As one of the oldest neighborhoods in New York City, the Lower East Side (aka LES) is also known for its cultural diversity and rich immigrant history. The blend of the old and the new is at the heart of this vibrant region. Five-storey brick tenement buildings with fire escapes are still common, but modern glass towers are rapidly emerging.
A stop at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street is an immersive experience that gives you a sense of the area’s colorful past. There, shopping, dining and cultural gems are within walking distance. Here’s a guide to enjoying the Lower East Side like a local.
Restaurants and bars
Russ and Daughters Café (127 Orchard Street) is more than 100 years old, and this sit-down restaurant traces its roots back to carts and New York appetizer shops. The open kitchen keeps diners energized both day and night, and the soda fountain doubles as the bar. You can choose a traditional custard and smoked salmon shake, or you can choose to add a vodka Bloody Mary. Explore the difference between smoked salmon, sturgeon and sablefish, and other smoked fish and herring.
Almost all of the culture of the Lower East Side is represented here at Café Katja (79 Orchard Street), a gourmet restaurant with Austrian influences. Speaking of bars, Café Katja is known for its global draft beers, not to mention white wines, wines and cocktails. The casual neighborhood feel makes this a great place to stop for dinner or to share sausage samples and homemade pretzels with friends. The dinner menu features vegetarian options such as Sp?tzle, and brunch options include mouthwatering cheese pancakes and French toast.
High ceilings, exposed brick and rustic wooden tables are some of the alluring textures and touches that give The Fat Radish Restaurant (17 Orchard Street) its industrial and intimate feel. The menu focuses on farm-to-table practices and local sources of ingredients. Expect seasonal menus to change frequently. For brunch, the full English breakfast included sausage, bacon, eggs and beans.
Inspired by the street food that Italians served at festivals in the 1950s, the cooks at The Spaghetti Incident (231 Eldridge Street) pack spaghetti into cones for a quick bite. While this innovative approach makes eating pasta surprisingly easy, the menu also features dishes that make you want to sit for a while. The open kitchen makes this small space all the more inviting with the salty aromas of spaghetti and meatballs, spinach spaghetti and pappardelle lamb ragu.
If a place can be both lively and romantic, Dudley’s (85 Orchard Street) is the best of both worlds. A wall of windows peers into the tiny restaurant and bustling bar, and Dudley’s, at the corner of Orchard and Broome, is a popular brunch spot. Even on the weekends, breakfast is served here all day. The menu features dishes ranging from crispy rice salad to avocado toast to chicken chops, all known for their American dim sum and Australian-inspired specialties.
After dining at Barrio Chino (253 Broome Street), you can wait and cozy up with your neighbors. It’s small in space, but it tastes authentic. There are many popular options here, including tacos, burritos and street style tacos. Want a little excitement? Have an enchilada margarita at the bar with some guacamole and chips. Or try Huevos a Lo Mexicano on the brunch menu.
Pilgrim (70 Orchard Street) is a perfect example of Lower East Side development. Upscale designer choices (such as Chanel, Guy LaRoche, and Christian Lacroix, to name a few) give off a homey vibe in a cozy space. Founding partners Brian Bennett and Richard Ives bring their knowledge of the fashion world to the forefront, taking vintage shopping to a whole new level. Much of the merchandise here is unadorned, so the quality is impeccable and the prices surprise those familiar with this type of designer.
The word Eclectic fits perfectly with this once-permanent shop on the corner of Orchard and Broome streets, and Tictail (90 Orchard Street) is an online platform that serves artists and craftspeople in an Etsy way. This brick-and-mortar store – bright and airy with vintage tile floors – gives a chance to experience the cool factor firsthand. Menswear, womenswear and children’s wear are blended with innovative home furnishings, accessories and gift ideas, and Tictail shoppers are inevitably drawn to the “bio wall,” where dozens of postcards are displayed, each with a profile of an independent designer and insights into his or her work.
Coming Soon (37 Orchard Street) is a unique collection of home furnishings, vintage furniture, gifts and design elements, with prices starting in the single digits and increasing accordingly, meaning there’s something for everyone. The couple behind the store, Helena Barquet and Fabaria Faria, drew inspiration from the work of the designers they run and felt they wanted to make shoppers’ lives better. In addition to design newcomers, Coming Soon also has some classics, like the American-made Mosser Glass, a family business that dates back to the 1950s.
A few doors away, CW Pencil Enterprises (15 Orchard Street) pays homage to the past while also paying homage to the future – the pencil is here to stay despite all the digital products. With more than 200 pencils from around the world, including the CW Sticker Emporium, there are stickers for every occasion in this tiny space. Sharpening and testing stations give shoppers the opportunity to appreciate the beauty of these writing instruments on a sensory level.
Art galleries and bookstores
The Lower East Side has become a gathering place for some of the best art galleries in the world, and Perrotin (130 Orchard Street) has three floors of exhibition space and is one of the largest galleries in New York. The gallery’s third floor boasts 19-foot ceilings, making it an ideal space for large exhibitions. The store down the street features books and works by some of Perrotin’s emerging and established artists, including KAWS and Murakami, among others.
Prior to opening the gallery, James Danziger worked in journalism and was named picture editor of The Sunday Times in London at the age of 25. the Danziger Gallery (95 Rivington Street) is known for exhibitions that include both contemporary and historical photographs.
Bluestockings (172 Allen Street) is powered 100% by volunteers and is the epitome of a local bookstore. There are over 6,000 books on the shelves covering feminism, queer and gender studies, global capitalism, climate and environment, race and black studies and more. Their Fair Trade Café offers light vegetarian and organic food, and the full calendar of events offers readings, workshops and discussions almost daily.
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 butter bagels and other simple menu items, and Carmine, the owner, grew up in the neighborhood and is happy to talk neighborhood. The shop has been here for over forty years, as evidenced by the original photographs and memorabilia that adorn the walls.
At Konditori (182 Allen Street), this Swedish espresso bar was originally founded in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and has freshly brewed coffee every hour. This Lower East Side coffee shop is a favorite among locals because they love the taste of coffee, a blend of Arabica coffee beans from three different Central American countries that are air heated. Swedish and American treats such as bagels, cardamom bread and cinnamon rolls make for a delightful meal.
It’s not uncommon for The Roasting Factory (81 Orchard Street) to be called a “Willy Wonka-like experience” because of the visuals of their Javabot? system – transparent tubes that store coffee beans and deliver them to roasters and brewers. Customers can see the process unfold before their eyes as their cup of coffee is made on demand for optimal quality and freshness.