The best way to describe the decor in this Tex-Mex restaurant is vibrant. Shiny, multicolored aluminum Milagros adorn every available surface, the walls are a bright shade of yellow, and there is a chandelier made of empty Corona bottles. Inexpensive but tasty, the menu features Mexican staples like tacos, empanadas, fajitas, pozoles and chilaquiles. Unsurprisingly, the restaurant's atmosphere is convivial: margaritas and homemade salsa abound with a fun-loving crowd stopping by at any hour. Its name is fitting: El Centro seems like a gathering place, the center of the action on Ninth Avenue and 54th Street.
Toloache, a bustling Mexican bistro on 50th street, shares its name with the legendary Toloache flower. According to a myth in Mexican culture, the flower can be brewed into a love potion - if someone tastes the drink once, he or she will always return for another sip. The restaurant’s food and drinks have the same effect: Many people who eat there once return time and time again. General Manager Jorge shared a story about his friend from Japan who visited Toloache on the first night of a weeklong vacation in Manhattan. He ended up returning every day that week and then again every year during his annual visit to the city. Toloache on 50th is the first of many restaurants opened in New York by chef-owner Julian Medina. Chef Julian grew up in Mexico City, where he was inspired by the home cooking of his father and grandfather. He was originally brought to New York by Chef Richard Sandoval, who appointed him as Chef de Cuisine at Sandoval’s Maya. He went on to gain experience at distinguished restaurants and graduated from the French Culinary Institute with recognition. Today, Chef Julian owns seven of his own restaurants in the city and has been featured in several publications, including Men’s Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He has appeared on shows such as "Iron Chef" and "Beat Bobby Flay. " His impressive background is reflected in the success and distinctive menu of his “first child, ” Toloache. Julian designed Toloache’s extraordinary menu to have something for everyone – the wide range of dishes include both vegetarian and gluten free options. He prides himself on using only the freshest of ingredients, whether it is white truffles or chapulines (dried grasshoppers imported from Oaxaca). These crunchy critters have gained quite a bit of media attention, including a feature on "The Today Show. " The kitchen brought out the Tacos Chapulines for the Manhattan Sideways team to photograph, and we had to admit that the insects were made to look very appetizing. We were also presented with the diverse Trio de Guacamoles, which allowed us to sample three varieties of the dip: the familiar traditional guacamole; the Frutas Guacamole, which incorporates fruit instead of typical ingredients (pomegranate, mango, and apple instead of tomato and Thai Basil instead of cilantro); and the Rojo guacamole, made with chipotle. Several of us went on to sample the Quesadilla de Huitlacoche y Trufas (made with fresh truffles), The Baja Tilapia Pescado, and the braised short rib, served with quinoa and carrots. Each dish exemplified Chef Julian’s inventiveness and ability to put small, flavor-enhancing twists on typical Mexican cuisine. The drinks were equally impressive, including Julian’s favorite “Chef’s Selection Margarita, ” made with his hand-picked bottle of Herradura Tequila. The bartender mixed a few cocktails for us to photograph and taste, including the refreshing “De la Calle, ” made with cucumber and jalapeno; the spicy “Mezcalita de Pina”; and the signature “Toloache, ” made with hibiscus and blueberries. The food is amazing and the drinks are fantastic, but what really keeps so many guests coming back is Toloache’s dedication to quality service. As Jorge informed us, “Our goal is to make every guest feel at home. They are our friends. ” Each of the servers have their own style, creating unique, yet equally enjoyable dining experiences. Guests are able to experience Toloache in a completely new light from one day to the next just by sitting at a different server’s table. It was event manager Temple who summed the restaurant up perfectly: "Toloache feels like a family – like you’re walking into Little Mexico. ”
