To walk along 46th Street west of Eighth Avenue, or Restaurant Row as it is more commonly known, is to get a small taste (pun intended) of what it used to be like in the heyday of 52nd Street, that mecca of a jazz neighborhood where bop and swing percolated side by side in the '40s. Brownstone-housed restaurants sit side-by-side competing for your business, many offer small snippets of entertainment to further entice you through their portals.
In the midst of this gastronomical universe sits something of a throwback: a venue that offers live jazz with an ample dance floor - Swing 46.
Are you going to cut a rug later? anachronistically asks Greg the bartender as you sit at the bar that features real candles in its lamps with beaded shades. In the rear of the restaurant, the Friday night swing dance lesson is just about to take place, sandwiched between an early evening dinner show and the featured group.
If the room never served as a speakeasy, it should have. Entering at the front of a narrow bar area, you see several tables set for dining. Getting to the rear, you notice that the building opens into a larger club area, dominated by a dance floor and a stage decorated by a faux postcard enlargement with the name Swing 46 on it. You can almost imagine the back room once having been set off from the bar area with a wall and a bouncer waiting for the words, Joe sent me.
Howya doin' doll Greg, an aspiring actor, greets an older woman customer. You almost feel ashamed of not dressing like Nathan Detroit in this hangout, not because you have to, but because of its infectious spirit.
The name Swing 46 might as well refer to a year that inspires the club. If you think about it, it makes sense. The room recalls a time when a night on the time almost always included a good meal and dancing to a live band that swung. You're almost always guaranteed to find that here. And with bands who thrive on audience reaction and weekend swing dance lessons to encourage the unitiated, you're sent back to postwar America.
Don�t be mistaken though. This is not a ground floor Rainbow Room. Neat casual dress is fine, so you don't have to wear your tux or double-breasted suit. At the same time, though, it would add to the fun of it.
The music you find here is not some museum-quality re-creation read note-for-note from transcriptions. This is infectious music, meant foot-tapping, hand-holding and dancing. Towards that end, the room features a variety of entertainment in that vein.
Lately, early Sunday evenings have been given over to a tap dance jam, where pros try to top each other on the dance floor. Following that, a jazz combo takes to the stage. The type of music you'll hear will vary from night to night, with larger swing groups playing for dancing and smaller bop bands playing for listening. No matter what the size of the bands on Fridays and Saturdays, dancing is encouraged, with free swing dance lessons before the music starts.
Since this is Restaurant Row, near the Theatre District, there is an $18.95 price fixe pre-show menu until 7:30 p.m., allowing you a chance to catch a little aural and edible nourishment before heading off to a show. The menu is pretty much what you'd expect for the neighborhood, an American-Continental mix with something for most tastes, including vegetarian.
Proprietor Judith Lalor said she opened the club in June 1997 with the goal of creating a comfortable, warm, rich environment for great live acoustic jazz and swing music... That, coupled with an intimate, almost romantic settting, but real fun. Real down-to-earth and lot of fun, where people can kick their heels up to Sing, Sing, Sing, or sit back and listen to a little Charlie Parker.
While the club was more strictly dance-oriented when it first opened, in the last year we've concentrated more on listening as opposed to dancing.
The British-born Lalor may even have a bit more of an appreciation of the swing-to-bop sound because she had to emigrate to hear the real thing.
I'm a Brit, and in America, and I think it's so fabulous to actually put a spotlight specfically just on American music that burst out of Harlem and the swing era of the '40s, into bebop and boogie-woogie into the mid-'50s, she said.
People need to be exposed to it, she said. You can't get elbow room on the airwaves with popular music. We have a lot of young people that come. Actually, all ages. It's really quite spectacular in that it's so diverse.
The big band to bop to vocals to tap booking policy is an attempt to cover the spectrum, Lalor said. It's sort of... like an evolution of the music.
Swing 46 is the kind of room where you can feel comfortable entertaining your non-jazz-loving friends and relatives. A first date will be impressed by the friendly demeanor and decor, your parents and grandparents will think of it as swing era roots trip and your contemporaries will dig the entertaining jump bands and authentic hard bop groups.
~ Mitchell Seidel