Beginning in the '60s and lasting through the '90s, SoHo was the live/work playground of many of NYC's most famous artists. In the generous loft spaces, they set up studios where they painted, choreographed dances and made films. Retailers eventually followed them into the area, transforming it into the shopping hub that now holds sway.
SoHo has often been the epicenter for New York City trends, eliciting no small amount of both praise and excoriation from locals. A former manufacturing district south of Houston Street (and bounded on the east by Lafayette Street, on the west by the Hudson River and to the south by Canal Street), the neighborhood is characterized by Belgian block streets and cast iron–facade buildings with enormously high ceilings—made to accommodate manufacturing equipment—and gargantuan windows, designed to flood the floors with sunlight in the otherwise dimly lit gas-lamp days.
Today those glorious 19th-century buildings, built to accommodate the commercialization of the neighborhood during its growth as a shopping destination—when Lord & Taylor, Tiffany & Co. and the grand hotels moved in along the newly vibrant shopping thoroughfare of Broadway—are once again the domains of some of the grandest retail spaces in the world. Read on for more.
Ringing in the Bling
In the 19th century, as SoHo was reinventing itself as a home for textile companies, upscale stores like Lord & Taylor and Tiffany & Co. moved into the neighborhood. Lord & Taylor has since moved uptown (if down-market) to join the department stores in Midtown. Tiffany left as well, but has recently returned, in a swank new store on Greene Street. Broadway still bustles with pilgrims from all over the world who come for the many meccas of shopping here. Chief among them is the Rem Koolhaas–designed Prada store, with its swooping, skateboard ramp-style display, that, in the early aughts, revolutionized the idea of what a store could and should be. More traditional jewel-box environments, for the old stalwarts Louis Vuitton, Coach and Chanel, are nearby. The rechristened Saint Laurent's Greene Street store, showcasing designer Hedi Slimane's fashion and interior sensibility, opened in 2013 to much fanfare.
Rags to Riches
Once famously called the "home of the rag trade," SoHo has again rather fabulously claimed that title as the capital of flagship stores for some of the most inventive clothing brands of the new millennium. Downtown wunderkind Alexander Wang, whose understated pieces of rare luxury are collected obsessively by off-duty models, has his flagship store here. Kanye West collaborator A.P.C., uniform supplier for the chic Parisian hipster, opened its first US store on Mercer Street in 1993, long before the area gained its current appeal. The more recent imports, including Sweden's stark-silhouetted Acne and New York fave Rag & Bone, have made this cobblestoned area something of a shopper's paradise. Angeleno James Perse offers his easy knits and sumptuous tees on Mercer as well, and Suitsupply, the new kid on the tailoring block, has its NYC flagship on Broome Street. This Dutch-based retailer, a GQ favorite, has also garnered acclaim from The Wall Street Journal.
For more on SoHo's shopping scene, read our roundup.
A home decor institution in this district for so many years, the beloved Moss, with its wonderful whimsy and one-of-a-kind designer pieces, is now gone. But SoHo is still populated with the best interior design shops in the City. The inimitable Alessi, on Greene Street, offers sleek (and often humorous) items for both kitchen and home, from tableware and radically rethought espresso makers to a beaver-shaped pencil sharpener. The great fabricators of the globe, from the august Kartell, a company that has produced some of the most iconic designer furniture of the last half century, to the relative young'un Blu Dot, also have their flagship stores here. For one-stop shopping it would be hard to beat Design Within Reach, which produces licensed reissues of the de rigueur designs from the Mt. Rushmore of mid-century modern—the Eameses, Hans Wegner, Saarinen, Le Corbusier, among many others—as well as pieces by contemporary designers. If you're looking to accessorize your loft, the Italian lighting wizards Artemide and the curiosity curators at Evolution are here for you. Need the perfect ceramic chef's knife, a closet organizer, a notebook, shirt or pillow?—Japanese retail cover-all Muji has a palatial presence on Broadway.
Underneath It All
SoHo may have come a very long way from its days as something of a red light district in the 1800s, but the neighborhood still hosts some houses of allure. The lingerie here is high-end and stylish—the windows in the area display a selection of the finest undergarments known to woman. At Journelle, you can get measured for a bra and then choose from a wide range of lingerie styles and brands. The dressing room is comfortably appointed, and the sales staff treats you to chocolate while you wait. You can even book fitting appointments in advance online. The luxe Italian line La Perla, begun as a corsetry company in Bologna in the 1950s and now offering lingerie as well as swimwear and pajamas, has elegant digs here. The same goes for Hollywood favorites Cosabella and Agent Provocateur.
Somewhat ironically in the context of a neighborhood that has changed rapidly in recent years, many of the stores that have taken up residence in SoHo are heritage brands advertising their steadfastness with a hoary old date of establishment. Chief among these is the beloved British outerwear brand Barbour. Favored by actor Steve McQueen and his motorcycling peers, the label's signature, waxed-cotton "International" jacket, with its many utility pockets—and a history of being favored by everyone from hunters to hipsters—is an outerwear icon if ever there was one. The International's wintry cousin is the famously coveted bubble coat from the Italian sportswear company Moncler, which also has a SoHo outpost. Along with a myriad of these glimmering, down-filled puffer coats, the flagship store on Prince Street has pretty much everything an Alpine adventurer could hope for, including jackets from the Thom Browne–designed line Gamme Bleu. Also in the neighborhood, massive superstores from West Coast outdoor brands REI and Patagonia offer dizzying varieties of everything from tents to windbreakers, hiking shoes to climbing ropes.
