Must-See Lower East Side

Chris Wallace

"I had gone [to the Lower East Side] in pursuit of bohemia and youth culture," writes Luc Sante in the preface to his celebrated book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, an alternative look at NYC's past from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century. "I wanted to know about New York as circus and jungle, as the realm of danger and pleasure, the wilderness that it must have been then, as it is now."

He came to the right place. The eastern tenderloin of Lower Manhattan (bordered by Houston Street to the north, Bowery to the west, Canal Street to the south and the East River) was once one of the City's primary hubs of vice and bohemia. But what Sante found there was really history in tidal form—immigrants piling up, displacing generations who had, in turn, displaced those before them. Today, the tenements that housed the first surges of European immigrants still stand, and are filled with wave after wave of new colonists. Around them endure totemic edifices of epochs gone by.

Over the past two decades, the Lower East Side (or "LES") became renowned for its bars and clubs, but the chaos that came to define the area during the oughts is ebbing. Nowadays, the area's dives, cheap restaurants and clothing wholesalers are giving way to that newest surge, gentrification. And even if it is less a wilderness these days, the LES is still undeniably a circus—a melting pot of art, culture and culinary magic whose creativity often inspires the rest of the City and points beyond. For more information about what to do and see in the neighborhood, read on.

Katz's Delicatessen. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Classic Eats
Russ & Daughters, the high temple of smoked and pickled fish, stands in the very neighborhood where, more than a hundred years ago, its founder Joel Russ stood selling Polish mushrooms from strings slung over his shoulder as well as herring in barrels, later from a pushcart. The shop offers worshipers a wide and uniformly delectable selection of herring, sable, caviar and more. (Among its faithful are Calvin Trillin, the New Yorker contributor who has reflected frequently on his passion for the institution, and Louis C.K., who turned a scene from his hit show Louie into a paean to the store.) There are more than a dozen types of smoked or cured salmon available here and nearly that many varieties of cream cheese, as well as nuts, sweets, bagels and dried fruits—all of them often much better than anywhere else around.

Just one block away, Katz's Delicatessen screams with tradition as loudly as Meg Ryan did with delight while eating there in When Harry Met Sally.... (Go ahead, sit in her seat, have what she had.) The classic New York deli serves the Platonic ideal of the Reuben, be it pastrami or corned beef, along with specialties including salami, knishes, matzo ball soup and other savory treats.

Malted milk ball doughseed at Doughnut Plant. Photo: Alexander Thompson

Just Desserts
In the title essay of his award-winning nonfiction collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, British writer Geoff Dyer concludes a quest for the greatest pastry known to man. Eating his way from London through Paris, New Orleans, Rome, New York City and Tokyo, he is converted, in a quasi-religious epiphany, from croissant enthusiast to doughnut lover—by Doughnut Plant doughnuts. "I've spent twenty years searching for just such a doughnut," he writes. "Now that I've found it I can go to my grave a happy man. I've achieved everything I wanted from life." His fervor is understandable. Since its founding in 1994 by a master baker inspired by his grandfather's doughnut recipe, Doughnut Plant has opened outposts in Japan and Korea and expanded its menu to include churros and "cake" doughnuts (which have a different texture than the standard versions), as well as homemade jelly. Varieties include crème brûlée, tres leches, passion fruit, and peanut butter and blackberry jam. All of these are capable of inspiring religious devotion (and, quite possibly, fulfilling one's life goal).

Those who prefer their sugar to come in hard or gummy varieties, however, should plan a trip to Economy Candy. The overstuffed emporium is a Willy Wonka fantasy come true—from the ol'-timey classic confections (Atomic FireBall! Pez!) to popular candy, kosher sweets, halvah, Turkish delight, by-the-pound goodies and even sugar-free options.

New Museum. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Arts & Culture
New York City has long been a movie town, both as a shooting location and as a cineast paradise, and there are numerous repertory, indie and art-house venues spread throughout the City. The Sunshine Cinema is an art-house with stadium seating and big screens, and the venue features sleeper and breakout indie films for good, long stretches, in case you missed them when they premiered. A couple of blocks north, the Anthology Film Archives screens hard-to-find world cinema, as well as classic and newly made avant-garde films.

If you prefer art you can view from a closer vantage, there is a range of destinations. The New Museum is the Lower East Side's primary cultural hub, mounting contemporary art shows that draw interest from observers around the world. The works on display are serious, but the institution certainly has a whimsical side: in the past, passersby could jump onto a slide in the museum or see a rainbow-colored "Hell, Yes" affixed to the outside of the building. The museum's bookstore is worth a visit for those seeking tomes about such subjects as architecture, design and art criticism—and, if you're hungry, the Hester Street Café (a newish collaboration with the well-known LES weekend market, Hester Street Fair) has a range of sandwiches, salads and baked goods, as well as caffeinated drinks, to keep you sated.

