If "The Death of Chelsea's 8th Avenue" served as a stark reminder of the post-Bloomberg era of New York City, I'm hoping today's photo essay is a joyous time capsule of the gayborhood's funnest days. When I started visiting New York City regularly in the early '90s, I was immediately intoxicated by Chelsea, which had all of the energy, intrigue and excitement Dupont Circle seemed to lack. Whether we went cruising 8th Avenue -- having coffee at the Big Cup, dinner at Food Bar or breakfast at Eighteenth & Eighth, bar-hopping from Splash to Champs and back -- or dancing all night at the Roxy -- I knew I wanted to move here as soon as possible. I'm hoping this retrospective sparks a few memories in some of you, too, and that you'll share your thoughts and photos. Most of this is just off the top of my head -- I'm a little autistic-y, you know -- so corrections and comments are most appreciated. Ready to go back in time? Here we go ...
The corner of 23rd and 8th, where gay Chelsea officially begins, was very un-gay when I arrived in the late '90s in that it boasted a doughnut shop (I believe it was called S.G.S. Donuts, known for the best glazed in town) ...
and a Haagen-Daz, which has since been replaced with a more demographic friendly Vitamin Shoppe. While it was a chain, I have fond memories of going there with my late friend Larry Brickman, who introduced me to dulce de leche there one night. (SGS became Breadstix Cafe before rebranding itself Chelsea Deli & Bakery.)
A door or two down was one of the first Fresco Tortillas in the city, where I'd get very cheap tacos and burritos when I was drunk. A wall was knocked down and a T-Mobile store now occupies both spaces.
Allerton Art & Custom Framing and Jamba Juice both used to be on the block, although the chain wallet juicer isn't exactly missed.
Here's the Venus diner that was an institution in Chelsea forever -- mouse infestations and all. It was eventually gussied up as "The New Venus Restaurant," but even that wasn't good enough. Now it's called The Fork Bar & Grill, perhaps wanting to compete more directly with The Dish just down the way.
UPDATE: I'm told The Fork went out of business over the weekend.
The NE corner of 22nd and 8th was Noodle Corner forever, before Spice inexplicably decided it needed a second location a block from the first.
Before it became the boutique Gem Hotel and the Foragers organic market and wine shop, the SW corner of 22nd and 8th was the Allerton, a single-room-occupancy hotel (read: flophouse). I remember some of its residents would stalk me in the nearby A&P begging me to let them buy my food with their EBT cards in exchange for my cash, which I'm sure they weren't going to spend on drugs or alcohol. (The nearby Starbucks led to THIS memorable incident.)
Along with Uncle Charlie's on Greenwich Avenue (now Fiddlesticks), The Break (between 22nd and 21st) was the funnest bar in the Chelsea. If you got bored, you could always run over to Barracuda and back.
It later became View Bar, but that didn't last. (It's M Thai now.)
Speaking of Barracuda: The adult book store next store (Unicorn) is history. I walked past it recently and it's been completely gutted, with a glam all-glass storefront. (No takers yet, though.)
Across the street in one of the smallest shops in all of Manhattan was Rainbow Roommates. I thought the Internet had rendered it obsolete, but I see it's still in business uptown. The shop later became a locksmith and today is a dry cleaner.
Looking back, the demise of the Big Cup in 2005 was probably the canary in the (gay) coal mine. That a place so vibrant and, along with Splash, so iconic -- screaming GAY NYC! -- could no longer make it in such a gay neighborhood seemed almost impossible to comprehend.
I don't know a gay man of a certain age who wasn't picked up at the Big Cup. Were you?
Its closing was such a big deal, in fact, that The New York Times even wrote about it. The restaurant Eighteenth & 18th would fold that same month.
The infamous Big Cup eventually became a "fair-trade home-decor gift, jewelry and body products shop" called Arcadia that lasted quite awhile, before relocating to a much smaller store on 23rd Street. Today it's an e-commerce venture, and the old Big Cup is a nail salon.
