Yes, “Hell’s Kitchen.”
The area in Manhattan from 34th Street to 59th Street and west of Eighth Avenue, goes by many names: Midtown, Midtown West, West Side, the Theater District, and Hell’s Kitchen. It is not, however, known by its official name, “Clinton,” no matter how many times New York City officials write it on maps. Most New Yorker’s prefer the grittier moniker, Hell’s Kitchen, which harkens back to the neighborhood’s rougher days of rivaling gangs (West Side Story) and drug dealing pimps (Taxi Driver).
Though the neighborhood has been spiffed up for nearly two decades, mercifully there are still a few harmless hobos and a cadre of screaming hookers ripping out each others’ weaves in front of Port Authority. And that’s the good part. The worse things, however, to happen to the neighborhood are the booming sports bars that appear ripped from a South Carolina strip mall. And the people who frequent those watering holes actually call it Clinton – that is when they’re not getting sick and holding on to a lamppost outside their rented white Hummer limousines.
The places below off a respite in dignified surroundings from the weekend party-goers — but hopefully there’ll still be an errant lunatic left from the old days to keep you entertained.
1. Joe Allen Restaurant
There is no better place for a burger and a bottle of Champagne in all of Manhattan. Joe Allen is a New York institution that has been one of the theater world’s most-loved haunts since 1965.
With a friendly staff serving hearty fare, Joe Allen is a homey place that couldn’t get it wrong if it tried. Diners fresh from a Broadway premiere in black tie sit next to locals in jeans at the bar tipping back a pint and reading house copies of the local newspapers.
Pre-theater reservations should be booked in advance, however the 8:00 time slot (nearly impossible in some of the city’s trendier restaurants) can generally be had with shorter notice. And when the curtains rise on Broadway, famous faces slip in unnoticed for the perfect plate of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and the chocolate pudding cake with vanilla ice cream.
If most of the Broadway posters, which line the brick walls don’t look familiar to you, there’s a good reason: they’re all flops. Yes, even the ones that featured such stars as Bette Davis and Angela Lansbury couldn’t turn some of those theatrical sows’ ears into silk purses. (346 West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues – JoeAllenRestaurant.com)
2.Casellula Cheese and Wine Café
Brian Keyser’s casual, yet chic, hangout features upwards of forty cheeses from around the world but what makes them even more special are the fromager’s inventive pairings: from a firm slice of raw cow’s milk cheese plated with a quenelle of spicy brown ale mustard, to a pungent raw sheep’s milk blue cheese next to a square of caramel fudge. To the uninitiated it may sound like gastronomic whimsy, yet the combinations are created to complement and contrast; not an attempt at merely being esoteric (a ploy that many chefs attempt but end up creating the inedible).
Casellula’s friendly vibe is infectious; employees greet regulars with kisses and hugs and handshakes. At the bar, regulars are introduced to other regulars, lending the cheese and wine café the feel of a neighborhood canteen.
Chef Megan Johnson and pastry chef Leigh Friend’s menu selections change with the seasons but expect to hear someone grump that their favorite dish is gone only to exclaim with joy that their beloved goose breast Reuben sandwich with horseradish aioli is finally back. Dessert offerings change often but our favorites are the seasonal pumpkin cheesecake with maple cardamom ice cream, and the always-on-offer chocolate goat cheese truffles.
There are many temples to cheese in the city, but none can compare in terms of selection, atmosphere, and genuine warmth. (402 West 52nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues – Casellula.com)
3. Uncle Vanya Café
If the hilarious misspellings on the menu, walls lined with Muscovite tchotchkes, and the sounds of patrons hollering in Russian doesn’t convince you that this place is authentic, the cuisine certainly will. This tiny hole in the wall has been packing in locals and Russian ex-pats for over eighteen years and it’s still going strong.
While Firebird and The Russian Tea Room represent would-be tsarists’ gustatory aspirations; Uncle Vanya’s Café serves what the proletariat really wants: delicious peasant food in an unpretentious setting.
Lunches, especially, cannot be beat. For fewer than ten dollars you can tuck into a warm bowl of borscht followed by a steaming plate of pelmeni (boiled spiced meat-filled dumplings, topped with sour cream and fresh dill). The restaurant also allows diners who are ordering full meals at night to bring their own bottles of vodka. Later in the evening after those liters of “little water” take effect, you’re nearly guaranteed a few rounds of old Russian folk songs and a table-banging good time. This place is the real deal. (315 West 54th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues – UncleVanyaCafe.net )
4. Tout Va Bien
This is the type of eatery you expect to find in Parisian working class neighborhoods where men in government-issued jumpsuits watch sports at the bar, while scarf-swathed, perfectly coiffed mothers tend their toe-headed brood, and elderly couples settle in at their regular table eating the same dishes they’ve enjoyed for decades.
This charmingly battered bistro, which opened in 1948, serves well-priced traditional French fare voilà’d to your table by smiling Franglais-speaking servers. There’s nothing new or exciting about the menu and that’s exactly how it should be: boeuf Bourguignon, coq au vin, and an always-perfect crème brûlée are always featured.
What Tout Va Bien lacks in aesthetics when it comes to decorating for every holiday and event, it certainly makes up for in enthusiasm. The crepe paper streamers and ever-changing wall of photos give the restaurant that lived-in warmth that can only come from a well-run (three-generation) family-owned business.
And when the manager brought over a complimentary glass of dessert wine at the end of our meal — on our first visit — we already felt like a member of the family. (311 West 51st Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues — LeToutVaBien,com)
5. Library Bar at the Hudson Hotel
The Library bar is a stunningly elegant, yet comfortable, boîte in one of the Morgan properties more relaxed hotels. Book-lined rooms with leather sofas lit by an enormous fireplace give the place a clubby posh aura.
Its upscale yet comfortable atmosphere blends a crowd of still-suited Wall Streeters and hipsters looking at them with haughty disdain. It’s cozy enough for a first date and large enough for a small group after work.
This is the perfect place to go for a drink or two when you’re already dressed up to go somewhere else. Be advised that bottle service is offered, which can morph any decent place quickly into an annoying place with screaming indecent revelers. We advise visiting early on weekdays before slagtime settles in. (356 West 58th Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues – HudsonHotel.com)