Back on its feet after being hit by Superstorm Sandy last month, ex-resident Graham Boynton revels in the city's world-class nightlife, which is especially entertaining and varied during the winter holiday season
I walk along Bleeker Street and the sweet sounds of jazz, house, hip-hop, even folk music, bleed from the clubs, shops and open doorways. Fluorescent light falls across the street and faces glow green and yellow, lit up with the excitement of another night out in one of the greatest cities on Earth. My companion Marc, a photographer who grew up in Brooklyn, says every night he walks these streets the characters change, the sounds change, the players' costumes change.
That's my idea of heaven - just walking through Greenwich Village, hearing, seeing and feeling the beat of my fellow human beings enjoying themselves. Of course, New York Nights can mean a lot of things. It is a perfume, it's a pop song, it's a mobile-phone game, it's a 1929 movie starring Norma Talmadge in her first non-silent role. It's a place where the fun lasts until the dawn light, where sweet thunder emerges from those doorways of clubs on to the crowded downtown streets. Most of all, it's a state of mind.
It is also a tough and resilient city, as was proved in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Although the subway system suffered more than any time in its 108-year history, it was pretty much up and running again after three days and although downtown areas were particularly hard-hit by the storm, Manhattan is back on its feet.
When I first arrived to live in Manhattan back in the late 1980s, the great New York writer Pete Hamill had just published a massive article entitled The New York We've Lost and, like most wistful nostalgia features, it suggested that the city's great days were past. But for me, as I was to discover, the great days were still ahead. I spent more than a decade taking in great Broadway shows, magnificent opera at the Met, grungy rock bands in ill-lit subterranean downtown clubs, eating at some of the city's - indeed, the country's - greatest restaurants, and sharing the crowded pavements with some of the planet's more exotic creatures.
Now I go back as a visitor and, for all my memories of those great times past, I am, like Marc, completely in the present, in Manhattan 2012. So, on this night we will take in a new Broadway show, have dinner at one of the cool "secret" restaurants that have become the thing over the past few years, do a late-night set at the Village Vanguard, take a stroll through Greenwich Village in the early hours and then crawl back to our hotel beds for some rest before starting the whole process again the following night. As I discover on this trip, by artfully mixing up the traditional with the new you could spend your entire holiday in New York without seeing daylight.
I also discover something else on this trip that I guess I've known subliminally since I lived there. For a hip, modern, ever-changing city, New York is decidedly un-ageist - "Manhattan Nights" is a case of everything for everyone. Thus at the New York Philharmonic's Stravinsky season at the Avery Fisher Hall, I see cool dudes in chinos hanging halfway down their thighs, and at Rosemary's (http://rosemarysnyc.com; 001 212 647 1818), the hot new Greenwich Village restaurant, there are balding men in Brooks Brothers suits.
I suppose I'm most surprised by the Monday night audience at the Village Vanguard, the traditional big-band night in the jazz club that, since it opened in 1935, has hosted everyone from Thelonius Monk, Miles David and Dizzy Gillespie to Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis. Crowded, subterranean, dark and swirling with atmosphere, I find myself sitting in the historic, wedge-shaped room in the company of young Japanese, Indian and Scandinavian customers and grizzled local veterans.
And a little later, at the Cafe Carlyle (www.rosewoodhotels.com; 00 1 212 744 1600) on the Upper East Side, a posh uptown supper club, the crowd that has assembled to listen to Woody Allen and his Dixieland Jazz band was an equally eclectic mix of young and old, visitor and local. As Marc says, you would expect to see some of these people at a Ramones tribute gig rather than at a celebration of Depression-era jazz - but that's New York.
It's easy to be snobbish about Broadway but I have always made it a point to see the latest schmaltzy revival of those great 1940s and 1950s musicals as a kind of antidote to the fast, mercenary, unsentimental world we live in today. It does reflect another age - those easy-rhyming couplets, lyrically adept Gershwin and Cole Porter songs and gigantic, choreographed dance routines whose military precision you seldom see these days outside North Korean army parades.
On my last trip I saw the celebrated revival of Anything Goes; this time it's Nice Work If You Can Get It - a compilation of George and Ira Gershwin songs - which I'd recommend despite the rather poor star of the show, Matthew Broderick. The only reason I'm there is that I've still been unable to get a ticket for The Book of Mormon - the hottest Broadway musical in years - for less than US$500 (Dh1,837).
There is better, more serious theatre coming up on Broadway for winter. A new production of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, starring Al Pacino, has now opened. Dead Accounts, with Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Holmes, has also opened and will run through the winter. It is her first public appearance since her marriage to Tom Cruise evaporated, and that would make Dead Accounts one of the hottest tickets in town.
The new David Mamet drama, The Anarchist, starring Patti LuPone and Debra Winger in her Broadway debut and also due to run through the winter, will be another.