The NW corner of 21st/8th was home to the funnest diner in the area, Bendix. It's where everyone wound up after big events, and you'd always see a familiar face in there, even if you didn't want to. (It's a nail salon now, natch.)
Me, standing in front of the bodega across the street from Bendix, circa 1998.
We all know about the demise of the Rawhide, which I may have helped cause seeing as I was almost always too afraid to set foot in the joint. (I tried a couple times when I first moved there, but that "drape" at the front door was just too much for me!)
Just across on the NE corner of 21st/8th was the Bright Food Shop, a funky diner that put sort of a Southwest spin on comfort favorites. Michael used to see Debbie Harry eating breakfast in the window all the time.
I remember it best as the place where I had my first meeting back in 2006 with my literary agent, who would become a good friend over the years before my book finally came out in 2014.
It later became a Qdoba, which thankfully bombed, and is now Organic Avenue.
The block between 21st and 22nd really epitomized the era for me. It had a great flower shop called Village Florist, the predecessor to Spruce. Next door was a clothing store, fittingly called Tops 'N Bottoms ...
which later became the KITCHEN/MARKET burrito and spices shop associated with Bright Food Shop. Pretty sure the owner of The Dish had something to do with the place, which also had a candy store in it at one time.
In addition to Bright Food and the florist, it's where the wonderful card shop Roger & Dave was.
I frequently lament the demise of mom-and-pop stores, but then have to admit I never really went there. Roger and Dave was not one of those places. I always bought all my cards there ...
and all of my housewarming presents and housewares at the equally cool Eclectic Home next door.
(Does anyone remember where Distinctive Furnishings was?)
Harvest was a great little bakery on the NE corner of 20th/8th. It closed shortly after I moved to New York, then was the seafood place Mare for many years ...
I ate at Mare in the summer of 2001 with my brothers and sister, who were in town to celebrate Jenn's birthday.
before turning into Tello's ...
which was previously around the corner (above) and then going out of business.
When Tello's left its 20th Street location, the reliable Alonso's Steakhouse moved in.
Across 8th between 20th and 21st was the original Chelsea Frames, which has long moved to 9th Avenue. That's where I had the Edward Hopper over my bed framed a million years ago.
I think the framing shop became a GNC, which is now gone. The Murphy Bed Express place moved across the street into the former Pinkberry, while the Walgreens Community Pharmacy and Rainbow Station sex shop have played musical stores on the same block.
There was also a longtime video-TV-audio repair shop -- I-V Electronics Corp. -- at 203 8th Ave. that doubled as a video-rental shop. Michael and I used to go there all the time. They had all the adult titles down in the basement for extra seediness. Here's my friend John's old membership card!
On the SE corner of 20th and 8th was Tazza Restaurant and Bar, an Italian joint where my old boyfriend Tim -- who I met at the Boiler Room -- took me on our second date. Today, it's Lasagna Restaurant. Either on this block or between 20th and 21st -- I'm thinking where Tina Catherine Eyewear is now -- was a hair salon that I believe was called Headlines, where this hunky Italian or Latin hair stylist would rub his hard-on on my leg as he cut my hair. I was so naive I thought this meant he wanted to go out with me, so tried to exchange numbers with him!
Rainbows & Triangles is still vacant a year since closing. And it's hard to keep track of all the changes that have occurred in the stores near it ..
... but once the wonderful Havana Chelsea went under, a revolving door of Latin and coffee places opened and closed around there, including ...
Casa Havana, which was kind of a jazzed-up reboot of its predecessor.
They even kept the Best Cuban Sandwiches sign and display case in the window. (A matter of some dispute, as it turned out.)
I really liked Ruben's Empanadas, but apparently not enough people did. (It's now a shoe cobbler.)
I think this one went from being Chelsea Coffee ...
to UR Cup (which kind of got what it deserved for that dubious spelling) ...
to Teaffee in a matter of months, but nothing could sustain the outrageous rent.
