Lullaby bar | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Lullaby bar | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
With its robust immigrant history, the Lower East Side helped shape the city’s long-standing reputation as a place where people from every background can come together without forgetting their roots.
Situated in Lower Manhattan, the historic neighborhood found its footing as an inexpensive place where immigrants could drop their bags, find a job, and work toward a better life. While the indigenous Lenape tribe were its original inhabitants, through colonization and centuries of immigration, it also played home to many including Black farmers and homeowners during the 17th century, and subsequent communities of ethnic groups for immigrants of Irish, German, Italian, Eastern European, Dominican, and Puerto Rican descent (Little Italy and Chinatown, now recognized as independent neighborhoods, branched from the LES and continue to influence its culture today).
Amid a great exodus from the neighborhood during the mid-1900s, the LES entered a dark era. Facing unprecedented crime and poverty, local property dipped in value, attracting radical young artists looking for cheap rent and inspiration—and out of the ashes rose a culture of anarchy. Soon, the area was back on the rise, embracing its rough-around-the-edges aesthetic and allowing for iconic galleries, music venues, and nightclubs to thrive, many of which are still in existence today.
Each wave of immigrants left an indelible mark on the area’s culture—so much so that the LES eventually adopted its own sort of charm, complete with authentic influence from all over the world and a storied landscape now characteristic of NYC resilience. For your next trip there, here’s everything to eat, drink, see, and do in the Lower East Side.
Have a bite at some of the city’s most iconic restaurants
Any neighborhood with a rich immigrant history is going to have a trustworthy food scene—even in an ever-changing landscape like the LES. In terms of Jewish cuisine, Katz’s Delicatessen and Russ & Daughters are as authentic as it gets, earning worldwide acclaim after serving NYC for more than a century. The former, known for its deli meats (particularly the pastrami and rye) and memorable appearance in When Harry Met Sally, was established in 1888; the latter, known for its bagels and lox, in 1914. And, after two years of closure, Russ & Daughters Cafe is about to reopen (if you prefer a sit-down appetizing experience).
Though the old faithfuls are well-deserved bucket list items, LES cuisine goes far beyond Jewish cafes. In the mornings, the area’s numerous coffee shops each offer something special: At Ludlow Coffee Supply, it’s a trendy vintage aesthetic; at Black Cat, it’s a cozy den fit for computer work and catching up with friends; and at Waypoint Cafe, it’s a computer room designed for esports. Once you’re caffeinated, you can grab a stack of the city’s best blueberry pancakes at Clinton St. Baking Company or snag a table at Southeast Asian restaurant Pig & Khao, which shines brightest at brunch.
When lunch rolls around, get a stacked burger at Smashed, enjoy healthy California cooking at Dimes, or roam the historic Essex Market, featuring dozens of local vendors that sell fresh ingredients and prepared meals—including “unapologetically Indian” favorite Dhamaka; German spot Kotti Berliner Döner Kebab; and specialty Asian grocery store, Southeast.
At dinner time, the food options are plentiful, too. Dirt Candy offers upscale, plant-based dishes, and Sauce offers equally impressive Italian food that’s a little more meat-forward. Other tried-and-true faves include Mediterranean restaurant Sami & Susu, Greek tavern Kiki’s, Iberian seafood joint Cervo’s, and Basque eatery Ernesto’s. And as far as Asian cuisine is concerned, LES knows it well: Japanese from Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya, Chinese from Wu’s Wonton King, Thai from Wayla, Malaysian from Kopitiam, and Cantonese from Congee Village never disappoint. On a usual evening, Saigon Social’s Vietnamese comfort food also attracts a dedicated crowd, though a recent kitchen fire forced it to temporarily close while staff fundraise for repairs.
If you’re looking for new additions to the neighborhood, try modern Korean meals at 8282 or assorted bistro fare at Bongos. Top it off with a dressed-up oat milk ice cream cone from Whipped – Urban Dessert Lab and you’ve successfully tasted your way through the Lower East Side.
