Out Late: Empanada Mama's flagship restaurant is the hottest gay bar in the city

I went to Empanada Mama on a Friday night to find out how it got so gay.

Ian Kumamoto
Written by
Ian Kumamoto
Staff Writer
Out Late column badge on a rainbow empanada
Photograph: Onik Hossain for Time Out New York

“Out Late” is Time Out’s nightlife and party column by DJ, Whorechata founder, and Staff Writer Ian Kumamoto, which publishes every other Tuesday. The previous edition highlighted Whorechata’s sold-out anniversary party.

In my nearly 10 years of living in New York, I haven’t found any business that encapsulates the essence of gay New York better than an empanada shop that has outlived a global pandemic, a fire, and many of its queer neighbors—including a multi-story gay club (R.I.P., The Q) and a fantastically chaotic two-story bar (miss you, Bottoms Up).

But located on the corner of 9th Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets lies a restaurant that stands as a fortress of queer hope. If you’re a gay person in New York who goes out, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about—if you’re not, I’m referring to the flagship Empanada Mama, my modern-day Stonewall. 

You might not think of an empanada shop as a fertile ground on which to build a queer haven, but everything about this specific Empanada Mama is perfectly conducive to it: From its 24-hour weekend operating schedule to its gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms (more on that later) and its flamboyant (pretty-sure-they’re-all-gay) staff.

an inflatable rainbow heart
Photograph: By Ian Kumamoto

This Empanada Mama has existed in the neighborhood for 20 years. Eight years ago, though, a fire burned it to a crisp and it moved next door, where it is now. I myself have had plenty of wonderful late-night meals here, and the energy feels very different from a regular gay bar—people seem more off-guard and are actually open to talking. Located within a five-minute walk of some of the biggest gay clubs in the area like Hush, Industry, and Boxers, the Empanada Mama is the rare place where real community can be built over a meal. You can get wasted here if you want, but that’s not what people are coming for—past 10pm, they’re here to sober up or catch a breather before going to the next club, or even to achieve enlightened post-nut clarity. 

I went there at midnight on a Friday night recently, and the entire space was decked out in Pride decor, including inflatable unicorns and giant rainbow hearts. I spoke to the manager, Giovanni, to get to the bottom of why this Empanada Mama specifically became such an unabashedly gay business.  

Giovanni tells me Empanada Mama’s queerness happened completely organically. When queer people got priced out of Chelsea a couple of decades ago, they migrated up to Hell’s Kitchen in search of more affordable rent. This Empanada Mama happened to open its doors when that migration was happening that so much of the staff they ended up hiring just happened to be queer, he said.

a bar with an inflatable unicorn and rainbow streamers
Photograph: Courtesy of Empanada Mama

To my surprise, the most popular menu item people get in the wee hours of the morning is not its empanadas, but its signature soups, which Giovanni tells me that people order to try and sober up. The most popular empanadas are the Brazil, which has ground beef, potatoes and green olives; the Viagra, which has shrimp and crab meat (both aphrodisiacs, hence the name); The Cuban, which is a Cuban sandwich inside an empanada; the spicy chicken; and the cheese steak empanada. 

Giovanni himself used to manage nightclubs, which seems like a perfect fit for being the night manager at the Hell’s Kitchen Empanada. “It’s a nightclub with food,” he tells me. 

On any given night, Giovanni describes the crowd as coming in cycles. In the morning, it’s a lot of business people and families. The crowd shifts to predominantly queer folks starting at 10pm. “I can see the same person come here at 10pm for dinner before they meet their friends, they go out, they’ll stop back here at 2am to sober up a little, and then I see that same person again at 5am,” he says. “We all laugh, we all know each other, it’s very special. We try to keep a very safe environment for everyone.”

“It’s like a revolving door, people meet new friends all the time at Empanada Mama”

For Giovanni, safety is secured by guards who make sure no one is coming in too drunk as much as bouncers would at any nightclub. “If you’re too intoxicated, we’re not gonna let you in,” he says. “It’s not like Studio 54 but we definitely try to make sure everyone’s respectful when they come here.”

