Travel

A New New York for a New Year

by Robert Israel
Contributor
Wednesday Feb 1, 2012
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The view from the fourteen floor of Ink48 - a former printing plant transformed into sparkling Kimpton hotel in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen - reveals a Lego landscape of interlocking buildings.

At this early hour the nearby midtown office towers are ablaze as the rising sun backlights them. Below, in the cauldron of Times Square, electronic lights pulse across JumboTrons in conflagrations timed to the blinks of one’s eyes.

New York City: crass, brash, assaultive, where teeming masses compete with massive JumboTrons. New York is true north and we are mere iron filings pulled into its magnetic core. This is especially true on the city’s west side, the scene of exciting urban transformations.

I recently checked out two new Kimpton hotels on the West Side, found new restaurants, and witnessed enthusiastic urban revivals.


Hell’s Kitchen: newest gay neighborhood

Hell’s Kitchen (not to be confused with the reality television show) runs from 34th Street to 59th Street between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River. During the 1800s it was the scene of constant battles between rival gangs. A surviving relic from that era is the Landmark Tavern, two blocks from Ink48. Legend has it that a ghost of a Civil War veteran, who reportedly died in a bathtub after being stabbed at the bar downstairs, still haunts the place.

According to Jeffrey Behrens, Ink48’s lead concierge, all is changing. Hell’s Kitchen, he says, is now home to the "newest gay neighborhood in the city."

"Hell’s Kitchen has the largest number of gay bars," Behrens says, "and has quickly grown to be the go-to gay destination in NYC. The neighborhood draws a mixed bag of midtown executives, young theatre gays, and the young professionals that inhabit the neighborhood."

Behrens is one of those young gay professionals from the neighborhood. He went to graduate school at Julliard, sang opera internationally for three years, and joined the staff at the Kimpton last year. He sports a radiant smile almost as bright as a JumboTron, and excels at his job as a man in the know.

"Here’s a short list of the gay bars," he says, and rattles off the names rat-a-tat-tat -- Flaming Saddles, Therapy, Bar Tini, 9th Avenue Saloon, Barrage, Posh, Industry and Vlada -all within walking distance from the hotel.

Ink48 is ideally situated for pub crawling - or for exploring other Manhattan day and night spots. But first you must leave the drab and gray confines of 11th avenue, the site of numerous car showrooms and automotive supply warehouses. Some of the nearby side streets aren’t much cheerier. Be patient: by the time you reach 9th avenue, you are close to the heart of the beast.

It was almost 11 p.m. when I arrived at a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, 5 Napkin Burger (http://5napkinburger.com/hells-kitchen-new-york), on the corner or 45th street and 9th, but the place was abuzz, and there was a long line of folks waiting to be seated. While tasty beef burgers are the main fare, the restaurant cooks up tuna, turkey, lamb and veggie burgers, too. Suspended from the ceiling are shiny meat hooks and intertwined on the hooks are sparkling lights, enhancing the vibrant mood of the dining room. A couple next to me shared a burger that could have fed an army; in between bites, they texted away on hand-held devices. New Yorkers, it seems, are happy to be wired, even while dining.

Another new restaurant I visited was Zio (http://zio-nyc.com/), located nearby in Chelsea. Barely a year old, this spacious Italian restaurant is big on flavor and quality service, there is never a feeling of being hurried, and the food is fresh and innovative. New flavors explode onto the palette. I ordered the chitarra, a blend of clams, pasta, spices and herbs, and I was more than pleased.

Ink48 is the harbinger of change in the area. Stay tuned: within the next couple years, the mood and tempo of the neighborhood will be more upscale, as Hell’s Kitchen continues its remarkable transformation.


West side story: more changes afoot

The Eventi Hotel, also run by Kimpton Hotels, sits on the corner of Sixth Avenue and W. 30th street, just a couple blocks from the Empire State building and the alluring (and lurid) bright lights of Times Square.

