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Hell's Kitchen—that 'hood so evocative of fire and brimstone, exotic porn, and the best ethnic eateries outside of Queens—is also an overlooked purveyor of spirits, and not just the wretched-wino variety. You've got your infamous dives like the venerable RUDY'S (627 Ninth Avenue, 974-9169) and, apropos of the new, more fashionable moniker "Chelsea Heights," a current crop of boy bars that includes yearling BARRAGE(401 West 47th Street, 586-9390). If you're into neither variety, however, you're mostly stuck with bland lounges like out-of-Africa ZANZIBAR (645 Ninth Avenue, 957-9197), with its overpriced drinks, crappy chicken saté appetizers, and a palm-tree theme that gets tired fast. But don't jump into the abyss just yet: A few sizzling upstarts are looking to turn up the heat.

French diner-bar-café PIGALLE(790 Eighth Avenue, 489-2233), open 24-7, is a welcome addition to such nearby Times Square cultural bastions as the Olive Garden. Located in the Day's Inn a few blocks north of the Port Authority, this tasteful but Disneyfied version of a classic French bistro is a magnet for self-conscious tourists, stylish theatergoers, and live- or work-nearby locals. The people-watching is matched only by an extensive and affordable cocktail menu—house concoctions like the bitter, palate-cleansing Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, club soda) are well priced at $7.50, but a bottle of Veuve Clicky will run you a cool $80. After a couple of strong and wine-y Leffe Brown brews ($5), you'll be staggering to the lobby bathroom of said hotel, where harmless, transient women like to wash up, only adding to the we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore feel.

At much touted MARSEILLE(630 Ninth Avenue, 333-2323), the Leffe Browns cost 100 pennies more ($6), but the crowd is at least 100 percent hipper. A separate entrance leads to the see-and-be-seen bar, which was packed with both gay and straight Danish modern types on a recent Tuesday night. The art deco surroundings take a page from Pigalle, only updated with less garish apricot and terra-cotta tones. And while there are no gimmicky cocktails ("No $22 Marseille-tini," joked the likable bartender), there is a book of cordials to satisfy the master-of-the-universe crowd. Luckily, this netherworld is just as sexy and diverse as its port-city namesake.

When swigging with sassy sailors no longer floats your boat, head for the homier outskirts of Tenth Avenue to affable RUFUS(640 Tenth Avenue, 333-2227). Popular next-door hang XTH AVE LOUNGE(642 Tenth Avenue, 245-9088) hasn't yet kindled its flame, but the dim, retro lounge is making an earnest go of it, attracting a less fashionable ad hoc theater crowd. In another town, this smoky bachelor pad, with its mismatched leather chairs and jazz-age artwork, would probably be home to 50-plus alcoholics, but here it's just a refreshing twist on the usual neo-swing kitsch. A neighborhood bar by location (who ventures to these parts just to throw back a few?), it offers a nightly $2-off-all-drinks happy hour (5 to 8 p.m.), which was generously extended another hour on a recent visit. The specials (cosmopolitan, $6; pint of Stella Artois, $3) were just as old-school as the '80s rock (R.E.M., Love and Rockets, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Frankie Goes to Hollywood) blaring from the speakers. After all, if you're going to hell, you might as well do it on the cheap.

 
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