13 Apr THE MAPPETITE MILE: CHELSEA'S 8TH AVE. STRIP
Was a time if you were gay or having a gay retail moment you’d make Chelsea a destination. From the main drag that runs from 14th to 23rd street, the onetime working class Latino-leaning strip became the “Great Gay Way” in the 1980s and 1990s. No metrosexual or heterosexual moments here: bars, restaurants and retail, from clothing and gifts to personal accoutrements, were all homo-minded endeavors.
There’s still a gay edge but with the gentrification of the neighborhood, the nearby High Line park and art gallery scene in western Chelsea, there’s more at play than just the boys.
Many of the old shops have given way to deep-pocketed retailers like Banana Republic and American Apparel. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
The sartorial minded male – homo or hetero – can skip over those ho-hum offerings with a stop at CAMOUFLAGE where fashion takes a well hung and tasteful turn. Same holds at BARNEY’S CO-OP where girls and guys can splurge among the au courant pret-a-porter. There’s nothing special to the slew of worn looking service shops, though it’s easy to have a soft spot for harmed little flower shop SPRUCE. If you think you’re likely to uncover a treasure at the Salvation Army “Family Store”, think again – that special vintage find is more likely to be found at a consignment shop or on Ebay rather than in this dank and depressing repository for unwanted crap.
Not much in the way of home shops but there is LES TOILES DU SOLE with its beautiful fabrics and accessories for that French Catalan decor moment – oui, oui, oui! For the retro-minded stop at AUTHENTIQUES where for a quirky selection of 20th Century bric-a-brac and collectibles. Oh yes, if you need a toy, porn or suggestive card there’s still a handful of sex shops in the mix of 8th Avenue retail.
Wow, is it easy to eat with the slew of restaurants vying for your dining dollars! But, eating well is a different story. For the most part, the themed chow houses that line the avenue are best avoided unless you’ve got a meal to waste.
Skip over MARYANN’S and go to ROCKING HORSE CAFE where guacamole and margaritas are paired to tasty Tex Mex plates. At SEUNOS the food may be a bit more polished but it’s starting to show its age and that internal dining room is too darn claustrophobic. The neighborhoods Latino luncheonettes, LA TAZO DE ORO (no website) and CAFE HAVANA, are worthy throw backs for their counter charms and filling eats but this is not your stop for the sustainable and organic. Paella lovers are in luck with the top notch cocina Espana at the crowd pleaser that is SOCARRAT PAELLA BAR. Seems that even in this South of the Border pack of restaurants there’s room for another player for cantina Mexicana in addition to the safe for the dinero eats at the ever-expanding CHIPOTLE.
Pass on the mediocre pizzerias on the avenue and go for the thin crusted pies from DONATELLA, even if that gilded coal oven is bit too glitzy. For the real deal in a satisfying localvore minded dine there’s the recently minted FORAGER’S CITY GROCER where you’ll eat well with takeaway provisions and prepared meals and, FORAGER’S CITY TABLE, a sit down dine tethered to the lobby of THE GEM HOTEL. Even with so many choices it’s hard to find a compelling Asian eats moment so we’re likely to end up at SPICE, where Thai takes a satisfying if predictable turn. Play it safe with a smear of cream cheese on your selection at MURRAY’S BAGELS and there’s also the eco-minded burgers and fries at BAREBURGER (too bad they couldn’t come up with a better name!). And, while we didn’t forget the fowl and porcine budget environs of DALLAS BBQ, we think that you should.
We want to like the neighborhood’s “establishment” restaurants TELLO and TROIS CANARD but there’s a faux-ness to these joints and a disconnect with their uninspiring and formula menus. Even if its a bit fusty we’ll make do with the comfort French fare from GASCOGNE (gosh, do they need to lose those worn pillows in the window!) and we’re happy to partake in the satisfying Italian plates and enduring bistro style of COLA’S. There might be a destination in the works with the planned opening of POUNDS & OUNCES at the former VICEROY space – it was a smartly styled brasserie so at least it has good bones to work with.
All this savory, what about the sweet? At EMPIRE CAKE (formerly known as LULU CAKE BOUTIQUE) you’re in for good nostalgia-minded Americana bakes – think haute Yodels
and Twinkies – legions above the offerings at all those sub par cupcakeries. There’s also the bakes counter at FORAGERS CITY GROCER, where a cherry-picked selection of the city’s best baked offerings are yours for the taking. Too bad the newly minted KOFFEKAKE CORNER tries to be a please-all baker with too much selection and too little focus on good cake. And, about that coffee – it’s THINK COFFEE just below 14th Street and CAFE GRUMPY east of 8th Avenue where you’ll get an exceptional cup of joe.
Even with the upsurge in affluence, 8th Avenue can’t shake its dingy feel.
The former banks than once anchored 14th street still offer up their grand Neoclassic facades with the interior of one, the CVS pharmacy, beautifully restored: forget the sundries and have a gander at the grandeur – this was truly once a temple of commerce. But for the JOYCE THEATER and it Art Deco appeal, there’s little else as far as architectural wonderment goes. For enhanced sensory engagement you’ll have to head west, away from 8th Avenue to the old NABISCO factory that is now the huge food hall CHELSEA MARKET, to the elevated park of the THE HIGH LINE and, then to the former warehouses and garages that form the core of the art gallery District. Oh yes, did you venture by the CHELSEA HOTEL? Its days of super coolness have long faded – no Janis Joplin types roaming the soon to be condo halls – but the ghosts manage to linger on at this Chelsea institution.