Nightlife

When NYC Was *Actually* Campy: 8 High-Camp Spots That Defined an Era

Thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, camp is hot again. Take a peek back at a time when the aesthetic ruled the city.

Photo courtesy of Beauty Bar

Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour’s annual Met Gala was themed to the museum’s current exhibition “Camp: Notes on Style” and brought out scads of celebrities trying to outdo themselves in over-the-top looks. Perhaps they should have researched New York City’s glory days of that very aesthetic—starting in the 1960s and continuing for decades—when camp was basically our middle name. Here are eight places that reeked of it.

Howard Johnson’s

Before tourists flooding into New York were much slicker-looking, there was a time when ladies with frosted and shellacked hair puffed away on cigs and downed the fried clams special at HoJo’s. That time was the 1960s. The brightly lit glorified diner/chain restaurant lasted from 1955 to 2005, hanging on long after Times Square had been shined up and revamped to favor Disney characters instead of film noir rejects. And so did Gaiety Burlesque, the adjacent men’s strip club, where older guys ordered a plate of proverbial chicken. West 46th Street and Broadway, Times Square

Photo by xnatedawgx via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Pamela’s Little Kitchen

A great cook who had written an admired recipe book, Pamela Strobel (which is thought to be her real name) was also an entertainer. She managed to purvey both her talents in a dive-y East Village “jazz supper club,” where she often answered the buzzer herself. Princess Pamela’s Little Kitchen was followed by Princess Pamela’s Southern Touch Restaurant (78 East 1st Street), a restaurant-cabaret where she served soul food while also singing and swinging with a combo. I vividly remember how her bewigged shows went on so long and her gaze was so impenetrable that you were pinned there for hours, applauding in hopes that she might finally let you leave. Camp heaven, the place closed in 1998, and apparently Princess Pam hasn’t been heard from since. 243 East 10th Street (at First Avenue), East Village

Ibis Restaurant

As The New York Times put it, “Despite the Arab touches, Ibis radiates an almost campy old-club atmosphere.” This was an over-the-top Hollywood version of the Middle East, with glitzy palm trees, a whirling dervish, chorus girls, a pop singer, and a drag queen. Its heyday was the bizarre 1970s, when a faltering city gave way to glittery escapism. 151 East 50th Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues), Midtown East

Photo courtesy of Ibis via Yelp

The Bag Man

Way before Amazon, Target, and Five Below, this was my go-to place for kitsch gifts that you couldn’t find anywhere else (though the nearby Weber’s store came close). Until 2015, it was a three-level palace of toys, shower curtains, shoes, and, best of all, items like a Last Supper light-up clock and an oversize statue of a sad-looking dog. The sincerity of the merchandise (and the low prices) is what made it so campily special. 261 West 34th Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues), Midtown

Photo by Dave L./Yelp

Escuelita

This was the follow-up location of the long-running Latin-flavored gay dance club, and it made it all the way until 2016. The drag and trans performers were brilliant purveyors of camp, doing letter-perfect lip syncs to melodramatic ballads of the type Katy Perry should look up if she wants another go at it. Darkness alert! The owner, “Big Ben” Zabar, was murdered by a masseur the year after closing, in a melodrama that wasn’t funny at all. 301 West 39th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen

Photo courtesy of HARMONICA SUNBEAM/Facebook

Mars 2112

I loved this place when it opened in 1998, because it brought some nutty wit to what had by now become the inevitable onslaught of tourist eateries in the Times Square area. The elevator was a sort of UFO; you ended up eating in a crystal crater; and there were waiters who looked fresh out of The Jetsons serving food that was basically out of this world. Alas, the massive theme joint closed in 2012, and Grub Street called it “the fourth largest planet tourist trap from the sun.” West 51st Street and Broadway, Times Square

what is camp
Photo by Thomas G./Yelp

Hawaii Kai and Trader Vic’s

From the 1960s to 1989, Hawaii Kai was New York’s de rigueur Polynesian restaurant, complete with ornate floral decor, parasols in drinks (which were sometimes served in hollowed-out pineapples), and girls in sarongs serving roasted pig. It was a hoot and a half, and so was Trader Vic’s, which moved to the basement of the Plaza in 1965 and featured kooky cocktails like Molokai Mike, Shingle Stain, and Tonga Punch. These places were about as authentic as an Elvis movie, but they were fun, though Vic’s declined and was closed in 1989 by hotel owner Donald Trump. 1638 Broadway (between West 50th and 51st Streets), Times Square

what is camp
Photo courtesy of Critiki/Facebook

Beauty Bar

In 1995, Paul Devitt turned what was the Thomas Beauty Salon into a big party, as a mixed crowd came to schmooze amid the hair dryers, blow-dryers, and Styrofoam wig heads. The campy hangout—part of a chain—is still going strong, so I guess the camp glory days are still here after all. Go in there and tease someone! Do it for Anna Wintour! 231 East 14th Street (between Second and Third Avenues), East Village

Photo courtesy of The Beauty Bar/Facebook

Warm your hands around the campfire of our glowing NYC recommendations.