It's her first venture in Manhattan and she's had to pick up some new skills along the way too, but hospitality veteran Nicola Campbell is feeling right at home in Hell's Kitchen as she opens brand-new Jamaican eatery Cafe 424 on W54th Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. Currently in soft-launch mode and open from Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 7pm, the team at Cafe 424 are planning a grand opening September 15 to 17, after which they will operate from 8am to 10pm Wednesday through Saturday, serving Jamaican-themed pastries, coffee, lunch and dinner. Nicola, known as “Chef Mom” grew up in Willowdene Estates in the parish of St Catherine, Jamaica, where she learned to cook alongside her grandmother. “I used to be in the kitchen with my grandma all the time, ” said Nicola. “Back then I didn’t love it — it felt like punishment, but as I got older I realized that I had natural talent. ”She moved to New York City in 1999, opening several Caribbean restaurants in Queens and earning a degree from the prestigious Institute of Culinary Education. “I started using the skill sets that I got from my grandmother, ” said Nicola. “I decided to go to culinary school to sharpen those skills, and the rest is history. ” Her professional nickname “came from culinary school and when I was graduated — my kids said, ‘What should we call you now? ’” All of her children have helped with the business through the years, including daughter Zhana Clacken, who works as her partner and technology expert at Cafe 424. After closing one restaurant in Long Island City due to damage from Hurricane Sandy and selling another establishment in Jamaica, Queens in 2016, “I swore that I would never do this again, ” said Nicola. But when she got the chance to collaborate with non-profit co-op Prime Produce, an organization dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs and artists with their multi-use space on W54th Street, Nicola decided to take the leap. “I met these fabulous people from Prime Produce who want to do good in the world, ” said Nicola. “Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of it? ”After signing on as the organization’s in-house concession provider and operator of the public-facing café, the next challenge for Nicola was to build the kind of environment that she hoped would attract regular neighborhood patrons. “We wanted to create a homey, relaxed vibe, ” she said. “We want you to stay — we offer free WiFi so that you can come on down and chill with us. ”Used to commercial kitchens, she was happy to find a convection oven to fit the smaller space, allowing her to develop a full menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner options cooked onsite. “I'm used to a full kitchen, ” said Nicola. “But from experience working in colleges and hotels, restaurants and catering, I've had to pull all those things together. ”Nicola and her team are happy to be able to offer freshly-baked, in-house seasonal pastries, including treats like apple pies, bread pudding and, come holiday time, a rum raisin fruit cake featuring raisins that Nicola has been lovingly tending to and soaking for five years. For lunch and dinner, she’s developed a small, constantly rotating seasonal menu with Jamaican classics like jerk chicken, oxtails, curry goat, seafood and jerk fried rice. Everything is cooked to order and they offer vegan options in their lunch, dinner and dessert menus. The process has allowed Nicola to experiment with Jamaican fusion cuisine, she added. “I try to mix up my Jamaican side and my culinary-training side and bring a little bit of French and a little bit of Italian-style to different dishes — oxtail cooked French-style and combinations like that. ” But when it came to creating the café’s beverage program, Nicola had a lot to learn. “I was challenged because I've never actually done a coffee shop before, ” she said. She got to work researching the coffee brewing process, and landed on using premium Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee for the café’s offerings. “I wanted specifically to stay true to my heritage, and Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee is what I was raised on — growing up back home in Jamaica with my grandmother, that's all we used to have, ” she said. “I wanted to go back to that tradition, so I went to a company called Jamrock Coffee to work with them and try different roasts. We’re offering dark roast because that's where the flavors were the most intense. ” Working with head barista Dovi Akouete, Nicola trained herself on the art of brewing, and proudly declares that while “it used to just be coffee to me, I learned so much about the beans and the roasting process and making these drinks that now I really know the difference between a Macchiato and a Cappuccino. ”Nicola is so well-versed that she’s proud to offer fully-customizable drinks (and dishes) based on a customer’s needs. “If you’re hungry or thirsty for something, we’ll make you a drink or dish especially for you, ” she added. “We don’t want to be cookie-cutter and we consider ourselves a boutique, niche café. ” Keeping in the spirit of experimentation, Nicola hopes to implement a private chef’s table tasting menu every Sunday starting in October, featuring a four-course, prix fixe menu perfect for group gatherings and special events. Nicola is excited for the road ahead, and bolstered by the