Cuba Libre was renamed Cuba Cafe after the owners (partners) parted ways. (Look for the second coming of Cuba Libre later in this post.)
I have bittersweet memories of the place as it's where I celebrated my 36th birthday with Larry, who died a couple years later, Jay and Michael.
Intermezzo has been here forever, although the Cuba space next door has been a revolving door in recent years, notably Sushi Mora and Tom Yum, neither of which lasted more than a few months.
Next to what became Spruce was briefly a gayish accessories and hat shop called Gallerie H. It flooded shortly after opening and even though they were able to reopen, it closed shortly thereafter.
The Lite Choice had a successful run next to that, after previously being (I think) a Tasti D-Lite and definitely a Cremalita.
One place that has stood the test of time is the Rocking Horse -- or Rocking Horse Cafe Mexicano, as it was known then.
Ironically, I ate there once while in town looking for an apartment in early 1998 and didn't go back until 2015!
Before it was Donatello and then Heartwood, this was the home of the first Trois Canards. I had the worst beef bourguignon there, so I wasn't too broken up when it closed.
Today it's Prova Pizza.
Right after Trois Canards closed the first time it became La Belle Vie. The view was indeed good, but the food wasn't much better.
Alonso's closed when Tello's moved into the place where Mare was, and then Trois Canards reopened around the corner where Tello's was originally, but that didn't last either.
The NE corner of 19th/8th was Shim's, another Asian deli, which later became Better Burger then 16 Handles. If you look to the far left, you can see where the A&P supermarket was.
Dave and I go shopping "from A to P" circa 1998
The A&P was the avenue's only supermarket as Gristede's wouldn't come along till years later ...
although there was a D'Agostino on West 16th Street, if you didn't mind paying an arm and a leg for a loaf of bread. It's now a Brick Gym.
The site of the A&P is now a New School dorm (red brick building on the right) with a Rite Aid in the ground level, which used to be an Eckerd Pharmacy. You can also see this is where Blockbuster Video was, at the smaller location it moved to after its huge store at 17th Street shut down. The corner Starbucks, seen here under renovation, used to be Blimpie in the 1990s.
Right before it closed, Blockbuster made a last-ditch effort at rebranding itself Blockbuster Media, but to no avail.
Eighth Avenue used to have delis and bodegas on just about every corner, but these days there are only a handful.
Between 18th and 19th there was a corner liquor store, recently replaced by a high-end gelato shop.
A fantastic lighting shop called Lightforms was on that block (now moved to 26th Street) -- which is now a gay clothing shop called EFOR -- as was La Chinita Linda, the best Cuban-Chinese place in town. This is where Michael and I were slated to have our first date. (He stood me up!)
La Chinita eventually became -- like most things -- a Thai restaurant (Room Service), but even that didn't last. New owners came in and now it's ... another Thai restaurant.
There used to be a decent diner between 18th and 19th called Galaxy Cafe II, which is now El Cid. We'd go there all the time, probably one of the neighborhood's biggest losses mainly because it was so convenient. (The Hell's Kitchen location is still in business.)
Next door was Sam Chinita, a diner (tin-can) style Cuban-Chinese joint. It was pretty good, but I always preferred La Chinita.
Cuban-Chinese places were popular in the '60s when Chinese fled Cuba at the beginning of the Castro era, but they seem to be a dying breed.
UPDATE: A reader informs me of this:
Sam Chinita and La Chinita Linda were the result of their predecessor (Mi Chinita, above) splitting apart due to an apparent family feud (or so I was told). Mi Chinita (in the old diner) had the best Cuban-Chinese ever. The good ole days...
Sam Chinita was literally bulldozed, and it became Nisos, which had a rocky 10-year run. It's been shuttered for years now, although rumors constantly circulate that a new tenant is imminent.
Across the street near the Joyce Theater, there used to be a cabaret club called Judy's Chelsea, that closed in 2003.
