NFT New York Lower East Side

Lower East Side

Now characterized by bars and nightclubs and the high-heeled, cologne-drenched crowds that flock to them, the Lower East Side has traditionally been known as the epicenter of immigrant cultures. At one time the term "Lower East Side" applied to what's now called the East Village as well, but starting in the latter part of the 20th century, the two neighborhoods have commonly been referred to separately, with Houston Street as the dividing line. While the Lower East Side has the grittier reputation, with its sprawl of housing projects along the East River, and shared border with Chinatown on the southern and western edges, gentrification is quickly sweeping across the landscape; one of the more obvious signs is the incongruous Blue Condo rising above Norfolk Street.

Of all the groups who settled here, the area is perhaps most known for its Jewish roots, and traces can still be found if you look hard enough. A number of historic synagogues still stand, including See more.

>Bialystoker Synagogue on Willett Street, and the Angel Orensanz Foundation, which has been converted into an art gallery. The venerable Katz's Delicatessen on Houston Street is an obvious starting point for any culinary tour, and if you still have room after all that pastrami, head to Russ & Daughters for bagels, smoked fish, and old world appetizing. If a light snack is what you're after, Kossar's Bialys is still one of the best deals in town. Once your belly is full, walk along the tenement buildings and discount clothing stores along Orchard Street until you reach the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. There you can tour restored apartments of actual people who lived in the area long ago, and thank your lucky stars that at least you don't share your tiny studio with a half dozen relatives.

The overlapping of Jewish, Puerto Rican and Chinese cultures, as well as the changes wrought by the neighborhood's rising attractiveness to developers make any walking tour fascinating. Along Clinton Street, old school Latino businesses stand side-by-side with cutting-edge eateries. On Broome Street, pungent Chinese vegetable markets encounter pricey boutiques. Art center ABC No Rio, which grew out of downtown's squatter movement and punk rock scene is located a couple blocks from the swanky Hotel on Rivington. You get the picture.

When you're done with history, you can always do some more eating. Check out the stalls at Essex Street Market--established in the 1930s to replace the pushcarts that once clogged these streets--for gourmet groceries, meats, and produce. If you're passing by on a Saturday, Hester Street Fair will give you a taste of the city's booming foodie scene with its many artisanal delights. And then there's the infamous nightlife, a slice of party heaven (or hell) clustered around Orchard, Clinton, Ludlow, Rivington, and Stanton Streets. If you're not up for impressing bouncers at Libation or downing vodka shots at Mehanata, do what we do and catch a show. Mercury Lounge is one of our favorite venues, and there's always something going on at Cake Shop or Arlene's Grocery. This is best attempted on a week night, of course. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Ready for a night out on the Lower East Side? Chug some cut-rate PBRs at Welcome to the Johnsons then head to Arlene's Grocery for rock n' roll karaoke. Or check out burlesque at Nurse Bettie, then get cozy on a couch at The Back Room. Or sample beers at Spitzer's Corner then catch a show at Cake Shop or Fat Baby. Go!

Sliders at the Meatball Shop and brunch at Clinton Street Baking Co. keep 'em lined up, but if you're with a group, just get a big table at Congee Village. We love Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop and Nonna's L.E.S. Pizza for a quick bite, and Shopsin's when we just need some good old fashioned mac n' cheese pancakes.

We buy our gear at Ludlow Guitars, retro glasses at Moscot, jewelry at Wendy Mink, groceries at Essex Street Market, and uhhh...just browse at Babeland. Bluestockings is worth a look for activist lit, Economy Candy has everything, and if you're hungry, hit Kossar's Bialys, and Doughnut Plant.


This Neighborhood Featured in...
The Grandest Street of All

By Rob Tallia
Join NFT head honcho Rob Tallia on an epic journey down the entire length of Grand Street in Manhattan. From the gritty to the sublime, Grand Street has it all.
Free NYC

By Krista Apple
When Krista Apple moved to NYC, a friend shoved her into a corner and hissed, "They charge you to breathe here." But Krista could not be deterred. She vowed to seek out the cheapest eats, drinks and arts this side of the Appalachians. Now, let her show you the way.

The New Feminisms of New York

By Jennifer Treuting
Take a chance on something beautiful.


