Where can you find mezcal margaritas, a robot that serves you churros and a full-scale Airstream lounge all in one place? Look no further than W51st Street, where Miami meets Manhattan at fusion eatery, bar and cabaret venue Carla.
Colorful, chic Carla is just getting the party started after opening in Hell’s Kitchen last summer, offering West Siders a wide variety of Mexican, Asian and New Orleans-influenced flavors with entrees like Tacos Al Pastor, Shrimp Po’ Boy, Chicken Bánh Mi and Beef Brisket Pho, as well as summer-friendly frozen cocktails and nostalgic homages like the dayglo Adult Capri Sun, all served in an eclectic setting that operating partner Mike Kydes told W42ST is designed to be ever-changing and experimental.
“It’s a program that doesn’t take itself too seriously — we eat our own food and we wanted to build a bar that we’d drink at,” said Mike. “The menu has got a bunch of Asian influence and a bunch of Latin influence, and it’s coming from a street food direction — which I’ll put my flag down as saying that’s now New American.” He added that that the convergence of flavors was not unlike the melting pot of cuisines and cultures in Hell’s Kitchen itself: “It’s a fusion neighborhood and a fusion city.”
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Mike is a lifelong hospitality veteran who cut his teeth working in some of Boston’s most popular seafood restaurants and gastro pubs before making the pilgrimage to New York’s culinary scene. He was working as a bartender at Park Slope’s Bar Basic owned by Barbie and David Cheung when the pandemic hit. “Everything was chaotic, and it would just be me and Barbie and David talking on the phone all day, laying on our couches, talking about the end of the world — we bonded through the trauma of COVID,” said Mike. “And as COVID went on I was like, ‘Well, though it’s just a crazy idea, I want to become a part of the company and buy in and see what we can do’ — and that was the beginning of our expansion.”
Barbie and David had opened Carla’s successful first outpost in Long Island City, and soon the trio set their sights on bringing the concept to Hell’s Kitchen — taking over the space that once housed comfort food eatery Spoon Fed and briefly Italian cafe Le Due Sorelle Trattoria. Mike said, “I will take Barbie into the space and then I’ll just look at her and wait to see if the alarm goes off — she has such a knack for a vision of what the space needs, and then there’s this magical moment where the whole concept pops into her head at the same time.”
Part of that concept includes Carla’s signature Airstream, a fully functioning secondary dining room outfitted like a mid-century lounge, complete with a customer-controlled heating/cooling system and custom radio station. “If you’re gonna come to Manhattan and open a restaurant, you’re gonna have to find a way to get attention,” explained Mike. “We’re in the center of the block, which we found out later is actually sort of the middle of nowhere — because you’ve got six restaurants on either side on the avenues. I was like, “I need to somehow stick my hand out into the street like I’m hailing down people.” The answer? An Airstream trailer that the group found on Craigslist, drove to Rhode Island to tow back to the city and extensively renovated. The Airstream is representative of the larger process of renovating Carla, which Mike noted took a lot of “sweat equity” and DIY creativity. “I was out here last summer working on the façade day and night — if you want to stretch your budget, you pay in sweat!” he laughed.
Their work paid off — and now, the multilevel space includes a beachy first floor as well as an art-deco, disco-glam second level that includes a second bar and piano space perfect for late-night performances. “We’ve put on shows and we’re looking to do more — I really want to tap into the talent we have in the area,” said Mike. Some of Carla’s first and most loyal customers have been cast members from nearby Wicked, Chicago, Funny Girl and MJ: The Musical: “We have had so much support from the theater community — we really want to shout them out,” said Mike. Being so close to Broadway has also led to a steady crowd of pre- and post-theater patrons, which he said presented what he considered an exciting challenge. “Pre-theater is huge for us,” he said. “Our kitchen is really fast, and if you have only 45 minutes before your show, I can get you dinner and drinks and get you to the show on time.”
Carla has also seen its fair share of Hell’s Kitchen locals and hopes to become a well-loved hybrid of visitors, locals and industry professionals. “I’m so happy to see the Hell’s Kitchen community coming here — they were some of our first regulars and now I see lots of familiar faces,” said Mike. Looking ahead to their first full summer in the neighborhood, he plans to expand their already generous happy hour as well as encourage special events and celebrations in the upstairs lounge.
And as we chatted amid the cheery neon signs and tropical decor, one of Carla’s most requested novelties came by for a visit — Bella the robot server. Inspired by similar technology at the city’s dim sum restaurants, the team at Carla decided to “employ” the robot to deliver food as well as chit chat with customers. “Here I am!” declared Bella as she proudly rolled over to our table. “People love her,” said Mike. “She sings ‘Happy Birthday’ and it’s a whole show” — one that is just beginning at the lively Carla.
Carla is located at 331 W51st Street (between 8/9th Avenue) and is open from 4:30pm to 11pm Tuesday through Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 12pm to 12am, and Sunday from 12pm to 11pm. Performers interested in appearing at the venue can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.