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West Side Story

On strollers and $13 lemon-ricotta pancakes.



It's funny what New Yorkers complain about. Most people would see all kinds of annoying subject matter: traffic, noise, prices, pollution. But all the folks I hung out with on the Upper West Side seemed stressed out about strollers.

Strollers disturb the finely tuned flow of sidewalk travel, which in Manhattan is almost an art form. "Personal space" there extends outward in inches, not feet, and everyone is constantly moving. So strollers really put a kink in the groove. And what they do to a typical little New York City cafe can cause near-riots.

Of course, it isn't entirely about the strollers. Listen awhile, and you'll catch another level: Many of the ladies pushing the strollers are not the moms. They're Jamaicans, or a host of other mostly non-white nationalities, pushing around white babies. This is where you start to get a sense of the real complaint. It's the "G" word.

There's a funny aspect to being a wealthy white liberal. Many of the world's problems can be traced to rich white people, and liberals claim, at least, to care deeply about these problems. This leads us to the guilt, and to comments like, "This neighborhood used to have some character to it, but now it's all getting gentrified." When this stuff comes from fairly well-off white people, it borders — to me, anyway — on the comical.

So it is that the Upper West Side, an area that stretches from, say, West 65th Street up to about West 110th Street, has progressed from mostly African American 100 years ago to tenements in the 1950s to a big gay population in the '60s and '70s to ... well, the strollers. And $13 lemon-ricotta pancakes.

Throw in a $6 side of bacon and a $5 glass of orange juice, and you have a typical breakfast at Sarabeth's on Amsterdam Avenue, just up from West 81st Street. (You can dial it down to $7 porridge or up to $15 eggs Benedict.) Sarabeth and her husband started making spreadable fruit in their apartment, then opened a bakery/kitchen in 1981. According to their website, "the little store, with its unique charm and wholesomely delicious products, became an instant success with discriminating New Yorkers." Today, a basket of "Sarabeth's Muffins and Legendary Preserves" will set you back $12, whether you're discriminating or not.

From that (humble?) start, the Sarabeth's empire has grown. First was the Upper East Side location in 1983, then the Upper West Side in 1996. And by the way, the Wikipedia entry for the Upper West Side says it is "decidedly upscale" and reputedly home to "New York City's affluent cultural and artistic workers." The Upper East Side, by contrast, is "traditionally home to affluent commercial and business types." Affluent being the common thread, both are prime Sarabeth's habitat.

On the Upper West Side, the scene tends to overwhelm the newcomer. There are more languages, ethnicities, and cuisines in one block of Amsterdam Avenue than in all of Memphis, and it all seems somehow gritty and cool at the same time. But my friend Joseph, who's lived within a few blocks of West 96th Street for almost all of his 50-something years, can see all the changes. In fact, he likes to say that you've become a true New Yorker when you can say what a place used to be.

Joseph and I, by inclination and income, are more naturally drawn to diners, delis, and family places. He steered me to the finest roasted chicken I've ever had, at a Peruvian restaurant in his neighborhood called Flor de Mayo.

And the best dining experience I had in a week in the city was when I called him one day from 8th Avenue and West 14th Street and asked where I should eat in the area. He told me about a family-owned Puerto Rican place up the avenue called La Taza de Oro, and I stuffed myself on baked pork chops, rice, black beans, flan, and coffee for about $12.

Now that same $12 wasn't going to get me the lemon-ricotta pancakes at Sarabeth's, but I didn't care. Like the city, and like Joseph, I can find room for just about everything, at least occasionally. I can do the counter at a loud Puerto Rican place, and I can do the flowers and Euro-café outdoor seating at Sarabeth's.

The bacon was crisp and tasty, the juice fresh-squeezed, and the pancakes amazing — as they'd better be, for these prices. They were light and fluffy and drizzled with just the right amount of organic maple syrup from Doerfler's Farm.

I don't know where or what Doerfler's Farm is, but I'm sure it's a discriminating place.

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