Hell’s Kitchen is actually heaven’s boudoir for gays these days. The queer ratio is so high there that if the person to the left of you is straight and the person to the right of you is, too, then you’re definitely gay.
Way back in the mid 2000s, I was nudging everyone that the gay energy was migrating north, as Chelsea became a little too fancy, expensive, and hetero for the younger gays. Hell’s Kitchen beckoned with its relatively cheap walk-ups, Thai noodle restaurants, and growing lounge-based nightlife. What’s more, it seemed relatively unvarnished—an off-limits work in progress whose malleability was extremely appealing to gays who like to be part of an urban aesthetics project.
Jump ahead, and HK is now the NYC neighborhood with the most gay bars—13, as opposed to seven in Chelsea—providing a constant parade of boîtes luring thirsty people in with drink specials and drag shows. It’s also the nabe with the most gays trolling the streets while staring at their cell phones. According to the latest Musto Institute findings, Grindr is king in HK, and the rate of twink hookups there is continually increasing to match the rise in liquor stores. HK is gayer than ever!
Not everyone is thrilled about these developments, mind you. One bitter twentysomething just moaned to me: “With HK, gays picked the ugliest place in town. It’s beyond a fixer-upper! And on Grindr, the HK gays always seem to look for ‘undetectable’ partners. Not even negative, just undetectable’!” Hmm, maybe they should pair up for Natalie Cole–style duets of “Undetectable, that’s what you are . . .” One wonders if climbing all those stairs to their love matches makes some guys forget that safe sex is the key, regardless of status.
Still, it’s hard to be all that sour about the HK bars, since they manage to come in almost all shapes and wall colors. Vlada and Therapy are the old standbys, despite their architectural weirdness. (More stairways!) In addition to being the capital of argyle, Therapy houses Codependent Tuesdays starring the brassy and affecting singer Natalie Joy Johnson, one of the few people who can make “He Touched Me” her own creation. Barrage and Posh are the slightly more intimate and offbeat rec-room-type bars, the latter place’s pageants allowing not-ready-for-prime-time drag queens like LeeLee Heavenly and Penny Lou Chrysler to work the tiny stage with tireless panache. They touched me.
And the newer spots are sleek, to match the growing need for better production values. Industry (from the Barracuda/Elmo crew) packs ’em into a pastel-colored space that hosts Broadway-style revues and lip-synch face-offs. And Hardware Bar—the slick, two-month-old hangout courtesy of the Village’s Pieces—proves gay guys will even go to Tenth Avenue for a good time. On Saturday nights, the place is wall-to-wall, and I swear the customers get better looking as you keep walking farther inside—a way more rewarding exercise than anything at the gym. (Keep walking! It pays off!) What’s more, the patrons don’t even sneak in any dance moves, having been programmed out of thinking such thoughts in no-dance NYC. These youngish professionals are so well trained that they stand perfectly still as they schmooze, and while the resulting ambience seems pretty vanilla, did I mention how cute they are?
As DJ Scotty Rox spun diva worship there two weekends ago, a bearded guy at the bar moaned to me, “Chelsea got too expensive!” He later admitted that he still lives there anyway, having nabbed a rent-stabilized studio years ago. So while Chelsea still has plenty of gays, a lot of them are older, craftier, and non-claustrophobic, and they party in HK!
But my two favorite HK spots are the ones that are so wrong they’re right up my alley. Flaming Saddles is a brightly lit country-western bar that attracts a surprising crowd of flamboyantly gay wannabe cowboys and cowpokes. The screens there seem to show The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on continual repeat (with Dom DeLuise and Jim Nabors in prominent roles, it’s gayer than a sheriff in a gingham dress), and at odd moments, three short, frisky dancers perform a hoedown on top of the bar—uniquely amusing, even if it tends to interrupt drink service.
Also completely out there is the 9th Avenue Saloon, a wildly unpretentious dive where you never know what you’re going to get, whether it be pre-Stonewall types, after-theater queens, or vivid combinations of both groups, all looking appropriately angsty.
There’s also Bar-Tini Ultra Lounge, the Ritz, FairyTail Lounge, Boxers, and two places—the fiesta-fabulous Escuelita, and the glitzy complex xl—where you are allowed to dance, and not just on the bar. But be aware that xl constantly fine-tunes its weekly schedule; they recently moved the Hot Mess drag show from Wednesday to Friday, and then, I hear, the poor drag queens got hit with a pay cut. But they keep on shining like diamonds.
Alas, lesbians don’t have an HK home at all, though in Soho, a cozy new two-level restaurant/bar called the Dalloway has fused the literary and the sexy while making a big splash with sapphic sisters sporting specs and sass.
And the most radioactive gay bash of all is DJ/promoter Frankie Sharp‘s Westgay, Tuesdays down at an old strip joint on Clarkson Street, though it’s less Virginia Woolf than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Hipsters, transsexuals, club kids, Cocky Boys, and Kirsten Dunst commingle in a fabulously naughty ballroom where there’s little ball room. But wait, I’ve strayed from HK, and that’s not allowed, even for a non-twink. Time to start climbing again.