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Spring break '99

And then he came to New York. Don't we all?

Despite what Dottie says, New York's not for everyone. It's crowded, it's loud, and, like the three-card monte players who used to line its midtown sidewalks, it'll take your money--all your money, every time. Intrigued? You should be. Any description of New York invariably lapses into superlatives, and it's not hard to see why. What can one say when in the face of a city that so unabashedly proclaims its own preeminence? The fact is, even though it's been on good behavior for the past couple of years, New York still breeds a culture of dizzying excess perfectly suited to those who'd like to lose the scarlet H for a few days in a blur of neon lights, rattling subways and the raunchiest late-night public access TV around.

RESTAURANTS: Big Wong's, 67 Mott Street, between Bayard and Canal Streets (964-0540): The name means big prosperity, though that's the last thing you'd expect this Chinatown eatery to be called. Almost everything on the menu costs under $5, and patrons eat cafeteria-style in a dense, tantalizing cloud of odors from the bustling kitchen. The soy sauce chicken ($5) and the barbecued spare ribs ($3) are as good as any in Chinatown.

Lombardi's, 32 Spring St., between Mott and Mulberry Streets (941-7994): Little Italy has grown increasingly littler and less Italian over the years, but New York's oldest pizzeria shows no signs of flagging. Located near the upper end of Mulberry Street, where the feel is more neighborhood and less theme park, Lombardi's serves the best pizza in the city (a close runner-up is Patsy Grimaldi's, just under the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge). For $12.50, a large basic pie (mozzarella, cheese, basil) feeds two. If the weather's warm enough, ask to sit on the roof.

Next Door Nobu, 105 Hudson St. (334-4445): Nobu Hatsuhita's Japanese-Peruvian cuisine almost lives up to the hystrionic praise bestowed on his TriBeCa flagship Nobu. This new adjacent space serves many of the specialties of the big brother restaurant on a first-come, first-served basis.

NIGHTLIFE: The city's after-dark landscape extends through legendary traditions like the Carlyle,where you can drop $60 to hear Bobby Short or Eartha Kitt, to downtown clubs and lounges basking in their inevitably ephemeral half-life of cool. For a sampling of the latter, walk along Avenue A between Houston and 10th St. or, further south on the Lower East Side, along Ludlow and Eldridge Streets. Here are a few spots, there and elsewhere, that deserve special mention:

Bar d'O, 29 Bedford St. (627-1580): New York's finest drag club.

The Village Idiot, 355 W. 14th St. between 8th and 9th Streets (989-7334): If you're too squeamish to slurp down your own goldfish at this rowdy honky-tonk, you can feed it to the snapping turtles in the tank.

Orchard Bar, 200 Orchard St., between Houston and Stanton Streets (673-5350): The desolate, gray-tinged terraria lining the walls set the tone: the crowd here shows about as much energy as a bunch of sunning reptiles.

Sounds of Brazil(SOB's)204 Varick St. at Houston Street (243-4940): Latin dance music, from traditional salsa to pounding jungle and hip-hop-infused sets. Cover $10-20.

NON-TOURISTY SITES: The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, Washington Heights. (923-3700): The Metropolitan Museum's tranquil uptown outpost houses illuminated manuscripts, ancient reliquaries, the Unicorn Tapestries and the rest of the Met's collection of Medieval art. The land, the art and even the view are courtesy of John D. Rockefeller (he bought up the stretch of New Jersey shoreline visible from the grounds so that no one could build anything on it and ruin his view).

P.S. 1, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Avenue, Queens. (718-784-2084): Back in the '70s, the city gave this rundown school building to a gang of artists that included Richard Serra and Gordon Matta-Clark. Renovated and reopened a year ago, the space features a combination of wacky, esoteric and often striking contemporary art. A recent merger with MoMA may or may not blunt its edge.

SPORT OPTION: Try your luck at races beyond Wonderland at Belmont Stakes or the Aqueduct track.

PEOPLE-WATCHING: Next Door Nobu, above, attracts area luminaries like Robert De Niro.

WILD CARD: The Empire State Building Observatory, which during the day commands lines of epic proportions, stays open until midnight (the last tickets are sold at 11:30 p.m.). Go up after sundown for a glance at the twinkling, pointillist panorama.

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