NEW YORK - The innkeeper wore a Mets cap. He skidded his bike to a stop, removed his backpack, threw the bike's frame over his shoulder, and trudged up the granite steps of the townhouse. It was raining, and from behind the wrought-iron doors we watched him fumble with his keys. He looked up, squinted at us and waved. We stood in the vestibule, where we had been waiting 40 minutes, sheltered from the downpour but unable to go farther into the building without a key. We had arrived early. So we called Nick in Queens, as instructed, and Nick had this guy bicycle across town in the rain, to the Upper East Side, to deliver keys.
"Sorry, I was all the way crosstown," the guy said, "and traffic's nuts because of the rain, you know."
This was our first time at a Manhattan bed-and-breakfast, and within minutes I wanted to move in; there was no way this guy was going to wake us at 7 a.m. to sit around a doily-wrapped farm table and eat blueberry pancakes while we chatted with a couple from Phoenix about museums. In fact, because it's New York and not Vermont or Maine, I had never considered that B&Bs even existed here. But many do; and lately when it comes to finding a room in New York, where "cheap rooms" start at $300 and higher, I'll consider everything.
Without much digging, I found several dozen B&Bs in all five boroughs. The names alone were reminders that you're not in doily country anymore. For instance, there's Rooms to Let, its comically blunt name not at all suggesting its elegant 1840 Greenwich Village brownstone. Many have minimum stays (three nights is average); and many don't actually serve breakfast. But next time I'm between a boutique hotel and a Times Square tourist squat, I'm heading to our Carnegie Hill B&B, which is unfortunately named Stay the Night (212-722-8300, staythenight.com).
Still, you forget this as you step from the cab; Stay the Night is on East 93rd Street, steps from Madison Avenue, in a shaded, movie-ready neighborhood best described as late-'70s Woody Allen Revival. The Cooper-Hewitt design museum is around the corner, near the Guggenheim; Sarabeth's, one of Manhattan's cozier breakfast spots, is a short walk, a storefront or two down from Corner Bookstore, so welcoming it seems carved from cherrywood. After the rain, I walked back to the inn and sat on the steps for an hour just watching the neighborhood pass.
Inside, our room ($200, with tax) had a fireplace, high ceilings, and a tarnished mirror. Wireless was spotty, but a back door opened onto a wooden deck, above a garden that curled over fences and through cramped yards. I cribbed wireless from a nearby prep school, sat outside and read. Though it's nearly impossible to find an affordable hotel in New York, here was an accurate illusion of living on the East Side, on a perfect city block.
We stayed four days at Stay the Night, and we saw almost no one inside our building. There was no forced gentility, either. No blueberries. The street was so secluded that some mornings there was almost no noise. A psychologist owns the place; his office is in back. We never saw him. But there was a sign to keep a gate closed; they had a dog. A guest scribbled a note on their note: "Is he a Dalmatian? Can we walk him?"
The next time you want to breathe in Manhattan, you know where to go.
To find a New York City B&B: bedandbreakfast netny.com