As a kid, my parents brought me to New York City with some frequency to connect to my Ashkenazi roots. The Lower East Side was always the pinnacle of these trips: get off the F train and beeline to Yonah Schimmel’s for a knish, Katz’s for a pastrami, Russ & Daughters for a rugelach, Economy Candy for bags full of Jordan almonds (or some long-forgotten candy bar, like a Charleston Chew).
New York City is ever-changing, yet the transformation of the Lower East Side in my lifetime has struck the biggest chord. When I was a kid, the Lower East Side was bubbehs with push carts, the smell of hot garbage mixed with kasha, street vendors who would sell you a scarf for $2. By the time I arrived in NYC as a college freshman, I had watched season 1 of HBO’s Girls with my roommate, who would sigh as Jessa hung out in Sara D. Roosevelt Park in a pair of jodhpurs. All she wanted was to live in a downtown neighborhood as cool at the “LES,” as it was now known, but by graduation, she lamented, we would be priced out.
I had my 20th birthday party at Beauty and Essex, around the corner from Economy Candy, where everyone dressed for a Jersey City nightclub at brunch. When I graduated and decamped to Brooklyn, a spattering of friends had found their respective LES outposts — a 3-bedroom walkup that shared a wall with Hotel Chantelle; a studio in a luxury high-rise across from Katz’s, where from the roof you could see practically all of Manhattan and a lot of Brooklyn; a charming 2-bed on Clinton St, comically tiny but perfectly located by some of the most innovative, and tiniest, new restaurants; a spacious abode on faraway Ridge St with central AC, a dishwasher, and a front row seat to the Williamsburg Bridge’s Manhattan-bound traffic.
It’s the juxtapositions that make the LES a neighborhood I’ll always come back to — there’s an inexplicable beauty in the crowded, sparsely landscaped streets, where luxury boutiques commingle with dollar slice spots. I love that on the same block you can find both Le Turtle and Sammy’s Roumanian, the former a terrifically chic dinner spot, the latter a bar mitzvah on steroids. And while most of the neighborhood is completely unrecognizable to the one I knew as a child/tourist, much of the old still coexists with the new (and the newer).
Here are some of best spots for food and drink, old and new, that make the LES one of Manhattan’s best, and most interesting, neighborhoods:
The only place in NYC where feeling like a kid in a candy shop is still a relevant simile, Economy Candy is a Lower East Side staple. Open since 1937, its old school vibe beckons you to cross Rivington Street, toward the huge neon red sign in scrawling, vintage typeface, past the hordes of vintage vinyls, and into the contained chaos of their old-meets-new confectionary. Here you can find wall-to-wall shelving and floor-to-ceiling displays chock-full of classics like jawbreakers, Almond Joys, lollipops, an army of Pez dispensers. You can load up on some candy-coated nuts and dried fruits to shove into DIY plastic baggies. They even have a kosher section and an international section (hello green tea Kit Kats, Pocky, and Kinder Eggs!).
NYC is full of ridiculous lines that take over city blocks for the latest novelty food or sample sale, but whenever I see the line circle around Katz’s Deli from Ludlow onto Houston I think, “This feels right.” (Although there are plenty of times when you can waltz right on in. Avoid weekend lunch!) It’s the sort of institution — open since 1888 — that, if it ever folds, we should just give up and go home. Is eating a $20 pastrami sandwich underneath a sign pointing to where Meg Ryan sat in the famous When Harry Met Sally scene (“I’ll have what she’s having”) a regular part of any New Yorker’s routine? No. But Katz’s is a happy place that always needs to be there. It’s full of bustling cafeteria-style trays piled high and glorious-smelling cured meats loosely sandwiched between rye bread. Pickles are stacked aplenty, steak fries portioned for a football team count as a single side order, and you can wash it all down with a Dr. Brown’s cream soda. The place is enormous, particularly by modern downtown restaurant standards, with communal tables where you can break bread, make memories, and pass the mustard.
Down the block from Katz’s on Houston St is this little hole-in-the-wall that serves up some of the best knishes in New York. A knish (pronounced kA-nish) is basically a mound of baked flour-based dough with a filling inside, typically a creamy, mashed potato or kasha (I’m partial to the potato variety). It’s the type of kosher comfort food that will feel like lead in your stomach the moment you’re done, but is worth every bite. Yonah Schimmel’s has been churning knishes out since 1890, so you know they’re the real deal. The space is not cultivated for the Instagrammers of today’s LES, but aesthetics are hardly the point when we’re talking mounds of potato. Yonah Schimmel’s serves up the original styles of knishes in some fun varieties (sweet potato, spinach, broccoli), sweet knishes with cheese and fruit fillings, and other Eastern European Jewish immigrant foods like noodle kugel, borscht, and latkes. They also have old-school deli drinks like egg creams and cherry lime Rickys. It’s where nostalgia and your cheat day come together.
This is an interesting example of the old and the new commingling under a shared namesake (and Jewish eating tradition). The Russ & Daughters of old (since 1914) is still around, its neon sign flanked by two fish prominently displayed on Houston between Ludlow and Orchard. The shop features bagels, a spattering of schmears and fish (from lox to herring to caviar and more), dried fruits, baked goods like rugelach, etc. It’s a place where you can pop in and out to pick up a few classics to bring to your Nana’s.
