. (The $11.95 orecchiette pasta with chicken, sausage and broccoli rabe comes with plenty of Parmesan and a big chunk of bread.)
And here's something that might come as a bit of surprise to wanderers: a virtual Little Tokyo in the area. The block of East 41st Street just across from the famous lions has several informal Japanese spots that attract little hoopla and a solid Japanese customer base. They're all satisfactory and cheap - and the food counter at the currently signless Yagura Japanese Market is particularly charming in its cafeterialike charmlessness. While you're waiting, entertain yourself in the food aisles by trying to guess what the Japanese-only labels mean; for the answer, turn over the can or box to reveal the English-language nutrition facts stickers that name the product. ("Seasoning sauce!" I knew it!)
THERE are also a few Japanese shopping stops. On that block is the Japanese chain bookstore Book-Off, specializing in used books. But more entertaining is the Kinokuniya store across the street on the other side the park, which carries everything from a book of Chinese propaganda posters, a 3-D eyeball jigsaw puzzle, a guide to Creepy Cute Crochet (Zombies, Ninjas, Robots and More) and a 2009 Welsh corgis calendar - and that's just the window display.
There are even night-life options. For partying types, the Cellar Bar at the Bryant Park Hotel caters to a young, energetic, occasionally good-looking crowd. If you're just in the mood for an early-evening drink, you can stop by the outdoor Bryant Park Cafe at the northeast corner of the park. In the warm weather it's always buzzing, but that's the buzz of a homogeneous after-work crowd on weekdays, and a touristy bunch on weekends. The crowd in the park itself is much more interesting, which might explain the number of couples drinking glasses of variously red and white beverages, which obviously must not be wine because that would be illegal.
Bryant Park Hotel, 40 West 40th Street; (212) 869-0100; www.bryantparkhotel.com.
New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street; (917) 275-6975; www.nypl.org
International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas (43rd Street); (212) 857-0000; www.icp.org.
Kati Roll Company, 49 West 39th Street; (212) 730-4280; www.thekatirollcompany.com.
Szechuan Gourmet, 21 West 39th Street; (212) 921-0233.
Simply Pasta, 120 West 41st Street; (212) 391-0805; www.simplypastanyc.com.
Yagura Japanese Market, 24 East 41st Street; (212) 679-3777.
Kinokuniya Book Store, 1073 Avenue of the Americas (40th and 41st Streets); (212) 869-1700; www.kinokuniya.com.