Eventi is a warm and inviting property, the rooms look onto the urban landscape of midtown, and like its sister property in Hell’s Kitchen, it sits in a neighborhood going through monumental changes.

If you walk to the property from nearby Pennsylvania Station on 32nd and 7th, and turn down W. 30th street, you will find yourself passing a row of dingy stores circa 1940s devoted to the discount sale of handbags. There has to be twenty of these stores (with an occasional wig shop, fur vault and other odd survivors of a bygone era). It’s the last vestiges of the garment district, a dark area that will soon become reinvented, as the neighborhood is poised for a brighter future.

Eventi is a perfect example of this new spirit. In the plaza behind the hotel that runs the entire block between W. 30th street and W. 29th street, tables and chairs have been set up for an outdoor café, all nestled around -- you guessed it -- a JumboTron.

"In the summertime, people come from all around to watch movies on the giant screen and enjoy the beer garden we’ve set up there," said Courtenay Wendell, the general manager of Bar Basque, a marvelous restaurant that occupies the second floor of the Eventi. "On warm spring and summer nights we serve people at FoodParc downstairs. Many nights you’ll find upwards to 300-400 people gathering outside, enjoying a neighborhood feeling in a place that was never a neighborhood before the hotel arrived."

Bar Basque -- which is designed like an atrium -- runs as a brunch place in the mornings and afternoons and at night serves scrumptious tapas entrees. When the dinner hour has concluded, the place undergoes a further transformation, this time as a nightclub, with dim lights and a sci-fi themed lighting scheme that is both dreamy and enticing.

"We’re bringing a new spirit to this part of the city," Wendell said. "It’s exciting to be part of the changes." The property across from Eventi -- now a hole in the ground -- will be a high-rise condo, bringing more light and traffic to the area.

The rooms at the Eventi, like those in Ink48, are spacious and solidly quiet, an oasis against the noise from the never-sleeping metropolis outside. While the two or three neighboring streets beside the hotel are dark and gloomy at night, a short walk uptown brings you to a brighter section where you can find cluster of stores, street vendors hawking discounted merchandise, and the excitement of Times Square.


Hot ticket: "Anything Goes"

A quintessential experience in New York is to see a live show on Broadway, only a 20 minute walk from either Hell’s Kitchen or Chelsea.

During my stay, I hoofed it to W. 43rd street to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre for one of the hottest shows on Broadway, "Anything Goes," a 1934 hit that was awarded a Tony in 2011 for best revival. It stars veteran performers Joel Grey as Moonface Martin and Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney, with music and lyrics by the incomparable Cole Porter. This razzle-dazzle musical has been extended through April.

Produced by Roundabout Theatre (http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/?gclid=CPD74IKn1a0CFYFx4Aoddy2EnQ), I was spellbound by the cast, the sets and the orchestrations. Sutton Foster, in a role originally designed for Ethel Merman, belts out the tunes and hoofs up a storm. She is radiant, sparkling in her gowns and sequins and tap dancing with abandon, surrounded by a brilliant supporting cast.

And Joel Grey performs the role of Moonface Martin with terrific comedic timing. Even his tics elicit peels of laughter. It was wonderful to hear Cole Porter’s songs - I have always known them as jazz standards, interpreted by Frank Sinatra, Diana Kroll, Anita O’Day and many others - but had not heard them as Porter originally designed them to be heard, sung by talented performers - complete with all the antics - in a stellar Broadway ensemble.

If you want to make your visit to New York truly memorable, bask for a moment in the bright lights of this must-see production.


More to see

There is more to see and do in New York, so I am making plans to return in the spring, to explore more new places to stay and dine, and, as the weather improves, to discover new galleries and nightspots.

I’ll be revisiting Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea again, too, just to see how things are progressing.

Pulling away from the magnetic sway of Manhattan is difficult. You leave exhausted, sinking into your seat on the Amtrak train bound for home, dozing, and finding yourself smiling, eyes closed, as if it had all been one wondrous dream from which you really don’t want to awaken.


Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.

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