SAMPLING NEW YORK Love where you find it, and where you find it in the Big Apple is just about everywhere.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Love is just around the corner almost anywhere in New York. It beckons on Riverside Drive at 122nd Street, where lovers on a high (it's one of the highest points in the city) can go far higher, ascending the tower staircase of Riverside Church to the carillon for a kiss in the clouds.

It's there at the Central Park carousel, where one quiet morning I saw a couple tearfully hugging and whooping. The man had chosen that moment to swing off his mount and surprise his sweetheart with an engagement ring. It's at Sweet Basil's in Greenwich Village, where Doc Cheatham serenades Sunday afternoon jazz brunchers with the kind of trumpeting that made Billie Holiday's heart beat faster.

Love lurks in a cozy little corner of the River Cafe on the Brooklyn waterfront at sunset, when a silhouetted Lady Liberty lifts her torch in a glowing toast to romantics everywhere.

Love, unlike real estate, may have nothing to do with location. It is, after all, not a place but a state of mind. Still, some places seem more conducive than others to affairs of the heart, and every New Yorker sooner or later accumulates a list of favorites.

Mapping New York's geography of love over many months, I consulted a popular guidebook, "Romantic New York" by Marilyn Appleberg (Apple Ink, 1996), and another paperback, "The Best Places to Kiss In and Around New York City," by Sheree Bykofsky (Beginning Press, 1993), now, alas, out of print.

Given the subjectivities involved, there can be, of course, no encyclopedic guide. What follows is one romantic's Baedeker, impressionistic to be sure and merely a sampling of the possibilities, but a road map nevertheless.

I started by booking a romantically impulsive late lunch one weekday at one of Manhattan's lovelier restaurants, Aureole, on East 61st Street, which rates a maximum four lips (sublime) in "Places to Kiss" (and zero mention in "Romantic New York"; go figure).

"Can we make it at 1?" my wife asked. "I'm famished."

It was all that a pair of licit lovers could ask: cocooned on a softly lighted balcony with flamenco music thrumming and an occasional horse carriage clip-clopping past, we picked our way through a Sybaritic menu of vichyssoise with chunk lobster, crab rolls, eggplant and cod, and mango apple sorbet and pickled pear. The price of romance: a mere $101.

But it cost nothing to stroll afterward hand in hand up Madison Avenue tracking Cupid's spoor in store-window displays: the lascivious mannequins of La Perla, clad in eggshell shades of lingerie, the enticing clouds of bedding at Frette, the sunny Provencal cottons of Pierre Deux and cascading folds of lush Venetian velvets at Portantina.

Take it from the top

I don't know what it is about heights, but there's something inherently romantic about bird's-eye views.

Ask the couples who crowd the observation decks of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. One of the city's lesser-known aeries is the 392-foot tower of Riverside Church, an interdenominational institution long identified with social causes.

After an elevator ride up 20 stories, visitors climb an iron staircase of 147 steps to the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in memory of his mother.

Although in winter the shutters are often closed against chill winds, the 360-degree views are still magnificent: the sweep of the Upper West Side, shimmering Grant's Tomb, the webbed George Washington Bridge and the slate gray Hudson.

You want to hear wedding bells? This is the place, although you may need to hold your ears. On the hour, the clanger of the Bourdon Bell, at 20 tons the largest and heaviest tuned bell ever cast, swings into action while the carillon plays Wagner's "Parsifal Quarters."

Cloud dine

For the heights in midtown, I've always liked the panoramic restaurant atop the Beekman Tower Suite Hotel on Mitchell Place, off First Avenue, not so much for the simple cuisine as for the wraparound views from the 26th floor. With the multitude of mirrors reflecting the twinkling lights of the East Side, it's like living inside a diamond.

Around the corner, the two blocks of Beekman Place are a world apart, a dreamer's paradise of millionaire mansions with swag-curtained windows and beamed ceilings.

Food and romance have long been intertwined, but finding the perfect mix in a restaurant has never been easy. If ever there was an oxymoron, it is the romantic restaurant everyone goes to. Who can feel the stirrings of love seated cheek to jowl with strangers, albeit fellow romantics?

But there are places where Epicurus and Eros might happily sup together. One (which I was happy to see unmentioned in either guidebook, and thus qualifies as a genuine romantic find) is Bouterin on East 59th Street. Under the spiderwork of the Queensborough Bridge, which New Yorkers find achingly romantic, Bouterin, with its cozy foyer bar nook, pools of yellow light, ocher walls and Provencal menu is a slice of France on the right side of the Atlantic. Seduction? Ask my wife about the soupe au pistou, a vegetable elixir that the chef and owner, Andre Bouterin, credits to his mother, or lamb stew, cooked for nine hours and eaten with a spoon.

Around a lake

An enticing setting is the lakeside Boathouse Cafe in Central Park. After lunch, dyed-in-the-wool romantics can be paddled around in an authentic Venetian gondola, complete with gondolier, for $35 a half-hour. (If you'd rather do it yourself, rowboats are a cheaper option.) But lovers are not shut out even in winter: a soup-and-sandwich concession with lake-view tables stays open year-round.