On Our Radar:

Posted By:  Krikor Daglian
Photo:  Krikor Daglian

Pain D' Avingnon
It seems funny to have to recommend a bakery that's been in NYC for almost 15 years (and in business since 1992), but Pain D' Avingnon keeps a very low profile considering it's one of the city's best bakeries. They supply the bread for some top notch places (Eleven Madison Park, Momofuku Saam Bar and the Mandarin Oriental, among many others), but they stay refreshingly simple in their consumer approach: until recently, they only had one location in the city – a tiny stall at Essex Market (now they're in the Plaza food court and Smorgasburg). The bottom line: they bake up excellent European-style bread and sell it for a great price. Stop by once a week and never buy supermarket bread again.

Posted By:  Georgia Lawson
Photo:  Georgia Lawson

I was taken to Pianos on Ludlow Street with a friend who was over for the musical marathon that is CMJ. In a break between shows we slipped off to sample the famous frozen margaritas and chill on the squashy sofas of the upstairs bar. The atmosphere here differs depending on the room you are in, but each have their plus points. Upstairs we sipped our margaritas and caught a brilliant little San Franciscan Folk band by the name of Infantree. We then went out front for a smoke and made a million new friends, who we then hung out with in the slightly more frenetic downstairs bar. The place was full to the teeth with muso's and we spent a good few hours discussing all manor or music based topics before going back out into the night to catch yet more CMJ action. This well established little bar (so named due to the owner taking over an old piano shop--and not bothering to change the named) is one I would recommend to all for some early evening drinks with a healthy dash of music on the side.

Posted By:  Sarah Enelow
Photo:  Sarah Enelow

Azul Bistro
For whatever reason, Argentine food in New York is expensive. At its heart, this cuisine revolves around excellent grilled meat (from sirloin to blood sausage), freshly baked empanadas, and an array of mildly-spiced regional dishes, some of which are actually Italian, though keep in mind that Argentina is a gigantic country with many different personalities. In any case, eating a cow that fed on grass in an open field is a real novelty here in the US, which drives up the prices at many Argentine establishments. Azul is a decent place to start, not because it's any less expensive than its East Village neighbor Buenos Aires, but simply for its good food, wine, and service. Unfortunately the chimichurri is way too heavy on the parsley and the empanadas salteñas are awfully dry, but rest assured the steaks are succulent. Be sure to either make a reservation or come before 8:30 on the weekends.

Posted By:  Sarah Enelow
Photo:  Sarah Enelow

Tenement Museum
Does your apartment leave something to be desired? Go straight to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and in one hour you'll be thanking the heavens for what you have, and feeling a great deal better about the economy. This museum is a must-see for New Yorkers in particular. Though out-of-towners will learn volumes about the Lower East Side's history, locals have an even keener understanding of New York housing and the ongoing fight to make yourself at home. These remarkable guided tours (the only way to access the museum) deal with everything from immigration to tenants rights, the Panic of 1873, the Great Depression, legislation that alternately welcomed and banned foreigners in the city, and the stories of real families. The tenement building under the auspices of the museum is cared for extremely well and with six different tours to choose from, you can go back again for a new experience. Sign up in advance because tours do sell out, but if you end up waiting for the next one, their shop has a number of fantastic books on New York (guides, novels, nonfiction, poetry, etc.), and they have a film to prep you for this amazing time-warp.

Posted By:  Karen Dion
Photo:  Karen Dion

The Slipper Room
At this small space on an unassuming corner of the Lower East Side, you can see burlesque performances that vary from risque to classical several nights a week. The performers are both legends of the burlesque scene and amateurs--the New York School of Burlesque, run by the infamous Jo "Boobs" Weldon, holds its "Student Showcase" here. It is a tiny venue where the audience sits just a few feet away from the stage; participation is encouraged and it's not for the faint of heart. The feeling of intimacy continues even after the show has ended, as the performers usually stay to drink with the crowd afterward while the DJ spins retro classics.

Posted By:  Andrea Vu
Photo:  Andrea Vu

Sugar Cafe
You've finished off a plate of perogies at Veselka and now you need dessert. It's raining but you just feel like walking so you head toward East Houston Street and after a few left turns you see Sugar Cafe. It's 2 am and you are skeptical about indulging at a 24-hour joint. However, you and some friends decide to be brave and go in. Three slices of cake: red velvet, strawberry cheesecake, and red velvet cheesecake are ordered. Now you stumble around to find a table to sit at, choosing one tucked in the corner. You haven't even situated yourself on the seemingly comfy bench yet and your slices of cake have arrived, delivered with sincere "enjoy" and smile. If you are anything like me, you immediately pick up your fork and cautiously stab the cheesecake. Maybe it's late and you're in a daze but it's like eating a sugary cloud, or what I'd imagine clouds to feel like if they had any texture. You let out a heartfelt "yum" and look to your friends; they have the same reaction. Plates and stories are exchanged and soon the cake is gone. It's 4 am, the perfect way to start/end the day.

