Must-See Washington Square

Jonathan Zeller, Christina Parrella and Jonathan Durbin

Greenwich Village, the neighborhood surrounding Washington Square Park, is the center of New York University's "campus" (the park is ringed by freshman dorms and other university buildings). There could be no better place to introduce wet-behind-the-ears undergrads to New York City. It's bustling, filled with 24-hour dining, shopping, nightlife and arts, but still cozy, with ample greenery and architecture that's more low-rise brownstones than high-rise office buildings. It's the neighborhood where Louis C.K. comes out of the subway, grabs a slice of pizza and heads to a gig during the opening credits of Louie. It's the home of the Village Halloween Parade—a mind-boggling spectacle that you’ve got to see to believe—and boasts a proud history as a focal point of the Beat movement and hippie counterculture. Only the Village could have spawned The Village Voice, one of America's first "alternative weeklies." (Started in 1955, it's still in print nearly 60 years later.) While the neighborhood's demographics have changed—today, you'll have to earn a pretty substantial living to make your home there—it still retains the intimate feel and nonconformist character that have made it a popular attraction for years.

Photo: Alex Lopez

Washington Square Park
At Fifth Avenue, bordered by Waverly Place, University Place, West 4th Street and MacDougal Street
Pass beneath the Washington Arch—the giant structure marking the Fifth Avenue entrance of Washington Square Park—and you'll find yourself in one of the City's most recognizable public spaces. It's easy to see how it's earned that status. At any given moment, students congregate around the park's fountain; sunbathers lie on its lawn; musicians sit on benches and strum guitars; and canines run gleefully amok in its two dog runs. John Leguizamo is among many with fond memories of performing there. The park is also a haven for some serious chess players, who occupy the tables in its southwest corner. (Play a pickup game, but beware of anyone who asks to bet money on the proceedings; they might be hustling you.) In addition, the place is notable for its design elements: black-brick paths and vintage-style streetlights lend the recently renovated park a 19th-century feel, and a majestic bronze statue of Garibaldi adds to the atmosphere.

Mamoun's. Photo: Alex Lopez

Cheap Eats
New York City is chock-full of affordable meals, but the Village may have more such options than any other neighborhood. Vegetarians—and plenty of others, rest assured—love Mamoun's, late-night purveyor of falafel sandwiches. Even if the line is out the door, you won't wait more than a couple of minutes; they keep things moving. Gray's Papaya, meanwhile, slings hot dogs round the clock. You probably don't want to know what, exactly, is in those franks and papaya beverages, but they're filling and wallet friendly. Joe's Pizza peddles one of New York City's definitive street slices and is also open 24 hours a day. Ben's Pizzeria isn't as renowned, but it's the place where Louis C.K. grabs his slice during the credits of Louie. Peanut Butter & Co. offers creative takes on sandwiches featuring the dorm-room staple that gives the place its name, while Molly's Cupcakes is a fine place to cap off a budget date night with cheap desserts—especially since the staff doesn't mind if you linger and play Connect Four, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit or any other board games available on premises.

Photo: Will Steacy

West 4th Street Courts
Sixth Avenue and West 4th Street
West 4th Street's iconic basketball court—colloquially called "The Cage" because a chain-link fence (20 feet high on a few of the sides) boxes players into a smaller-than-regulation playing surface—has been a proving ground for such NBA stars as Stephon Marbury and Anthony Mason. It's been immortalized in film, print and video games. The tight quarters and talented teams make for fast-paced, ferocious competition in the court's summer league, which explains the crowd that gathers—surrounding sidewalks are constantly filled with fans eagerly awaiting the next alley-oop or resounding rejection. The playground also includes popular public handball courts.

Other Music. Photo: Malcolm Brown

Vinyl Destinations
While the Village is no longer the bohemian musical wonderland it once was, the neighborhood's rich aural history is still evident in its high density of record stores. Buying music in person, in an actual store, might seem puzzlingly anachronistic in 2013, but there are real benefits to browsing racks of rare vinyl, white labels, 7-inch singles, vintage albums and reissues—not least discovering artists who haven't yet made it to iTunes (or those whose work was forgotten long before songs were something you stored on your phone). Other Music's knowledgeable staff curates its trove of releases with an eye for the indie, offering a focused collection of everything from alternative folk to experimental electronic. They practice what they preach, too, selling tickets to live shows and offering frequent in-store appearances by new artists. Generation Records takes a decidedly louder approach, providing a deep selection of rare punk, hard-core and metal albums, along with a downstairs section devoted to new and used vinyl. Neighborhood institutions Bleecker Street Records and Disc-O-Rama are overstuffed shops where it’s easy to lose an afternoon digging through crates.