Relish in the neighborhood’s celebrated nightlife scene
Over the last half-century, the LES has transformed itself into an unparalleled nightlife destination, with enough bars and music venues to keep the whole town entertained. If you’re looking for a reinvented dive bar experience, visit Ray’s, a celebrity-attracting hangout co-owned by actors Justin Theroux and Nicholas Braun; The Magician for dive-bar classic; or the recently opened Lullaby, which serves a boozy take on Disney Parks’ Dole Whip. Japanese cocktails are best served at izakaya Bar Goto, and if beer’s the goal, settle into Loreley’s joyful beer garden and down a few steins of German ale. For trusted vino, stop into brand-new natural wine bar Le Dive, attend a free weekend tasting at wine shop Orange Glou, or order a $1 oyster with your natural wine carafe at The Ten Bells.
More interested in the historic watering holes? The Back Room was an actual speakeasy during Prohibition, and while its operations are no longer a secret, they continue the tradition of serving drinks in teacups and beer in paper bags. And despite being more than a century old, the divey 169 Bar still pulls in crowds from every age group for its daily happy hours.
On beautiful nights, Mr. Purple remains the classic rooftop bar to get a clear view of the skyline. When the weather’s not so beautiful, though, cozying up in Clandestino never fails—and the retro, often overlooked basement of The Flower Shop has a low-key iconic scene.
Some nights, drinking simply isn’t enough in terms of entertainment, and in that case, you’ll want to take advantage of the lively LES clubs with booze and a show. Indie music venues Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge have long been staples of the neighborhood’s music scene, with the latter serving as a launching point for artists like Lady Gaga, The Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The Slipper Room also stands out as an area highlight, acting as a sort of variety theater and performance space that hosts burlesque, comedy, and dance shows. If you don’t have time to buy tickets to an event, create your own entertainment at Home Sweet Home, one of the city’s liveliest dance bars, complete with bizarre taxidermy and a disco ball.
Familiarize yourself with the classic pastimes of the area
What do Lower East Siders do when they aren’t eating or drinking, you ask? Explore other facets of the neighborhood culture, of course! Fortunately, there are several tiers of LES culture to absorb, making it easy to stay busy.
First, start with the basics: history. Until you’ve walked through an authentic tenement building that immigrants were packed into during the city’s boom, you can’t fully understand the harsh living conditions that helped shape the neighborhood’s resilient and unpretentious personality. The Tenement Museum is an important stop on the LES tour that explains the neighborhood’s roots and architecture while relating to modern-day issues immigrants still face.
Once you’ve gotten a historic perspective of the LES, continue the culture tour by appreciating experimental art in the way that people drawn to the area tend to. The New Museum, focused on contemporary art, showcases emerging styles and artists in a modern building that’s a spectacle of its own. While not technically a museum, the independent Metrograph movie theater showcases the art of cinema by screening a curated collection of films that helped contribute to the artform’s prestige.
To fully round out your immersive LES experience, you’ll need to go on a visual walking tour, seeing the parks, people, and landmarks that give it such a good name. The Coleman Playground Skatepark, aka LES Skatepark, lies at the neighborhood’s southwest border—beneath the Manhattan Bridge—and is the absolute best place in the city to see real people perform the tricks you learned in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. A bona fide Lower Manhattan pastime, skateboarding is the kind of sport you never think to watch but will always enjoy. For a more scenic park experience, walk along the water at the East River Park and enjoy the nearby outdoor amphitheater at Corlears Hook Park. If you have more steps left in you, get a view of the LES skyline by waltzing onto the Williamsburg Bridge and seeing what people in Brooklyn see. Afterwards, recharge with your crew by playing a game of pool in your own private space inside the Silver Room of Sharks.
Rest your head at a charming area hotel
When all is said and done, you’ll need a place to kick up your feet. The LES has plenty of options for you, some with built-in entertainment. PUBLIC Hotel on Chrystie Street is a picture-perfect representation of the word “sleek,” and its rooms’ wood furnishings and mood lighting resemble something of a romantic massage parlor. The Ludlow Hotel offers a bit more personality, with an upscale, rustic aesthetic fit for a design publications; and Hotel Indigo, home to the aforementioned Mr. Purple rooftop bar, specializes in skyline views. When space is not a concern, citizenM turns heads—its rooms are more compact yet youthful, and its adorned, 20-floor staircase makes up the Museum of Street Art, an ode to the neighborhood’s street artist history. Who knew taking the stairs could be so fun?
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