There's something about the East Village that makes people recall the good old days. Known for cheap rents, it drew all kinds of so-called misfits: Beats and punks, artists and skaters. You could see the Ramones play for the price of a pizza slice, or hear Patti Smith read poetry in a church. But despite those common refrains, visitors continue to flock to the neighborhood—for what it is, not for what it once was.
Take it from Jimmy Webb, manager of long-standing vintage shop Trash and Vaudeville, which recently moved from St. Marks to new digs on East 7th: the spirit of the East Village is still alive, and it's still rock 'n' roll. “Rock 'n' roll is love,” says Webb, who arrived in 1975 and never left. “It's not discriminatory.” Back in the day his store drew the likes of Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop; these days you might see Skrillex or Lil' Wayne shopping its aisles.
Artist Dave Ortiz also sees the East Village as alive and well. He came from Brooklyn in 1988 to hang with skaters in Tompkins Square Park, and loved seeing a diverse group of black, white and Latino people all living together. “It's still a neighborhood where there's a freedom to be who you are,” he says.
What's more, there are still independent book and record stores. St. Marks Place remains home for teenage punks who don't fit in anywhere else. And you can still find vibrant Spanish and Ukrainian communities, a classic New York City egg cream at Gem Spa and a multitude of artists looking for inspiration, the way upstarts like Jean-Michel Basquiat once did.
Where it is: The East Village extends north from East Houston Street to East 14th Street, and east from Lafayette Street and Fourth Avenue to the East River. (Alphabet City is the neighborhood's eastern edge and includes Avenues A, B, C and D.)
How to get there: Take the F train to 2nd Avenue, the 6 train to Astor Place, the N or R to 8th Street–New York University or the L train to First or Third Avenues. —Christina Parella
St. Marks Place
Spanning three blocks of East 8th Street (from Astor Place to Tompkins Square Park), St. Marks Place is the face of the East Village. Over the years the strip has been closely tied with hippies, beatniks, punks and all other manner of countercultural characters. Today, casual Asian eateries and the odd chain shop line up side by side with bohemian boutiques and scattered remnants of the neighborhood's past. Ramen Setagaya serves filling noodles in a shoyu (soy sauce) broth, and Xi’an Famous Foods doles out spicy fare from China’s Shaanxi Province, just doors from historic tenements (like the ones at 96 and 98 St. Marks Place—used for the cover of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti) and sidewalk stands selling body jewelry.
Writer Ada Calhoun, who grew up on the block and wrote about the neighborhood in the recently published book St. Marks is Dead, says the street is always evolving but remains an exciting place. “You can still get an egg cream at Gem Spa, the way it was made in 1940,” she says. Some things never change.
To wit, still standing are the St. Marks Hotel, a former flophouse where punk musician GG Allin lived, and the long-running Theatre 80. The theater is adjoined with absinthe specialist William Barnacle Tavern, which occupies the digs of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. At Search and Destroy, a punk-clothing emporium, everything on offer is secondhand and slightly bizarre—from fetish gear and vintage apparel to pop-culture ephemera from decades past. —CP
An Asian restaurant scene began to simmer in the East Village in the 1980s, thanks to a young, global community and low rents. Real-estate prices have risen, but home-style Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Asian fusion spots have kept finding footholds. Area restaurants profit from nearby New York University's hungry student body, 20 percent of which is Asian. David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, Momofuku Milk Bar and the two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko are among the most famous destinations. Ramen king Ippudo is always boiling over with lines out the door. Maharlika has helped put Filipino specialties like balut (fertilized duck egg), pancit (noodles) and sisig (sizzling pig parts) on the front burner. Not familiar with Isan Thai food either? Go exploring at Zabb Elee. More adventure awaits at BaoHaus from Eddie Huang, whose memoir Fresh Off the Boat inspired the new ABC TV series of the same name. Huang's graffiti-plastered shop features cheeky takes on Taiwanese-style buns, like the Chairman Bao (pork belly and house-made relish). A Japanese entrepreneur named Bon Yagi is behind a collection of authentic sushi, sake, noodle and street food joints, such as Hasaki, Decibel, Soba-ya and Otafuku x Medetai. Further burnishing the East Village's status as a veritable Japantown are the excellent Kyo Ya, Sushi Dojo, Takahachi and Shuko, which recently won three stars from the New York Times. The Asian food options aren't limited to restaurants; alternative grocers like Sunrise Mart, M2M and Dual Specialty Store are reliable sources of exotic ingredients. —Julie Besonen
History buffs will find ample reminders of the past throughout the East Village. The Merchant's House Museum, built in 1832, remains largely intact and offers a preserved view of 19th-century life. St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery, consecrated in 1799, gives off a ghostly vibe to those roaming its yards (which double as burial grounds). In addition to Episcopal services, the church runs outreach programs and hosts evening events with feisty arts partners like Danspace and the Poetry Project. On a less-trafficked patch of Second Avenue is the New York Marble Cemetery, the oldest nonsectarian burial ground in the City. It's generally closed to the public (open hours tend to be afternoons on fourth Sundays in warmer months), but you can catch a glimpse of its tranquil spaces from the outdoor lounge at the rear of the Bowery Hotel.
