Must-See Hell's Kitchen

David Sokol

(Updated 12/29/2015)

Well before it was known as Hell's Kitchen, everything was coming up roses along the Hudson River in Midtown Manhattan: Dutch colonists called this westernmost part of the island Bloemendael, for its floral meadows. By the mid-19th century, the neighborhood had rightfully earned the appellation by which it is known today. After the Civil War, children of local longshoremen and slaughterhouse workers formed posses that fiercely roamed from tenement to tenement—one of which was so dangerous that in 1881 The New York Times dubbed the building Hell's Kitchen, in the moniker's first-ever printing. Violence continued for another century, whether at the hands of the gangs who inspired West Side Story or Irish mobsters through the 1980s.

In the few short decades since then, dramatic transformation has shed Hell's Kitchen of its intimidating reputation, yet vestiges of deep and recent history remain. The $20 billion Hudson Yards complex currently under construction at the neighborhood's southern tip features the third and final phase of the High Line, for example; the elevated park was originally a railroad corridor servicing docks and meatpacking facilities. The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which millions of users regard as an event destination or feat of architecture, was first proposed in 1962 to remedy long-standing urban delinquency and finally completed in 1986. Today these landmarks are two roses of a different kind, as Hell's Kitchen is again blooming, this time with gastronomy, culture and fun. Here are some highlights of the figurative garden.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Photo: Gert Krautbauer

Many visitors happen on to Hell's Kitchen pre- or post-theater, because the neighborhood is immediately adjacent to Broadway. The Theatre District spirit thrives within Hell's Kitchen, too, thanks to countless Off-Broadway venues where experimental drama and future blockbusters thrill audiences. A consistently bright star in this constellation is Ars Nova, whose programming more than makes up for a less central location. The not-for-profit was founded in 2002 to nurture emerging voices in comedy, music and theater, and the shows featured on its intimate stage regularly garner praise.

Just as Ars Nova runs the gamut of performing arts, so does Hell's Kitchen. After drama, dance is a neighborhood specialty, thanks in part to the presence of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Joan Weill Center for Dance. Alvin Ailey founded the company in 1958 to celebrate African-American culture and modern dance in America, and it has occupied New York's largest building dedicated to dance since the facility's completion in 2005. That year also marked Mikhail Baryshnikov's launch of the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) on the top three floors of a mid-rise that also houses the Orchestra of St. Luke's DiMenna Center for Classical Music. BAC presents dance, music and other shows in spring and fall seasons in its Jerome Robbins Theater and Howard Gilman Performance Space, and it supports artists in residence year-round.

Amy's Bread. Photo: Will Steacy

Hell's Kitchen delights travelers and attends to thousands of permanent residents simultaneously. This diversity is reflected in its menu, with Restaurant Row institutions and trending restaurants standing cheek by jowl with spice markets and butchers. Both locals and visitors converge in the neighborhood's bakeries, because who doesn't benefit from a good cup of daybreak coffee?

Indeed, morning is the best time of day to queue up outside Amy's Bread, because the carrot cake and other justifiably legendary pastries from this organic haven sell out quickly; sandwiches and assorted savories are available for afternoon snackers. For a different taste of fame, try Donna Bell's Bake Shop, NCIS star Pauley Perrette's homage to her Southern upbringing. Neighborhood veteran Cupcake Café, near the Port Authority Bus Terminal, is a labyrinthine space 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.

Hell's Kitchen Flea Market. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Since absorbing the vendors from Alan Boss' famous Annex Antiques Fair & Flea Market in 2006, the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market —founded three years earlier—has regularly boasted more than 100 stalls whose offerings range from vintage clothing to mid-century housewares and contemporary crafts. (Another historic footnote: The weekend market marks the stretch of West 39th Street where, in 1881, gang hostility officially secured the neighborhood's nickname.) For guys who prefer shopping a curated collection over sifting for treasure, Fine and Dandy is a fine alternative: Matt Fox and Enrique Crame III have assembled handkerchiefs, bow ties, cuff links and many more men's accessories that are a little Wes Anderson, a little Paul Stuart and almost entirely made in America. Most of the gifts and housewares at Domus have had their passports stamped, as owners Luisa Cerutti and Nicki Lindheimer often source their products from craftspeople based in the farthest corners of the globe.

Courtesy, Toloache

No trip to New York would be complete without one dining experience that treats all the senses. In Hell's Kitchen, Esca is the foremost home of such artistry. At this Mario Batali restaurant, chef David Pasternack is the real star. Pasternack's southern Italian interpretations of seafood—some of which he catches from his Long Island home—are stunning in freshness and revelatory in preparation. Rivaling Esca, Toloache serves authentic yet surprising Mexican dishes in a Paris bistro environment, and chef and owner Julian Medina handles small plates like guacamole and ceviche with particular deftness. Table service at both restaurants is warm, didactic and altogether impeccable.

Hell's Kitchen kitchens lean toward the upper end of the price spectrum, perhaps due to their proximity to the Theatre District. But cheap eats are waiting in the wings, and some of them deserve rave reviews. The stylish food hall Gotham West Market holds 10 culinary purveyors doing indulgent sandwiches, tapas, ramen and a whole lot more. Noodles can also be found at Totto Ramen, which serves up generously garnished bowls that sate big appetites, accommodate small wallets and pass every test for efficiency. Another sublime staple comes from Don Antonio by Starita, whose well-proportioned Neapolitan creations put others' pizza to shame. Try the highly regarded Montanara Genovese, which features lightly fried dough and beautifully composed fillings. Gazala's Place serves up traditional Druze fare; fans flock there for its delicious fattoush salad, za'atar and cheese pie, and potato and meat "cigars."