The Tenement Museum, meanwhile, makes for an illuminating exploration of New York City history. Six immaculately restored apartments, from five different decades in the building's 150-year history, re-create precisely what the tenement apartments would have looked like over the years. Walking tours of synagogues are offered by the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy LTD, which focuses on preserving Jewish sites and culture in the area through private and customized jaunts. A few blocks away, in what was the first synagogue built in the area, the Museum at Eldridge Street Synagogue provides a lens into the lives of some of the neighborhood's first Jewish inhabitants. The 1887 synagogue was restored in glorious detail over the course of more than 20 years. In addition to showcasing the area's history, it still hosts services. The renovation was by no means staid—it includes a stained-glass window by artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.

The Fat Radish. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Gastropubs and More
Since opening in 2003, chef/co-owner Wylie Dufresne's Michelin-starred wd~50 has been on the vanguard of inventive, ingredient-driven tasting menus and is acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in New York City. The former philosophy student and protégé of Jean-Georges Vongerichten has a creative, personal and humorous approach to molecular gastronomy—take the "pho gras," for example. In mid-2012, he reimagined his classic menu, resulting in a sprawling 12-course adventure with a culinary Neal Cassady at the wheel. For those who only ever want to hear Prince play songs from Purple Rain, Dufresne offers "From the Vault," a five-course meal presenting some of the restaurant's greatest hits.

A similar sensibility is at the heart of The Fat Radish. An evening at Ben Towill and Phil Winser's flagship is like a cinematic dinner party where the crowd is always sexy and the menu, a remix of comfort food, is better than any home cooking. Oysters, celery root potpie and a curried monkfish are fan favorites. (The duo's other restaurants—The Leadbelly, just across the street; the East Pole, on the Upper East Side; and Ruschmeyer's in Montauk, the easternmost point on Long Island—are equally stylish.) Around the corner from The Fat Radish, in a stacked-brick caverna at Bacaro, delectable Venetian-style small plates (called cicchetti in Italian) are served by candlelight.

Pok Pok Phat Thai. Photo: Evan Sung

New-Asian Cuisine
Among the Lower East Side's culinary attractions are its many restaurants that put a modern twist on traditional Asian cuisine. Yunnan Kitchen, for example, brings a bounty of Chinese dishes from the Yunnan province to a stylish and contemporary setting on Clinton Street. In a change from the family-style approach at numerous Chinese restaurants, Yunnan Kitchen serves individual (though shareable) plates of locally sourced proteins, such as spiced chicken wings and crispy whole shrimp, alongside adventurous wine and beer lists. There’s also plenty to please carnivores and vegetarians—the Yunnan province of China is known for its mushrooms, and they shine on the restaurant's menu. Andy Ricker's Portland-born Pok Pok franchise has found a home on the Lower East Side as well. Pok Pok Phat Thai proffers noodles that some diners dream about: stir-fried in rendered pork fat and laced with an umami blast of fish sauce and tamarind, Ricker's phat thai, eaten to the tune of a groovy Thai-pop sound track, makes for an experience that's fantasyland good. A block or two away, Thai-Filipino joint Pig and Khao is as playful with its food and drink as it is with its name (khao, which sounds like “cow,” is Thai for “rice”). Go for small-plate snacks like sizzling sisig (that’s pig’s head, by the by) with egg, washed down with a Stinky Peat (a rye cocktail with flowery accents) or Pigroni (no pork involved, from what we know). Fung Tu, closer to the border of Chinatown and the LES, dishes up its own particular takes on steamed buns, whole fish and, more daringly, something that recalls the essence of spaghetti Bolognese (here, dumpling knots and ground pork sauce). Unlike at most Asian spots over in Chinatown, reservations are recommended.

Cake Shop. Photo: Joe Buglewicz

Scene and Heard
Since the heyday of 1970s punk, the LES has been synonymous with music. Among the City's best current venues is the Bowery Ballroom, with its consistently strong bookings, especially good sound and excellent visibility. The downstairs lounge is an added plus—stylish, romantic in an old-fashioned way, and 40 decibels more comfy than the main room, in case, you know, you want to talk to someone.

On the strength of its bills alone, the Mercury Lounge is hard to beat. Numerous local bands to hit the big time—like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes—began their odysseys here, and you'll find the next generation of hitmakers putting in their time there now. And when you want a culinary complement to your music listening, Cake Shop on Ludlow serves cake, coffee and beer and stocks records for sale. Located half a block up from the corner of Rivington where the iconic Paul's Boutique album cover was shot, the venue showcases a mix of poetry, indie, metal and garage bands that the Beastie Boys would surely approve of.

For information about upcoming shows in NYC, visit our concert calendar.