Tompkins Square Park, the neighborhood's biggest green space, has long served as a locus of protest, including for the housing riots of the late 1980s. These days the park is largely frequented by locals and features a dog run, playground for children and special summertime events, like the Charlie Parker Festival (Bird lived nearby on Avenue B). It also serves as the divider between East Village proper and Alphabet City. Learn about the history and culture of the Ukrainian community that once made up a large swath of the neighborhood at the Ukrainian Museum on East 6th Street, which holds permanent and temporary exhibitions. —CP
For every swank new bar on the Bowery, there's an older one in the neighborhood, filled with the kind of character that can only come from regulars wearing out the stools. The walls at Manitoba's, owned by punk stalwart Handsome Dick Manitoba, lead singer of the Dictators, are adorned with photos of his famous friends—Joey Ramone, Chris Stein from Blondie and David Johansen of the New York Dolls. While Manitoba acknowledges the East Village bar scene has changed since the 1970s, the neighborhood still draws people in. “There will always be an energy here,” he says. Drink specials, great jukeboxes and the occasional art-house or B-movie screening are part of the deal at Double Down Saloon, Blue & Gold, the Cherry Tavern, Scratcher and the Library. A low-key crowd frequents holdovers Sophie's and Lucy's. Lucy's pool table and friendly Polish owner Lucy Valosky, who works the bar almost every night, make it feel like home.
In contrast, the lively tiki bar Otto's Shrunken Head serves up beach-bar standards (frozen piña coladas and margaritas) and more exotic specials (glow-in-the-dark rum punch). Rock-and-rollers tend to gather at Black & White, owned by music man Johnny T. Horseshoe Bar is good for big groups, and tends to attract sports fans and people who love photo booths and pinball machines. For a real throwback, head to McSorely's Old Ale House. The pub has been in business for more than 150 years, and has served the likes of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Sorry, hard-liquor lovers—this place only pours house-brewed light and dark ale.—CP
Dive bars are fun, but there’s no shame in opting for a more upscale experience. Death & Co. and Wise Men provide dark, welcoming spaces where you can sip handcrafted cocktails and rub elbows with fashion types. The Third Man, a bar run by the owners of neighboring Austrian-inspired restaurant Edi & the Wolf, serves a selection of German beers, original cocktails and refined bar snacks. Try Spanish-influenced bar Amor y Amargo, which features drinks infused with amari from around the world, rare liqueurs and what one bartender describes as “spirit-forward stirred cocktails”; one of those, the Sharpie Mustache, combines Meletti amaro, bonal, rye whiskey, gin and Bittermen’s Tiki bitters. For cocktails with names like I Hear Banjos, happy hour specials that include $7 mixed drinks and $1 oysters, and live music in a chic honky-tonk setting (how's that for an oxymoron), head to the Wayland. At reservation-only PDT (an acronym for “Please Don't Tell”), drinks are grand and stylish, though the front door isn't. Patrons enter via Crif Dogs, where the bar is accessible only through a phone booth. Another open secret is Angel's Share, a speakeasy-style parlor that's tucked away behind an unmarked door inside Japanese restaurant Village Yokocho. There's no standing nor groups larger than four, but there are bartenders in tuxedo vests, a view of Stuyvesant Square and, as devotees will tell you, some of the City's best cocktails. —CP
Clubs, Art and Music Venues
While CBGB is now a John Varvatos store and Coney Island High is long gone, music continues to be a big part of the neighborhood. That's only appropriate, considering this is where NYC's punk scene was born. On any given night at Bowery Electric, you might see indie, new wave, soul, blues and folk acts. Landmark space Webster Hall showcases more mainstream acts—live bands and DJs both. Beneath the main Webster Hall ballroom, The Studio hosts intimate affairs. The Culture Project, a forum for smart, edgy performances with political heft, has featured one-person shows by comedian Mike Birbiglia; Neal Brennan, cocreator of The Chappelle Show; and actress-activist Staceyann Chin.
