by David Sokol, 01/15/2009
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When it got its fearsome nickname back in the 19th century, Hell's Kitchen wasn't a place to spend a savory evening. These days, though, it definitely is—and it's got countless options to offer. Between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River, from 34th Street up to 59th, the neighborhood is hardly the danger zone it once was—yet the sobriquet is still relevant, given how many chefs battle here each night for culinary glory.
Ninth Avenue, Hell's Kitchen's main drag, is a parade of food. Its cheek-by-jowl storefronts dish up sloppy burgers, ramen-priced empanadas, Greek pastries and everything in between. And for traditional fare, 46th Street's Restaurant Row remains the gastronomic favorite for visitors to the Theater District.
Of course, with so much food to choose from, a little planning goes a long way for day-trippers. There's way too much to eat, so it's smart to arrive with a yen for some type of cuisine. But don't fret, explorers! We offer a delicious full-day itinerary to indulge all the senses, from the early morning, hours before Broadway's stage lights go up, to the late hours, long after the curtain call.
It's hard to tell now, but trendsetting hotelier Ian Schrager's Hudson Hotel didn't start its life as a temple of cool. The building, erected in 1929, was first the clubhouse and 1,250-room residence of the American Woman's Association, and more recently was a single-room-occupancy hotel for the poor. Tourists, predominantly of the young-European-family variety, pass through Hudson's glowing facade, do-si-do around the vestibule and proceed up a 2001-style escalator to the cavernous lobby—which is a visual riot of preserved architecture and foliage. What Hudson has in common with its modest predecessor is decent prices and capacity. From January through May, reservations can usually be made as little as three weeks ahead of schedule; the hotel is consistently booked through summer, requiring more advance notice.
Hit the Snooze Button
First-time visitors to New York may not be used to medical offices' and other practices' tradition of hiding inside anonymous residential buildings. If you belong to that category of tourist, then give yourself a few extra minutes to find Faina European Day Spa. It's only steps from Hudson's front door, but is inconspicuously perched on the fourth floor of an apartment building. Its anonymous setting should be no deterrent. In fact, guys not yet comfy with getting a pedicure in a storefront may prefer it: Faina is the only Hell's Kitchen day spa that advertises services for men—from hair removal to a deep-tissue body massage that includes surprising touches, like an emphasis on the usually neglected knees and forearms. A veritable menu of female-friendly treatments includes a grape peel pedicure, pineapple papaya exfoliating treatment and peppermint, chocolate raspberry and any number of other sweet body scrubs.
If the Hudson Cafeteria's thick slices of toast and lavish buffet are too generously scaled for your appetite, consider heading to Hell's Kitchen South to sip the java at the Cupcake Café, near the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This cozy outpost is labyrinthine, offering up any number of places to hide with a newspaper and a steaming cup. The twists and turns of this den also are lined with signature cupcakes gathered in vitrines—their Technicolor flowers made from buttercream icing look like so many denizens of a Dutch greenhouse.
In some ways, Hell's Kitchen is a northern extension of Chelsea, the next-door neighborhood better known for its vibrant LGBT population and art galleries. But a concrescence of art spaces hugs Tenth Avenue in the upper 30s. Notable among them is Exit Art, a 25-year-old cultural center founded by Jeanette Ingberman and Papo Colo that arrived in the neighborhood in 2002. With the new space the gallery has focused on contemporary social issues, conceiving new shows based on current events and partly commissioning artworks from ideas submitted via the Internet.
Want to indulge in a Mario Batali experience, but can't get reservations at Babbo or Del Posto? You'll have better luck snagging a lunchtime table in one of the pleasant, margarine-colored dining rooms at Esca. Batali is a partner here, and he doesn't steal the thunder of chef David Pasternack, whose excellent dishes focus on seafood through a southern Italian lens. Pasternack's most beloved revelation is crudo, an inspired cross between sashimi and seviche, but he serves up chicken and lamb dishes with equal invention. The wine selection is more tome than mere list, but the house sommelier—a husky version of Alton Brown who introduces himself as Bert—eloquently guides visitors through both food and drink.
While Hell's Kitchen shoppers can find pocket-size souvenirs as they stroll near Times Square, Delphinium Home's accessories and gifts offer a sophisticated alternative. Founded in 1999 by three former musical theater performers living in the neighborhood, its inventory is devoted to finishing touches—utilitarian but witty shower curtains patterned with the likes of fish or subway maps, men's hygiene kits, books, scented candles, Jonathan Adler ceramics—that you should arm yourself with after accepting an invitation to a local dinner party, or before heading home.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the outdoor Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, on West 39th Street between Ninth Avenue and Tenth Avenue, is home to vendors of vintage fashion and furniture who used to sell their wares at the Annex in Chelsea's more famous flea market on West 25th Street. The Chelsea market is smaller than it once was, but it's still around—and for a dollar, you can ride a shuttle from one to the other and see the full scope of the weekend treasure hunt.
At night, Hell's Kitchen transforms into a virtual LGBT community campus, as friends stroll (or drink) their way from gay-friendly Therapy to Vlada Lounge to Posh to Barrage to The Ritz Bar and Lounge and back again. Each establishment sets a different standard of excellence: Therapy for sleek decor and clever menu nomenclature, Vlada for creative vodka infusions, Posh for sheer familiar comfort. Nested inside a white townhouse, Posh announces itself with an emerald awning. Its exterior is as modest as a pizza parlor; cross the threshold and you'll find the service friendly, the clientele mixed between locals and tourists, gay and straight, and the overall vibe rather unassuming to match.
A rule of thumb for dinner in Hell's Kitchen: the farther west you trek, the less likely you'll vie for a table with theater crowds. At Hallo Berlin, on Tenth Avenue, you'll quickly take a place at an indoor picnic table. Indeed, the joint is modeled after a traditional German biergarten, so there's a concept behind the cheap furniture and outdoor seating. As for the eats, the wursts are exuberantly packed with sauerkraut and cooked red cabbage, and herring and other traditional fish dishes are on the menu. To top it off, the beer selection aptly includes pilsners and wheat varieties.
From Cupcake Café to the local Pinkberry, Hell's Kitchen clearly is well equipped to sate your sweet tooth. Kyotofu also offers desserts with an Asian interpretation—and not just green-tea ice cream, as the flavors here change every week (although green tea–flavored sweets are available, too). Sophisticated twists include lychee pudding, yuzu marmalade and sansho pepper shortcake, and it's a joy to eat in designer Hiromi Tsuruta's subtle interior of poetic monochrome and concealed lighting.
Follow the beats of salsa and merengue rolling down 39th Street to Escuelita, an institution of Manhattan's LGBT nightlife that serves up an intoxicating mix of Latino and urban music—not to mention an endearing cast of characters. Resident drag queens and go-go boys are the muses of aspiring choreographers, and for the regular patrons, they make delightful dance partners, too. Armchair anthropologists who come to observe the wildlife will appreciate the bawdy late-late comedy shows and monthly drag contest.