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Nosh Pit

$20 Dinner: Dave’s Hot Chicken Hits Midtown With Some Seriously Good Bird

The Drake-adjacent West Coast chain opened its first East Coast restaurant in Midtown last month.

9:08 AM EDT on September 21, 2022

Two chicken tenders sit on a piece of white bread next to two slices of pickle and some french fries.

A closer look at Dave’s tenders (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Dave's Hot Chicken, which opened in August on a cluttered stretch of Eighth Avenue right below Columbus Circle, is technically a fast-casual, rather than a fast-food, restaurant, meaning that your meal is made to order, rather than pre-prepared, wrapped up, and ready-to-go under some heat lamps.  

Which is good news, obviously, for everyone who enjoys a freshly made—or, at least, freshly assembled—meal. You should know, though, that the vibe here at Dave's is pure fast-food. The tables turn quickly, the teenagers talk loudly, the logos are everywhere, the surfaces are extremely wipeable, the lighting is aggressively non-atmospheric. 

And yet Dave's Hot Chicken also seems to be something of a destination restaurant. Literally everyone we spoke with during our $20 Dinner last week had taken at least one subway to get here, coming down from the Bronx, or Morningside Heights, or City College. Apparently there's also a line-out-the-door situation most nights, hence the crowd-control stanchions on the sidewalk.     

As Yoobin Chu, a young man from the Bronx, told Hell Gate, "This was my first time. I just wanted to see if it was worth the hype. My stomach is feeling the hot, but it tasted great."  

Fast food vibes (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Let's step back for some Dave's Hot Chicken history, which among other things involves a certain Canadian rapper named Drizzy. The "Dave" here is Dave Kopushyan, a chef with high-end training who, along with his best friends Arman Oganesyan, and Tommy and Gary Rubenyan, started slinging chicken from a $900 fryer in an East Hollywood parking lot next to his parent's flower shop in 2017. 

The spot blew up (thanks in part to an Eater LA rave), the crew opened a few brick-and-mortars around Los Angeles, and just when the hype seemed like it couldn't get any more out of hand, the aforementioned Drake stopped by, loved the chicken, and signed on as a major investor. Boom! There are now 74 Dave's Hot Chicken restaurants in existence, including this chaotic little number in Midtown, the first one anywhere on the East Coast.  

Two sliders with cheese done extra hot with fries ($16.37), two tenders done medium with fries ($12.99) (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

So why should you care about any of this? I admit I was skeptical going in. An LA import on a depressing block in Midtown? Call me when those cowards at In-N-Out land here, so I can trash their garbage fries. But Dave's serves up some truly first-rate fried bird, served either as “tenders” set atop slices of white bread, or in “slider” format with kale slaw and optional melted cheese. 

The chicken is all white meat (and halal!) but it’s surprisingly juicy, and Dave’s proprietary dry rub, cranked up spicy as a motherfucker if you want, adds a nice bit of crunch. 

A word about the heat range. You can choose from no spice (the only level that doesn't start with a hot wet rub) to mild, medium, hot, extra hot, and reaper, the latter of which comes with a waiver absolving Dave’s from any physical and/or emotional pain you might experience while eating it. Hell Gate went with medium and extra hot, and the consensus here is that the former provides plenty of fire and flavor, no need to be a hero by ramping it up. 

You can order your chicken solo, but the basic (and only) combo comes with well-seasoned crinkle cut fries, which are decent when dunked in Dave’s orange sauce. The only other side dish is some creamy mac and cheese. Real players (us, halfway through our first ever meal here) know to pull apart the chicken tender and stir it into the creamy crock of pasta. Really, you could almost make a meal right there. 

This is how real players do it (Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

There are small reasons for dismay at Dave's. Every order, even if you tell them you're dining in, is packed up to go, with single-use containers and utensils stuffed into a plastic bag that you carry six feet to your table and then send off to join some patch in the ocean for the next three thousand years. 

The potato rolls on those sliders are Martin’s, whose executive chair, Jim Martin, amplifies his terrible politics by giving large sums of money to a far-right candidate for governor in Pennsylvania. Jamal Hoque, the GM, operations director, and co-owner of Dave's, told Hell Gate, “The buns don’t talk.” Yeah, OK. 

And the corny “graffiti” walls were done by an outfit called Splatter House, which Hoque called “a part of the brand” that does murals at every new Dave’s across the country. It’s a lazy way to try and establish cred.

(Scott Lynch / Hell Gate)

Hell Gate total for two, including tax but excluding tip and the vanilla milkshake we would have ordered if the machine was up and running: $35.77 

Dave's Hot Chicken is located at 944 Eighth Avenue, between 55th and 56th Streets, and is currently open from 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily (332-999-1825) 

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