There is a general rule that uptown offers a more cerebral, cultivated type of nocturnal entertainment, particularly musical, whereas downtown remains the home of cutting-edge clubs and concerts. So, this month, Carnegie Hall on West 57th, just south of Central Park, will be hosting the New York Pops, the Vienna Boys' Choir and, inevitably, Handel's Messiah, while a few blocks north at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Opera will be performing Don Giovanni, Aida, Turandot and Il Trovatore in December and January.
Meanwhile, downtown is throbbing with the sound of contemporary music. Le Poisson Rouge in Bleeker Street (http://lepoissonrouge.com; 00 1 212 505 3474) is hot now and you'll see people such as Lady Rizo, Arthur H and Rupa and the April Fishes performing there.
BB King's (www.bbkingblues.com; 00 1 212 997 4144; 42nd between 7th and 8th) is also recommended and that has everything from Southern brilliance (Sonny Landreth was on when I was there) to hip-hop, blues and rock. And on Sundays they do a Gospel brunch with the Harlem Gospel Choir; although that's not strictly nights, you can't miss it.
The Iridium (http://theiridium.com; 00 212 582 2121) on 51st and Broadway) is good for jazz, as is the Blue Note (www.bluenote.net; 00 1 212 475 8592; West Third) and the aforementioned Village Vanguard (www.villagevanguard.com; 00 1 212 255 4037; Seventh Avenue South) is dripping with atmosphere. I should also mention the supper clubs - again, it's young and old - which are a big New York tradition.
If you were to ask Manhattan hotel concierges to name the best restaurants in the city - as I do on my visit - they reel out a list as long as a football field. There are, however, one or two names that tend to come up with some frequency.
The aforementioned Rosemary's (Greenwich Avenue on West 10th) opened this past summer and serves rustic Italian cuisine (quite brilliant pasta) to a background soundtrack of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. The owner is Carlos Suarez - the Eton-educated son of a Cuban father and English mother - who takes credit for the background music but little else. Like his restaurant, he is effortlessly cool, and he tells me his clientele is a combination of "families, Wall Streeters and the cool Village crowd. You'll find everyone in here".
Two other restaurants the concierges recommend are The Spotted Pig (www.thespottedpig.com; 00 1 212 620 0393; West 11th at Greenwich), which I didn't have time to visit but which, like Rosemary's, doesn't take reservations and thus tests your patience at busy times. Then there's NoMad (www.thenomadhotel.com; 00 1 212 796 1500) on Broadway at 28th Street) with its dining rooms shrouded in red velvet curtains and a menu created by the hot young James Beard Award-winning chef Daniel Humm. The restaurant is gaining a reputation as one of the city's best.
I want to add two of my own to the concierges' lists: on Bank Street in the West Village is Graydon Carter's (editor of Vanity Fair, film producer, all purpose bon vivant) Waverly Inn (www.waverlynyc.com; 001 917 828 1154). The last time I ate there I sat with Robert De Niro at the table on my left and Uma Thurman at the table to the right. Also Carter's Monkey Bar (http://monkeybarnewyork.com; 00 1 212 288 1010; East 54th between Madison and Park) is worth visiting for the expensive but delicious gourmet burger and the supper-club atmosphere. Incidentally, for a night out and the most romantic location with the best view of Manhattan, you must try the River Cafe (www.rivercafe.com; 00 1 718 522 5200) across the bridge to Brooklyn.
My last night in Manhattan is a Friday and I decide to do a quick trawl of the so-called secret restaurants, semi-concealed places that are difficult to book for, hard to find and therefore a big thrill to New Yorkers and visitors, making them feel they're on the inside track.
You get to the subterranean pleasures of La Esquina (www.laesquinanyc.com; 00 1 646 613 1333; Kenmare Street at Lafayette) through an Employees Only entrance and have to pass through various security checks. Inside, the Mexican food is good and the atmosphere excellent.
Beauty & Essex (www.beautyandessex.com; 00 1 212 614 0146, Essex Street between Rivington and Stanton on the Lower East Side) is also Mexican cuisine, is far more accessible than La Esquina and is very much the cool young downtown crowd on a Friday night; it comes thoroughly recommended.
After another stroll through the throbbing streets of Greenwich Village, I bid Marc farewell and promise to be back before the end of winter. As he disappears into the subway amid the noise, movement and colour of this New York night, I'm reminded of something John Updike once wrote: "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be kidding."
I know what he means.
IF YOU GO
The flight Direct flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to New York from Abu Dhabi take 12 hours and cost from Dh4,990 return, including taxes
The hotels Double rooms at the St Regis Hotel (www.starwoodhotels.com; 001 212 753 4500), 2 East 55th Avenue, cost from US$850 (Dh3,122) per night. Double rooms at the Carlyle Hotel (www.rosewoodhotels.com; 001 212 744 1600), 35 East 76th Street, cost from $550 (Dh2,020) per night. Prices include taxes