The Pyramid Club is a two-floor dance hall that helped put the East Village's gay nightlife scene on the map in the late '70s, a spot where punk rockers, the goth crowd and other alternative communities could congregate. Today you can party upstairs like it's 1984; downstairs is a little less mainstream, featuring fetish shindigs and industrial dance nights. There's more dancing, a fairly mixed gay-and-straight crowd and signature cocktails at Bedlam, while hair salon with booze Blind Barber turns into a raucous affair once the shears and straight razors are put away (though there's a three-hour overlap of coiffing and quaffing between 6pm and 9pm). —CP
Vintage Shopping and Specialty Stores
If you're looking to start a band or otherwise strut your stuff, reliable punky vintage shop Trash and Vaudeville sells leather and leopard-print styles, along with—what else?—studs. Manager-stylist Jimmy Webb says the boutique adheres to the philosophy of “tighter and lower.”
But if your taste in clothing favors the campy and vintage, the East Village also has what you want. Exhibit A: Screaming Mimi's, where Cyndi Lauper used to work and Louis C. K. has been known to score duds for his daughters. There, you'll find the likes of tweed Chanel suits, Vivienne Westwood tops, acid-washed jeans and leather jackets that could've been pulled from your mom's closet.
Curate your closet with vintage finds on 9th Street; the stretch between Avenue A and Second Avenue is home to tiny yet well-stocked boutiques like 9th Street Haberdashery and Dusty Buttons. The former carries clothing and accessories from before the 1960s, while the latter specializes in vintage clothing from the '40s through the '60s (and includes some new duds to boot). The street is also home to Mr. Throwback, which houses a colorful collection of sports ephemera from the 1980s and '90s, as well as whimsical jewelry shop Verameat.
Those with more peculiar leanings in home collectibles will love Obscura Antiques & Oddities, where you'll find such unconventional decor options as vintage mannequins, petrified bugs and embalming-fluid bottles. Sneakerheads should head over to Zumiez for sneakers, skateboards and other accessories. —CP
Old Media Bonanza
Finding good deals on classic and current books is an easy feat in the East Village. The massive area mainstay The Strand, which encompasses several floors, has a trove of used books and deep discounts on some newer releases. Also recommended: Mast Books, whose devotees rave about the selection of used literature and art books.
Music fans will want to head to A-1 Records, Good Records and Other Music, which, between them, carry practically everything you could ever want on vinyl. St. Mark's Comics is jammed with the self-explanatory as well as toys and T-shirts. Equally noteworthy is Forbidden Planet, which carries comics, graphic novels, manga, anime and gear for alternative hobbies like sci-fi and role-playing games.
Speaking of nerd culture, old-school gamers will be floored by the selection at 8-Bit and Up and Video Games New York. The latter is practically a video game museum: name a vintage system, and they'll almost surely have it. (Last time we were in there, we saw a Vectrex!)
