In the latter half of the 19th century the neighborhood industrialized, with smoke-belching factories lining the Hudson River, of which the old Nabisco complex (now Chelsea Market) is one of the last remaining examples. But the infill of tenements and townhouses, and eventually that of housing projects and high-rise condos, has made Chelsea one of the city’s premier residential neighborhoods, where rich and poor alike live side-by-side.
The precise borders are a matter of controversy, but for the purposes of this survey we’ll consider them to run from 6th Avenue on the east to the Hudson River on the west; from 14th Street on the south to 30th Street on the north, a total area of two-thirds of a square mile. Though Chelsea has never been known as an exciting restaurant neighborhood, with the recent appearance of places like Nishi and La Frontera that perception may be changing. It is nevertheless considered a cradle of the brunch movement, though sidewalk cafes are in relatively short supply, and once it was home to scores of Spanish and Latin-American restaurants, of which few remain.
Here are a handful of our favorite Chelsea restaurants, going from south to north. Prices are designated cheap (C), moderate (M), or expensive (E).
One of the most respected independent doughnut bakers in town, the Pub has been near the corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street since 1964, and the snaking marble lunch counter signifies its age. There, enjoy a decent cup of coffee and above-average doughnuts that run from the usual (glazed, crullers, old-fashioned) to the unusual, including a whole range of Cronut knock-offs and muffins that contain Oreo cookies. Distinguished egg sandwiches in a strange squished format and simple sandwiches such as ham, cheese, and ham & cheese are also available. 203 West 14th Street, (212) 929-0126 [C]
The latest from Smorgasburg founders Eric Demby and Jonathan Butler sits in front of the High Line Hotel in Chelsea, where the emphasis is cool vibes and cocktails over food. The menu is a short list of 12 snacks and small plates, such as fluke crudo, gem lettuce salad, and a cheeseburger. 180 Tenth Avenue, (212) 929-3888 [M]
When Boston restaurateurs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette established a branch of their hit tapas bar in such obscure real estate, the far southwest corner of Chelsea, they had no way of realizing that the location would be right across the West Side Highway from Anthony Bourdain’s future food court. The tapas are rich and colorful (a couple of favorites: tripe, beans, and blood sausage; patatas bravas), the wine list far-ranging, and the room comfortable in an industrial chic sort of way. 85 10th Avenue, (212) 691-2360 [E]
Shorty Tang Noodle Shop
James Tang, grandson of the late Shorty Tang of Hwa Yuan who is credited by many as having cooked Manhattan’s best, has gone into the family business with his new place, where he prepares noodle soups, soup dumplings, fried chicken chops, and more. 98 8th Avenue, (646) 896-1883 [C]
This surprisingly formal establishment became one of the city’s most talked-about Sichuan restaurants. Was it the willingness to wield numbing peppercorns in vast woks of bubbling chile oil, so different in approach than the standard Chinese-American restaurants of the neighborhood, or was it the additional presence of strong invented cocktails in all the colors of the rainbow, while most Chinese restaurants offered only beer? Stay with the mainstream Sichuan stuff and steer clear of Cantonese and Shanghai fare, and you’ll do just fine. 88 7th Avenue, (212) 929-1778 [M]
Twenty years ago, this complex of 22 interlocking Nabisco factories covering an entire Chelsea block was transformed into what was supposed to be a food-business incubator and destination for professional and amateur cooks, complete with vegetable markets, bakeries, butcher shops, dairies, kitchenware, and nearly every other resource imaginable. But nearly two decades down the road, it has morphed into a tourist-clogged food court. No matter, it is one of the city’s most spectacular dining halls, where you can get a whole steamed lobster, Cambodian hero, homemade hot dog, San Diego-style taco, or farm-to-table meal at a sit-down restaurant, lunch counter, or wine bar. 75 9th Avenue, (212) 652-2110 [C to E]
