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Food & Travel

Meatpacking District’s chic transformation

The Standard, the area’s newest hotel, features a restaurant, the Standard Grill, and an outdoor beer garden. The Standard, the area’s newest hotel, features a restaurant, the Standard Grill, and an outdoor beer garden. (Lisa Zwirn for The Boston Globe)
By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / October 6, 2010

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NEW YORK — The Meatpacking District, which skirts the Hudson River south of Chelsea and north of Gansevoort Street and the West Village, was until the 1970s the place where sides of cattle, pigs, and sheep were processed and sold. Today, there are just a handful of meat fabricators and purveyors, but the industrial buildings, truck loading ramps, and occasional stinky smells remain. In fact, there’s nothing very pretty about this nugget of lower Manhattan — no cozy parks or neighborhood gardens, and uneven cobblestone streets that crisscross in unusual ways.

Still, the district has evolved into an upscale shopping and nightlife destination with high-end boutiques, swanky hotels, chic nightclubs and bars, and a dozen or so really good restaurants. Once the meatpackers started leaving, the abundant usable space at reasonable rents (at least by New York standards) lured designers, such as Stella McCartney, Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander McQueen, and Tory Burch, along with one-namers Jeffrey, Vince, and Moschino. On the food front, Keith McNally of Odeon and Balthazar was one of the pioneers in 1999 when he opened Pastis, reminiscent of an old-style French bistro. About five years later, Jean-Georges Vongerichten followed with the exotic Spice Market. Now Mario Batali has Del Posto, Tom Colicchio has Colicchio & Sons, and Stephen Hanson Dos Caminos and Bill’s Bar & Burger.

The Meatpacking District is a neighborhood in transition, low-key by day and pulsing at night. When it is light, the two best places to be are above ground on the High Line or inside at Chelsea Market. The High Line is a promenade designed on a 1930s elevated freight railway line. Opened last summer, it goes from Gansevoort Street north to 20th Street. Natural gardens, well-maintained wood walkways, plenty of benches, some outdoor art, and wonderful views have transformed the decrepit tracks into an urban oasis.

Chelsea Market, a meandering indoor food court in the former Nabisco factory at 15th Street between 9th and 10th avenues, is a hungry person’s heaven where Amy’s Bread, the Lobster Place, the Nut Box, Eleni’s (cookies and cupcakes), Lucy’s Whey (artisanal cheeses), and People’s Pops (popsicles) all sell their goods. Visit BuonItalia for everything Italian, Bowery Kitchen Supply for cooking tools, and Chelsea Market Baskets for customized gifts.

The scene, however, springs to life in the evening, when the hip and the high-heeled flock to dining hot spots, such as Bagatelle, Spice Market, STK, and Buddakan. At the Standard, the area’s newest hotel, both the restaurant, the Standard Grill, and outdoor German-style beer garden (situated directly under the elevated High Line) are hopping. Nearby Hotel Gansevoort draws a crowd to rooftop pool and bar. This building and others here are colorfully lit at night, adding to the district’s alluring vibe.

Less trendy, but deserving of culinary kudos, are smaller restaurants, such as 5 Ninth and Paradou. In a restored townhouse, 5 Ninth offers approachable food in a pleasant brick-walled room or outdoor patio. At Paradou, a lovely garden room out back is covered with a sliding roof for inclement weather, open to the sky otherwise. The specialty here is Provencal food, including seafood and French-style antipasti platters for sharing, a selection of foie gras, and delectable sweet crepes. Another spot worth visiting for lunch or dinner is Zampa Winebar + Kitchen (bordering the Meatpacking District and West Village) for salumi, cheese, salads, and sandwiches.

Colicchio’s latest venture, Colicchio & Sons, graces the perimeter of the neighborhood at 10th Avenue and 15th Street. Two dining choices available are a casual and affordable tap room up front and a dining room for evening service. Both offer the chef’s seasonal American cuisine. For a taste of the exotic, Vongerichten’s Spice Market transports you to Southeast Asia with piquantly flavored skewers, samosas, dumplings, and rice and noodle dishes. The two-level restaurant is lavishly decorated with antique wood carvings, wedding pagodas, plush curtains, and other artifacts from India, Malaysia, and Burma.

The area is a funky hodgepodge: cutting-edge and traditional, chic and gritty, stylish and grungy. That’s what gives the district its charm.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at lisa@lisazwirn.com