New York City Tour: East Village
The historic (and historically funky) downtown neighborhood now flaunts a sophisticated side.
Once an enclave of immigrants, then the refuge of bohemians fleeing West Village rents, NYC’s East Village is now firmly established as an eating/drinking/shopping playground. While you’ll still find unshorn poets, beatniks, and runaways, you’re just as likely to see baby strollers, runway models, and tomorrow’s celebrity chefs on its colorful streets.
Window displays packed full of furry stuffed animals, wooden play sets, and handmade clothes draw those young and young at heart into this East Village shop. In 1983, five ladies joined together to open Dinosaur Hill, providing alternatives to the increasing number of electronic toys. Over the years, the store has become a staple due to its handpicked collection of American and European toys that include sock puppets, city-shaped block sets, and the Käthe Kruse bears. Past shoppers conclude that the owners have a very helpful presence in the store and are happy to help customers find that one-of-a-kind gift. Open daily, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
Tompkins Square Park
The East Village’s “backyard” is a humble patch of reclaimed swamp land where urban dwellers come to play chess, play with their kids, watch birds of prey, kick a soccer ball, practice guitar, join a pickup basketball game, or just watch. The bandshell (site of performances by Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and hundreds of hopeful punk bands) has been torn down, but a walk through the heart of the park is still entertaining. Worth stopping and watching: The dog run (two adjacent areas, one for big dogs; one for small) in the center of the park, and the paved playground at the corner of A and 10th where skateboarders hone their skills. There’s an uncrowded shady corner with benches and tables entered by walking through the park building. Avoid the public bathrooms. Open dawn–midnight.
The consistent freshness of the fish is what keeps this East Village restaurant afloat in a city full of sushi options. While the unassuming storefront glows with the bright lighting, many pass by often without noticing the narrow dining room filled with simple wood tables and chairs and a sushi bar. Huge, uniform pieces of brightly colored salmon, tuna, and yellowtail decorate sashimi platters as specialties like the hamachi kama (the cooked neck of a young yellowtail) sell out quickly.
The Ukrainian couple Wolodymyr and Olha Darmochawal traveled to New York to escape war in their own country, and inspired by fellow immigrants in the East Village, they opened a candy and newsstand in 1954 that eventually became the famous Veselka. Today, the 24-hour restaurant is open seven days a week allowing hungry diners to satisfy their pierogi cravings at any time of the night. The expansive menu also includes other Ukrainian specialties like homemade cheese-filled blintzes and beef stroganoff.
The lack of space, or chairs, allows you to focus on the perfect cup of coffee at Abraco's Espresso Bar in the East Village. In the tiny but cheerful bar, famous barista and co-owner Jamie McCormick grinds and brews each cup of coffee to order. Of course, these are no ordinary beans - they come from North Carolina's Counter Culture Coffee. And if the coffee wasn't treat enough, owner-baker Elizabeth Quijada offers up sweets and savories made from fresh, local ingredients. A latte and slice of olive oil cake may just be the perfect start to a day.
Downtown's hoteliers Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson took the raw spirit of the Bowery and transformed it into this luxe boutique hotel, which houses the chic watering hole The Lobby Bar as well as the restaurant Gemma. It's a great venue for events and weddings, too.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
A small, East Village wine bar owned by Marco Canora and Paul Grieco, famous for their work at neighboring Hearth Restaurant, Terroir celebrates everything wine. The dining room, with a red ceiling and bubble-like light fixtures, has only 24 seats, and the menu is provided in a decorated binder. Grieco has created a list of international wines complemented by impressive selections of beer, cider, and champagne. This wine bar also offers a fairly extensive menu of food items crafted by Marco Canora, including bar snacks, paninis, and salads. Highlights include the sage leaves with lamb sausage and veal and ricotta meatballs.
Death & Co.
Part supermarket and part community center for the ever-increasing Japanese population in the famously diverse East Village, Sunrise Market is a veritable one-stop shop hidden away on the second floor of a Third Avenue locale. The interior is brightly and cheerfully lit, and the wide aisles are filled to bursting with hard-to-find Asian goods, everything from housewares like quality rice cookers and hand-crafted, ceramic tableware to tofu, nashi (Japanese pear), and ocotopus tentacles. You might find it challenging to navigate through the packaged goods (most are labeled in Japanese), but don't fret: the grocers are friendly and stand ready to translate.
You’ll sometimes spot a boldface name, sans entourage, sipping cappuccino and tucking into a plate of haloumi eggs at this sunny, busy Moroccan café that has been a magnet for artists, musicians, and writers since it opened in 1983. Besides traditional tagines and mint tea, the kitchen turns out an affordable and hearty breakfast menu, too. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. until midnight.
Chef Sara Jenkins’ tiny storefront take-away features a well-lit display case of its namesake succulent roast pork, great soups and sides (potatoes and burnt ends are a must), but only seven seats at the narrow counter. If you can’t nab a stool or a bench in front, take your lunch down the block to Tompkins Square Park for some people-watching. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
St. Mark’s Bookshop
This beloved shop is a necessary stop for book lovers and anyone interested in the glory days of the East Village. After struggling for its survival when the rent rose on its original Third Avenue location, the bookshop moved to East 3rd Street. There really is nothing like it (which is why it was worth saving); the neighborhood institution offers a little bit of everything, including many titles you won’t find at chain bookstores—extensive poetry and small press offerings, critical theory books, art and photography tomes—along with a strong sense of community.
Since the tiny shop’s designs started showing up in photos of starlets and rockers a decade ago, the neighborhood’s secret is out but still worth a visit. Here you’ll find great dresses that are feminine without being girly, and well-structured without being stiff. Open daily, 1 p.m.–7 p.m.
This attractive (and nice-smelling) shop sells space-saving, stylish, and smart housewares. You don’t have to live in a closet-sized apartment to enjoy its great products. Open daily, around noon–around 7 pm.
Housed in a former foodcart garage, this mostly-Korean hot spot offers a space far more expansive than most in this low-rise neighborhood. A vinyl jazz collection 30,000 albums strong lines one wall, and the bar offers, among cocktails and impressive beers, fruit-infused sojus—the Korean distilled rice drinks are a revelation to the uninitiated. All these bells and whistles can’t steal attention away from the spicy and addictive twice-fried chicken and kimchi fried rice. Open daily, 4 p.m.–2 a.m.
St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery
Once the site of a chapel on Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, St. Mark’s is more than just a church: the sanctuary does double duty as a performance space and plays as much a part in the neighborhood’s cultural history as in its history of worship. Check the churchyard’s gravestones for a veritable Who’s Who of 19th century New York families, including Petrus Stuyvesant himself, the Schermerhorns, Fish, and Beekmans. Old-school starchitect Ernest Flagg designed the sturdy old rectory in 1901.