It’s hell for Simon Gage in New York’s hottest new gaybourhood – but in a good way, you understand….
It’s Thursday night in a “whatever” kind of bar over on the west side of Manhattan, somewhere around the middle. The music is, bizarrely, country-tinged; the crowd slightly older maybe but with young guys around, and there are cowboy films playing on the screen where, by rights, Britney Spears videos should be. It seems friendly. You know, nice. Then, without any warning, the barmen – hot, actually – jump up on the bar and start in on a line-dancing routine that wouldn’t look out of place in the movie Coyote Ugly.
It is hilarious and exciting and sexy and it’s probably the reason this really rather blah joint was voted Best Gay Bar by New York Magazine a couple of years ago. But then everyone’s in love with the Hell’s Kitchen scene now anyway, aren’t they? And there’s a lot to be in love with.
Since the bottoms dropped out of Chelsea – and many of the tops! – New York has been on the lookout for a new gaybourhood. And how could it not be Hell’s Kitchen? Not only is it Chelsea-adjacent – some even call it Hellsea – running along the West Side to the north of that formerly gay hot-spot (OK, so Chelsea is still quite gay but it’s not the place anymore) but it is also the traditional home of the actors and dancers of the Times Square and 42nd Street theatres.
How gay do you want it?
Add to that the name – Hell’s Kitchen – which makes it seem scary and dark and sexy, and you have a new hot gay neighbourhood. Well, it may be dark and sexy but its scary days are well over. Apart from the Saturday flea market. Some of the stuff in there is still quite scary.
And while that stretch of 8th Avenue will always be porny in a nasty, grubby sort of way, step off it to the west (the east will take you, as Sister Sledge put it in He’s the Greatest Dancer, to a world of “out of towners touring”) and you are likely to fall into a gay bar. And fall back out of it later.
That gay bar might be Industry, a massive place with a stage and fancy cocktails and sofas, which is run by the people behind Chelsea’s Barracuda or it might be Atlas Social Club – or ASC – with its vintage boxer wallpaper, its vaguely downtown vibe and its occasional sightings of Anderson Cooper, whose boyfriend Benjamin Maisani co-owns it (the ASC is actually a bit of an Anderson Cooper joke).
But there is no shortage: Hardware for after work, Fairytale if you’re not averse to a bit of campery, 9th Avenue Saloon for a bit of classic Hell’s Kitchen with an older crowd, Barrage with its quirky if home-made-looking interior touches… And many of the area’s restaurants are just this far from being fully-fledged gay bars themselves, especially KTCHN, which has a full drag brunch on a Sunday and 44 and a Half, where the waiters wear pink shirts with slutty slogans.
But it was not always a rinky dinky little gay hotspot (not that it’s that rinky, or dinky: more down-home but fun. Not edgy like Shoreditch but on its way). No, back in the 19th century when it was earning its name (no one is quite sure of the provenance by the way: it could be named after a particularly rough bar or for the smoke that could be seen coming off the entire area from New Jersey), it was an Irish/ German neighbourhood of ill repute; a sanctuary for thieves where visitors were met with a shower of rocks lobbed from the rooftops.
Variously called Clinton or Mid-Town West, to get away from that less than enticing name, it runs from 34th Street (which is where the Empire State Building is, only further to the east, just to help you get your bearings) up to 59th, so you could stay at the Hudson Hotel on 58th and still be in the hood. Well, almost: it’s just the wrong side of 8th Avenue, which is the eastern border. For the full experience, check in at The Out on 42nd Street – yes, that 42nd Street – between 10th and 11th Avenues. The Out is a new gay hotel, which is clean and modern and funky with exhibitions and a dinky little courtyard.
Gay areas are funny old things. You go there expecting the 100% gay experience, a sort of gay Disneyland where everything is gay and the police wear hot-pants and the air smells of Terre by Hermes. But it’s never like that. Hell’s Kitchen isn’t like that.
It’s a regular area of Manhattan, with real shops run by real people and little cafés that are never going to turn up in New York Magazine. But it’s a spot where go-go boys can make a living and bartenders dance on the bar in cowboy boots.
And how often can you say that about a place?
44 and a Half
626 10th Avenue
9th Avenue Saloon
656 9th Avenue
Atlas Social Club
753 9th Avenue
275 West 22nd Street
401 West 47th Street
500 West 48th Street
697 10th Avenue
355 West 52nd Street
508 West 42nd Street
510 West 42nd Street
Tourist info: nycgo.com
Gay info: nycgo.com/gay