The British city, they say, is at last waking up to the social needs of night owls. Bah, says Liesl Schillinger. In groovy New York, no one's been to bed for years
Round midnight, in the city that never sleeps, the evening has barely dawned. Dinner at eight is for children and slackers. People with jobs don't have dinner before nine, and anyone who shows up at a restaurant in a suit at 8pm risks being subjected to a stringent credit check, as he is clearly a non-essential employee - someone at risk of an imminent sacking and the attendant financial troubles.

Besides, appearing for dinner at eight shows that you didn't have a pre- dinner cocktail party/screening/art opening/book party to go to, which makes it hard for the waiters - many of whom have exhibitions or book- contracts themselves - to countenance serving you.

Dinner, then, finishes after 11pm, posing the question: Now that we've dined, where shall we go to find our future life's partner, or, failing that, a short-term squeeze?

Many well-heeled New Yorkers hanker for the days of The Thin Man, when every smile floated above a cocktail shaker and every dog was a wire-haired fox terrier. They can head straight for the marble retro-splendour of the Four Seasons Hotel bar, called Fiftyseven Fiftyseven (for the address - 57 East 57th Street) for Martinis. These are not just any Martinis; they are Martinis with a mission, and a price. Presented on black lacquer trays, each accompanied by its own steel shaker and strainer, and garnished with enough cranberries, olives or pineapple wedges to stock a jazz-age luau, the Martinis exhale a powerful vapour of vodka, gin, tequila or bourbon. A jazz saxophone and pianist play in the background; princes drift past, and women in fur. On weekends, Fiftyseven Fiftyseven is too crowded to enhance the intimacy of any but the most riveted couples. But during the week, before 1am, tete-a-tetes are not only possible, but - given the strength of the drinks - very productive.

Another kind of opulent, gin-soaked mood can be come by in Wax on Mercer St, Spy Bar on Greene St and Chaos on Watts St, which are three of SoHo and Tribeca's most popular haunts. Power-mad bouncers like to keep all but the slimmest shavings of visitors behind the velvet ropes, far from the intimate, carpeted (and often half-empty), velvet-sofa-ed nooks within. But less buzz-hungry New Yorkers fill up on civilised decadence at the Temple Bar on Lafayette, a mysterious, curtained lounge where tall bankers talking money lurk alongside taller supermodels looking money. Or at least, that seems to be the case; it's too dark to be sure, and besides, everyone's too drunk to know the difference.

But most New Yorkers take a little less opulence with their gin, fewer Martinis than margaritas and beers. After midnight, masses of proto- adults head for the East Village and the Lower East Side's Ludlow and Eldridge Streets. The East Village, a skip and a jump east of Astor Place and New York University, teems with cheap late-night Ukrainian bars and pool halls like the Blue And Gold, on St Mark's Place, where you can take in all the cigarette-smoke and lithe, hipless youths of both sexes you can handle. The literary and caviar-left set hangs out at KGB on East 4th; the Cherry Tavern pool-and-billiards bar on East 6th is SRO between three and 4am. Romantic connections there spark like fireflies - extremely unprincipled fireflies - between Tank Grrrls and Oasis lookalikes. At Nation, a club nearby on Avenue A, the dancing never stops. And at Limbo, just across the street, trysting Cherry Tavern vets hold hands over kiddie board games, sip cappuccino and beer, and eat cake.

Below Houston, artsy but less obtrusively facially-pierced New Yorkers saunter into Max Fish on Ludlow St for pool, or the Sapphire Lounge on Eldridge for beer and dancing. Romantic couples sneak into Barramundi, back on Ludlow, hoping to grab one of the couches in the back room with the fireplace, where they will loll in front of a mounted deer's head that someone framed in orange plastic cutlery, and get in some quasi- private caresses.

By three or 4am, those who have bonded transportingly enough sometimes walk or cab down to the Brooklyn Bridge and stroll across the boardwalk, gazing alternately at the city lights and at each other - far from the view of those who would point and laugh at such appalling soppiness. By 5.30am, though, everyone's ready for breakfast, which they can have just about anywhere, whether it's at Veselka, the 24-hour Ukrainian diner on 2nd Ave, or the Waverly Restaurant on 6th Ave at Waverly, or Cafe Yaffa on St Mark's Place - great banana pancakes - or New York Delicatessen on 57th Street (great matzoh-ball soup) or - well, there's hardly a block that lacks a 24-hour diner. If you're really desperate for sustenance, you can share a hotdog and a healthful papaya drink (so they are touted) at one of the all-night Gray's Papaya, Papaya King, Papaya Prince, or any other similarly named sausage-and-tropical-juice outlets.

But love-sated couples who come loping off the Brooklyn Bridge tend to forget about food. Instead, they continue wandering aimlessly, ending up, more often than not, in the befurred lovetrap called Just For You, a 24-hour stuffed-animal store on 12th Avenue, between 48th and 49th Street, along the Hudson - which, as it happens, directly faces the dock of the QE2. Owners Tommy Tuccillo and Rocky Granata give a rose to every man and woman who stumbles into the shop.

"Ohmigod, we give out thousands of roses every month," Rocky gushes. "They don't have to buy nothin'. But we got bears, Rottweilers, gorillas, tigers and horses, pandas - six feet tall - and Disney animals, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck..." Frank Sinatra blares from the stereo, and Rocky boasts of a reconciliation he had made happen that that morning at 6am. "A DJ walks in, he'd had a fight with his wife. I gave him a teddy bear, and he calls me and says, hey, they made up!"

Granata and Tuccillo used to sell their stuffed animals from pushcarts on the streets, manned by vendors who happened to be war veterans. The Just for You shop only opened this year. "We do more business at night than in the daytime, because night-time is when people meet women, and are away from their wives," he explains. "They come in and see the animals, and say 'ohmigod'."

So, does New York's night-time magic work? Is the road to hell, as Hemingway surmised, paved with unbought stuffed dogs? Shouldn't decent people be asleep after midnight anyway? Well, as Jack Nicholson laughed evilly in Batman, decent people shouldn't live here.