Right after Judy's went under Helen's Restaurant and Piano Lounge opened, but quickly met a similar fate. (What were you thinking, Helen?) In the ensuing years, it seems like a dozen Asian restaurants have tried to fill the spot, only to go under.
Off the top of my head I can remember Alpha Fusion ...
... and Sushi Masuru. And I believe Man Ray was located there too back when I arrived in Chelsea before it moved to 15th Street. These days a Cooper's Craft & Kitchen seems to be thriving, so that's something.
Just south of Helen's was Rita's Antiques Cafe, now the home of the very successful GYM bar. Rita's was a cafe and coffee place that -- as promised -- also sold antiques. It wasn't meant to be, but it was awfully cute while it lasted.
Next door was a restaurant space that has also been a million places over the years -- Vox, Cafe Inferno, Tiziano and others -- and most recently Typhoon before turning into another adult shop ...
called The Blue DVD.
If that name makes no sense to you, I suppose it was a little less unseemly than its original name, The Happy Store.
It's also where Cuba Libre moved after the breakup, which only cannibalized it and Cuba Cafe, leaving the neighborhood with no Cuban restaurants. (Thanks, guys!) Just south of there was the call center for Luxury Limo Service, which has since become THE ONE MEN SPA. (Missing apostrophe s theirs, not mine.)
The NW corner of 18th and 8th used to be my closest bodega, Pine Tree Market, where I got a sandwich with my friend Larry and watched the horrified workers marching up from Lower Manhattan on Sept. 11.
It's a Brooklyn Industries now.
The SW corner was the famed restaurant Eighteenth & Eighth, (charming brick house with black awning, beyond the police tape -- would love to have a better photo if one is out there!). It was the first place I took my parents out to dinner.
I remember in 1998 overhearing a guy telling his dinner mate how excited he was 'cause his friend's television show was about to debut that fall. He was describing the plot about a gay guy and his best-gal-pal roommate. Who'd have thought back then that it would eventually become Must See TV's lead show?
Just south of there was my favorite hardware store, the kind where the people came out from behind the counter to really try to help you. My apartment would have never come together as quickly as it did without those guys. Amin Indian Cuisine was just south of there.
When the building that housed 18th & 8th was destroyed, so was the one next store that housed the SGS Hardware. A 24-hour market -- where I made many a late-night Pop-Tart runs -- before becoming Bare Burger -- was just south of there. And a short-lived "lounge" called Pearl went in where the arrow is pointing (Amin's spot), although the Indian Cuisine sign hung on. (The sex shop Splosh resides there now.)
When that bombed, Chiles & Chocolates moved in, which opened and closed in less than a year. I'm told a gay sex club called The Attic occupied the upstairs at 157 8th Ave., described by Huzbears like this:
In this seemingly innocent brownstone in the early '90s was The Attic. It was a sex club, that had no limits...tending to be hot, crowded, wet and very greasy. Anything went. Owned by Wally, the same person that ran the infamous Mineshaft back in the '70s and '80s. Two apartments were joined together, to create this pleasure palace. The bathtubs were used as giant urinals for patrons to lounge in.
You can still see neon signs up there, which I always thought was some sort of leather fetishwear place. (I've never dared enter!)
Down the street was the super-gay men's clothing store BANG BANG (right).
Michael bought a coat there once and I never let him live it down!
When that folded, Marc Ecko moved in. That came and went in 18 months and the place has been a puppy mill ever since, which seems to do brisk business. (Ugh.)
Next door was the home of the famed Food Bar, where more men have
had sex in the bathroom been on dates than probably any other restaurant in the world. After expanding into the Washington market with a location under Cobalt on Dupont Circle's once-super-gay 17th Street, the restaurant seemed to lose its way.
Food Bar was briefly rechristened Che 2020 before going back to its original name, but then closed shortly thereafter. A Chipotle is now in its place, perhaps the saddest reminder of what's become of the neighborhood.