Courtesy, Invisible Exports

Gallery Go 'Round
It's said that the best portraits of a city, culture or country are often painted by out-of-towners—those who see the place with fresh, unbiased eyes. That's certainly true of this neighborhood: over the last half of the last century, many of the area's immigrants were artists looking to live inexpensively, enterprising personalities who established a cohesive scene and opened the first of the great LES gallery spaces. About a decade after the events depicted in Downtown '81 (in which Jean-Michel Basquiat wandered the streets of the LES), Aaron Rose's famous Alleged Gallery opened on Ludlow, which helped launch the careers of Harmony Korine, Spike Jonze, Shepard Fairey and Mike Mills, among others. Though Alleged is now gone, the art scene in the neighborhood has never been stronger. The sleek, contemporary Mayson Gallery showcases work by emerging and innovative artists like Kenneth E. Parris III—who documented the final two-year world tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—and modern abstract painter Andrei Petrov. Bosi Contemporary promotes the work of emerging artists, as well as exhibitions of more established artists, and special historical and guest-curated shows. And there's a nice art crawl to be had if you start at the lower edge of the neighborhood and head north; make stops at Invisible Exports on Orchard Street, Lehmann Maupin on Chrystie and Sperone Westwater on the Bowery.

Schiller's Liquor Bar. Photo: Julienne Schaer

LES After Dark
When Richard Price gave the Lower East Side the James Joyce treatment in his novel Lush Life, he set the drama in a café that's basically a thinly veiled Schiller's Liquor Bar. For good reason. Restaurateur Keith McNally's subway-tiled bistro pub has for a decade been the Cheers of the neighborhood—a great bar with good nosh where everybody knows your name. The Leadbelly, a more recent arrival, has updated the concept, featuring a bluesy soundtrack, Airstream-inspired design and a menu piled high with oysters and comfort food.

Of course, the Lower East Side has always been the perfect destination for those who simply want a no-frills drink, and every nook and cranny of the neighborhood boasts its own local dive. Barramundi on Clinton is a charmingly eccentric mishmash of found decor. Be sure to order a drink with one of the bartender-created infused vodkas. When just one nightcap turns into several, you may find yourself at Clandestino, lively late—or early—into the morning.

Freeman's Sporting Club. Photo: Julienne Schaer

Style, Guys
Dreamed up over drinks and a game of pool by a few outdoorsy types on the Lower East Side, Freemans Sporting Club helped pioneer the urban-woodsman renaissance in menswear when it opened in 2004. Freemans honcho Taavo Somer and friends' heavy flannels, luxurious sport shirts and handsome, tweedy suiting, tailored by the legendary Martin Greenfield in Brooklyn, conjure up the days of darts and duck hunts.

Commitment to quality goods handmade by local artisans fits snugly with this farm-to-table generation, and has gone on to pave the way for a new wave of clothiers. Epaulet, for instance, sells exquisitely tailored garments from their house label and many collaborations as well as staples from Alden, Vass and Gitman Vintage. And right across the street, Self Edge, generally regarded as the best denim shop in the City, carries a wide variety of the best, hard-to-find brands, from 3Sixteen to Mister Freedom and Sugar Cane.

Courtesy, Assembly New York

For the Ladies
The Maryam Nassir Zadeh store, on Norfolk Street, has become the cathedral for an artful downtown chic. Eccentric, sculptural jewelry from Anndra Neen, sumptuous Dieppo Restrepo ostrich clogs and eccentric pieces from Isabel Marant and Carven are elegantly arranged around the minimal space. Over on Ludlow, meanwhile, fast-forward to an offbeat futuristic world in Greg Armas' Assembly, where you'll find an Illesteva eyewear shop-in-shop along with eclectic pieces from Dries van Noten and Christophe Lemaire, all of it speckled with vintage finds and accented by a revolving set of installations (parakeet cages, terrariums). Nearby, Yael Afalo and Chi Bui's The Reformation offers an accessible collection of the owners' remixes—or reformations—of vintage pieces they've scoured from estate sales, flea markets and dead stock, most of which priced under $200. Vintage reconstruction is also the thing across the street at Some Odd Rubies, co-owned by Summer Phoenix (sister of Joaquin), whose one-of-a-kind pieces, retailored to modern silhouettes, have long been favored by downtown fashionistas.

East River Waterfront Esplanade, Pier 15. Photo: Marley White

Get Outdoors
Sara D. Roosevelt Park runs along Chrystie Street, from East Houston to Canal, near where an elevated train used to rattle. It offers a welcome oasis amid the concrete jungle: competitive pickup games last through the day on the basketball courts, and soccer fields host league play most of the year. Playgrounds not far from where Billy the Kid is said to have been born offer younger urbanites a place to roam.

Farther east, at Manhattan's edge, is the 57-acre East River Park. Basketball and tennis courts and football and baseball fields are available for everyone to enjoy some recreation. And a recently completed two-mile esplanade that extends from East River Park to Battery Park is great for a long jogs (with sights including the Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and South Street Seaport), excellent for people watching and a reminder that New York City is surrounded by water.