When considering what nightlife spot I would highlight for the Out Late column for Pride month, Empanada Mama was the first place that came to mind. It’s an increasingly rare and much-needed third space for queer people in a city where we’re mostly relegated to dive bars and grimy clubs. Empanada Mama is well-lit, it’s wholesome, and we need to protect her at all costs. “It’s like a revolving door, people meet new friends all the time at Empanada Mama,” Giovanni tells me. “And if you want to find your next boo, come between 2am and 4:30am in the morning.”

This was my night at Empanada Mama, by the hour. 


I walk in and wait for my table. It’s not too busy tonight, but while I’m waiting, I can see an older couple, maybe in their 50s, looking at me. One of them walks up to me and says, “I just want you to know that my boyfriend thinks you’re very cute.” It doesn’t feel disrespectful and I know they’re not trying to sleep with me—he smiles at me and then walks away. It’s actually super wholesome and sweet. 


I order a sangria, which comes in a huge glass and just eyeing it, I know it’s gonna get me drunk. It’s a little bitter and watered down. Then, I order the two gayest-sounding empanadas I can find: The Viagra and the Jerk. While I’m waiting for my food, I talk to the gay couple next to me. They’re from Argentina and are checking out the gay clubs nearby after their empanadas. They tell me they’re very surprised by how gay it is in here. “I haven’t seen a single straight person,” one of them tells me. “This is like the gay Last Supper.” 

“I haven’t seen a single straight person. This is like the gay Last Supper.”


As I’m waiting for my empanadas, different waiters constantly stop, smile and check in on me. The service here is great. More groups of tipsy friends walk in, and they’re loud. There’s electronic music playing over the speaker. 

My empanadas arrive and they’re delicious, as always. 


We have to talk about Empanada Mama’s legendary gender-neutral bathrooms. There aren’t that many people tonight but usually, there’s a line and people sort of pick guys up while they’re waiting and sometimes they go in together. It hasn’t happened to me before, but I have friends who have been invited into the bathroom before. 

I take a few selfies in the spacious bathroom and when I come out, I catch Giovanni and we talk for a bit. I ask him if he has any good bathroom stories. “I’ve seen pictures of guys Grindr where I’m like, wait, I recognize that bathroom,” he tells me. Yes, people are taking their Grindr profile pictures in the Empanada Mama bathroom.

the outside of a bathroom
Photograph: By Ian Kumamoto
selfie in the bathroom
Photograph: By Ian KumamotoMandatory selfie at the empanada mama bathroom


A group of five friends sitting in a corner start belting songs. I can’t tell if they’re Broadway-level good, but they’re definitely professionals. Giovanni tells me that a lot of the theater gays come out here to eat after late-night performances. 


It’s a slower night at Empanada Mama than usual—it can get really hectic, but tonight is not the night. I recommend coming in later if you really want the full queer experience. That being said, I’m feeling satisfied—I had a drink and am full from the two empanadas. I decide I’m going to go see a friend DJ at Hush nearby.

Before I leave, Giovanni stops me and pours me and himself a shot of tequila.

“OK,” I say. “Now I can go.”

people sitting at a restaurant
Photograph: By Ian Kumamoto

How to enjoy a gay night at Empanada Mama

Where: 765 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10019

When: 24 hours, 7 days a week. For a more festive experience, go around 10pm, when people are pregaming, or after 2am, when people are in between club hopping or ending their night.

Cost: No cover of course. Big cocktails are $18 and each empanada is around $4.50 on average. There are also soups, salads, sandwiches, Colombian breakfasts, and arepas. 

How to get in: Just don’t be wasted or homophobic. 

The vibe: Social and festive.

What to wear: Whatever you wear to the club. You see people here in everything from button-up shirts to fetish gear.

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