Posted By:  Sara Bogush
Photo:  Sara Bogush

Kossar's Bialys
If you fall into the "what the heck is a bialy?" camp, you owe yourself a trip to Kossar's. Bialys are puffier, airier cousins of bagels but they are baked instead of boiled, and have a center dimple filled with chopped onion. Polish-Jewish bialy bakers once had their own union in the city, but their ranks have been reduced to this Lower East Side mainstay. Kossar's is as simple as simple gets--ovens in plain view, no seating except for a sidewalk bench, and a few wire racks filled with fresh bagels, bulkas and bialys. They don't toast, and toppings are your problem. But, even though the price of their bialys has inched up to ninety cents apiece, they're a delicious departure from bagels when toasted at home and eaten with just a schmeer of cream cheese.

Posted By:  Matilda Boland
Photo:  Matilda Boland

Streit's Matzos
This old world family run production company has caught my eye for months found in an area of NY which is as diverse as the next, with fashionista lemmings and deep rooted cultural families inhabiting side-by-side. Striets Matzo occupies a 48,000 square foot block on the corner of Rivington and Suffolk Streets on the LES in a Tenement building dating back to 1925. An artisan establishment with a production line curbside where you can follow the waft of matzo through the barred windows on the north side of Rivington and watch the process take place. If you're lucky, they'll sneak you a sample, and after that you will be asking yourself; where do I convert? The historic headquarters takes you back to a time where the smell of matzo heralded the coming of Passover, now its an around the clock thriving business keeping the name of tradition for future generations.

Posted By:  Matilda Boland
Photo:  Matilda Boland

Bondi Road
Sun, sand, and surf isn't something that you would normally find between Suffolk and Clinton Streets on the Lower East Side. Perhaps that is it what makes it more inviting and even harder to leave after a few Aussie stubbies, as they say Down Under. Oversized, glossy photographic images line the walls to help transport you to the iconic Sydney beachside suburb that is Bondi. As to avoid being corrected its pronounced Bond-eye and of course fish and chips are the drawcard on the menu; beer battered and fried barramundi and chips (thick cut fries not crisps) for those not up with the Aussie slang. The young team of staff are Australian in NY for different reasons but essentially all because they have gone 'walkabout' and found refuge in a laid back, quality beach bar miles from any sand dune or seagull.

Posted By:  Harrison Peck
Photo:  Harrison Peck

Welcome to the Johnsons
Yes, the place smells worse than the East Broadway subway station. And yes, the drinks are so lousy that even the bottled beer tastes watered down. And you can't help but wonder how many types of mold might live inside the plastic-wrapped couches that not even your grandmother would have in her basement. However, all that aside, I have never not had a blast at Welcome to the Johnsons. With $2 cans of PBR ($1.50 before 9 pm!) and $4 well drinks (just $2 before 9!), it's easy to get comfortable on a piece of furniture that looks like it was just picked up off the street and get sloppy with nothing more than a 10 dollar bill in hand. The dilapidated pool table, Space Invaders console, and static-y television playing Molly Ringwald movies certainly add to the ambience, and $1 buys you three jams on the eclectically stocked jukebox. So while you definitely will not run into any of the Sex and the City gals here, if you can appreciate that a cold can of PBR is truly the finest beverage around (it didn't win that blue ribbon for nothing), then you will certainly feel "welcome" here.

Posted By:  Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Photo:  Tova Neugut

Mercury Lounge
Shows here are had. Bands here are played. People, outside they linger. Inside, I lift no fingers for I... am content? AM I content? Am I content when I go here? What makes for an amorous concert-going experience? Is it a $10 cover charge? A cool stage? What makes for a cool stage? This one was wide, wooden and conveniently fit the totality of band members and instruments. It is true that the Mercury Lounge has an admirably expansive selection of bands of various genres in various contortions. It is also true that the last time I partook of its stage, bands and cover charge, I stood at an intimate arm's length from the players on stage and was thusly privileged to enjoy the lilting sounds and up-tempo beats of Stumblebum Brass Band. Sigh. As says Stumblebum drummer Jonathan Levy, Mercury Lounge is A-OK with him because there are "not a lot of places left that are exclusively music venues." And thus, in view of my ambivalence, I defer to the musicmakers. Five stars for Mercury Lounge and 72 virgins in heaven!

