Businesses Stake Claim, Amid Rush to Hell’s Kitchen

Photos by Eileen Stukane Posh owner John P. Greco III: Hell’s Kitchen is “the pulse of New York.”
Photos by Eileen Stukane
Posh owner John P. Greco III: Hell’s Kitchen is “the pulse of New York.”

BY EILEEN STUKANE  | “I just love the energy in Hell’s Kitchen. Right now it’s definitely the pulse of New York, and you can quote me,” says John P. Greco III, executive chef and proprietor of Posh, which he opened in 2000 on West 51st Street. Posh was the first gay restaurant/bar to establish itself in a Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood that now holds many sports bars, gay bars and numerous Thai eateries. Greco, who opened Philip Marie restaurant in the West Village in 1998, watched the Village change from a laid-back artistic community into a neighborhood of luxury condos along the river, designer shops on Bleecker Street and skyrocketing rents that triggered a migration of residents (particularly among the Village’s gay community) to Chelsea. As Chelsea became the “in” place to live, he had a sense that the next migration would be to Hell’s Kitchen.

Greco opened Posh, then West 52nd Street’s Bamboo 52 Japanese restaurant and then 1-2-3 Burger Shot Beer ($1 burgers, $2 shots, $3 beers) sports bar (10th Avenue, between West 51st and 52nd Streets). Another Hell’s Kitchen restaurant from Greco, this one on Ninth Avenue between West 50th and 51st Streets, is due to open in January 2014. He was a pioneer in 2000 — but in 2013, he’s one of many who are staking a claim to be part of Hell’s Kitchen’s continuing evolution from gritty, dicey boulevards of prostitute-and-drug trades to police-protected, tourist-filled streets.

Currently in development, the 26-acre Hudson Yards area (West 30th to 34th Streets, 10th Avenue to the West Side Highway) is set to become an entity unto itself. The boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen’s range from about West 34th to West 59th Streets, Eight Avenue west to the Hudson River. The traditionally low-rise Hell’s Kitchen, zoned for six-story (mostly walk-up) residential buildings, had its first stirrings of change in the 1970s when ground was broken for Manhattan Plaza — a Section 8, federally subsidized housing project on West 43rd Street that fills the block between Ninth and 10th Avenues. This 45-story residential building, largely inhabited by those in the performing arts, was the largest structure in Hell’s Kitchen until the 49-story Worldwide Plaza was built on a former Madison Square Garden site in 1989. A three-building, mixed-use commercial/residential complex, Worldwide Plaza took up a full block between West 49th and 50th Streets, from Eighth to Ninth Avenues. This was the start of the re-zoning of Hell’s Kitchen. Today, due to recent construction, Hell’s Kitchen now has 60-story residential towers on its far west end (from 10th Avenue west to the Hudson River) and the rail yards (on about West 34th Street to the mid-West 40s).

The migration from Chelsea to Hell’s Kitchen, what was considered a still-affordable part of Manhattan, has either spawned or coincided with a glass-and-steel residential and hotel building boom. On the street, entrepreneurs are sensing opportunity.

Photos by Eileen Stukane On the endangered list? Nightlife venues are pushing out quirky ethnic restaurants, says tenant organizer Bob Kalin.
Photos by Eileen Stukane
On the endangered list? Nightlife venues are pushing out quirky ethnic restaurants, says tenant organizer Bob Kalin.

With commercial rents rising, the businesses that can meet expenses are more often bars that can pack in the weekend crowds. North of West 42nd Street, sports bars like Mercury or Mickey Spillane’s and bars catering to the gay community (XL Nightclub, BoxersHK, Flaming Saddles, Posh, and the newly opened Atlas Social Club) have established themselves, and appear to be thriving. But for older businesses and longtime residents, the commercial success of recent arrivals comes with a price.

“A lot of quirky ethnic restaurants that existed in this neighborhood for years no longer exist,” says Bob Kalin, tenant organizer for the nonprofit community housing group, Housing Conservation Coordinators. “You’ve got a lot more of the sports bars and franchise restaurants,” says Kalin, who once counted 40 Starbucks in Hell’s Kitchen. The crowds attracted by these new businesses, says Kalin, means that on any given weekend, “Ninth Avenue is more like Columbus and Amsterdam, with a lot of young people going to bars. The old-timers in the neighborhood tend to avoid Ninth Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights.”

The 1989 development of Worldwide Plaza jump-started the rezoning of Hell’s Kitchen. 
The 1989 development of Worldwide Plaza jump-started the rezoning of Hell’s Kitchen.

Kathleen Treat, chair of Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and a resident of Manhattan Plaza, is organizing a neighborhood task force to advocate for adherence to the “500-foot law” that would reduce the number of bars on a street, as she feels that the proliferation of bars north of West 42nd Street has reached a “saturation point.” She acknowledges that change has brought safer streets and a brand new building for PS51 (at 525 West 44th Street). “It was always the school that the city forgot because it was so poor,” she says. On the other hand, change has also brought the rising rents that mom and pop stores cannot afford to pay. She has seen local butchers, fishmongers, a bakery, a hardware store and even a shoe store give way to restaurants and clubs that are more about nightlife than neighborhood.

Greco says that Posh, and other new businesses in Hell’s Kitchen, are “all one community, and working together just makes business a lot better and living there a lot better. I work very closely with the community board, the block association and the police precinct. I go to every single meeting out there, and if not me, one of my team members that I employ. That’s what it takes to be successful in my business and in Hell’s Kitchen right now, respecting the residents.”

Kalin has noticed that in the transformation of the area, more services have appeared. “One very odd thing about Hell’s Kitchen was that there were no banks, no drugstores. But now there they are, on Ninth and 10th Avenues,” he says. Transformed also, is the former H&H Bagel Factory at 639 West 46th Street. Metropolitan Pavilion events space, now in Chelsea, is expanding and leasing the space to have a second venue, Metropolitan West. Where the aroma of fresh bagels once wafted through the walls, glasses will be soon clinking during corporate and other events that will be held in a remodeled 24,000 square feet on two floors and a rooftop.

Alan Boss, founder of Metropolitan Pavilion, explained: “We have so many requests for dates that we can’t accommodate all of our potential clients, and we’ve been looking for space in Chelsea, Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen, all over the city, for a long time.”

A big draw for going far west near the river, he says, is the fact that the Number 7 subway, planned to bring transportation to Hudson Yards with stops along 11th Avenue, will include a stop at West 42nd Street. The new subway line will make the far west side more accessible, a significant development for Hell’s Kitchen.

South of West 42nd Street in Hell’s Kitchen, the changes so far seem less radical. The area appears to be drawing more businesses that have already established themselves in other parts of the city. Snack Taverna, which started as a five-table restaurant in Soho and then opened with 15 tables on the corner of Bedford and Morton Streets in the Village, will soon be opening a 15-table casual Greek dining restaurant on the corner of West 39th Street and Ninth Avenue.

Dennis Chrysanthopoulos, co-owner (with Adam Greene) of Snack Taverna, says, “I have friends who own restaurants a little north of West 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue and we have seen the area change over time. We feel that by going into the neighborhood now, we could grow with it.”

Ann Warren, co-owner (with Michael Warren) of Cupcake Café — in business on Ninth Avenue (between West 40th and 41st Streets) since 1988 — notes that singularity can also bring success. “People who are traveling to another place want to see something that’s unique to the community, unique to the city, and we are unique to both. Hell’s Kitchen suddenly has chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway, but there’s only one of us.”

Transforming and staying the same, sort of — that’s the Hell’s Kitchen of today.