Everything "cool" about New York City converges in the Lower East Side, the neighborhood that rules nightlife in Manhattan. The area has all the staple elements: grittiness from days gone by, lively crowds of revelers and bars jam-packed on every block. With its balance of high- and low-culture—shabby dive bars right next to sparkling cocktail dens—the LES offers a drinking establishment to suit every sort of nightlife whim. For our picks of the best, see below.
Swanky decor and expert bartenders are just two of the reasons why we love NYC's cocktail bars. Despite its dive-bar reputation, the Lower East Side is full of them.
There aren't any menus at this speakeasy-style joint, but that's fine: bartenders are well versed in the stirring art of cocktail-ology. The industrial-chic space is a bit small and becomes crowded easily, so expect a wait if you go during peak hours—there is a no-reservations policy.
Average price: $16–17
Yes, you're in the right place: Ring the buzzer on a nondescript door labeled "AB 134" to be let in.
Owners of this intimate underground cocktail bar are also behind the popular Death & Co. in the East Village. Here the playful menu is divided into sections like "Firewater," "Highballerz" and, of course, "Nightcaps." The sense of humor extends to the drinks; consider the See No Evil (Avuá Amburana Cachaça, Old Overholt Rye, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, macadamia nut and cinnamon; $16), which comes in a cup shaped like an eye-shielding monkey.
Average price: $15
Collect the whole set: The menu, which changes seasonally, includes kid's games, like word search or connect the dots.
The Whiskey Ward
Manhattan is full of theme bars that try too hard. Thankfully, the Whiskey Ward isn't one of them. The saloon's refreshingly laid-back vibe is complemented by a pool table in the back, dark wood paneling, free peanuts and approximately eleventy-billion whiskey choices.
Average price: $12 for a cocktail or whiskey
Drunk history: In the 19th century, New York City was divided into different wards. Officially, the LES was the fourth ward, but subsequently became nicknamed the "whiskey ward" because of the number of saloons in the area.
Looking for a bar without all the gimmicks and overpriced drinks? These basic watering holes—and we mean "basic" in the best, most #normcore way possible—are waiting for you and your friends.
The main attractions at this casual joint are the jukebox and happy hour specials. The abundant seating is also good for groups.
Happy hour prices: $3 for a well drink or wine
Inherent vice: The decor lightly references 1940s crime flicks; get in the mood with a gimlet or tequila sunrise.
This no-fuss corner bar features an extensive beer list and a kitchen offering dishes like a tilapia po' boy, a duck club and an asparagus and goat cheese panini.
Average price: $7 for a draft beer
Who are you? (Who, who? Who, who?): The bar is named after the amps Pete Townshend helped make famous. See the bar's photo of Townshend smashing his guitar into a set of them for proof.
Looking to get down? The LES is full of roaring dance parties. While megaclubs remain more the province of the Meatpacking District (and, increasingly, Williamsburg), the neighborhood still has plenty of hole-in-the-wall spots to bust a move.
This below-ground bar has a tough door, but hassling with the bouncer is well worth it. Decked out in elegant white tile, black accent columns and plush red seating, the spot has a sophisticated vibe that loosens up once the dancing starts.
Average price: $12–14 for a cocktail
See food: The main floor, Chloe81 Blue, is an oyster and seafood restaurant during dining hours.
On the larger side for the neighborhood, Hotel Chantelle's three different floors provide three different experiences. The club-restaurant-bar's top level, complete with retractable-glass rooftop, features tables with bottle service for big groups looking to party; the ground floor is appointed with banquettes and standing room to mingle; and the basement gets rowdy with a dance space and plenty of drinks.
Average price: $14 for a cocktail
Vive la résistance: The venue is named after a Parisian safe house from World War II, and while you can't stay the night, the drinks are strong enough to make you want to.
Looking for an understated night? Don't come to La Caverna. The kitsch factor of this bar, decorated like a Roman cave—yes, really—remains unmatched elsewhere in the neighborhood (or perhaps anywhere in NYC). The dance floor is packed cave wall to cave wall on Friday and Saturday nights.
Average price: $10 for a cocktail
Cave-in: To make experiencing the bar feel legitimately like drunken spelunking, two waterfalls are illuminated and "stalactites" line the ceiling.
A good restaurant by day turns into an even better bar at night. Regardless of the hour, this multifaceted Mexican-inspired joint serves around 150 different kinds of tequila and mezcal.
Average price: $12 for a margarita
Spirit(s) of 1776: The marble bar top is reclaimed from Philadelphia's Independence Hall, which helps to explain why this Lower East Side hangout is named after a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Wait. No it doesn't.
Don't judge a bar by its cover (or name). With a crowded dance floor in back blasting popular modern tunes and a few oldies, this spot appeals to boozy twentysomethings who relish getting a little sloppy.
Average price: $7 for a beer
The missing ingredient: The bar's cocktail menu features plenty of fanciful mixed drinks, albeit with one staple element missing. Take, for instance, their negroni, proudly made with "no campari," or their Whippet Rush, which, as noted, comes with "no balloon."
True to its musical roots, the club-rich neighborhood hosts plenty of concerts featuring mainly local or indie bands. Here's where to see them.