It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that the recent, fetishistic focus on precision-crafted, handmade goods should result in a boom for eyewear companies. But who knew the revolution would be headquartered in SoHo? The granddaddy of this movement, of course, is the LA-based Oliver Peoples, founded and still designed by master optician Larry Leight, whose flagship sits at the corner of West Broadway and Broome. (Fun fact: such is the reputation of these glasses that, in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis had his demented perfectionist Patrick Bateman insist, in American Psycho, on wearing the brand's eyewear.) The cluster of opticians that have set up shop in the neighborhood includes Morgenthal Frederics and the incredibly well-appointed Silver Linings Opticians, which sells a wide array of both new and vintage frames. The upstart eyewear purveyor Warby Parker, which has quickly amassed a devoted following for its online purchasing system and home trial options, opened a flagship store on Greene Street in 2013.
Williamsburg has its renowned steakhouses. The East Village is great for ramen and sushi. Haute cuisine lives primarily uptown, but for the best bistros in the City, there is SoHo. This most recent heyday of impeccable, farm-to-table fare began in 2011 when Andrew Carmellini—renowned for his culinary magic at Café Boulud, then Locanda Verde in TriBeCa, and now at Lafayette in NoHo—opened The Dutch at the corner of Prince and Sullivan Streets. Shimmering with a vast selection of oysters and caviars from the raw bar, the menu here is vibrant with fresh farmed goods, hearty grains, a widely worshipped fried chicken and hangar steak; the room itself glitters with the members of the media elite sitting beneath the Edison bulbs. Current and past generations of foodies will welcome Jack's Wife Freda for some Jewish diaspora–inspired gourmet home cooking; good food can be enjoyed with celeb-spotting at Lucky Strike and the Jean-Georges Vongerichten creation Mercer Kitchen. A couple blocks away, Osteria Morini, from restaurateur/chef Michael White and inspired by a region of northern Italy, serves dishes in a comfortably rustic setting. The original Blue Ribbon, where Mario Batali used to hold office hours with his famous writer friends over magnums of wine, is still going strong, serving cracking-fresh oysters and stunning seafood to the audible delight of the eatery's visitors. And no roundup of the neighborhood's restaurants would be complete without mentioning Balthazar, Keith McNally's brasserie favorite that ranks among the City's best—and most consistently excellent—dining experiences.
Like every city, New York has its movie megaplexes, its grand old venues and charming art-house theaters. Cineastes from all over will appreciate the curatorial mastery and outright devotion to the art evident at Film Forum. The only not-for-profit movie house in the City, and the closest thing America has to Paris' Cinémathèque Française, Film Forum programming features a repertory series of classics, genre works or a retrospective of a seminal director, in addition to a handpicked showcase of new releases. The retrospectives often feature a Q&A by a star, a scholar or someone involved in the production. If you want just the talk without watching a film first, the SoHo Apple Store, where tech addicts will camp out for a new release, hosts some of the best tête-à-têtes in the City. The shop features directors, actors, fashion designers, photographers, musicians and creatives of all types during events to talk about their new and recent work.
In the late '70s or early '80s, one might stumble through the crumbling moonscape of a SoHo loft space to find an impromptu show by Blinky Palermo, Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Today the galleries in SoHo—though they may not have the same primacy in the cosmology of the City's art scene as the über-galleries in Chelsea—are still great for finding work by local artists, if, albeit, in a more refined environment. The luminous two locations of Team Gallery, around the corner from each other on Wooster and Grand Streets, are home to some of the most intriguing young talent in the country, including the digital-media artist Cory Arcangel and the witty mindbender Pierre Bismuth. Nearby on Wooster Street, Walter De Maria's 1977 piece The New York Earth Room, a long-term installation of two feet of soil spread over 3,600 square feet, has to be seen to be believed. Also in the neighborhood: The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art; the more avant-garde Artists Space; and the deconstructed gallery that is The Drawing Center. For art of the performance variety, The Wooster Group, founded by Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Elizabeth LeCompte, Kate Valk and others, is still among the most prestigious and inventive companies in the City.
There are certain establishments that you can find only in New York. Over years of conversations and rendezvous, they've built up a certain character, and when you wander into a place like that, you've got to sit down and soak up the vibe. Fanelli's is one of those, likely the second-oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in New York City. The venue, at the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets, is the kind of institution that feels like the locals getaway it is. You cannot have a more New York moment than whiling away an afternoon over a pint, taking in the history or sliding into a booth behind the gingham tablecloths for the satisfyingly hearty fare. A New York institution of another kind, only a few blocks east, is the much younger but nevertheless storied Broome Street Bar, which opened in 1972 and was the tipping ground of neighborhood artists including Robert Mapplethorpe. Nowadays, the bar-pub, with its well-worn interior, hosts an eclectic crowd, who enjoy the craft beers and other libations; the burger on a pita is one of the favorite eats here, and a chalkboard announces the daily specials.
Martinis and More
For a drinking town with a tendency toward the odd fad, NYC has always remained incredibly faithful to the old martini. And the perfect martini bar, often low lit, with three portions of character and a splash of class—so difficult to find but sublime when discovered—is especially venerated in these parts. Witness the 6pm crowd of professionals at Raoul's, an old-timey French bistro toward the western end of Prince Street. These are not just happy-hour devotees at the watering hole, nor is there high ceremony to the libations—it's just ladies and gentleman enjoying a drink, and maybe a dozen oysters, the perfect steak, perhaps, but definitely the drink. More artisanal and deeply influential on the City's cocktail scene is Pegu Club. Opened by Audrey Saunders in 2005, when mixology was not in common parlance, or practice, the bar expanded patrons' and bartenders' cocktail vocabulary. With inventive recipes, like the Earl Grey MarTEAni, and reintroduced classics, Pegu Club offers libations that are delicious, satifying and even edifying. Many of the bar's veterans have gone on to open establishments of their own, further cementing the venue's influence on the NYC bar scene.