The first Batali and Bastianich restaurant to appear in years, La Sirena is partly an elevated hotel courtyard with lots of outdoor space; indoors find a pair of dining rooms separated by a long barroom with casual seating of its own. The fare runs from bar snacks delivered on a trolley and antipasti, from crudo to calamari to Roman-leaning pastas and secondi spanning southern and northern Italy, and from simple grilled fish to meatballs in sweet-and-sour agrodolce. Three courses may not be enough. 88 9th Ave, (212) 977-6096 [E]
Located a couple blocks north of the Googleplex, Stella’s is one of Chelsea’s oldest and best neighborhood pizza parlors, dating to the 1960s, with the streamlined design to prove it. Not much in the way of seating, but plenty of room to stand and dream over your plain slice — or better yet, the broccoli slice, which constitutes a full meal onto itself. Lunch specials featuring two slices and a Coke available. 110 9th Ave, (212) 462-4444 [C]
With the exception of El Cocotero ("the coconut palm") there are no other semi-upscale Venezuelan restaurants in the city (though we do have our share of areperas). The place is decorated like a farmhouse out in the countryside, and the menu strains for homestyle dishes rarely seen here, such as hallacas: a tamal bulging with beef, pork, raisins, and olives, delivered in a banana leaf and eaten mainly during holidays. Don’t miss the national cocktail called guarapita, concocted of mango and passion fruit juices and plenty of rum. For the budget-conscious, arepa sandwiches are also available. 228 W 18th St, (212) 206-8930 [M]
We’ll admit it: This place on the south side of 23rd Street looks like a complete dump. And you’d do well to avoid the lifeless pizzas that are one half of its lure. The other half, however, are some simply wonderful antojitos, turned out with great pride by the Mexican staff. Taco stuffings are more far-ranging than you might expect given the commercial location, and there’s no better tongue tostada (shown) in town, a bargain at $3. Burritos ain’t bad, either. 100 W 23rd St, (212) 243-0022 [C]
Trestle on Tenth
This sunny corner spot just north of the splendid London Terrace Apartments reproduces the Alpine fare of Switzerland with some fidelity, including the squiggly dumplings called pizokel, the hash browns called rosti, and the pastas and organ-meat dishes, all amid rivers of ivory-white cow’s cheese. The oyster service — featuring local Long Island specimens — is also exemplary. The bilevel dining room is handsome and comfortable, and Rocket Pig (463 W 24th St), the restaurant’s one-note pork sandwich offshoot, is right next door. Pictured here: the herring platter. 242 10th Ave, (212) 645-5659 [E]
El Quinto Pino
This little corner of Chelsea, centered around 9th Avenue and 24th Street, is the domain of chefs Alex Raij and Eder Montero, who also own Txikito(240 9th Avenue), just around the corner. Both places offer a playful version of Basque cooking, with El Quinto Pino also exploring other regions of Spain. There’s a formidable wine list and the fare runs to cod salad, deviled eggs with green tahini, lamb brochettes, Andalucian shrimp, noodle paella, and, perhaps its most compelling notion, a miniature sea-urchin panino. Open for lunch as well as dinner. 401 W 24th St, (212) 206-6900 [E]
Sullivan Street Bakery
A more comfortable branch of a prized Hell’s Kitchen bakery (which originated further downtown), this handsome and trim lunchroom specializes in pastries, poached egg bowls, and creative panini, including one that features the ungainly combo of chickpea fritters, kimchi, and tahini. It’s delicious! Favorite pastry: custard-squirting bombolino. Just down the street is Jim Lahey’s associated pizza parlor, Company (230 9th Ave), but you can also get Roman-style pizzas featuring toppings such as potatoes and zucchini at the bakery. 236 9th Ave, (212) 929-5900 [M]
When it was founded in 1994, it was located in what was once Chelsea’s warehouse district between 6th and 7th avenues, an area also famed for its outdoor flea markets. Johny’s was just a tiny lunch counter serving eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches, but has adapted to more modern times by a long menu of invented heros with names like Sloppy Johnny and Curious George. Some of them even have French fries inside the sandwiches. 124 W 25th St, 212-243-6230 [C]