amount of community support already shown to the café. “People are super excited we’re here, ” she said, just as several Hell’s Kitchen residents walked by and shouted “We can’t wait to come by! Welcome! ”. Reception from the local business community has also been warm, added Nicola — they’ve already connected with the owners of Jaz Indian Cuisine and Mamasita. “It’s on our list to circle all of the nearby businesses, ” she added. “It’s all about unity — we can’t do this alone, and that’s our model with Prime Produce too. We are a strong team, not just as a café, but as a community and a co-op. It’s all about team members. ” For now, Chef Mom is focusing on the lead up to their official opening weekend, and taking in the joyful, fast-paced energy of all it entails. “It’s a lovely space, with great people and a great mission, ” she said. “I’ve never operated in Manhattan, and this is a lovely neighborhood, so I was open to taking on the challenge, and as they would say, ‘jumping off the cliff! ’” This story originally appeared on W42ST. nyc as "Enjoy a Flavor of Jamaican Cuisine and Hospitality as Cafe 424 Opens in Hell's Kitchen" in August 2022.
The building that houses Flute Bar & Lounge was once home to a speakeasy called Club Intime, run by the notorious chorus girl Texas Guinan. Today, Flute's owners pay homage to their predecessors with 1920's music and drinks served in mugs, as was the custom during Prohibition. The underground champagne bar has no windows and dim lighting, and its seating - plush sofas and ottomans clustered around low tables - give it a far more intimate feel than a traditional lounge. With countless brands from which to choose, champagne may be the focus, but Flute also serves a wide variety of cocktails - many of which feature champagne - and small accompanying food plates. Texas Guinan once called the speakeasy business an "essential and basic industry. " Though her Club Intime was shut down after only six months in business, she would certainly be heartened that its spirit lives on in Flute today - especially on the last Saturday of each month when Wit's End celebrates jazz music and dancing with an assortment of talent.
The Neighborhood Playhouse is both a great community resource and an old-fashioned reminder of the timelessness of great theater. Virtually invisible from the street, the only clue to its existence is a red, unmarked door and a modest sign. Once inside, however, I discovered that this almost one hundred year old building holds within it a proscenium theater, a full-size dance studio, and plenty of dressing rooms and classrooms. What a fascinating tour I was treated to by Emily Duncan, the admissions administrator, where I learned about their history and mission. The lobby, with its shabby elegance, features photos of famous graduates, as well as scenes from plays over the course of the school's history. The top two floors of the building are devoted to a beautiful dance studio with wood floors and soaring ceilings. A lover of dance, I was particularly moved when Emily announced that I was standing in the former domain of dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, who taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse alongside actor and teacher, Sanford Meisner. I was also enrapt by Christine Cirker, the librarian, who proudly discussed their vast collection of plays and theatre criticism. Incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the world of theater, she told me that she also teaches classes on script interpretation. Christine went on to explain the playhouse's claim to fame: the Meisner Technique, a method of acting that emphasizes that one should "live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances. " Sanford Meisner developed his famous improvisation-based technique at the Playhouse in the mid-1940s, which continues to train actors to this day. It counts among its list of prominent alumni names: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Steve McQueen; and more recently, it has added to its roster, Allison Janney and Chris Noth. The playhouse trains about one hundred students at any given time, seventy-five first-years and twenty-five second-years who have been invited back as a result of a unanimous faculty vote. According to Emily, graduates have an easier time finding work than most aspiring actors due to their alma mater's extensive network of influential writers, directors, and actors. Much of the faculty is closely involved in the theater world, and as Pamela Moller Kareman, the playhouse's executive director, shared, "It's a big leap to become a professional actor; we want people to know that you can do this with your life. " And from the time that I spent here, it became apparent that the staff at Neighborhood Playhouse is there to guide and support students every step of the way.