Tuesday, October 16, 2012
The Best Public, Public Bathroom in New York City, and Other Suggestions
Locals and tourists alike are often looking for the same thing, no matter what city they're in: a convenient, clean, FREE, public bathroom. I've heard that in some cities, like London, you pay for certain public bathrooms. In many places, we rely on McDonalds, Starbucks or other fast-food joints that we recognize. In New York City, McDonalds is rarely clean, and at Starbucks you have to ask for the key. Neither of those options work for me.
I like to know my bathroom choices, whether I'm traveling abroad, or traveling around my own city, New York. Here, I know where there's a bathroom I can use no matter where I am, though there are different levels of restroom preferences. Hands down, the best public bathroom in New York City, and by public I mean free and not on or in private property, is the bathroom on the 42nd Street side of Bryant Park, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue. Though a little small, only three stalls in the ladies room (and I'm afraid I can only speak to the ladies' side), as you enter, the first thing you see is a huge bouquet of fresh flowers. Inside, the room is spotlessly clean. An attendant, whom you are not pressured to tip, is on hand to keep things clean, and make sure people don't linger needlessly (I hate to say this, but let's face it, she keeps the homeless people from mucking it up, though I hope she allows them to use it.) There's even classical music playing! Sometimes there's a line, but it's usually not a long one. It's definitely a place for the quicker pit stops, and I don't believe there's a diaper changing table.
All of NYC's parks have restrooms. Another decent one is in Central Park, along the stairs that are near the Bethesda Fountain. It's big, and usually clean, but there's no guarantee of that, and it's only handy if you're in the middle of Central Park. There are several other OK bathrooms in CP, but as in the other parks, none of them is great.
If you're not in the Bryant Park area or the vicinity of another city park when you need a bathroom, I recommend a few other options that don't involve going into a restaurant where you have to buy something or ask for a key:
1. Department stores - big, clean and you can generally take your time, but you have to be
willing to go in, find it, and get out without being distracted by shopping.
2. Sit down/take out cafes - I'm thinking of places like Europa Cafe, Panera Bread, or similar. Some are better than others. At most of these kinds of places, no one notices you coming in just to use the bathroom. However, some of their restrooms are quite small, and they're not always clean. Certain other places, like Le Pain Quotidien, are designed to make it really obvious if you're just going in to use the bathroom, so you have to choose carefully.
3. Churches. These can be iffy because churches in NYC are not always open to the public except on Sunday morning. However, a place like St. Patrick's Cathedral, which is a tourist attraction as well as a church, is a good choice - free, clean, and no one is paying attention to whether you are only going in for the bathroom.
4. Bookstores: same pros and cons as department stores.5. Pizza or bagel joints. Anything that is considered a restaurant is supposed to have a public bathroom, but in NYC these little pizza and bagel places, delis as well, don't always, and even if they do, they're generally disgusting, just to discourage you from using them. Same with Chinese take-out places. I once used one where I had to step over a huge hole in the floor to use the toilet. Ew. (However, this doesn't compare to the actual hole in the ground that passed for a ladies room at the train station in Chiusi, Tuscany. That one, however, was far superior to the filthy hole in the ground I once used at a "bathroom" at a beach in Acapulco.)
5. Whole Foods/Trader Joes, etc. Similar issues to department stores and bookstores.
6. Libraries. Passable, but you have to get well inside and be scrutinized by the security. (Another anecdote: I was in a small town in England and needed a potty. I went into the library, and politely asked if they had a restroom. The woman replied, "We don't have anything so fancy as that here, but there is a public toilet down the street." I can't remember if I had to pay for it or not.)7. Public atriums. They all have to have restrooms and they can be really nice, but they don't make them easy to find. There's a big, beautiful one in Trump Tower, 5th Ave and 56th street, but you have to go all the way downstairs, past the restaurants and down a long hallway. It's worth it when you get there though.
Knowing where these kinds of places are in relation to where you're shopping, doing errands, or site-seeing, can really make a difference. If I'm downtown in the Village, I might stop into the Whole Foods in Union Square for a pit stop. More preferable still is The Strand bookstore on Broadway and 12th, and there's a Barnes and Noble on Union Square North as well as on on 18th and 5th Ave. Around St. Mark's Place there's a pizza place on the corner of St. Mark's and 3rd Ave that will do, though it's not very clean, and the bathroom in Washington Square Park will do in a pinch. I don't go all the way downtown to around Wall Street very often, but there's a Burger King down there that immediately comes to mind. In Chelsea, there's Chelsea Market, around the FlatIron District I believe you can find bathrooms in Eataly, but that's the most distracting and fascinating place in the world, so be careful. Around 34th Street there's Macy's, then farther uptown is the afore-mentioned Bryant Park restroom. Midtown, there's a Whole Foods in Columbus Circle, several atriums - you can Google these just by entering "Atriums, Manhattan" - libraries, and of course Central Park. I have to say, I'm not that familiar with the Upper West Side, but tourists don't spend a lot of time there anyway, except in Central Park or the Natural History museum, which of course have lots of bathrooms. That brings me to museums in general. Even if they're pay-what-you can, like the Met or the Natural History, it's not worth that buck or two because they're hidden in the depths of the museum, and unless you have lots of time to spare, you really risk getting pulled into the wonders that lie within the museum itself. On the Upper East Side there's a Barnes and Noble on 86th & Lex, also a Bed Bath and Beyond around 63rd and 1st Avenue - they always have bathrooms. I once used a bathroom in Ralph Lauren around Madison Ave. and 72nd street, but I really had to pretend to be shopping.
I hope this post helps you be prepared for your time in NYC. After all, these little realities of life are important when you're planning that dream vacation - especially with kids.
Evaluation of Bryant Park Public Bathroom and by default the NYC Parks Department: Extraordinarily sincere!
Here are some suggestions from other sites: