Boat Basin Chronicles: “If You See a Hottie, Text Me”

by - June 28, 2010 at 2:44 pm -

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Olivia, Johna, Jessica, Erin, and Cathy at the Boat Basin.

By Cheryl Wischhover
When one discusses nightlife in our fair city, I’m pretty certain that the Upper West Side is an afterthought. As a matter of fact, New York Magazine ranked NYC neighborhoods by who stays home the most, and we came in fifth. At least Staten Island was above us; twice as many people (48%) go out once a week or less when compared to the Upper West Side (20%). I’ll refrain from making generalizations about Staten Island based on that poll.

The Boat Basin.

The Boat Basin.

However, we do have some unique establishments. And one of them, the Boat Basin Café, is a beloved institution once the sun starts to shine. I’ve lived here for almost ten years and look forward to the Boat Basin opening every year. It marks the beginning of summer and provides a place where you can actually sit in the open air and socialize after being cooped up in a small apartment all winter long.

First, a bit of history about the Boat Basin itself. It was built in 1937 by Uncle Robert Moses, that benevolent creator of highways and public works. It was intended to be, as the name suggests, a marina for boats to dock during the summer. Such notables as Malcolm Forbes, Aristotle Onassis, and Frank Sinatra have docked swanky yachts there. And it appears to be the best real estate deal in NYC. According to the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation website, you can dock there yearly for about $5000 — that’s if you can snag a spot. Oh, and you have to have a boat.

In the last few years, I’ve patronized the Boat Basin primarily on weekend afternoons with friends and gaggles of kids. I decided to go on a gorgeous Friday evening to check out the scene and the fashion.

Friday night has a decidedly different feel from weekend afternoons. Mean age of patrons: 25. Mean level of attractiveness: well above average. It was a sweaty, steamy evening; sundresses and sandals were the uniform of choice for many of the ladies. Guys were in cheeky and colorful checked shirts and polos. I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of Crocs, running sneakers, and mandals on the gruffer sex.

Lucas (33) and Chloe (who turns 4 on the Fourth of July), both in pink.

Lucas (33) and Chloe (who turns 4 on the Fourth of July), both in pink.

About two-thirds of the tables were closed off for a private function, so I ordered some wine and wandered around looking for people to stalk. I sent my husband and two kids away so that they wouldn’t cramp my style; my husband sent me helpful texts about various groups of “hotties” I should check out and who looked like they might be hooking up. Thanks, hon.

I hit the jackpot when I spied a group of absolutely adorable, tan, and nubile young ladies gathering near the bar. I approached them, assured them I was not crazy, and chatted with them about the Boat Basin. Olivia, 24, was celebrating a birthday, so they were starting the evening there. One of them told me, “It’s not an all-night place. It’s easy to come to after work, and they have good happy hour specials.” They were planning to move on to greener pastures downtown later in the evening. Only one of the five, Jessica, 25, was an Upper West Sider. Perhaps ten years from now I’ll see her there on a Sunday afternoon dragging two toddlers behind her.

I also met some people who worked at the ABC Studios on 66th Street. Yes, TV people in our midst! One of them, Lucas, 33, was there with friends and dog, Chloe. They were both wearing pink. I’m a huge fan of both of them.

I ended my tour by walking down the north steps and heading to the path by the river. I actually think they deserve proper noun status: “The North Stairs.” There was a lot going on there. I saw many intimate conversations, the beginnings of make-out sessions, and shots being downed. I suspect that you start inside, and if you make it to The North Stairs, you are on your way to a love connection. I didn’t test the theory, of course. This is all conjecture on my part.

After waiting an hour for a table that wasn’t going to materialize, I had to leave to give my kids a proper dinner. Lemons swiped from the bar was no longer doing the trick.

If you haven’t been to the Boat Basin this season, definitely check it out. They are showing World Cup games in the mornings and there’s even live music occasionally. And don’t forget the sunsets. Just be careful you don’t get caught canoodling on The North Stairs.

I decided to speak to Michael O’Neal (age 73), who leases the space and runs the café, because I realized I had some questions about the Boat Basin and its french fry policy. And the bathrooms. I only ask the hard-hitting questions:

Westside Independent: So how long have you been running restaurants in NYC?
Michael O’Neal: I’ve been in the business for 46 years.

WI: When did the Boat Basin Café open?
MO: I started it about 11 years ago when there was just nothing there. It was a homeless shelter. Historically, there was supposed to be a beautiful fountain in the middle. I’ve been in NYC 50 years and I’ve never seen it running. (The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation) approached a bunch of us to open a restaurant there.

WI: Where do you keep the liquor?
MO: I came up with the idea of a movable bar and tables that would come in and out everyday. In the beginning that’s what we did. Moved them. As the business grew, we kept people there all the time, we kept a maintenance force. We didn’t have any problem with security. We don’t have to lock the liquor up, because we have a couple of guys there all night long.

WI: What’s the most popular thing on your menu?
MO: The burger, for sure. We grill a ton of them on the outside grill. We have a few new items this year, some salads and sandwiches.

The scene on the North Stairs.

The scene on the North Stairs.

WI: Why potato chips instead of french fries?
MO: I know, I wanted fries! That’s a big issue actually. We can’t really do fresh ones due to our volume, it would have to be frozen. To get a freezer that big would be a big deal. We may do it yet. Not this year but maybe next year. We’re working on it.

WI: Did you hire the woman in the bathroom, or do you just allow her to be there with all her beauty products?
MO: We hired her. In the beginning we had a man in the men’s room, too, but that didn’t work. We pay her but she mostly works for tips.

WI: What is the strangest thing a drunk person has done at the Boat Basin?
MO: We once had a car go down the hill and flip over the side right into the middle fountain. The car had two guys in it. They weren’t hurt at all. Luckily no one was hurt. The guys were obviously drunk, but not from drinking at my place. They were clearly drinking somewhere else! The highway department put some barriers up after that.

WI: Anything else unique you’d like to tell us?
MO: We’ve done a handicapped bar, where people in wheelchairs can sit at the bar. I don’t know many other bars in the city who do that. We get a couple regulars and I’m proud of that.

So you heard it here first: french fries are coming, please tip the hand towel lady, and there’s a good chance a car won’t land on you while you’re drinking your strawberry daiquiri.

Cheryl Wischhover, a longtime Upper West Side resident, writes about style, fashion, shopping, and life at the blog Upper West Side Style. She is the Westside Independent’s style columnist.

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