Just off 8th Avenue on 17th Street was the Energy Kitchen. This is what it looked like when it opened, but then it got a facelift, starting franchising and within no time, the entire chain went under. Today it's Pizza Italia.
Just west of Energy Kitchen was Suenos, a Mexican fusion restaurant. The space was very cute -- with kind of an atrium garden -- but it was a little pricey for this media type. I mention it because I hear there used to be a place hidden behind it called Alley's End, which was in the back of what was formerly A Chelsea Place, a combination antiques store and restaurant that went out of business in 1993. The New York Times raved about Alley's End HERE.
On the east side of the street and right around the corner of my house was once a great block, which included the Viceroy. The food kinda sucked, but the bar was beautiful and rather grand, and a great spot to take out-of-town guests. The place will always hold a piece of my heart because it's where my brother Bill and I had lunch while waiting to meet the real estate broker to see what ended up becoming my home. (It was literally the LAST apartment we were seeing before going back to Washington, and I'd already applied for one in the Meatpacking District that I assumed I'd be taking.)
Next door was the wonderful French bistro Gascogne, where Michael and I had a memorable Christmas Eve dinner back in 2007. Sadly, it's since closed -- but is still good under new management as Montmartre.
Then there was 18th Street News -- my second home -- where I'd spend hours reading foreign magazines ...
and the great clothing and accessories shop Mardana, which is now in the old Gerry's between 15th and 16th.
18th Street Magazines later became Roy's Pizza, owned by the same guy who owns Flight 151 across the street, but even a steady stream of drunks clientele couldn't keep it in business.
Giraudon was a cool little shoe store, which is now a framing shop.
Next door to that -- which I'd completely forgotten about -- was the Mexican restaurant called Blue Moon (right).
I remember going there a bunch of times in the late '90s even though it wasn't very good -- a la Mary Ann's down the street -- but I loved the idea of having my own "local Mexican joint," so I remained loyal through various food poisonings. (Years earlier it was a gay leather bar called the 17th Street Saloon.) When Blue Moon closed it became a bunch of different things, before settling as SILOM Thai, which is also not very good. (It's the Gay Avenue curse!)
The SE corner of 19th/8th was once a huge Blockbuster video, famous for its selection of films and men.
It eventually was divided into two, and has been a number of places since. A fun housewares and gift shop called Details was there for years ... and I believe that's when Universal Gear opened up shop.
After Details closed, Chelsea Custom Kitchens took over. These days, a Ricky's Beauty Shop and Revolver Salon are the reigning champs. The Universal Gear next store was once hopping -- where the sales clerks would feel you up in the dressing rooms and actually encourage you to take the underwear out of the package. But as the new crop of gays moved uptown, so too did Universal Gear, now doing brisk business in its Hell's Kitchen location. A Just Salad has since taken up residence in its place.
To the north, upstairs, was once the infamous Chelsea Gym, where every part of the boys' bodies got a workout.
It later became Video Blitz, a pop-and-pop video-rental shop, ...
which apparently used to be on the ground level that later became a great laundromat that was open 24 hours. (Perfect for a night owl like me!) The Video Blitz eventually went out of business and Capitol One moved into the laundromat and I've never set foot in the building since.
Just south of there was American Fitness -- better known as American Princess -- the gym once run by promoter John Blair before he sold it to New York Sports Clubs. That's me and my friend Dave walking past it back in 1998.
The death of clothier Camouflage -- both locations -- has been well documented.
Less interesting is that a Caffe Bene is now moving in.
Paradise Cafe's demise was another heart breaker -- and its sushi handroll replacement didn't even last a year.
(Here's a look at Paradise when it was called "The Paradise Muffin Co.")
The Service Station was a door or two down, where you could get a hair cut, a massage and serviced all in one fell swoop.
The NW corner of 16th/8th was once a Mr. Pizza, but then became a splashy noodle joint called The Nooch.