When people discuss Russ & Daughters now, they’re often referring to the cafe on Orchard off of Rivington, which opened a full century later in 2014. Consciously nostalgic, with an eye towards the photogenic needs of the modern downtown diner, the Russ & Daughters cafe was one of the early adopters of nouveau Jewish cuisine. They serve up plenty of classics like kasha varnishkes and chopped liver, bagels with schtick-y names like the “yum kippered” (with kippered salmon), and two truly delicious babka variations — they make French toast with either a cinnamon or chocolate babka and it is what my life had been missing. While never steering far from the classics, they’ve created a trendy spot by virtue of listing herring on a menu in a good font. Plenty of natural light and streamlined interiors in pleasing pastels create the picture-perfect setting for a sturgeon bagel.
The moment you walk through the wrought iron-and-glass doors, it’s obvious that The Metrograph
(or just Metrograph) is about to provide you with a special experience. It’s a theater for cinephiles in a space curated for aesthetes. The box office looks like it was ripped from the set of a Wes Anderson movie: beautifully monochrome, classic movie theater fonts, sparse, neat rows of colorful candy concessions set in the back. The weekly calendar cards they print up are equally twee, and show the wide range of cinematic choices that they thoughtfully curate — from contemporary, foreign, independent films to Hollywood classics, almost all shown in 35mm. Their Commissary houses a stunning restaurant and bar, where you can get a tasty burger and sample some delicious movie-inspired cocktails — I love the “High Fidelity,” a mezcal cocktail with lemon, amaro, and chartreuse. The Metrograph is tucked on Orchard St near Canal, nestled in the part of the Lower East Side where all the cool kids hang out (and watch Kurosawa or Argento films).
Ice cream shops with funky flavors and photogenic interiors seem to be cropping up by the dozen these days, but Morgenstern’s stands above the rest — this ice cream is really good. The base ice cream hits all the right notes, but they are truly inventive with flavors and pairings. Apart from their delicious renditions of classics like Rocky Road (my personal favorite), they offer insane(-ly delicious) options like Tahini Caramel, Cardamom Lemon Jam, Blueberry Milk Chocolate, Burnt Sage, and Labneh Sorbet. That’s not even getting into their ironically titled “Standards”, which include a take on avocado toast: avocado ice cream spread on toasted Japanese white bread, topped with olive oil, condensed milk, and salt. They are mad geniuses who churn my beleaguered heart. The line gets nuts, especially at night when the local party crowd tries to get their drunken sweet fix, but it is so worth it. Or, you know, try during the day.
The Flower Shop occupies a great niche in the Lower East Side — it’s not a dive bar, nor is it a club. It lacks a lot of the downtown scene’s pretensions while remaining upscale in vibe and moderate in price. There’s no “type” that occupies The Flower Shop — it’s often full of trendy folk in their finest athleisure looking for a chill time, but I also saw The Real Housewives of New York’s Ramona Singer there last time I went with friends. If you care to dine and nurse a drink on their first floor, the food is pretty good and regionally diverse. (A Mediterranean-inspired cauliflower steak shares a menu with Scotch eggs, Szechuan Brussels sprouts, and a beets and burrata salad.) But the basement is why we go. A vintage-inspired spread, somewhat purposefully dingy in a ’70s high school house party way (think: wood paneling, an aquarium, assorted knick knacks). It’s a great place to hang with friends, play some pool, or drink an affordable beer or an espresso martini that’ll knock you back a few steps.
The chillest spot on the LES for a brewski with your friends, Top Hops Beer Shop offers a massive variety of local, domestic, and imported beers and ciders on draught or by bottle or can. The bartenders are super knowledgable and will give you small samples to try out something new if you’re feeling adventurous. It’s spacious, well-lit, and never too crowded — the perfect spot for catching up with someone you haven’t seen in a while. You can also check out their classes, which range from “Beer for Beer Haters” to “Saisons and Farmhouse Ales.”
At the original Eldridge St location of Vanessa’s Dumplings, dreams come in all shapes and sizes — or at least come fried or boiled. Are these the most scrumptious, authentic Chinese dumplings in New York? Eh. But they are cheap, delicious comfort food at the right price and with good vibes. My favorites are the pan fried shrimp dumplings, although their pork and chive dumplings have a cult following. Their sesame pancake sandwiches are highly underrated — I usually get mine with egg, cucumber, and sriracha for one of the most delicious late-night egg sandwiches — as are their cold sesame noodles. Come with $10 in cash and a good dollop of patience, and you’re in for a treat.
If you want to show your cool friend from out of town the LES in a single stop, take them to 169 Bar. Nestled in the cool lower Lower East Side (basically Two Bridges) by the East Broadway F stop, this kitschy dive bar has been kickin’ since 1916, although its vibe is decidedly ‘70s (it also helps that they tend to blast soul, funk and disco tunes.) The decor looks like its been sourced from decades of gathering tchotchkes from sidewalk sales, give or take a disco ball and some faux palm trees. It’s a fun, unpretentious place to get a solid drink — I love their boozy teas — with friends in the coolest area in Manhattan.
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Photos 1-7, 11-13 by Jules Koslow
Photos 8-10 courtesy of Russ and Daughters, Morgenstern's, and The Flower Shop