Posted By:  Harrison Peck
Photo:  Harrison Peck

Essex Street Market
I'm not going to pretend like I'm some sort of fine cheese connoisseur, but I am a big fan of cheese, and I can say without reservation that Formaggio Essex, the tiny little sliver of a cheese shop tucked away in the back of the Essex Street Market, sells the most delicious cheeses I have ever tasted. And yes, I've eaten a lot of cheese, so that is saying something. The goat cheeses are the most flavorful I've ever tasted, the parmesan is transcendent, and the gouda is borderline life-altering. Since discovering Formaggio, it's become difficult to eat cheeses from other stores. If you don't believe me, but you are not quite ready to make the financial investment yet, there is always a variety of free samples out for you to thoroughly enjoy. And do not be intimidated by the vast selection of unfamiliar cheeses from far-off lands; the uncommonly friendly and knowledgeable staff is at your service to make your decision easy and filled with lip-smacking free samples. Unfortunately, cheeses this fine do come with a fairly heavy price tag, but I guarantee that if you bring Formaggio cheese to a dinner party, you will certainly be invited back.

Posted By:  Harrison Peck
Photo:  Harrison Peck

Congee Village
I never really knew what the hell the 'porridge' was that Goldilocks swiped from the bears, but I have a feeling it was nothing like the congee (English translation=porridge) you'll find at this fantastic LES mega-eatery. The porridge here comes in 30 varieties, from sliced pork and preserved egg (egg soaked in tea) to pork, chicken and duck; to more adventurous options such as abalone and frog or pig's blood. For an average price of $3-$4, you receive a bubbling congee cauldron that could easily be a meal unto itself, if only the dim sum menu and encyclopedia of entrees weren't too tempting to pass up. The downside to this prime joint is the crowds. The entry room feels like a Shanghai subway station at rush hour, and, unless you go alone at an odd hour on a Monday night, you'll have to wait. And chances are you'll have to wait longer than they tell you upfront. But if you've never been, it's certainly worth dealing with the line; it's all part of the Congee Village experience. Go with a large group, and try to score a lazy Susan banquet table so you can sufficiently sample the extensive menu.

Posted By:  Harrison Peck
Photo:  Harrison Peck

Roasting Plant
Starbucks-weary coffee lovers, rejoice! The solution to your dull, order-and-receive chain-store woes lies in the Roasting Plant, a tiny, eccentric LES coffee shop. While it may well be the best coffee in the city (a qualified compliment), it's been bringing caffeine addicts below Delancey since last spring, and its diverse, never-bitter selection of fresh-roasted beans is only part of the draw. Whole, raw beans are roasted right in front of your eyes in eight distinct flavors, ranging from nutty, earthy undertones to sweeter, fruitier essences. The friendly staff takes your order and taps away at a touch-screen monitor. Suddenly, the perfect amount of whole beans is suctioned from the container holding the roast of your choice. The beans fly through a series of tubes across the ceiling into the coffeemaker, where they are simultaneously ground and brewed. The result is the perfect cup of fresh-brewed coffee, with flavors so bold the caffeine is hardly necessary for your morning jolt.

Posted By:  Harrison Peck
Photo:  Harrison Peck

Prosperity Dumpling
There must be at least a hundred dumpling houses in Chinatown, and I say "at least" a hundred because I've probably eaten at 100 by now, so I assume there must be more. To the untrained eye they may all look relatively similar; a dank, fluorescent-lit room where, for a mere dollar, you receive the inflation-proof deal of 5 pork dumplings. However, lucky for you, I have fine-tuned my dumpling radar in search of the perfect dumpling house. After much research I have found the Holy Grail of Chinatown dumpling houses to be Prosperity Dumpling. While other dumpling joints make their products with soggy dough and a mushy filling, Prosperity's masterful chefs manage to maintain the perfect level of crispiness on the outside, while the juicy and flavorful shredded pork and chive filling seems to melt in your mouth. If you are in the mood to splurge, for just 75 cents you can get a moist, doughy sesame pancake, which, like the beautifully prepared dumplings, are far superior to any of their competitors. So while it is may not be a place to take a date or your parents, Prosperity dumpling will become your Mecca for those intense Chinatown munchies.

