In 2001, latrino-activist Vicki Rovere located and classified over 800 Manhattan bathrooms in her wonderfully titled book, Where To Go: A Guide to Manhattan’s Toilets. I went and looked at some of Rovere's highest ranking loos — she fawns over details like soft lighting and scented hand towels — to see how they fare in such key areas as privacy, cell reception, and accessibility (i.e. how easy it is to use the bathroom in question without buying anything).
1. Best Bathroom For a Slasher Film: Lincoln Center
This one was hard to find, despite Rovere's directions, but after passing through a deserted underground hallway and crossing the parking lot, I arrived. The door, marked "WOMEN" in large block letters, was eerily lit by a single slanted spotlight coming from I don't know where. Inside, it was gray and dark. Rectangular porcelain sinks projected from the wall at a slant, and the mirrors above each were framed with vertical florescent lights. The entire room felt oddly futuristic and a little menacing. A faucet’s drip echoed off the walls.
Accessibility: If you can find it, you're home free. No security or work personnel to tiptoe around.
Cell reception: Decent. You're in a parking lot so it comes and goes, but I was able to keep at least a bar or two at all times.
Overall rating: C. A fine bathroom (dark as it may be), but if you can't find it that doesn't really count for much.
2. Best Bathroom To Work on Sudoku: The Plaza
I had high expectations for this one. But beyond being overwhelmingly white and marble, the Plaza bathroom wasn't anything extraordinary. Each of the six stalls is an individual room, though the door doesn't go all the way to the floor or ceiling. There is an abundance of mirror space for touch-ups, as long as you can get past the eerie sense that everyone is watching you. If you're one of those people who is scared to pee in public, this might not be the place for you.
Accessibility: You have to walk past the Plaza shops and food area; just pretend to look at a few things, maybe buy a pastry, and no one will give you a hard time.
Cell reception: Non-existent; if you're trying to discreetly leave someone to make a quick call, look elsewhere.
Overall rating: B. Very clean and polished, but it didn't go that extra mile.
3. Best Bathroom For a Catnap: Henri Bendel
This 5th Avenue landmark had the easiest bathroom to find — if you can tear yourself away from the dazzling displays of jewelry and makeup on the first floor. Just descend the staircase on the center left side of the store; to the left you'll find the "Powder Room." Small private bathrooms with a rich gold color palette are sequestered behind four individual doors, and each includes a toilet, a sink, and a mirror framed by two shaded lamps. It’s easy to pretend you're at a day spa and simply doze off in one of the stalls, lulled by the faint elevator music. The one downside is that the stalls are perhaps too private: you have to go around and awkwardly knock on each door in order to find a vacant one.
Accessibility: Easy. If you look too much like a tourist you might get some stares, but there are usually plenty of people milling about, so nobody is going to notice if you slip away to the Powder Room.
Cell reception: Scant, which is unfortunate; these individual rooms would be perfect for making a private call.
Overall rating: B+. If I had to go I'd want to go here, but there are only four toilets so you should anticipate a short wait (or a long one, if you're too courteous to knock on all the doors).
4. Best Bathroom To Live In: Saint Regis Hotel
With a large vanity area, pink plush benches, and carefully selected paintings, St. Regis was the most elegant bathroom of the day. The handle and lock of each of the four stalls was old-fashioned and fussily designed; the same went for the faucets. Electric candelabras hung above the mirror, and the ceiling sported four small chandeliers. The paper towels were personalized with the St. Regis logo — a free souvenir for cheap tourists. Bonus points for the lovely white orchid arrangements. In short, the crème de la crème of public restrooms.
Accessibility: I did feel a little out of place when spotted by staff since it's hard to disguise your motives for being there.
Cell reception: Full. You could have long calls with Mom, Grandma, and, while you're at it, your estranged aunt.
Overall rating: A. Stay a while and be sure to pay attention to the details.
5. Best Bathroom for Mother-Daughter Bonding: Bloomingdales
The “Ladies Lounge” at the famed department store had a small central waiting area with a few black leather chairs where women rested, surrounded by the store’s famous brown bags. Be warned, it got crowded and the chairs were all almost always occupied. The decor was a simple but classic black and white color scheme. On each side of the lounge there were stalls and several sinks beneath a communal mirror. Nothing special, but a nice and clean arrangement given the consistent crowd. They also played a non-coma-inducing variety of elevator music.
Accessibility: Reasonable. Bloomingdale's is a big store, so if you're unable to wander around looking at clothes while secretly searching for the facilities, there's no shame in asking an employee.
Cell reception: Decent. Though the bathroom is noisy so I don't know that I'd recommend trying to take a call here.
Overall rating: B. A traditional public bathroom with a little extra polish.
Story and pictures by Rebecca Hoffman