“Hello, and welcome to Hell’s Kitchen!” doesn’t sound like your regular invitation to a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood, does it? Yes, nowadays this part of Manhattan is a hustling and bustling hub of pop culture, business, and high-quality entertainment, but back in the day, the myth behind the name wallows in obscurity and danger.  Think of it as a Thunderdome of the late 1800s because Irish and German communities settled here were notorious for assaulting all unwelcome intruders with rains of rocks, paving stones, and bricks.

This was Gopher territory – a gang known for patrolling the streets and lurking in cellar stairwells. It is believed that literally, no other gang stepped foot here without permission. This area was fused with prostitution and drowned in whiskey. Living quarters had names like The Barracks, Sebastopol, Battle Row, and the House of Blazes, where residents would invite strangers for a drink, douse them with flammable liquids, and then set them on fire. Creepy, right?

So how did “Hell’s Kitchen” get its name?

It definitely wasn’t a tourist attraction back then, but there are several explanations as to how the name came to be (in no particular order):

  1. It is said that a tenement on West 54th Street carried this name, although it is nearly a mile away from the center of the original Hell’s Kitchen area.
  2. The area adopted the name due to violent and depraved similarities with a quarter in London, UK.
  3. The name is a corrupted version of Heil’s Kitchen – a German lady who ran a restaurant not far from the docks.
  4. Residents in New Jersey bestowed the name because they regularly saw smoke rising from vendors’ cooking located on the waterfront.
  5. The name was perhaps taken from a gang formed in that area or adopted by the local police force.

Whatever the case, suggestions are limitless. However, the most often repeated theory claims that the name originated on the night when a veteran police officer called Dutch Fred was on patrol duty with a rookie cop on West 39th and near 10th Avenue. When the two witnessed a small riot, the rookie said to Fred, “This place is Hell itself,” to which the veteran replied, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen, no less.”

There is no palpable record of the two officers having this conversation, but the verdict is clear. Heat is used as a metaphor for violence, and history always accentuated how this area was brimming with trouble and vice. Whether Fred Dutch truly coined the term or not is impossible to prove, but the implication that the area was “hotter than hot” stood the test of time.

Besides harboring hordes of vagrants, petty thieves, and blasphemous prostitutes, Hell’s Kitchen’s filth didn’t come solely from human street activity, but also the industries. For instance, there was a collection of soap factories that boiled fat near The Barracks and the odor coming out of these establishments was so potent, it caused nausea even in the strongest and healthiest. Also, when the Hudson River Railroad was laid down, lumberyards, fetid slaughterhouses, and gas companies contributed to the rather gruesome description of the area. Just the smell of blood draining into the gutters gave way to an eerily murderous atmosphere.

Myths are many. No one can say with certainty which mouth first uttered the words “Hell’s Kitchen”, but everyone knows that the reputation of this Manhattan area was unprecedented. Lawless, violent, and shrouded in mystery. If you want to uncover more truths for yourself, come on down to Hell’s Kitchen! You won’t even believe how something so historically turbulent has become so iconic.  

If you’re looking for the best fun and awesome cocktails in Hell’s Kitchen, come to High Bar! We have an amazing view!