I think that fulfilled its 10-year lease, but then called it a day. A Koffeecake Cafe has since opened -- and recently closed.
and the just-opened BEC (bacon, egg and cheese) across the street in the old Cola's.
Before the NW block at 16th/8th was demolished to make way for a condo building (and ground-level Bank of America), it was an interesting set of stores. There was a nightclub spot on the corner (Rebar and Suite 16, both run by Michael and John Dorrian, of Robert Chambers infamy), which always had the hottest straight boys lingering out front ...
and then Cajun restaurant next door, and then Angelo's Classic next door to that.
A little farther down was Chelsea Grill, which was known for its year-round garden in back and having the best hamburgers in town.
(Fittingly, the only location left is in Hell's Kitchen.)
Before my time there was also a gay bar called the Chelsea Transfer that had "an elaborately carved wooden bar, large smoked windows overlooking the pedestrian traffic of Eighth Avenue, and friendly staff." Despite all of this, it was ahead of its time. People were migrating from the Village to Chelsea, but not enough to support this joint.
When that closed, I hear it was a few things, including an Austrian restaurant called Kaffeehaus that had great desserts. It later became Candy Bar & Grill (known also as The Bistro at Candy Bar), another trendy gay restaurant back in the day that competed with Food Bar.
The NE corner of 15th and 8th has been another revolving door. Doherty's Coffee Shop was there when I moved in. It was extremely narrow and dark (the photo above is probably from after the renovations) and had great breakfast and that gritty old New York feel to it.
That got ripped down and eventually it became the more upscale Diner 24 (above), which was good but never caught on.
Despite two failed diners in a row, Vynl -- a popular Hell's Kitchen spot -- then tried opening a Chelsea location. It seemed to be doing OK for a while, but then it inexplicably closed ...
and re-opened as the Redwood Kitchenette and Bar ...
with a cool trailer bar inside. It went under in a matter of months. (I've never understood why entrepreneurs think they can be successful doing the exact same thing as their failed predecessors did.) Today it is a Liquiteria, which I have no idea how it stays in business.
There was an adorable Rue des Crepes on that block too at one point, that made you feel like you'd just stepped into Paris. (The crepes were delicious!)
When that closed, the sandwich shop Swich moved in. That bombed, and today there's a Wrapido that seems to be doing pretty well.
Before it was rechristened (?) Empire Cake, this bakery between 15th and 16th was called Lulu Cake Boutique. I say rechristened because from what I remember, nothing about the offerings changed once it was renamed.
Gerry's was huge clothing store between 15th and 16th that always had great stuff. There was another location on Bleecker Street, which is no longer around either. When the 8th Avenue location closed, it was divided into two stores and Mardana eventually moved down into one half. I think Mardana had a second location on Seventh Avenue South, but that's long gone.
The east side between 14th and 15th has been through a lot over the years. The Pita Grill never really caught on.
Then Hurricane Sandy ripped the front off its replacement, Muscle Maker Grill, which later re-opened on 7th Avenue. But more than anything there are reports that the owner of several of the buildings wants the long-term tenants out.
This bodega and pizza place seen above are both history, although the corner seems to be reopening as a combination bodega-pizza place.
My biggest concern down there is the famed La Taza de Oro Spanish restaurant, which has had a sign up for months saying its facade has to be repaired by order of the city or else.
Although I'm unsure if it's official yet, I have a sinking feeling it's curtains for what is literally the longest-standing business in the neighborhood that I frequent, and it seems I'm not alone.
When I look back at all this, it makes the survival of a handful of shops on the avenue all the more remarkable. I'm looking at you, Royal Siam, The Dish, Intermezzo, Chelsea Golden Wok, Rocking Horse, Flight 151, Chisholm Larsson Gallery, Chelsea Ristorante and Mary Ann's, where I still have been known to get hammered on their effective margaritas while attempting to avoid salmonella poisoning.!
Please send corrections, submissions and photos HERE.
UPDATE: Speak of the devil -- Mary Ann's closed July 3, 2015, and said it was relocating.