Posted By:  Sarah Moroz
Photo:  Sarah Moroz

Cake Shop
For a place called Cake Shop, the baked goods at this LES staple are surprisingly meh. But really, if you want a cupcake, go to Billy's. People come to Cake Shop to feel like they are amongst the musically savvy. Downstairs, the small windowless concert venue hosts up-and-coming bands for cheap. They're good bands, too--the kind that will be at Bowery Ballroom for twice the price in a few months. Upstairs, the wood-paneled walls are like the shitty camp bunk you hoped never to enter again. There are small tables along one side, a counter in front, and banquettes in the back. The music is consistently played very loud, making conversation awkwardly yelly. Used records and CDs are sold in the back, with posters and record covers lining the walls behind the cases of music merch. The lighting is dim and the tables are wobbly to the point that they might break but the venue attracts a cool crowd and unites a knows-their-shit music community. It's like the girl who dresses a little sloppy and is casually cool--but a café. And a bar! And a concert venue! All the elements are there! Fantastic.

Posted By:  Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Photo:  Rebecca Katherine Hirsch

I'm hip to Narnia. It's a reliable store. Expensive, but of continuously excellent stock. I'm down with the salesladies. I've seen them steaming. A vintage store without clothes that are steamed is like a bed full of bedbugs that hasn't been exterminated. But anyway, like you were thinking: the vintage stores on the LES are wont to posturing and overpricing. It is their way, but it is not mine. There are (a few) cheaper stores than this and many that are costlier; surely the wares at Narnia are no steal, but o, they will last a lifetime. For example, I have over the past few years bought from Narnia one pair of too-big red winter boots, excellent blue and white striped shorts, brown leather lattice sandals, a shiny Betsey Johnson party dress, a checkered picnic blanket of an early 90s Contempo Casuals dress, an indecent red Alaia for real and baggy MC Hammer/Charlie Chaplin overalls. I remain enamored of my Narnia purchases, though I know I am continually not getting any deals.

Posted By:  Sarah Moroz
Photo:  Sarah Moroz

88 Orchard
This Lower East Side cafe provides a calm, unpretentious respite from the trendytown around. Seating options abound: if you want to make pedestrians jealous, there are a handful of tables along a slight strip of outdoor sidewalk; if you want to watch them quietly from indoors, there is a wide windowed view to check out well-heeled passers-by; or, if you want to get away from it all, there is quieter dimmer seating downstairs, an array of board games within reach. Against the exposed brick backdrop, the clientele are a chill bunch, mostly readers and laptop users. The cafe's music selection is just what you wanted to hear (Kings of Leon! Bowie!). Did I mention the cafe's immediate access to pickles? There is a dead-on view of Guss's, which sometimes (always) makes me want to abandon my reading mid-page (and chai latte mid-sip) in favor of chomping a jar of three-quarter sours.

Posted By:  Rob Tallia
Photo:  Rob Tallia

East Broadway F Station
Yes, folks, gaze and wonder at the unrivalled beauty of the East Broadway F train stop, which doubles as the main subway stop for NFT staffers. Eagerly I await every year's awards for the "worst ten subway stations" and never do I see the East Broadway F stop on it (the Smith & 9th F/G stop? C'mon! At least there's fresh air on the platform!). We pay high rents, have scuzzy landlords, still get mugged, have overcrowded schools and overanxious police, and, of course, have to deal with horrific terrorist attacks. And then we have to wait for a train in a station that looks like Satan took a crap all over the place. Well, at least you can console yourself that the Straphangers Campaign gives a shit, as you can see by its yearly line-by-line ratings, and the helpful "how to complain" section of its website. Be a New Yorker: kvetch, already (unless you want to risk piquing the interest of over-attentive city beautifiers who will cleanse the stop of its character, rid the Chinatown of its Chinamen, heighten the rent on our office and subdue NFT to its expiry. Your decision)!

Posted By:  Andy Heidel
Photo:  Andy Heidel

Good World
Under the Shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, at the ass end of Orchard Street, tucked away behind a nondescript glass front, lies shabby-chic Good World Bar & Grill. Run by a Brit and a Swede, this local haunt for the LES peeps looking to get away from the new condo class invading their nabe has the only herring I have ever enjoyed and a decent selection of beer on tap. If you really want to feel at home here, buy the bartender a shot of tequila and join him or her for a smoke in the back garden (formerly a shoot-up haven for junkies) and you'll end up in a fascinating conversation about socialism (or whatever) with one of the owners, late into the night, warming yourself by the outdoor fireplace and forgetting that you have no idea how to get home.

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