While you'd be hard pressed to find many video stores these days (RIP, Kim's, where the clerks never approved of your choices), Two Boots pizzeria maintains a display of favorites from their former days as a rental emporium; and the eatery shows movies on a big screen in the dining area. —Jonathan Zeller
The Arts Scene
The likes of the Ramones and LaMaMa ETC—the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway theater—took off in the East Village. And while rents make it much harder for a struggling artist to live there today, the neighborhood remains a creative hotbed. For example: the aforementioned LaMaMa still stages productions at its 4th Street location, where it's been since 1974. A few blocks away The Public Theater continues to make waves with groundbreaking shows; it started the frenzy for Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton (which has since blown up on Broadway), a hip-hop musical about Federalist Papers author and tragic duelist Alexander Hamilton. And if you hang out in the mezzanine of the Public's atrium (which is free and open to the public), you might run into Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks for periodic Watch Me Work sessions, during which she pounds out her latest play on a typewriter and answers questions about writing. The attached Joe's Pub hosts cabaret and music performances. Another worthy entry is UCB East, the Upright Citizens Brigade's second NYC location. The comedy shows here are cheap—always $10 or less—and the stand-up, sketch and improv acts are a mix of the well-known (the likes of Janeane Garofalo and Sarah Silverman sometimes show up) and those scrapping to make a name for themselves. Find more comedy at EastVille (if you hang out by the bar, you might hear the comics making small talk with one another), theater at Under St. Marks, contemporary art at The Hole, experimental music (mostly) at The Stone, a slew of performing arts (poetry, sure, but also music and comedy) at the historic Nuyorican Poets Cafe and Bowery Poetry and independent cinema at Anthology Film Archives. —JZ
Sometimes the folks zipping in and out of bars, shops, concert venues and comedy clubs in the East Village need to grab a quick bite; fortunately, the neighborhood offers ample choice for food on the go. Empire Biscuit on Avenue A is one such favorite, as is a St. Marks offshoot of Greenwich Village stalwart Mamoun's Falafel (it tends to be less cramped than the original). There's tons of cheap sustenance on St. Marks, including hot dogs and dollar pizza slices. Other area reliables: lobster rolls at Luke's Lobster, Venezuelan corn patties stuffed with meats, cheeses and veggie fare at Caracas Arepa Bar, slow-cooked pork at Porchetta, Montreal-style deli at Mile End and, well, what did you think you were going to find at Taco Bar? The fact that it's attached to the more upscale B Bar & Grill gives it some extra cachet. Don’t forget pizza at Two Boots, where the standouts are specialty slices with colorful names like the Larry Tate (a white pie with spinach and tomatoes) and the Cleopatra Jones (sausage and peppers). If you're looking for dessert in the warmer weather, stop by Davey's Ice Cream and Van Leeuwen for scoops of artisanal ice cream and the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop for soft-serve. Long story short: you won’t go hungry. And, of course, many of these places do offer comfortable places to sit in addition to the to-go option. —JZ
Sit Down and Eat
The East Village also has plenty of dining options for those who'd like to settle in for a proper meal. Perhaps most famous among local restaurants is Veselka, a 24-hour Ukrainian diner that's been open for more than 60 years. It's a diner, so the vibe is casual; enjoy specialties like pierogi and borscht at the counter or with table service. Frank, which understatedly touts itself as a “place to eat” on the sign outside its front door, earns plaudits for Italian staples like rigatoni al ragu. John's of 12th Street, meanwhile, has been in the neighborhood for more than a century. It keeps with the times by serving both traditional and vegan Italian dishes. Celebrated chef Gabrielle Hamilton still packs them in at homey Prune, where the wait for her creative takes on American fare is well worth it. On St. Marks, Café Mogador's outdoor tables offer some excellent people-watching opportunities. The Neapolitan-style pizza at Motorino is a favorite of many in the pizzerati—the place serves pies only for the main course, and, while they're not huge, you might want to come hungry or bring a friend. There's vegan joint Angelica Kitchen, which has been in the neighborhood since the 1970s and shows its quirk through a rotating selection of cheekily named specials (one recent day brought Van Halen–themed dishes “Hot for Peach-er” and “Pie-nama!”). Burgers come with a soupçon of rock 'n' roll at Black Market, co-owned by punk rockers Jesse Malin and Johnny T (who also run Bowery Electric). The patties are made with Pat LaFrieda beef and, as Malin is a vegetarian, extra care is given to the veggie burger. Empellón Cocina cooks up imaginative Mexican fare, and Miss Lily's 7A Cafe serves Jamaican food to a reggae soundtrack. —JZ