Rudy’s Bar & Grill and other community anchors in a gentrifying Hell’s Kitchen
Hell’s Kitchen, loosely defined as the district west of 8th Avenue between W 34th and 59th, is often considered one of the hippest neighborhoods in Manhattan.
Until the early-2000s however, tourists and New Yorkers alike were often told to avoid the area. For decades, Hell’s Kitchen was notorious for its high rates of organized crime. The name, Hell’s Kitchen, is storied to have come from a conversation between a rookie cop and his senior, who described the neighborhood as a place hotter than hell itself.
Despite this, the neighborhood was a place where immigrants found community: first came Italians and the Irish, and later, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans––among many others. People from all over the world moved to Hell’s Kitchen to start small businesses and these are intimately woven into their family histories.
Two small businesses that have weathered the neighborhood’s changes are Rudy’s Bar and Grill and Poseidon Bakery: next-door to each other on 9th Avenue just north of 44th.
For cheap beer, old friends, and free hot dogs, it’s Rudy’s Bar & Grill
When you step into Rudy’s, it feels as if you’ve traveled back in time to the Roaring 20s, and there’s a reason for that. The bar is rumoured to have started as a speakeasy in 1919 and to have received one of New York’s first liquor licenses when Prohibition ended in 1933. German immigrants Ewon and Helen Rudy opened their bar under the present name around 80 years ago. In 1982, the Rudy family sold the building to the present owner, Jack Ertl.
The story of Rudy’s goes back even further, explains the keeper of this history, Danny DePamphilis, Rudy’s current General Manager, as he shows us a copy of a formal invitation to the opening of a saloon in the same location dated to 1883.
Rudy’s has long been frequented by public figures like Al Capone and Paul McCartney, and even the present-day celebrity, Drew Barrymore. Of Drew, DePamphilis recalls:
“She was a regular. After work I would sit down and Ernie the manager would come in — he’d always have his coffee and the newspaper — and he says, ‘Danny look at this, Drew Barrymore, she just turned twenty years old!’ I’m like, ‘Ernie common’ and he says, ‘Danny, twenty-one is the law, I don’t want to hear any ifs, ands, or buts.’”
Rudy’s is also home to the Drinking Liberals, a collective set up in the backyard of the bar that now has 240 chapters and 300,000 members meeting in bars nationwide. They meet to talk about democracy every Thursday (and haven’t missed one in 12 years).
DePamphilis remembers being invited to a community businesses breakfast with then-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. There he met the Director of Community Affairs — a woman who frequented his bar when she first moved to New York. She thanked him for all the times “you fed me dinner” with their signature free hotdogs.
Despite the bar’s success, it is still facing the effects of gentrification in Hell’s Kitchen. This is why DePamphilis makes a conscious effort to keep the bar the same. From much wear and tear over the years, the bar’s booths are barely intact — now mostly consisting of duct tape. Instead of upgrading the furniture however, DePamphilis keeps the ragged seats.
Another long-standing Rudy’s tradition is the hot dogs: more than 5,000 of them given away each week. In an interview with DePamphilis, Madis Kabash asks about the free food and what makes the bar so authentic.
“The world seems to change now faster than ever,” DePamphilis says, “a tradition can give people an anchor.”
Rudy’s withstands the neighborhood’s rapid changes because the building is owned, rather than rented, by the current owner.
“What defines a neighborhood is the businesses that are there, like Rudy’s and the bakery next door. But if it gets gentrified, and you don’t own space, your rent gets unaffordable, and the bakery becomes a Walgreens,” says DePamphilis.
He directs us to his friend Lili, owner of Poseidon Bakery, a family-owned business next-door that has also survived the recent gentrification.
For Greek finikia cookies and family charm, it’s Poseidon Bakery
Lili Fable, Poseidon’s owner, says of owning the building, “it secured our future.” Fable and her husband, Anthony, raised their sons in the upstairs apartment and together, they ran the business until Anthony’s death several years ago. The business was originally started by Demetrios Anagnostou, who opened the bakery’s first location in the Port Lands in 1923.
Fable notes that their neighbors, a pizzeria, pay around $13,000 per month for rent.
“If we paid rent, we’d have to leave,” says Fable.
In the mid-2000s, Fable became concerned about the impacts of gentrification on the business. “We were worried about the yuppies changing this and that, but they couldn’t change the infrastructure too much, so they got fed up and left,” says Fable.
Withstanding change is a way of life for Hell’s Kitchen’s remaining working class residents
Films like Sleepers (1996) and State of Grace (1990) detail previous times in Hell’s Kitchen through larger-than-life stories of crime and police activity, including when Hell’s Kitchen was the site of the infamous Westies, an Irish gang active between the 1960s and 1990s.
Now however, like neighboring districts like Chelsea and Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen attracts young, wealthy professionals. The average price of a rental unit in Hell’s Kitchen is $3,597, according to Rentcafe.com.
Despite the changes to the neighborhood, DePamphilis continues to cater to working class people. “It’s a little gentrified now, but Hell’s Kitchen is working class, and you get working class prices. Where the heck can you get a shot of whisky and a pint of beer for five dollars in New York except Rudy’s Bar? Nowhere!”
Rudy’s is shown in the opening titles of Seinfield, mentioned in Sex and the City, and is immortalized in the Steely Dan song ‘Black Cow’ that begins, “I saw you at Rudy’s, you were very high.”