Mercedes House (Photo Courtesy of Neil R)

Overwhelmed by New York’s neon canyons? Wary of running with the tourist hordes? If you’re “Times Squared-out,” you can visit an authentic part of New York City just a short distance away. Explore Hell’s Kitchen, the area roughly bordered by Port Authority and 57th Street to the north and south, and 8th Avenue and the Hudson River to the east and west.

This once-raffish neighborhood was home to bad-boy Travel Channel host Anthony Bourdain. Today, it thrives with restaurants, bars and opinionated, demanding locals. Parts of Hell’s Kitchen also offer peace and quiet — something visitors may think is unattainable in New York. Here are a few rough and refined recommendations on what not to miss in this hood:

Sullivan’s Bakery (Photo Courtesy of bionicgrrrl)

1. Sullivan Street Bakery, Serving Locals Since 1994
Outside Amy’s Bread on 9th Avenue you’ll hear tourists speaking French and Italian. This bakery is found prominently in foreign guidebooks, but I recommend trying an alternative. Head to Sullivan Street Bakery for fine European-style baked goods, rustic pizza and imaginative sandwiches. You’ll find a bare-bone, airy room where neighborhood regulars relax with free copies of the New York Times and the gleefully malicious New York Post. Sullivan Street serves great white pizza and good coffee –ideal for fortifying the traveler.

2.  The Fountain House Gallery, a Space for Outsiders
In recent years, “outsider art” has caused a sensation. It is artistic expression created by self-taught or disadvantaged artists out of the mainstream art world.  A center for this often intense art form, Fountain House has performed an invaluable service in Hell’s Kitchen since 1948 by providing essential resources to the mentally ill. The Fountain House gallery represents and supports outsider artists by showcasing their creations in rotating exhibits. This is challenging work –deep, vulnerable and expressive. You may leave feeling uplifted.  

3. MC Gallery, Art Miles High
Up for an art adventure? Try MC Gallery. Plans may be in the works to move this gallery to a more accessible location at ground level. Until then, you’ll have to reach the space in a groaning, cavernous freight elevator that is manually operated by a silent attendant, which is an experience in itself. Huge, light-filled rooms host performances and exhibits. A recent show featured starkly beautiful photographs of Kenya, Africa. Run since 2005 largely by an artist from the former Yugoslavia, MC Gallery has an elegant but edgy feel. Stop by for a visit before it goes legit on the ground floor.

Totto Ramen (Photo Courtesy of Moment Open / Getty Images)

4.  Totto Ramen Makes Elbow Room
New Yorkers go crazy for ramen, and Hell’s Kitchen’s Totto Ramen is the perfect place to cure their obsession. Totto’s killer soup attracts ramen lovers from all over the world who hungrily line up around the block for hours. Luckily Totto opened up an auxiliary ramen station in a less-trafficked location further west on 51st Street. Now, you can slurp the restaurant’s rich broth and springy noodles on a tranquil tree-lined street far from the miso-mad throngs.

Totto has a hot new competitor in Ivan Orkin, a celebrated ramen chef now in Hell’s Kitchen after a long stint in Tokyo. His trendy ramen counter can be found in the new Gotham West artisanal food complex. Do your own taste comparison and try both restaurants.

5. Fine and Dandy: Playful Place, Serious Menswear
In a neighborhood notably light on shopping, Fine and Dandy menswear is a fashionably retro store tucked away in a basement space on West 49thStreet. The store arranges ultra-cool designer menswear alongside vintage knickknacks and accessories. Dapper owner Matt Fox has created a playful and deeply personal environment in a tight space — an inviting place to browse for an unusual gift (perhaps one for yourself). 

6. Mercedes House, Hell’s Kitchen’s Future?
Eleventh Avenue in Hells Kitchen has long been the city’s car dealership district.  Mercedes-Benz blew the auto shop concept into the stratosphere with the 2012 construction of a futuristic South Beach-style extravaganza, Mercedes House.  The complex includes a top-flight dealership, a giant swimming pool, health club and even stables for police horses. The massive new building towers in a startling, gunmetal-gray ziggurat shape over the low-rise neighborhood. If you’re interested in ultramodern architecture, don’t miss it. 

7. HK Zen:  Hell’s Kitchen Park, The Green Thumb, Clinton Community Garden
Tired of looking, shopping, pushing, shoving? Need to rest your feet and spirit? Hell’s Kitchen has places to sit and do absolutely nothing for absolutely free.  Watch children, parents and local eccentrics at play in Hell’s Kitchen Park — a fully-equipped playground with basketball and handball courts and water fountains to cool off in the hot summers.

Oasis Community Garden, or Green Thumb, is a relaxed, open green space, but the charming Clinton Community Garden gets the prize for being a jewel in concrete. Low-hanging trees, lovingly manicured flowerbeds and winding paths create refuges from the urban hustle. One caveat: a local has to let you in with a key. Don’t worry, Someone will.

– BY CAROLINE ELY

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