This dive bar and concert hall hosts emerging musicians every weekend, along with rock 'n' roll karaoke—with a live band—on Monday nights.
Average price: $6 for a shot and beer during happy hour
Grocery shopping: The venue used to be a bodega, and you can still do a little shopping here: Arlene's features a small gallery that showcases local artists.
It's not fair to say that Cake Shop is just a club that serves good food, although it does—curried potato cakes and pumpkin gingerbread cake are on the menu. The colorful hangout also has live music, spoken word and comedy shows in an intimate setting downstairs.
Average price: $11 for a cocktail
Let them eat cake: You can order desserts until the bar closes at 4am (weekend hours).
Come to this intimate space for your indie-rock fix. Bands like the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol have all gotten their starts here; today, catch shows by the likes of Dylan LeBlanc, Julien Baker and Phil Cook.
Average price: $9 for a beer or wine
Rock 'n' roll will never die: The space has seen many transitions over the years, having originally been home to servants of Astor Mansion and later to a Jewish restaurant and a tombstone shop.
Cut loose at this two-story joint that features areas for eating and drinking, along with a room to see live bands. Pro tip: their frozen margaritas are eminently enjoyable.
Average price: Did we mention the frozen margaritas? They're $4 during happy hour ($5 for the weekend happy-hour version).
The sign remains the same: The marquee out front is from the space's previous incarnation as—what else?—a piano store.
The Slipper Room
The Slipper Room's burlesque shows are available to all for a $10–20 cover. Its long-running shows are a testament to the venue's successful mix of comely dancers and somewhat less comely comedians.
Average price: $12 for a cocktail
Feeling blue? If so, note this description, which comes courtesy of no less august an institution than The New York Times: "On a recent night, a performer named Gal Friday, who wore little more than a string of red sequins around her waist, gyrated to a rock classic, 'Shortnin' Bread,' and picked up a dollar bill without the aid of her hands."
Eat and then drink. Drink and then eat. Eat while you drink. Any combination is possible for hungry dipsomaniacs on the Lower East Side.
A longstanding neighborhood favorite, this Mexican bar-restaurant is as famous for its drinks as it is for its food. If you're interested in the reason why, we recommend the jalapeño grapefruit margartia.
Average price: $10–13 for a margarita
Asian fusion: Barrio Chino means "Chinese 'hood" in Spanish; the restaurant's decor is inspired by Manhattan's Chinatown, located adjacent to the LES.
Beauty & Essex
A door in the back of a pawnshop opens up to a stunning and surprisingly palatial space with a restaurant on the ground floor and a bar on the second (ascend via a curved staircase lit by a dazzling chandelier). Dishes include chipotle duck chilaquiles and sweet potato ravioli for dinner, and vanilla beignets for brunch.
Average price: $17 for a cocktail
Little big girl's room: Attendants give out free champagne in the women's restroom.
Since it closes at midnight—early for Manhattan—come here early to enjoy a beer or schnapps while noshing on Austrian staples like warm pretzels, bratwurst and schnitzel.
Average price: $9 for a beer, anywhere from $7 to $32 for schnapps
Oh, schnapp! The extensive schnapps list includes flavors like carrot, ginger and "old apple."
Perhaps the booziest of these boozy restaurants, Grey Lady turns into a serious hot spot after midnight. Expect friendly service and a typically young, pretty crowd.
Average price: $7–9 for a draft beer
Raw bar? One of the co-owners is from Nantucket, where there is another location and which explains Grey Lady's seafood-heavy menu.
Lower East Side Soul
Like in every neighborhood across NYC, businesses in the Lower East Side are constantly changing. Thankfully, a few old-school places remain. Don't miss them—they're what gives the area its character.
El Sombrero (aka The Hat) is a staple for those who want to eat cheap, tasty Mexican food and down a few margaritas.
Margarita price: $12
Street drinking: Before the original location closed in 2014, the restaurant was known for its beverages—that you could order to go.
Reopened a few blocks south of its original location, Max Fish is an LES stalwart. The bar—part art gallery, part social club—is popular with grown skaters, indie actors and generations of New Yorkers.
Average price: $6 for a bottled beer
Seeing stars: The original location opened in 1989 and attracted stars like Johnny Depp and Chloë Sevigny.
This raucous Bulgarian-themed nightclub offers two temperatures: sweaty dance floor and chilly "ice cage." In the latter, described as an "ethereal Siberian discotheque" on the bar's website, boozehounds have two minutes to down up to six vodka shots from ice-carved shot glasses. Additionally, they have to don "authentic Soviet military" uniforms provided by the club.
Ice cage admission: $20 per person
Live souls: The DJ booth is frequently manned by Eugene Hutz, frontman of Eastern European rock outfit Gogol Bordello.
Welcome to the Johnsons
Like most dive bars, Welcome to the Johnsons has cheap drinks and a pool table. Unlike most dive bars, it has a plastic-covered couch.
Pabst Blue Ribbon price: $2 a can
Time machine: The 1970s basement vibe is strong here—you even grab beers from an era-appropriate fridge.