There may be no prettier spot in New York than the nearby Bethesda fountain with its lithe angel. To the west, the graceful arch of Bow Bridge vaults the lake, a bridge of sighs for strolling lovers. A short walk to the east is the sailboat pond, with its own year-round snack bar and tables and benches for snuggling.

Another lovers' rendezvous, especially when the morning sun suffuses the window, is the petite Abeille Belgian Cafe in Chelsea.

For sweets lovers, there's also Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue, an Old World confectionary of marble and mirrors.

Amid the clouds

Tea time offers a whole new panoply of romantic possibilities. One of the city's loveliest tearooms is the Rotunda of the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Circular, as the name suggests, the room is painted with celestial clouds and trompe l'oeil nymphs and ringed with eight select white-clothed tables and banquettes of dusty rose. Carpeting pads the footfalls, hushes the conversations and mellows the flute music piping softly through the hall. The tea, at $23.50 a person ($31 with a glass of champagne or sherry), includes delicate sandwiches of egg, salmon, chicken and cucumber, scones with Devonshire cream and fruit tarts, carrot cake or brownies and, of course, tea itself in many varieties.

The guidebooks rate many other tearooms, but it's worth naming one more in particular, the veddy English Pembroke Room of the Lowell Hotel, a four-lips establishment on East 63rd Street, which we reconnoitered one afternoon for a future visit.

You don't need anyone to tell you museums can be romantic places, especially the exquisite Frick Collection on East 70th Street. Let the Vermeers put you in the mood.

Sensuous shopping

Is shopping romantic? It can be, if you're doing it right.

That means stopping in at Felissimo on West 56th Street, a veritable bath for the senses, where fountains burble, and chants and scents fill the air. It's impossible to keep your hands to yourself: you're forever unstoppering bottles of unguents and emollients, sniffing bags of sachet and potpourri, fondling scarves of silk and smoke-soft chiffon, opening 1920s' leather briefcases, and riffling though multicolor sheets of handmade papers.

Climb the curving marble staircase three flights, traverse an etched-glass landing that's like walking on water and pause at an ironwork balcony overlooking the store and street. This has to be a guaranteed Kodak kissing spot.

On the fourth floor, another surprise: a sleek Danish modern Japanese tearoom and daytime restaurant. The Haiku Tea for $16 includes sandwiches of roasted vegetables, smoked salmon, chevre and herb chicken, miniature scones and sweets, and comes with haiku verses on small cards.

Red dragonflies

Flowing like a ripple

Toward the crimson sky.

An expedition to Saks on Fifth Avenue was enlivened by a sto at the Neuhaus chocolate shop. We bought a few mixed handfuls and nibbled them ecstatically as we roamed.

An ethical quandary loomed: should we save some for the kids? Naah, we decided; this was about us.

When you go

Here is information about the places in the article on romance in New York, in the order mentioned:

Riverside Church, Riverside Drive at 122nd Street, Morningside Heights, 212-870-6700. The bell tower is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m.; Sundays, 9: 45 to 11 a.m. and noon to 6 p.m. Fee, $2; $1 for students

Central Park Carousel, reachable from 65th Street on the west side, and 64th Street on the east side, 212-879-0244; 90 cents a ride

Sweet Basil, 88 Seventh Ave. South, at Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, 212-242-1785. Doc Cheatham appears Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. Brunch is offered from noon to 5 p.m.; there is a $10 minimum a person

River Cafe, 1 Water St., Brooklyn, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, 718-522-5200

Aureole, 34 E. 61st St., Manhattan, 212-319-1660

La Perla, 777 Madison Ave. at 66th Street, 212-570-0050

Frette, 799 Madison Ave. at 67th Street, 212-988-5221

Pierre Deux Fabrics, 870 Madison Ave., at 71st Street, 212-570-9343

Portantina, 895 Madison Ave., at 72nd Street, 212-472-0636

Empire State Building Observatory, Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets, 212-736-3100, Extension 355. Tickets: $4.50; $3.50 for students; $2.25 for the elderly and children under 12

Beekman Tower Suite Hotel, Top of the Tower, 3 Mitchell Place, at 49th Street and First Avenue, 212-980-4796

Bouterin, 420 E. 59th St., Manhattan, 212-758-0323

Boathouse Cafe, Central Park, at 75th Street, reachable from the entrance at 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, 212-517-3623

Bethesda Fountain, Sailboat Pond, Bow Bridge, Central Park, reachable from 72nd Street on the east and west sides

Bartow Pell Mansion, Pelham Bay Park, 895 Shore Road, Pelham Bay, the Bronx, 718-885-1461. Admission: $2.50; $1.25 for students and the elderly; free for those under 12

L Abeille Belgian Cafe, 107 W. 18th St., Chelsea, 212-604-9350

Sant Ambroeus, 1000 Madison Ave., at 77th Street, 212-570-2211

B6 Felissimo, 10 W. 56th St., Manhattan, 212-247-5656

Lowell Hotel, Pembroke Room, 28 E. 63rd St., Manhattan, 212-838-1400

The Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St., Manhattan, 212-288-0700. Admission: $5; $3 for students and the elderly

Pierre Hotel, Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, 212-838-8000

Saks Fifth Avenue, at 49th Street, 212-753-4000

Pub Date: 7/06/97

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