Enjoy a free Broadway show in a retro New York diner

When visiting New York, a must on most peoples’ lists is to buy tickets to a Broadway show. If you want entertainment that’s a little more affordable, stop into Ellen’s Stardust Diner.

The eatery is a themed diner that takes you back to the 1950’s, with waitresses in poodle skirts and waiters in retro bowling shirts serving classic fare like meatloaf, burger platters, macaroni and cheese, Whoopie pie sundaes, and thick shakes. To add to the old-time ambiance, nostalgic memorabilia adorns the room, a model-train set circles teh tables, and 50’s videos play on the television sets and a “drive-in theatre” screen.

While the food and decor help to make the place lively and fun, the real draw is the Broadway-style singing. The talented servers break out in random song from shows like Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and other major hits. Many of the staff are aspiring performers (a few have even been American Idol participants) trying to make it big, so the singing is more than just a hobby.

Yes, this restaurant is touristy, but it’s a lot of fun. Also, the staff are actually extremely talented and could easily be on Broadway. Bonus: If you like dessert, they have the most enormous sundae I’ve ever seen, “Ellen’s ‘Everything But the Kitchen Sink'”, with homemade vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and strawberry ice cream, hot fudge, caramel, walnuts, cherries, strawberries, whipped cream, sprinkles, brownies, and Oreo cookies. Just make sure to wear loose pants.

How to buy cheap Broadway tickets this fall

Catching a Broadway show may be a quintessential New York experience, but a pair of orchestra tickets can easily cost as much as your hotel room.

If your travel plans are flexible, consider waiting until fall to take advantage of Broadway.com‘s latest promotion, which reduces ticket prices for groups as small as eight people. (Group discounts are typically for 15 or more people). Round up some friends and family, and these discounts could knock 20 percent to 50 percent off the regular price of orchestra and front mezzanine seats.

Here’s a sampling of what you can save with Broadway.com/groups discounts this fall.

La Cage Aux Folles (the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical Revival, Best Actor, and Best Director)
Price: Orchestra seats normally cost $132.50. With the small-group discount, you could save 40 percent and watch it for a more affordable $79.50. This price is valid for shows from Sept. 7-Oct. 7.

The Addams Family
(starring Broadway legends Bebe Neuwirth and Nathan Lane)
Price: $69 mezzanine seats A-K for Tuesday-Thursday performances; $49 student mezzanine seats F-N for Tuesday-Thursday performances. Book by Aug. 27 (or 4 weeks in advance) for performances Sept. 1-Nov. 11

Mary Poppins and The Lion King
Get 20 percent off regularly priced tickets for groups of 8 to 14 people. Earn a free ticket for groups of 15 and more.

But with half-price tickets available at the TKTS booth in Times Square, does booking in advance really save you money?

I checked in with Carl Prince, executive vice president of Broadway.com/Groups, who was candid about how his company’s fall promotion measures up to the competition.

Can you explain how these prices might compare to TKTS deals?

TKTS is a good way to go if you are not with a group, you don’t care what show you see, and you don’t mind giving up an afternoon to wait in line. If you wanted to see a show with a September Special, say Mary Poppins, you should definitely go ahead and buy it in advance because it might sell out prior to the performance and therefore not even be an option at the TKTS booth. Prices could be lower at TKTS, but it’s a complete gamble.

Is your seat availability better than TKTS?
Another gamble. At the TKTS booth, they sell whatever inventory is left. Because of that, simple logic tells me the seats will not be as good at the last minute as when they are bought in advance with a September Special.

Has Broadway.com/Groups offered these specials before?

Not really. As of now, this is a once-a-year opportunity. September Specials are a way to sell tickets in advance for a time period that has tended to be slower in years past.

Details: Visit Broadway.com/groups/septemberspecials to view the discounted group rates.
Tip: Before you book, it’s worth comparing prices with other discount sites, such as Theatermania.com.

[Photo Credit: Amy Chen]

Valentine’s Day at The Pierre

Nothing beats Valentine’s Day in Manhattan. You have an endless supply of amazing restaurants at your fingertips, Broadway is never far and at night, the city takes on new vibrancy. To anchor your Valentine’s Day experience, the hotel must be nothing short of perfect. So, kick around a stay at The Pierre this time around. Located on the southeast corner of Central Park, this year’s package for the most romantic day of the year includes two nights in a suite, dinner for two at Le Caprice, a surprise confection from the pastry chef to be enjoyed in your room, a bottle of champagne and breakfast in bed. And, you can enjoy it for only $1,100 a night with a two-night minimum.

So, start planning your stay now. Maybe get a ride through the park on one of the horse-drawn carriages that line up along Central Park South, or catch a show only a short cab drive away.

Six steps to a Broadway night you’ll always remember

There are so many choices available, it can be almost impossible to construct a perfect dinner-and-a-show night. Whether you live in Manhattan or are in town for the first time, it’s too easy to make a wrong turn, pick an unsatisfying restaurant or wind up chasing from one venue to the next. A single wrong turn can send you into a scramble, putting what should be the evening of your life at risk.

