One of New York City’s oldest neighborhoods, the Lower East Side (aka the LES) is also known for its cultural diversity and rich immigrant history. A blend of old and new is at the heart of this vibrant district. Five-story brick tenement buildings with fire escapes are still common, but modern glass towers are rising in leaps and bounds.
A stop at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street provides an immersive experience of the area’s colorful past. From there, shopping, dining and cultural gems are all within walking distance. Here’s a guide to enjoying the Lower East Side like a local.
Restaurants and Bars
Russ and Daughters Café is a sit-down eatery that dates back more than 100 years to a trolley and a New York appetizer shop. The open kitchen offers diners a dynamic experience day and night, while the soda fountain doubles as a bar. You can choose from a traditional egg cream and caraway seed infused vodka Bloody Mary. Discover the difference between smoked salmon, sturgeon and sablefish, as well as other smoked fish and herring.
Nearly all cultures are represented on the Lower East Side, and Café Katja (79 Orchard Street) has set the bar high for an Austrian-inspired culinary experience. When it comes to bars, Café Katja is known for its global selection of beers, not to mention gin, wine and cocktails. The casual neighbourhood makes it a great place to have dinner with friends or share sausage samples and homemade pretzels. The dinner menu features vegetarian options like spatzle, while brunch options include mouth-watering cheese pancakes and French toast.
High ceilings, exposed brick and rustic wooden tables are just some of the inviting textures and touches that make the British-inspired The Fat Radish (17 Orchard Street) both industrial and intimate. The menu emphasizes farm-to-table practices and local resources. Expect the seasonal menu to change frequently. For brunch, a full English breakfast includes sausages, bacon, eggs and beans.
The culinary creatives behind The Spaghetti Incident (231 Eldridge Street) were inspired by the 1950s when Italians served street food at festivals, serving spaghetti in a cone ready to eat. While this innovative approach makes eating pasta surprisingly easy, the menu is also full of dishes that will make you want to sit down for a while. The open kitchen adds to the appeal of this small space, filled with spaghetti and meatballs, spinach tagliatelle and the savory aroma of pappardelle lamb ragu.
If a place can be raucous and romantic, Dudley’s (85 Orchard Street) is a bit of both. A wall of windows gives a glimpse into the tiny restaurant and the bustling, diverse bar.Dudley’s, located on the corner of Orchard and Broome Streets, is a popular brunch spot. Even during the week, breakfast is served all day. The menu includes everything from crispy rice salad to avocado toast to chicken cutlets, and is known for its American tapas and Australian flavours.
After taking your seat at Barrio Chino (253 Broome Street), you’ll need to wait and get cozy with your neighbors. It’s a small but authentic space. enchiladas verdes, mole and street-style tacos are among the many popular choices. Like a little excitement? Grab a jalapeño margarita at the bar with some guacamole and chips. Or try the Huevos a Lo Mexicano from the brunch menu.
Part vintage boutique, part fashion history exhibit, Pilgrim (70 Orchard Street) is a perfect example of the Lower East Side’s growth. High-end designer options (such as Chanel, Guy LaRoche and Christian Lacroix) feature a warm, inviting atmosphere in a cozy space. Founding partners Brian Bennett and Richard Ives bring their knowledge of the fashion industry to the forefront and take vintage shopping to a whole new level. Many of the items have never been worn, so the quality is impeccable and the prices are surprisingly attractive, making it a great choice for designers familiar with this level of sophistication.
The word eclectic is perfectly in keeping with the once temporary, now permanent shop, located on the corner of Orchard and Broome, Tictail (90 Orchard Street) has been an online platform since its inception and has an Etsy-like dedication to artists and craftspeople. The brick-and-mortar store – a bright, airy space with vintage tile floors – is a chance to experience the cool factor firsthand. Men’s, women’s and children’s clothing mixes with innovative homeware, accessories and gift ideas, and Tictail customers are inevitably drawn to the “bio wall,” which features dozens of postcards, each with a profile of an independent designer and an insight into his or her work.
Young designers are also integral to the popularity of Coming Soon (37 Orchard Street), a unique collection of housewares, vintage furniture, gifts and design elements at price points that start in single digits and increase accordingly, meaning there’s something for everyone. The couple behind the shop, Helena Barquet and Fabiana Faria, are inspired by the designers whose work they carry, crediting them with wanting to make shoppers’ lives better. Along with design newcomers, Coming Soon carries classics, like American-made Mosser Glass, a family-owned business that dates back to the ‘50s.
A few doors down, CW Pencil Enterprises (15 Orchard Street) pays homage to the past while making a statement about the future – in spite of all things digital, the pencil is here to stay. Over 200 varieties of pencils from around the world are available in this small but mind-expanding space that includes CW Sticker Emporium, where there’s a sticker for every occasion. A sharpening and testing station give shoppers an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of these writing instruments at a sensory level.
Art Galleries and Book Stores
The Lower East Side has become a magnet for some of the world’s best art galleries. With exhibition spaces across three floors, Perrotin (130 Orchard Street) is one of New York’s largest. The gallery’s third floor, which boasts nineteen-foot ceilings, is an ideal space for large scale exhibits. The street-level store features books and work by some of Perrotin’s emerging and renowned artists, including KAWS and Murakami.
Before opening his gallery, James Danziger had a career in journalism that included being named photo editor for The Sunday Times of London at just 25 years old. The Danziger Gallery (95 Rivington Street) distinguishes itself with exhibitions that include both contemporary and historic photographs.
Being 100 percent volunteer-powered, Bluestockings (172 Allen Street) is the epitome of a local bookstore. The shelves stock over 6,000 titles covering feminism, queer and gender studies, global capitalism, climate and environment, race and black studies, and many more. Their fair-trade café serves light vegan and organic fare, and a full events calendar offers an almost daily selection of readings, workshops and discussions.
For a taste of old-school Lower East Side charm, Classic Coffee Shop (56 Hester Street) lives up to its name. The shop gets high marks for its coffee, toasted buttered bagels, and other simple menu items. Carmine, the owner, grew up nearby and is happy to talk about the neighborhood. The shop has been here for over forty years, evident by the original photos and memorabilia decorating its walls.
Coffee is brewed fresh every hour, on the hour at Konditori (182 Allen Street), the Swedish Espresso Bar that was first founded in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The Lower East Side location is a popular morning stop for locals who appreciate the flavorful coffee, a blend made from Arabic beans from three different Central American countries through an air heated process. Swedish and American treats like bagels, Cardamom Bread and Kanelbulle (cinnamon rolls) add to the experience.
It’s not uncommon to hear Roasting Plant (81 Orchard Street) referred to as a Willy Wonka-esque experience, due to the visual performance of their Javabot system — clear tubing that stores beans and delivers them to roasters and brewers. Customers watch the process unfold before their eyes as their cup of coffee is made on demand for optimal quality and freshness.