Fred A. Bernstein

The B&B Option Is Put to the New York Test

Staying in other people's houses -- in my home city

Published in The New York Times, July 23, 2007

I HAVE never liked bed-and-breakfasts, which I associate with Victorian furniture, officious hosts and forced conviviality at breakfast. But with the average price of a Manhattan hotel room nearing $300, I no longer knew what to tell friends who asked where they should stay in New York City.

Then I moved to Brooklyn, where I noticed that one of the brownstones down the block from my apartment - overlooking Prospect Park - contained a
B & B. Surprised, I found myself searching the Internet, where I found at least 30 B & Bs, spread out over all five boroughs.

Intrigued by this unexpected abundance, I set out on a reconnaissance mission (glad that if I found myself in a place I hated, I was just a taxi ride from home).

I never had to sneak out in the middle of the night. Some of the B & Bs were terrific. Only one of the four I tried was really Victorian; one was ultramodern, and the other two were simply homey. There were no officious hosts - but there were lots of helpful employees. When there was breakfast, nobody made me talk (at the communal table in the Park Slope B & B, I was busy eating the delicious food).

Perhaps it was beginner's luck that my first stop in Manhattan was a gem: Stay the Night, occupying a town house on a gorgeous block in the East 90's. The husband-and-wife psychologists who live on the first two floors have created a hostelry upstairs. The smallest room (with a shared bath) is just $75 a night. My much larger room, with its own bath and a private roof deck overlooking a leafy backyard, was $195.

The place is advertised as a non-hosted inn. (Since it doesn't serve breakfast, unless you count the packaged muffins in the room's refrigerator, it's not really a B & B, but everything else about it puts it in that category.)

You're asked to arrive before 6 p.m., when an employee will still be available to admit you. (If you're late, you're charged $20 for his overtime.) Since there are no common rooms, and you drop your keys in a slot when you leave, you may never see another person. Nick Hankin, the manager, lives in Astoria, Queens, but is available by phone.

In other words, it's just like living in a New York apartment. But this is an apartment in Carnegie Hill, an extraordinarily pleasant neighborhood. Sarabeth's, which serves what many consider New York's most satisfying breakfast, is just around the corner. After a perfect goat cheese and spinach omelet with a pumpkin muffin and Sarabeth's incomparable marmalade, I set out for a tour of Carnegie Hill.

I lived in the neighborhood for many years, and it was a pleasure to revisit old haunts: the Corner Bookstore; the Guggenheim; the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; and finally Petak's, a deli that offers some of the best prepared food in the city (perfect for a picnic overlooking the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park). Stay the Night doesn't have a lot of amenities, but given what it offers - nice accommodations in a nonpareil location - it doesn't need to.

My next stop was in a less central location, but that's its draw: City Island, linked to the Bronx mainland by a bridge, resembles a slightly overcrowded New England fishing village.

ONE of its most surprising establishments is Le Refuge. Occupying a mansard-roofed house, it is indeed a refuge from the huge, carnival-like seafood restaurants lining the main drag, City Island Avenue. At Le Refuge, the $45 prix fixe dinner is a taste of classic French food - I had duck � l'orange - most of it delicious (even if my cr�me br�l�e lacked the requisite crust). My $115 room, in the back of the house, was uninspiring, as was the utilitarian bathroom down the hall. But the whole experience, including Continental breakfast in a handsome, ground-floor sitting room, offered a chance to feel as though I had been across the Atlantic Ocean.

My third B & B also had a French flavor (but, again, no breakfast), thanks to Albert Delamour, who rents out two rooms on the seventh floor of a loft building in SoHo. The rooms adjoin an art gallery; Mr. Delamour said he started the B & B to subsidize that business (and his own career as a photographer). But the sideline is threatening to take over. "We get 100 calls a day," he said, "and I can't do the gallery work," explaining that he now accepts reservations only by e-mail.

Staying in a gallery is fun. Less fun is trudging up seven flights of stairs. At 5:30 p.m. on weekdays, the building's manager shuts off the elevator; he's afraid of someone getting stuck, Mr. Delamour said. The night I arrived, a couple from Canada carried their baby and their luggage up the stairs.

The Canadians' room was in the back of the building, but mine faced Lafayette Street. The noise of cars, trucks and even loud pedestrians didn't let up, and I couldn't fall asleep. Then I found a portable fan in the bathroom - private, but at the other end of the loft - and plugged it in next to my bed. Thanks to the white noise, I slept like a baby till morning, when the windows in my room offered terrific rooftop views (including the spires of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings), and when the elevator, now back in operation, carried me downstairs to look for a place for breakfast.

My room was $210, including tax; Mr. Delamour, who couldn't have been nicer, accepts payment by check or PayPal.

Finally, it was back to my own neighborhood. There, the Bed & Breakfast on the Park normally requires at least a three-night stay, but it makes exceptions when there's a room free for one or two nights. I would have been happy with the ground-floor room, with a short walk to the private bathroom, but the only thing available was a more expensive suite on the third floor. The suite, with deep red walls, lace on the windows and a four-poster bed draped in fake vines, was at the back of the building, where the view from the private roof terrace stretches from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building and beyond.

Breakfast was served, promptly at 9 a.m., at a table that looked like it was set for a white-tie dinner, with cut-glass bowls and ornate silver. The other guests, it turned out, were couples who were visiting grown children in Park Slope and were thrilled to have a place to stay close by; they were sharing advice about the Brooklyn Museum, Green-Wood Cemetery and Coney Island.

The offerings included a "baked pear pancake" with the texture of a souffl� and sourdough rolls, baked on premises, that were among the best I've ever tasted. (According to the manager, Linda Kaffke, an old Italian baker drops the dough off once a week.)

True, for the price, I could have had a hotel room in Manhattan. But Manhattan doesn't have the old Italian baker, or the charms of Park Slope - or the view across the river to Manhattan.