Plan ahead, even a little, and your theater getaway can be nothing short of amazing. There’s no reason it should go wrong, especially when you can think through the perfect night and put a few pieces in place before you step out the door. Keep in mind, a great evening, with no worries, may cost you a little more money, but predictability has value, so you shouldn’t expect it to be free.

1. Buy your tickets in advance
This seems obvious, but it’s not unusual to see a long line at the TKTS kiosk in Times Square or people shoving into the theater looking for discounted standing room only tickets. I did SRO once; my wife almost killed me. I didn’t want to admit it at the time, since I made the decision, but I wasn’t too happy either. If you order in advance, you’ll probably score better seats, and you won’t have any headache. In addition to convenience, you’re also buying some of your time back (no need to wait in line).


2. Consider something other than “Big Broadway”
New World Stages on W. 50th St. and Eight Ave. is like the theater equivalent of a major cinema. There are several stages, each of which home to a different production. The ticket prices are absolutely reasonable, and the productions are fantastic. I’ve seen several plays there and have never had anything other than a great experience. Unlike some of the really small stuff, you’ll still be in the Times Square area, so you’ll be near where you expected.

3. Start with a snack
Instead of showing up absurdly early for dinner or rushing through a meal to get to the theater in time, grab a drink and some appetizers before the show. The ideal spot varies with the show you’re planning to see and how much walking you don’t mind doing. I’ve always enjoyed raw bar offering at Thalia. It’s a great spot and understands the quirks of serving theater-goers.

4. Show up early
Don’t be so early that you’re standing on an empty sidewalk, but do give yourself 30 minutes or so before the show starts. If the extra time you’ll be in your seat will bore you to tears, bring a book. This is much better than having to shove your way through the crowd and risk not being able to hit the bathroom before the curtain goes up.

5. Nearby dinner afterward
Getting a taxi when a show lets out is like trying to get a stripper to buy you a drink. Don’t bother. Instead, have a later dinner (reservations should be easy). If you’re having trouble choosing a place, forget the coupons in the playbill. Before you go out, hit OpenTable and make reservations. You’ll probably find a kickass restaurant that wouldn’t have occurred to you otherwise. When in doubt, hit The Palm (W. 50th St. and Eighth Ave.); it’s convenient and the menu is fantastic.

6. Enjoy a last drink
Don’t finish the evening from your table at the restaurant. Rather, find a relaxing bar with comfortable chairs. If you’re a cigar smoker, you might want to try the Carnegie Club (on W. 56th St. between Sixth Ave. and Seventh Ave.). If you like your bars smoke-free, head up to the bar at the Hudson Hotel (W. 58th St. and Ninth Ave.).

Times Square becomes a pedestrian zone

New York City’s famous Times Square became free of cars this Monday.

This is the latest in two decades of radical changes to what used to be a dirty, dangerous, but uniquely vibrant part of one of the world’s greatest cities. City officials have blocked traffic from 42nd to 47th Streets at Times Square and between 33rd and 35th Streets at Herald Square in a much-anticipated move we first reported on back in February.

The traffic jams are being replaced by pedestrian plazas and more shops. The hope is to attract even more visitors to New York City’s iconic square by getting rid of noise, pollution, and frequent accidents. New Yorkers celebrated Monday with a big block party and setting up lawn chairs in the middle of the road. The city plans to have various events and street performers every night in the coming weeks to attract more people to Times Square.

Old-time New Yorkers like yours truly have fond memories of the old Times Square, full of seedy bars, seedier adult shops, and crumbling movie houses where you could watch a double feature of martial arts films for two bucks. I saw my first Jackie Chan film in Times Square, my first zombie picture, not to mention countless Z-list action flicks. Ah, the Eighties!

But not everyone liked Times Square at its decadent best. It was too close to Broadway, where accountants from Omaha wanted to see musicals without being reminded that the world isn’t like it is in A Chorus Line.

First to go were the movie theaters, replaced one by one by adult video centers, as if the area didn’t have enough of those already. No more blaxplotation or ninja flicks, just hard core. Then the porn shops got shut down. Times Square began to look like Disneyland. Now the squalling, bumper-to-bumper traffic has gone the way of the dodo. The armpit of New York has been replaced with the outdoor equivalent of a shopping mall. Progress? Well, it’s certainly safer (how I survived my teen-aged trips to the old Times Square still amazes me) but I can’t help but think that by killing Times Square, New York City has lost something.

Every city has its grotty area. Amsterdam has its red light district, London has Elephant and Castle, and New York had Times Square. The thing is, these neighborhoods are often really interesting and alive. The red light district in Amsterdam has some of the city’s best architecture. Elephant and Castle has an amazing variety of African shops and restaurants. Times Square has. . .well, had. . .an exciting street life and a variety of movie houses for every taste. And no, I’m not talking about the adult stuff. Back in the day, all sorts of people went to Times Square, everyone from well-heeled businessmen up to no good, to curious teenagers like I was, all the way down to street hustlers and petty thieves. That’s what I liked about it. Now it’s tourists and the middle class. Aren’t there enough places like that?

Any other old-time New Yorkers out there have any thoughts on this?