Escapes From (and During) Downtown Shopping

For those of us who don't shop.

I am not a shopper. The words shoe and sale mean nothing to me. When it comes to shopping, I am 34 going on 3. I need bribes to even go near a department store on the weekend and big rewards for good behavior. This time of year, of course, that means food and something alcoholic to soothe my jingled, jangled nerves. Whether you're shopping-phobic or a shopaholic, the gift quest cannot be complete without some adult treats. I offer two choice respites in the belly of the downtown retail beast: Barolo hides in plain sight across from the McDonald's on Virginia, just off the retail circuit. The place reminds me of a hotel bar in the very best way, a place to tuck in with friends for a visit or to stop in alone for some world-class people watching. In a hotel bar, people are a little bit more carefree. Barolo makes you behave that way, like you're on vacation in some other city, with not a care in the world. The restaurant flaunts clean lines, mood lighting, and touches of decadence like a gorgeous, underlit marble bar. I worked for one of the Varchetta brothers who own Barolo ages ago, and what I remember is that when the brothers offer a deal, they sweeten the pot to excess. From 3 to 6:30 p.m., Barolo's bar menu is half-price, and a house red and a white are available for $3.50 a glass. Cocktails still cost $10, but balance the splurge against what you save on the food. (Try the Amarene with gin, Galliano, and amaro, a cocktail you must be at least one-quarter Italian to love.) Barolo packs people in after work for the reduced prices, but it's that early, extra hour of happy which I'd take advantage of. Too late for lunch, too early for after work, 3 p.m. is just the right time to celebrate an afternoon of packages. Luxuriate with squid and garbanzos in a marsala reduction or a hanger steak with Barolo sauce, both $7 or less during happy hour. As you take your last sips of wine and finish your choice snacks, you can watch the après-grind crowd roll in as you roll out to cab it home with your booty. Kitty-corner from the northwest entrance of Macy's sits Entre Nous, a sanctuary after the cacophony of six stories of retail. The little bar-restaurant is the Paris I experienced on my October visit last year. The decor's simple, slapdash touches are endearingly owner-designed and applied, and the dark walls set off the black-and-white family pictures of chef Stéphane Ohayan. My only real complaint about the place is that it closes during the prime-time drinking hours of 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., but on Shopping Saturdays Entre Nous serves continuously beginning at 11 a.m. Imagine bar food Frenchified, like zucchini fritters with garlic aioli or an onion baked and stuffed with andouille sausage. Three kinds of onion in the onion soup give the heartwarming favorite a splendid boost. The Monsieur Croc takes the famed ham-and-cheese sandwich and goes diner, smothering it in béchamel sauce. Add to that the quaffable house wines and $3 wells at happy hour (remember that tonic and lime are cheap gin's best friends), and how could you not want to get, er, crocked in the afternoon?

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