Courtesy, IFC Center

IFC Center
323 Sixth Ave., 212-924-7771
Located at the former site of the Waverly Cinema, the IFC Center is a perfect fit for its artistically minded neighborhood, which is crawling with more than its fair share of current and former film students. In keeping with its Independent Film Channel branding, the place screens smaller films and frequently hosts Q&A sessions with filmmakers. The theater's chairs are comfortable enough to nap in, and patrons rave about the popcorn.

Chris Rock. Photo: Linda Turley

Comedy Cellar
117 MacDougal St., 212-254-3480
130 W. 3rd St., same phone as above

Tucked beneath ground level on MacDougal Street, the Comedy Cellar offers stand-up fans a chance to see a full evening of sets from comics both famous and up-and-coming. Past performers have included Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart and Wanda Sykes. Each show at the Comedy Cellar features shorter "showcase" sets by several comedians, rather than one long headline set like you might see at some other venues. Continuing with our Louie obsession, we’ll note this is the club he enters during that aforementioned title sequence, and also the site of many stand-up bits scattered throughout the show. Upstairs, at the Olive Tree Cafe, you might just see some comics hanging out before or after their sets. Around the corner, a new offshoot of the Cellar exists—a room in the Village Underground that holds similar shows. One final, helpful tip: the club sometimes offers no-cover passes for Sunday through Thursday shows that aren’t sold out (you'll just have to meet the two-drink minimum)—check on the day of the show for availability.

Photo: Kate Glicksberg

The Church of the Ascension
36-38 Fifth Ave., 212-254-8620
Consecrated on November 5, 1841, The Church of the Ascension is one of the City's foremost examples of Gothic Revival architecture. Designed by Richard Upjohn (the English-born architect also responsible for Trinity Church in the Financial District and Christ Church in Cobble Hill, among many others), the building was named a national historic landmark in 1987, and it's easy to see why: the graceful lines of the edifice and its artwork and stained glass all make for a serene place of worship. But the church hosts events beyond its Episcopalian services. In addition to organ recitals and classical concerts, the venue has hosted the likes of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, whose performance in May 2012 was taped for a special that aired on PBS.

Courtesy, Vegetarian's Paradise 2

Vegetarian's Paradise 2
144 W. 4th St., 212-260-7130
Red Bamboo
140 W. 4th St., 212-260-7049
These similar restaurants (which used to share the same kitchen) on West 4th Street dish out vegetarian fare of the indulgent mock-meat variety. Dishes like "Peking Spare Ribs" and "Creole Soul Chicken" may not contain any actual flesh, but they are quite hearty—perfect comfort food for those who don't eat the real stuff. VP2 and Red Bamboo will both do nicely for vegetarian date nights or for students who want to entertain parents visiting from out of town. Those on a budget should check out the lunch specials, which are outstanding deals. And don't miss out on the juices, available both hot and cold—we're partial to the apple-lemon-ginger.

The old Village Chess Shop. Courtesy, Village Chess Shop

Village Chess @ Zinc
82 W. 3rd St., 212-475-8130
The Chess Forum
219 Thompson St., 212-475-2369
For years, Thompson Street supported two rival chess emporia. The Village Chess Shop came first, opening in 1972. It closed its doors in late 2012, but an heir has resurfaced at the Zinc Bar, a jazz and world-music venue. The store offers plenty of chess-playing opportunities ($3 an hour, $1 a game), plus a variety of chessboards and game-related accessories for sale). The Chess Forum, open daily from 11am to midnight, was founded in 1995 by a former employee of the Village Chess Shop. It offers a diverse range of sets, software and accessories. (Those who want to play with characters from The Lord of the Rings or James Bond movies, take note.) That both stores call the Village home is no surprise—chess is a crowd favorite in Washington Square Park, where the game is played outdoors year-round.

Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Washington Mews
For a glimpse into earlier Greenwich Village life depicted in 19th-century novels like Henry James' Washington Square, step inside the historic redbrick gates of Washington Mews. Originally designated as private farmland, the street housed horse stables until the early 1900s, when they were converted into open and airy studios for the area's thriving art community (painter Edward Hopper lived here until his death in 1967). Located a half-block north of Washington Square between Fifth Avenue and University Place, the street retains much of its original character, with homes draped in ivy and wisteria, weathered cobblestone the length of the lane and historic blue street signs. The gates to Washington Mews are unlocked during the daytime, making a stroll down it feel like a delicious escape into a perfectly preserved past.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal St., 212-475-3850
Off the Wagon
109 MacDougal St., 212-533-4487
The City's landscape is ever changing, but many spots along MacDougal Street still evoke Greenwich Village's past. Minetta Tavern, which reopened in 2009 under the guidance of Keith McNally (Balthazar, Pastis), debuted in 1937 and served Italian fare and spirits to literary icons like e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway and Dylan Thomas. Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, as well as eccentric area muse Joe Gould (aka Professor Seagull), were regulars here too. While Minetta now caters mostly to media types who can afford its stellar $26 hamburger, its bohemian spirit is still visible in the murals, old boxing photos and caricatures lining the walls.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Off the Wagon, a few doors down from Minetta. Its bar menu offers comfort-food favorites such as baskets full of fried onions, tater tots served with Cheez Whiz and buffalo wings smothered in hot sauce. From the outside, Off the Wagon could pass for a Bourbon Street saloon, but inside it's a decidedly NYU scene. Exemplifying the area's boisterous spirit, the two-story bar usually brims with students and other young locals trying their hand at beer pong or cheering sports games on one of 18 screens while tossing back a cold draft at happy hour—which actually lasts for six—making it easy to see how the establishment earned its moniker.

The Bitter End. Photo: Alexander Thompson

Folk History
Washington Square and its surrounding Greenwich Village streets were a breeding ground for Beat poets, abstract artists and pioneers of folk and rock music in the 1950s and '60s. During these years, Allen Ginsberg frequented Kettle of Fish; a 19-year-old Bob Dylan got his start at Café Wha?; and every star-bound musician, from Joan Baez to Carly Simon to Neil Young, played The Bitter End. The countercultural wave these venues crested still rolls today as a wide range of aspiring musicians and artists flock to the Washington Square area seeking a connection to its bohemian past. Beat hotspot Kettle of Fish has moved twice from its original MacDougal Street location (including a period in the late 1980s when it took over a West 3rd Street space previously occupied Gerde's Folk City, another illustrious spot) but is still a popular neighborhood watering hole. The Bitter End remains a springboard for up-and-coming artists, and Sullivan Hall, a remodeled midsize venue where the Lion's Den once was, offers a diverse lineup of acts performing everything from Southern rock to jazz. And we'd be remiss if we failed to mention a former neighborhood pillar, the 400-capacity, no-frills Bottom Line, where The Cars, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen played early-career shows to packed audiences. Today the building is home to NYU classrooms—but, like many other ghosts of the Village's colorful music past, is not easily forgotten by generations of NYC live-music fans.

Village Vanguard. Photo: Willie Davis

All That Jazz
With Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis among the jazz elite who have played here, the Village Vanguard, which opened in 1935, is regarded by music fans around the world as the quintessential City jazz club. While the venue originally catered to folk acts and poetry readings, it became the hub of the jazz music scene in the late 1950s thanks to superb acoustics—credited to the basement room's distinctive triangular shape. These days the legendary spot hosts big-name performers and lesser knowns, for whom playing here is an unofficial rite of passage.
Another renowned jazz club, the Blue Note, has hosted numerous musical giants since 1981. Not only does it showcase local jazz, soul and funk artists during the Late Night Groove series on Friday and Saturdays, but it's also had more than a few superstars—like Tito Puente, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan—roll through.
Amid the jazz haunts sits (Le) Poisson Rouge, housed in the same building as another storied (but now defunct) jazz music venue, The Village Gate. It offers an assortment of music, art and comedy shows and something called the Freedom Party, which puts '80s, disco and old-school hip-hop on heavy rotation. There's art for sale in the adjoining Gallery at LPR, and food and drinks are served both there and in the main space, branding (Le) Poisson Rouge as a cultural emporium.