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VYNL was the legendary Hell’s Kitchen eatery where Michael Jackson sat next to Beyoncé in the restrooms and Pad Thai was served alongside a Cheeseburger Egg Roll. The diner closed in 2017, after a run of 28 years — but the memory lives on and VYNL’s greatest hits are about to be re-released to a New York audience ready to return!
“I actually consciously set about trying to recreate their grilled cheese and tomato soup at the start of the pandemic…came somewhat close,” shared local fan Michael D’Angora. ”We used to go every Sunday night, the tomato soup wasn’t on the menu to accompany the grilled cheese, but if you didn’t order both you were really missing out. So, so, so many amazing meals there and such an important ‘go-to’ hangout. Everyone went.”
The food wasn’t the only draw. The place was full of personalities from the world of music, represented in mosaics from the tables to the walls and all the way to the bathrooms.
“That’s right folks, a Michael Jackson and Beyoncé themed toilet at Vynl in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen district,” shared Dan from Toilography — a Canadian blogger specializing in toilets around the world. “This diner is decorated with vinyl records and music-related paraphernalia, culminating in these superstar restrooms.”
But real celebrities came to VYNL too. John Dempsey and Maren Powell, the couple who started VYNL and have become a hit factory for 9th Avenue hits like El Centro, Hell’s Kitchen, ‘ritas and B-Side Pizza, recalled when Dolly Parton dropped by to look at her restroom!
“When 9-5 was on Broadway, the cast had their opening party here,” Maren recalls. “Dolly came early because she wanted to tell the VYNL staff how much she appreciated them. Before the cast arrived, Dolly got up and said ‘Okay, I’m gonna go sit in my bathroom on the toilet, so whoever wants to come get their picture taken, send them in.” During the party, one of VYNL’s staff asked if they could do a lip-sync performance in Dolly drag for the queen of country music. John laughs at the memory: “Dolly loved it. She was hooting and hollering the entire time!”
W42ST readers had their favorite bathrooms. Vincent Gautieri’s was “definitely Dolly!” See his picture gallery from visits over the years.
The restaurant walls (and restrooms, of course) were lined with themed shadowboxes featuring Barbie dolls dressed as celebrities. There were signed Brian Wilson and Elton John dolls; a Yellow Submarine Beatles tableau; and a Britney Spears tripping over, with a big “Oops!” right above her head. John and Maren recall the adventures of the Justin Timberlake doll. One day, they went into the bathroom to discover that the doll had been stolen, with a 4-page ransom note left behind. Over the course of several months, the Justin kidnappers and JT’s owners exchanged notes in jest at the scene of the crime. Again, John couldn’t control his laughter as he told this story. “It was very funny, but in the end, I just demanded my damn doll back.” Luckily, JT found his way back home again.
The staff and community made the place thrive. “We’ve got a good staff of people, they’re what made VYNL so successful,” said John. “When I had a bad day, I would go into VYNL. Just looking at these guys having so much fun and the music, how could you not get into a better mood? The community really built VYNL. It was honestly like Seinfeld, where everybody in the neighborhood would meet up before going out.”
The food mix was also down to the staff. “Our opening chef came to VYNL straight from Thailand,” recalls Maren. “Our Thai food was authentic, as was our diner comfort food.” John joked that the thousands of Pad Thai dishes served were probably what built up the finances of their restaurant businesses.
“Pop culture and comfort food, the perfect combination. Brunch was always fun and I miss the frozen mimosas. One of my favorite appetizers was the Cheeseburger Eggrolls and my favorite dish was General Tso’s Chicken,” Keegan Campbell told us. “The staff was also very fun and played an important part in tying together the whole experience. I was there on the last day VYNL was open. I had to get my Cheeseburger Eggrolls one last time.”
Brunch and drinks were always popular. Writer VP Walling moved to the neighborhood in 2005 and remembers the W51st Street and 9th Avenue location as an “irreplaceable second home.”
“Where to start with the memories of VYNL? Many a first date, last date, pre-theater drink, post-theater meal, out-of-town family welcome dinner, old friend catch-up, and hungover post-hookup brunch happened there. It was a favorite haunt of mine,” reminisced VP.
When we asked W42ST readers to share their favorite memories of VYNL, one of the first emails we received from local Matt Wagner was an exuberant response about the restaurant’s eclectic decor, followed by a “but no fair for making me think it was coming back.” There’s even a social media hashtag #BringBackVYNL. Spinning up VYNL, it seems, is what everyone wants to happen.
Tonight — Wednesday, March 17, 2021 — John and Maren will be reopening their restaurants ‘ritas, Hell’s Kitchen and B-Side Pizza on the corner of W51st and 9th Avenue. Unfortunately, they won’t be bringing back VYNL — but VYNL’s Greatest Hits will be on the menu. “We’ve got Pad Thai, Sesame Chicken, General Tso Chicken, Wok Basil Stirfry, Burger & Fries, Fried Chicken Sandwich, Beet Burger, Mushroom Burger, Cheeseburger Egg Roll and Mac & Cheese,” shared John. Head over and spin back those memories…
I loved it at its 54th St. location. It was never the same after it left and moved to 51st St. Different staff, worse attitude. The day I got charged $3.50 for a side order of toast and got one pathetic slice was it for me.
I had the absolute best memories at both locations! They called the stirfry with American cheese added the H-A because I ordered it every single time along with a double vodka soda!!!! Such great times!
Great write-up, I’m happy you found my pics!
I was living in Montreal at the time and someone on Reddit recommended VYNL to me for the Beyonce + MJ restrooms. I took a weekend trip to NYC and went to said diner with a friend from Jersey. She was overly excited to try their Disco Fries and was surprised I’d never heard of them before seeing as I knew a lot about poutine. I remember her talking them up they were the greatest snack on earth – and indeed she was onto something, they were delicious. I’ve never come across Disco Fries since then, mind you.
So not only do I have fond memories of VYNL for their decorative toilets but I’ll also never forget their Disco Fries.
You forgot to mention the creative GENIUS behind the design of this and many other HK hot spots, Tom Johnson!
When they took the lemon cake off the menu, I wrote a protest letter that they framed and put on the wall. Still one of my proudest moments, but they didn’t bring back the lemon cake.
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