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Food and travel

Duck the din of Midtown with a garden-view meal

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / August 12, 2009

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NEW YORK - When the weather is warm, dining outside approaches something of an obsession. Restaurants rope off available patches of sidewalk, making those tables the perfect perch for people watching. But for a true refuge from the city’s congestion, you’re better off heading to lush greenery, colorful gardens, trees, maybe even a pond. City dwellers looking for great outdoor dining find a park - a protected oasis where you don’t have to inhale bus exhaust.

From Battery Park to Washington Heights, there are places for brunch, lunch, and dinner where you’ll feel sufficiently removed from the bustle of everyday life. Head for Central Park, or one-square-block havens such as Madison Square Park and the slightly larger Bryant Park, or Fort Tryon Park at the borough’s northern edge.

One of the most sought-after outdoor destinations is the Boathouse in Central Park. Tables are situated in a partially enclosed area with one completely open side overlooking a lake where rowboating is the popular pastime. Weekend brunch is especially nice (and won’t break the bank). Hearty items include cottage cheese pancakes, bacon and gruyere quiche, eggs Benedict, herb grilled chicken, and a smoked fish platter.

You’ll also find the boathouse’s cafe, which offers burgers, sandwiches, salads, and desserts. Either spot puts you within a short walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street) or the Frick Collection (70th Street just off Fifth Avenue).

For another dining-culture combination, head to the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Just behind the building is Bryant Park, which offers a perfect escape from the chaos and commercialism of 42nd Street. Like the well-maintained parks of Paris, there are plenty of green-painted chairs and small round tables, a center lawn, chess tables, a carousel, and various music and theater events all summer long.

For dining, you have three options: You can BYO lawn or table picnic or grab an outdoor seat at either the Bryant Park Cafe or the slightly more upscale Bryant Park Grill. Both serve main course salads, such as seared tuna and avocado, Cobb, Caesar, and grilled steak, in addition to sandwiches, burgers, and other entrees. If you’re dining solo and want something to read, just across 40th Street is the shop Around the World, Inc., which has thousands of magazines and books.

Thanks to Bette Midler’s nonprofit New York Restoration Project, many of the city’s once dilapidated parks, including Fort Tryon Park (at about 192st Street), have been carefully restored. Fort Tryon Park, which houses the Cloisters Museum and Gardens, is also home to a 1930s stone building that in 2001 was turned into New Leaf Restaurant & Bar. You can dine inside or outdoors on a tree-covered patio. Chef Scott Campbell prepares fresh and attractive food that’s not too expensive. Lunch selections include crisp calamari with mint-cilantro chutney, a generous Mediterranean salad, portobello and roasted pepper wrap, and a grilled chicken club sandwich. A short stroll through well-tended gardens brings you to a lookout with sweeping views of the Hudson River and George Washington Bridge.

Midtown Manhattan is miles from the beach, but you can eat like you’re there at the immensely popular Shake Shack. With a sandy surface underfoot in the quaint Madison Square Park (23rd Street and Madison Avenue), New York restaurateur Danny Meyer’s take-out cafe sells affordable and tasty burgers, hot dogs, fries, and shakes. The frozen custard - vanilla, chocolate, and the flavor of the day, such as black cherry or peach - is deliciously creamy and slightly denser than soft-serve ice cream.

The city offers abundant dining options, but sometimes it’s nice to feel like you’re somewhere else.

The New Leaf Restaurant & Bar, One Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, 212-568-5323, www.nyrp.org/newleaf.

Bryant Park Cafe and Bryant Park Grill are located behind the New York Public Library, between 40th and 42nd streets just off Sixth Avenue; 212-840-6500, www.bryantpark.org.

The Boathouse is located in Central Park, just a short walk from 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, 212-517-2233, www.the centralparkboathouse.com.

Shake Shack, Madison Square Park (23rd Street and Madison Ave.), 212-889-6600; or 366 Columbus Ave. (77th Street), 646-747-8770, www.shakeshack nyc.com.