The Gay Capital of the World has a way of re-energizing the soul like nowhere else on earth – and I had clearly forgotten what I [heart] about New York…
By Doug Wallace
What do you call a pub crawl of just one person? I know what some might call it: sad. Me, I’m calling my bar-hopping memory of Hell’s Kitchen alive by labelling it “research.”
Honestly, my first evening in New York does start off with a friend, for a tête-à-tête in the rarified, quiet confines of the Baccarat Hotel across from the MoMA. The Champagne-hued Grand Salon is an ocean of glass and red roses, waiters hoisting trays of cut-crystal cocktails to the beautiful people. I consider it a sign – a gift from the gay gods – that my first celebrity sighting of the trip is Wanda Sykes. Turns out she’s doing a week-long stint as guest host of the nearby Daily Show. My friend and I just smile at how cool-by-association we are, and do the Toronto thing and ignore her completely.
The night is still early when I escort my friend into an Uber, so I carry on with my plan to wander the Ninth Avenue gay bars – they are too numerous to do all in one night, but I can take a really good stab at it. I discover that the Hell’s Kitchen gay bars are fairly pared down, plain-Jane places, smallish with capacities for maybe 150 to 200 and a bit divey, but in a good way. They’re definitely drag queeny – some of them famous, with the stages at Hardware and Industry graced by many who moved on to RuPaul’s Drag Race. The whole strip has a very casual kind of T-shirt-and-jeans vibe. I notice that saying no to single-use plastic is not yet a thing in this part of town.
It’s hotter than Hell
So the story goes, Hell’s Kitchen used to be one of New York’s worst neighbourhoods, filled with vagrants, ne’er-do-wells and prostitutes in the late 1800s. The riots and fighting plaguing the tenements kept the police so busy, a constable is credited with coining the name Hell’s Kitchen, which now covers the district from 34th to 59th streets and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. Nowadays, the neighbourhood is gentrified: awash in luxury condos, pre-theatre restaurants of many international flavours, off-Broadway shows themselves, jazz music venues and many, many LGBTQ bars. It has been gathering momentum as a gaybourhood for the past 25 years or so. Being so close to Times Square, the area also draws in the tourists, which is where I come in.
I balance my posh Baccarat experience with walking straight to Flaming Saddles Saloon, New York’s number-one gay western bar. I make the mistake of ordering a double vodka, before remembering that in America this is equivalent to an eight-ounce tumbler. “Yippy I’m Gay #motherf**ker” says the bartender’s T-shirt, and we are instant friends – until he cuts the chat short. Up he gets onto the bar to reveal legs that go for days, tucked into cowboy boots that have seen a few miles. When John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” comes on, the sound goes up, and the bartenders are all suddenly dancing in unison on the bar, a choreographed knees-up that doesn’t seem to embarrass any of them – except my guy. He’s the best one, too, so I’m guessing he has performed this routine a thousand times over. His jaded days at the bar may be numbered, I feel.
At the corner of West 49th and Ninth Avenue, I spill into Mickey Spillane’s – not named after the crime novelist, but a renowned neighbourhood gangster from the ’60s. Same pared-down look here, but a much younger crowd, most of them on their phone. In fact, I start to rope men into selfies with me specifically because it works to invite them into the present – a selfie is something they understand. Their practised smiles turn on in an instant – a second later, they’re gone, eyes down.
Farther down the road, the 9th Avenue Saloon neon beckons. Though it’s clear that I am running out of steam and it is only a Tuesday night, I order one last beverage and chat with some of the locals. When it’s pumpkin time, my own plastic fails at the Saloon’s cash register, an unexplainable credit-card malfunction. This is another Hell’s Kitchen lesson: cash is king. A gallant gentleman kindly offers to pay for me – but it feels too creepy. Luckily, the bartender cuts me some slack or I’d be washing dishes.
We are spoiled for choice
The next night, I’m back at my “research,” this time with a few pals on 10th Avenue at The Spot. We manage to catch the after-work crowd – and, happily, it’s Happy Hour absolutely every day in this town. The Spot – opened by the owners of the bar Rise, which I didn’t make it to – is a bit more upscale than last night’s 9th Avenue escapades, and newer. Here, we find so many clean-shaven faces and loads of nice teeth. A young man is nursing a cocktail at one of the tall tables, looking a little despondent, so we’re all “why the long face?” Apparently, he’s been stood up, so my buddy steps in to cheer him up before we head out to dinner. It works!
Speaking of which, the cuisine is another feather in the Hell’s Kitchen cap. It’s an international smorgasbord here, with Peruvian and Argentinian eateries, Japanese ramen, lots of Thai street food, Korean barbecue, plus French and Italian down-home goodness.
As for the multitude of bars I did not manage to tick off my list, a few are worth mentioning, given their sheer stamina. The aforementioned Industry is the industrial-chic dance bar, one of the most popular in the city. Rise is great for dancing and drag shows, while the multi-floor/multi-themed The Q is co-owned by gay icon Jake Shears. DBL is short for “dive bar lounge” – short and to the point. And The Dickens pays tribute to the theory that Charles Dickens gave Victorian morality the finger, and included many gay and lesbian characters in his novels.
After dinner, we toy with the idea of going to Boxers HK, the gay sports bar on Ninth, for “buds and suds,” but decide that it’s out of our league. Taxi!
DOUG WALLACE is an international travel and lifestyle writer, photographer and custom-content authority, principal of Wallace Media and editor-publisher of TravelRight.Today. He can be found beside buffet tables, on massage tables and table-hopping around the world.