You’re reading a travel article that revisits locations used to shoot a well-known holiday movie set in New York City, so of course you assume you’ll see the phrase “Miracle on 34th Street.” Well, there it was, but don’t expect to encounter it again because that film is too obvious a choice for our theme. Macy’s is still there. Gimbels isn’t; end of story.
Instead, our subject is an entirely different film, one that may not leap immediately to mind as a holiday classic. We’re going to retrace the steps of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in “When Harry Met Sally,” Rob Reiner’s 1989 romantic comedy. What qualifies that as a holiday film? Three things:
1. It has a Christmas tree in it. Several, actually.
2. Its pivotal scene involves a New Year’s Eve party.
3. It is, on one level, all about taking a leap of faith into a hopeful future, certainly appropriate for a holiday season that ends on New Year’s Day.
The movie is the story of a friendship between the two title characters that, ever so slowly, blossoms into love. It takes place over a period of years, beginning when Sally is introduced to Harry by a friend and gives him a ride from Chicago to New York after their college graduation.
As the years go by, the two keep bumping into each other in the city, then start hanging out in a platonic friendship until, eventually, Cupid’s arrow finds them. Along the way they laugh, argue and have one eminently memorable meal in a delicatessen. More on that later.
A fan of the movie could spend two enjoyable days bopping around to the places Harry and Sally went though, of course, the landscape has changed over 27 years. One day could be devoted to sites in and around Central Park; think of it as the traditional, heart-of-Manhattan version of New York. The other day would be more exploratory.
Let’s start with that one since it is where Harry and Sally’s New York story begins.
Washington Square Park
When they first arrive in the city after that drive from Chicago, Sally drops Harry off at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. It’s a moment that, for today’s viewer, carries a tinge of sadness: As they drive south toward the Washington Arch, we see, framed in that wonderful marble monument, the World Trade Center towers. The view downtown is more obstructed today (especially at the moment, when there’s a Christmas tree in the arch), but stand in the right spot, and you can still see the top of 1 World Trade Center, the skyscraper that replaced those buildings.
The park is always abuzz with humanity thanks to the presence of New York University, whose buildings are all around the neighborhood, and restaurants and cultural activities are everywhere. But pause here only long enough to admire the arch, built in the 1890s, because you have other places to be. Walk south to Houston Street and turn left, where, at Lafayette Street, you’ll encounter the redbrick Puck Building, location of two important scenes in the movie: a wedding where Harry and Sally quarrel and the New Year’s Eve party at the film’s end, where Harry finally confesses his love.
The building dates from the 1880s and has a varied history, including being the home of Puck magazine, the groundbreaking political-humor publication. Its tenants are blander today: NYU and a large REI store.
Your lunch is waiting farther east on Houston, the site of the most famous two minutes and 53 seconds in “When Harry Met Sally” and one of the finest comic scenes in movie history. You know it even if you’ve never seen the film: Harry and Sally at a restaurant table debating whether women fake orgasms; Sally proving her point that they do by having a (fake) one right there in the crowded bistro; a woman at a nearby table saying, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Reiner’s mother, Estelle, delivered that memorable line.
The scene was filmed at Katz’s Deli at 205 E. Houston, which was already something of a New York institution before that exquisite bit of hilarity was shot there. It’s still a bustling enterprise although your bragging rights for having eaten there won’t come cheap: Expect to pay $19.95 for the hot pastrami sandwich. In the film, a sign hangs over Harry and Sally that reads, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.” That message can still be found among the busy decor of the place, but another sign now dangles over that particular table. “Where Harry met Sally,” it reads. “Hope you have what she had!”
These days Katz’s is increasingly dwarfed by newer, much taller buildings, and another residential complex will soon go up across the street. The Lower East Side has gentrified quite a bit since the movie was made, and Katz’s, with its difficult-to-decipher ordering system and its walls covered with photographs of celebrity customers, seems increasingly out of place amid the slicker restaurants and chic hotels down the side streets off Houston. A Drybar, the blowout hair salon chain, is just around the corner. To step out of Katz’s and roam these enclaves is to step from old New York into the newer one.
Even more of a culture shock awaits on the “When Harry Met Sally” tour because, after lunch, you’re going to catch the F train at Second Avenue and take the long ride out to Coney Island in Brooklyn. Once there, a short walk down Stillwell Avenue toward the ocean brings you to the spot where the scene just before the Katz conversation was filmed, according to various movie websites. Harry and his pal Jess (Bruno Kirby) are hitting a few in the batting cages that once stood there, holding a ridiculous conversation about women as they do.
Kirby is batting right-handed; Crystal is hitting leftie. In a commentary on one of the DVD releases of the film, Reiner commends Crystal for being able to do so convincingly since he normally hits right-handed. Reiner needed him to bat from the other side to frame the shot the way he wanted it.
In the movie, it’s a warm-weather scene, and Coney Island is a mandatory stop for anyone who visits New York in the summer. But is there any reason to go there at this time of year? Yes. You go there to find something that is mighty scarce in Manhattan and other parts of New York in the holiday season: solitude.
On a chilly December afternoon, I had the streets and the boardwalk more or less to myself. There’s a certain beauty to watching the dimming of the day at a deserted oceanfront amusement area. The block where the batting cages stood is now home to Luna Park, an updated version of the amusement rides that have always been part of Coney Island’s identity. When change came a few years ago there was much gnashing of teeth about whether the down-market character of the place would be lost.
It hasn’t been; this is still an old-school amusement area when it’s operating. (My favorite addition: the “Coney Art Walls,” colorful murals in an outdoor food court across the street from Luna Park.) In the cold-weather months, of course, most everything is in hibernation. Luna Park’s rules of conduct, though, are still prominently posted, including this one: “Guests using profanity or abusive language, symbols or gestures will be escorted from the park without refund.” Harry and Jess may have been borderline candidates for eviction under those rules. In the scene, Harry brags about making a woman “meow” in bed.
Central Park Boathouse
The second day of the “When Harry Met Sally” tour is more conventional. Begin with an early lunch at the restaurant at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park but only if you remembered to make a reservation; this is a very popular spot at any time of year. In the movie, Sally dined there with two girlfriends in warm weather. At this time of year, the surface of the lake in the background won’t be rippling in the breeze as it was in the movie, but the setting is lovely in all seasons.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
After lunch you can walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose Temple of Dendur is the setting for a scene in which Harry talks in a nonsensical voice about pepper, poppycosh and pecan pie. This amazing spot, an atmospheric marvel in the middle of a bustling city, is an Egyptian monument that was relocated when it was threatened by the rising waters resulting from the Aswan Dam.
The ridiculous exchange in the scene, Reiner relates in the commentary, was Crystal’s invention. It may have been the first time the 2,000-year-old temple stones had heard anyone say “poppycosh.”
As dinner time nears, make your way across to the west side of Central Park and Cafe Luxembourg on 70th Street. That’s the site of a scene in which Harry tries to set Jess up with Sally, but the four-way dinner (Carrie Fisher plays Sally’s friend Marie, who completed the quartet) doesn’t go as planned: Jess and Marie end up together.
Upper West Side Christmas tree shopping
Walk off your dinner by strolling north to 209 W. 96th St. and the scene that goes a long way toward making “When Harry Met Sally” a holiday movie. Twice in the film, Sally is seen buying a Christmas tree from a sidewalk display at the Plant Shed here. The shop is still operating, and in the weeks leading up to Christmas it still displayed an array of trees on the sidewalk in varying sizes and prices. When I visited a few weeks ago, there were also gorgeous, decorated trees inside. A blue, green and silver beauty labeled “Fairy Tale” had an $850 price tag on it.