30 Bars on the Lower East Side
by Laura Kusnyer, 10/06/2010
From the Bowery to the East River between Houston and Canal Streets, nearly door-to-door watering holes constitute what could be deemed NYC's late-night playground. A little gritty and very spirited, the Lower East Side plays host to imbibers of various types—including been-there-done-that locals, plaid-loving hipsters, ready-to-party business types and visiting glamazons.
Rivaling the Manhattan 'hood's prevalence of alcohol outposts is its musical ubiquity. The LES abounds with concert venues that double as bars. The Delancey, The Mercury Lounge and Rockwood Music Hall welcome a mix of seasoned rockers and up-and-comers; Arlene's Grocery maintains an audacious downtown vibe; and Pianos, The Living Room and Cake Shop—which are lined up three in a row—keep it rowdy on Ludlow Street.
Here, we highlight some of the best bars on the LES—from dinner-and-drinks spots to dancing dens. Please tipple responsibly.
Dinner and Drinks
If you're revving up for a long evening out, chances are you want to spend your bucks on beverages rather than a fancy dinner. You still need to eat, though, and you're in luck: the LES has plenty of affordable sit-down options. Many legendary LES evenings have kicked off at Mexican eatery El Sombrero, or The Hat, which was one of the area's only stops in the '80s before gentrification hit the neighborhood. The potent margaritas and cheap beer (all $5 or less) clearly take center stage over the food here—they always have—but The Hat's passable traditional items like quesadillas and chicken enchiladas do provide the necessary protective foundation for further cocktail consumption. A more contemporary neighborhood classic, Pink Pony rejuvenates an otherwise classic French menu (steak tartare, steak au poivre, duck liver pâté) with meat-free options like vegan lasagna and vegetarian eggplant Napoleon. It's both romantic and rock 'n' roll at this bistro café, where you and your friends can share a bottle of champagne for $38, set the mood at the jukebox, people-watch through the windows or chat it up with the hip waitstaff. Great for dates, Jadis is another French option, this one ideal for a quick cheese or charcuterie plate paired with one of the nearly 50 wines.
In other European fare, the tiny but animated Cafe Katja serves Bavarian cuisine like bratwurst and spätzle; a party of two would make out well with a sausage sampler, a pretzel and a duo of half-liter Gösser or Hofbräu draughts. If you prefer smoked fish and vodka with muddled lingonberries to heartier German fare, pull up one of the towering bar stools at White Slab Palace, a venture from the owners of the now-closed hip Scandinavian joint Good World. Another dining-meets-nightlife hotspot, Barrio Chino offers authentic Mexican fare, including local favorite tacos al pastor and cactus tacos for vegetarians. Top off your meal with sangria or a Michelada, which combines Mexican pilsners with Cholula hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and fresh-squeezed lime juice.
The Lower East Side dance floor is a different animal than what you'd encounter in clubbier areas like Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. While those locations have the luxury of industrial-size elbow room, the more space-restricted LES tends to host booty-shakers in crowded basements of venues that often have some pretty quirky decor. Taxidermy-themed Home Sweet Home (which has no upstairs) welcomes midnight revelers for late nights of bouncy DJ tracks. Wednesdays feature coldwave (think goth), while Fridays offer old-school soul and rock 'n' roll. Also located basement-level, the candlelit and white-tiled Chloe 81 hosts well-dressed clientele who alternate between mingling and bopping their heads to tunes spun by discriminating local DJs.
Subterranean debauchery continues at La Caverna and Happy Ending Lounge. Drinks are relatively inexpensive—a bottle of Amstel Light goes for $5; a lychee martini for $10—at La Caverna (Italian for "the cave"), where Fraggle Rock–like ceilings and walls are covered with faux stalactites and colored phosphorescent lights. DJs spin both upstairs and downstairs at Happy Ending, housed in a former "erotic" massage parlor that's complete with the original waist-high showerheads and plenty of mysterious alcoves where you and your friends can break away from the crowd. At Mehanata, often called "the Bulgarian bar," sassy bartenders serve Astika beer and vodka cider as jovial boozehounds kick their legs to Eastern European gypsy rock in the tight space. Proceed with caution if you go downstairs to the "Ice Cage," where visitors are forced to wear Russian military uniforms and drink up to six shots of vodka in two minutes from a shot glass made of ice.
The Lower East Side is a magnet for bars with a theme or a memorable feature used to lure adherents. The last decade has welcomed a variety of neo-speakeasies to New York, where top mixologists concoct pristine fizzes and punches in umbral settings. King of this movement is Sasha Petraske, whose LES spots include Milk & Honey (often credited as the NYC original of these late-night hideaways) and the diminutive White Star, where guests can enjoy absinthe alone or absinthe and champagne ("Death in the Afternoon"). Another Prohibition-themed salon, The Back Room serves liquor in teacups in a velvet-wallpapered space that can only be accessed through an alley off of Norfolk Street. When it comes to opulence, though, nothing tops The Box. Gold chandeliers hang above the parquet floors, and balconies flank the plush-curtained stage where R-rated, circus-like performances give patrons a thrill.
Merging the art world with late-night quaffing, GalleryBar exhibits the work of buzzed-about artists in a simply designed space (leather banquettes, small tables, candles). Bars both upstairs and downstairs serve cocktails named after artists who've shown there, like Slaves of Fashion painter Kevin Berlin and Iraq War photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson. And on the silly side of LES guzzling is Welcome to the Johnsons. Made to feel like a late-1970s/early-1980s–era basement, this cheery swill house is home to fake wood walls, a Ms. Pac-Man game and $2 PBRs.
The Best of the Rest
It's not all basement dancing and theme bars south of Houston Street—there are plenty of straight-up spots ideal for kicking back while you and your crew collectively wet your whistle. Keep an eye out for bearded indie rockers at Max Fish, a colorful jeans-and-T-shirt bar with a pool table and jukebox; and put your black boots on to blend with hard-rocking types at Motor City Bar, a brassy automobile-themed dive where you can perch on old car seats as a steady stream of metal and rockabilly fills the air. Hipsters occasionally push tables out of the way to Charlie Brown–dance to The Cure and Morrissey at The Magician. From there, they might take a breather at the sleek and shadowy Lolita Bar, where the dance-friendly basement is just a quick trip away if the urge to boogie returns. Verlaine, with its ultra-long banquettes and bountiful candles, is marked by a similar sexiness—one that sensual French poet Paul Verlaine, the bar's namesake, would approve of. Finally, the best bet for groups is the spacious Fontana's, where guests can view movies projected on a large screen, line up for a game of billiards, play classic rock on the jukebox or just sprawl out in the giant red booths while throwing back a Guinness.