Here’s a secret New Yorkers don’t like to admit: we don’t get out a lot. At least not as much as “The City That Never Sleeps” adage would have you believe. We revel in familiar neighborhoods where baristas and bartenders know our names. But when we do go beyond the borders of home, be it for an adventurous meal, creative cocktails or simply a day of urban rediscovery, it’s a no-brainer — we go to the Lower East Side.
Whether you know the fascinating history of the area or not, when you get out of the subway at Delancey or Essex and walk north over the bright sunlit streets, amidst charming low-rise buildings and brick walls tagged with exhibit-worthy graffiti, you soon sense that this part of Manhattan matters to the city at large, and always will.
The Lower East Side, a space of less than half a square mile located between the Bowery and the East River and Canal and Houston, tells the story of how New York came to be the ethnically rich city it is today. The Tenement Museum and its compelling tours recall the great immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the LES, where Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Poles, Russians and Slovaks settled, and where by 1920 it held the world’s biggest Jewish enclave. Stop by one of many landmarked synagogues, like the circa-1826 Bialystoker Synagogue, grab a potato knish at Yonah Schimmel Knish, opened in 1910, and save room for Russ & Daughters, where its 102-year-old roots and classic board — a bagel smorgasbord with cream cheese, onions, tomatoes and smoked salmon — will leave you with an even greater appreciation for the city’s Jewish heritage and its rightful place as the lox and bagel capital of America. Pop your head into Katz’s Delicatessen and take a picture, but don’t wait an hour with the rest of the tourists for a pastrami sandwich.
New Yorkers are drawn into the LES as much to remember the past — the immigrant’s journey, the radical political movements and the growth of the beat generation — as to experience the continuous rebirth of cool. It’s as if the neighborhood’s deep-seated history of colonialism, curiosity and confidence has lingered in the bones of buildings, where new cutting-edge establishments promise to keep celebrating what makes the LES the trendiest and most treasured nook of New York.
While locals trek from all boroughs out of loyalty to certain enduring hot spots, like the Bowery Ballroom for a concert, Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop for people watching and a Spicy Rizzak sandwich, Arlene’s Grocery for cheap drinks, live music and rock-and-roll karaoke, and Tre for fresh pasta, it’s the guaranteed cultural and culinary revelations that make trips to the LES such fun — not to mention the envy of all your Instagram followers.
“Living on Ludlow Street and running a fashion business on Orchard Street, I’ve seen such an exciting energy here on the LES,” said Alexander Olch, founder of Metrograph, a new indie cinema with a soon-to-open restaurant called The Commissary. “There is such a sense of neighborhood and community and I knew immediately that it was the right backdrop.” The Lower East Side’s inspiring vitality has also brought The Lowline Lab, an innovative underground park, and the Black Tree, where a seasonal, animal-of-the-week menu breathes new life into the farm-to-table frenzy.
That vitality has also brought Hotel Indigo Lower East Side New York, a place to stay if you truly want to be engulfed by all the flavor the LES has to offer. It’s rising brick walls are adorned with contemporary artwork that rivals the graffiti that brightens the Lower East Side streets, and is accented with eccentric furnishings that express the local flavor and give a voice to the art, street style, galleries, fashions and people of the LES.
And it doesn’t take much to ease into the local slipstream down here; tucked inside Essex Street Market at Shopsin’s, savor the Cap’n J (panko fried chicken and scrambled eggs wedged between mac’n jack pancakes), join the ice cream sandwich enthusiasts clustered outside Melt Bakery, snag a seat at favorite dive bar The Magician or in The Back Room, a relic of the Prohibition era where debauchery ensues over jazz, poetry brothel readings and tea cups brimming with strong craft cocktails.
While the rest of the city may be in a hurry, Lower East Siders like to enjoy life at a slower pace, which might be the real hidden reason so many New Yorkers love this unique neighborhood.