The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Going aboard the Intrepid is a must-do, ranking alongside an elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building in terms of singular NYC experiences. The 1943 aircraft carrier has hosted the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum since 1982, after doing tours of duty in World War II and Vietnam. Besides teaching about the vessel itself, a tour through the museum includes stops at aircraft and exhibits that narrate wartime history and the heroic service performed by military and civilians. If you want to make like the Intrepid and float in the Hudson River yourself, then head to Pier 96, where swimming is permitted, albeit only as part of events organized by the Manhattan Island Foundation; in other words, schedule carefully.

Landlubbers can enjoy the coastal scenery at Hudson River Park. This miles-long stretch of Manhattan waterfront contains spectacles for every onlooker, from the naturalist to the skyline lover. The establishment of the park in 1998 also played a key role in the transformation of Hell's Kitchen from den of iniquity into hub of activity. Consider exploring the park via the NYC Greenway bike path, first by renting a two-wheeler at Bike and Roll at Pier 84. This is a great way to explore Hell's Kitchen overall, because the neighborhood boasts multiple bike lanes, as well as places to park and stretch. One rest stop is De Witt Clinton Park, whose six acres include children's play space, dog runs, Maria's Perennial Garden and sports fields—where pickup games of basketball or handball might prevent you from resting much at all.

Library Bar. Courtesy, Morgans Hotel Group

Hell's Kitchen's sizable gay population has shaped the nightlife scene rather dramatically: With more than a dozen LGBTQ+ bars now in the hood, an epic boys-only pub crawl is easy to do. Gay bars of long standing have usually catered to older clientele or young professionals, with the twain rarely meeting. Recent additions like Atlas Social Club and Flaming Saddles Saloon are breaking open the scene. To be sure, Atlas fancies its crowd muscled and mustachioed, and Flaming Saddles appeals to cowboys and the men who admire them. Yet conducting a quick census inside their doors will reveal a demographic much more mixed than decor or soundtracks would indicate.

Note to the other 90%: Hell's Kitchen hasn't neglected you. Beer lovers should head, er, straight to The Pony Bar. This microbrewery emporium features a staggeringly large rotation of craft brews available for sampling and swigging, as well as ciders and gastropub dishes for the non-enthusiast. For a broader selection—of cocktails, guests or forms of entertainment—Library Bar at Hudson New York invites customers to thumb through its books or play a game of billiards while sipping a potion. The hotel encompasses multiple spots for drinking and dining, so you may want to choose your perch according to season. The Library's roaring fireplace makes it the go-to in winter, for example.

Copacabana. Photo: Oleg March

Twilight means it's time to raise some hell. LGBTQ+ partyers can dance till dawn at BPM at The Out NYC, a relaunch of XL Nightclub that Susan Buckley and Stuart Black spearheaded in early 2014. For nightcrawlers of a more subdued sort, check out the salsa and merengue beats at the Times Square venue where the Copacabana lives on. And the piano bar Don't Tell Mama is a longtime Restaurant Row fixture where anybody can take the mic, and show tunes prevail.

Photo: Thomas Mueller. Courtesy, Sean Kelly Gallery

Fine Arts
Art makes sense of change, and the galleries of Hell's Kitchen feature work that speaks to tectonic shifts that have happened underfoot and worldwide. The contemporary arts complex Affirmation Arts serves as an exhibition venue for myriad individual and institutional partners. Meanwhile, Sean Kelly Gallery operates according to a more traditional gallery model: Its artist roster includes luminaries Marina Abramović, Antony Gormley, Terence Koh and Kehinde Wiley, whose high-concept and otherwise provocative output demand a pilgrimage. So does the gallery itself. The 22,000-square-foot renovation, designed by architect Toshiko Mori, occupies two floors of a 1914 building overlooking the forthcoming Hudson Yards development.

Courtesy, The Drama Book Shop

The Theater World
If you've made it to this point in our slideshow, chances are you're a fan of the stage. After all, were it not for the presence of the Theatre District, Hell's Kitchen may as well be Murray Hill. To feel like a real industry insider, step behind the curtain and into Hell's Kitchen's vibrant creative community. The Drama Book Shop is the first stop for doing so. The store has worked so diligently to stock esoteric manuscripts, new vocal scores and many other professional reference materials that it won the Tony Honor for Excellence in the Theatre in 2011, on its 94th birthday.

Just as you will potentially find yourself browsing the shelves of the Drama Book Shop alongside emerging actors and playwrights, a trip to LaDuca Shoes may produce a glimpse of a celebrity fitting. Numerous Broadway hoofers swear by Phil LaDuca's Italian-made character and custom shoes, for their glove-like fit and comfort. Although the former dancer and his clientele definitely warrant rubbernecking, his lay collection of women's shoes provides legitimate reason to enter the shop. The same goes for the makeup resource Alcone, where the trade accouterments include prosthetics and fake blood. You may not require such specialties, but bargain products like fake eyelashes and makeup remover will get you through the door, and tips from the sales associates will have you feeling like a pro. Of course, don't get so involved that you forget to attend the theater itself! You can buy those tickets here.