Mr. Chatterbox: Ultimate New York Experience

By Robert Plunket November 1, 2012

This Month: The ultimate New York experience? If you ask me, it's Bergdorf Goodman.

The store is a beacon of luxury on fashionable Fifth Avenue. (Christopher Peterson & David Shankbone)

Before I moved to Sarasota I was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, so people are always asking what's the one sight they must not miss when they visit the city. To this I have a ready answer: Bergdorf Goodman.

"But that's just a department store," they say, disappointed.

"Trust me," I say. "It's the most 'New York' place in New York."

And I'm not just talking about its famous window displays. Bergdorf's is the nexus of so many themes in modern life, things which are not earthshaking the way Syria and the economy are earthshaking, but which occupy far more space in our brains. Things like the explosion of fashion as an art and a mega-business; celebrity culture, including the astonishing status bestowed on people like Kim Kardashian; the curious ritual known as the red carpet; the million-dollar wedding; the social-climbing Real Housewives who all want their own "line"; and the question of where hedge-fund billionaires—or more properly, their wives—spend their billions. It all comes together at Bergdorf's.

A little background. Bergdorf Goodman is a New York City department store that has been around more than 100 years. It has the ultimate retail location: Fifth Avenue, across from the Plaza Hotel and Central Park. There are no branches (there was one once, in Westchester County, but it didn't work out). It's very upscale and high fashion. Not really cutting-edge, more hyper-luxurious. The girls in Sex in the City were obsessed with Bergdorf, but they are more representative of its aspirational customers. The real customers are extremely wealthy New York women, plus rich foreigners.

Many people find Bergdorf's intimidating, but the fact is it's generally pretty crowded and no one will notice you unless you want them to. Still, I would dress the part. The last time I went I was in shorts and a stained T-shirt, and I realized about 20 feet into the store that I'd made a mistake. Not that I was being given dirty looks. I just felt disrespectful, like I'd worn the wrong thing to church.

The ground floor is the best, for that's where jewelry is. If you are the slightest bit interested in jewelry, this place is like St. Peter's. The Bergdorf collection must have pieces by 50 different designers, displayed in beautifully lit cases that twist and turn through several high-ceilinged rooms. The keynote here is variety and extravagance. These jewels are not discreet; they tend to knock your eyes out. Treat it like a museum exhibit—go slowly and absorb each piece. One section has estate jewelry, with each piece labeled as to its creator. Here you get a history lesson thrown in.

Some people find the sales staff haughty. I think they're great. They really know their stuff and are glad to talk about it. Most important, they're willing to play that little game—you pretend that you're actually interested in buying those $17,000 earrings and they pretend to believe you, even though you're dressed in—well, shorts and a stained T-shirt.

As much as I love Bergdorf's, there are parts of it that are still a mystery to me. I do not frequent the Wedding Salon—considered the best in the world—or the women's shoe department—again, the best in the world—and I'm careful with the women's clothes. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it a little unseemly for a man to examine women's clothes too closely in any sort of retail establishment. So I sort of breeze through floors two, three, four, five and six.

On seven the tour continues. That's where the restaurant is. Of course you must have lunch there, or even better, tea. I've never come across such a perfect "ladies who lunch" menu. It's got things like Lobster Mac and Cheese, Lobster Salad, Lobster Napoleon (it's an entrée, with layers of pasta, and costs $36). The dining room itself overlooks Central Park and was designed by Kelly Wearstler. When it opened seven or eight years ago, it was revolutionary—concierge chairs, graphic detailing, a color scheme of pale turquoise, white, gray, green. It's been so widely copied that it's starting to look a bit dated, and I'm sure one of the greatest concerns of the management these days is how to redecorate it in some new and spectacular way.

Also on the seventh floor are housewares, gifts, some small pieces of furniture, invitations and stationery and stuff like that. This is the best place to actually buy something. If you poke around you can find some frivolous thing for your house—a small tray, perhaps, or a single candlestick—that will set you back no more than a hundred dollars. And if you buy something you'll get a shopping bag, which is a little status symbol in itself. Every person of taste in New York has a stash of these, which they re-use when they want to impress people.

In the basement are cosmetics, perfume, etc., so don't miss this. And across the street, in the old F.A.O. Schwarz toy store—a fond remembrance of my childhood—is the men's department. It's certainly worth a visit, but the prices are so high that you need an enormous income to even consider dressing this way.

Once you leave Bergdorf's I can guarantee you will be craving more—more luxury goods, more glamour, more New York. Immediately turn the corner and head down half a block to Rizzoli's, where they have the best selection of beautiful coffee table books I've ever seen. Buy a couple to class up your living room. Then turn around and head east across 57th Street to the Four Seasons Hotel. It's time for a drink.

The Four Seasons is my latest discovery in the "virtually unknown but absolutely essential" New York sightseeing tour. You've got to see it. When Steve Jobs walked in he had a revelation—this is the way Apple Stores should look. A great big space that you proceed through, to a counter in back, where "bartenders" (i.e., salespeople) will answer your questions, take orders, or just chat. As a moment in e-history, it is pivotal.

Hopefully you'll have your own revelations as you sit down for a drink. (There are several bars, but the one in back, facing 58th Street, is the cool one.) One revelation will certainly be a kind of anxious remorse at the amount of money you spent today. You start adding it up until you get to $1,000, then you order another drink (at $22 a pop). Was it worth it? You look around at the CEOs, the impeccably tailored Chinese businessmen, and the high-end hooker at the bar, all set in an atmosphere of incredible scale and luxury, like the S.S. Normandie. Then down at your gorgeous new books (Great Houses of Old Havana and The Art of Prada) and your new candlestick peeking up from the purple tissue paper in your Bergdorf's tote, and for one giddy exciting moment, it is all worth it. You spent far too much money, you'll be paying it off for months, but for today, anyway, you're a real New Yorker.

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