When it opened not long ago in the no-man’s-land that is 9th Avenue north of 25th Street, Jun-Men seemed part of the race among ramen-yas to see who could make the richest tonkotsu, a milky, pork-bone broth. Available in two thicknesses, the noodles themselves were above average, with plenty of spicy options, and the short list of apps excelled, too, especially the crunchy chicken wings and the stylish kale salad. But avoid the house mazemen, which wastes some perfectly good sea urchin in a wash of warm noodles. 249 9th Ave, (646) 852-6787 [M]
Once Chelsea was chock-a-block with Latin lunch counters, meeting the culinary needs of the laborers who worked at the factories, warehouses, and wholesalers of this bustling commercial neighborhood. Now not so much. One of those that lingers is Milanes. Every massive entree includes your choice of yellow or white rice and red or black beans, and the fare runs to garlic-rubbed pork roasts, paprika-dusted chickens, tripe soup, and the Dominican stew called sancocho, all of it delectable and inexpensive. 168 West 25th St, (212) 243-9797 [C]
This old-timer peddles the pleasing combination of pizza and pastas, and the sauce used on both is rich and piquant in the Sicilian style, herbier than most. The chicken parm hero has lots more cheese than you might expect, and you should examine the steam table carefully before making your pasta selection. Recently, baked ziti was the best choice. For a joint with a steam table, the dining room is particularly commodious, and often nearly empty around dinnertime. 257 7th Ave, (212) 675-4050 [C]
Pars Grill House
Iranian restaurants are few and far between, and Pars is one of the better ones, with a nook-filled dining room heavy on the (non-working) hookahs and other ethnographic objects, a separate barroom, and walls of brick and stucco. The charcoal-grilled kebabs are quite smoky (pick joojeh, made with baby chicken), and neither does the kitchen stint on its beans-and-greens Persian stews, or in its apps like panir-o-sabzi, an herb-littered plank of feta served with warm bread just out of the oven. 249 W 26th St, (212) 929-9860 [M]
This five-year-old pizza pioneer set down in Chelsea’s gallery district way before almost anyone else, with the exception of the Red Cat and a couple of other old-timers. The space is warehousey, the bar provides cocktails in additional to beer and wine, and the exemplary pizzas fly from a wood oven that casts flickering shadows on the brick walls. A great date spot. Don’t miss the octopus or the fried artichoke apps, the former dredged in pureed pumpkin. 513 W 27th St, (212) 967-4392 [M]
Before the current wave of Italian authenticity swept over the city about two decades ago, many cured pork products such as guanciale and lardo were impossible to find unless you dropped by Salumeria Biellese. These products are all still for sale in glass cases, even though manufacturing has shifted to Jersey. To take up the slack, this 90-year-old pork store mounts a steam table full of red-sauced pastas at lunchtime every day, plus a menu of giant hero sandwiches. You might even request one that incorporates the shop’s distinguished charcuterie. 378 8th Ave, (212) 736-7376[C] Closed Sunday.
Attached to a beauty salon, Café Hanamizuki boasts a dramatic, cave-like interior, and a row of small tables along one wall, where one may enjoy a lunchtime special of two rice balls from a choice of a dozen, a quirky miso soup (BLT miso, for example), Japanese pickles, and a side dish for $10.50. In the evening, the place turns into a sake bar where the fare runs to risotto soups and Hawaiian-leaning octopus poke. 143 W 29th St, 212-695-5533 [M]
This handsome corner property — with tables scattered into the deep room, which has a black color scheme — is chef George Mendes’ most recent project, a paen to his heritage, serving three meals a day with a distinct Portuguese bent. The menu includes small, medium, and large plates, including traditional cod cakes and Iberian ham, grilled octopus with chickpeas, shrimp porridge, and chicken in a fiery piri-piri sauce. An outdoor window vends sandwiches and pastries in fine weather. 835 6th Ave, (212) 290-7600 [E]
Not to be confused with a more ambitious and expensive restaurant of the same name on the Upper West Side, Chelsea’s Swagat is a steam-table establishment, though a really exceptional one, as one look at the pristine quality of the Indian offerings on display will tell you. Every day there are four vegetarian dishes and four meat-bearing ones, and the all-day special includes a selection of two, plus dal, rice, and a naan, all for substantially less than $10. And lamb is often one of the selections. 205 W 29th St, (212) 967-7373 [C]