One of the oldest neighborhoods in New York City, the Lower East Side (aka LES) is also known for cultural diversity and a rich immigrant history. The fusion of old and new is at the very heart of this vibrant area. Five-story brick tenement buildings with fire escapes are still common, but modern glass towers are going up at a rapid pace.
A stop at the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street is an immersive experience celebrating the area’s colorful past. From there, a spectrum of shopping, dining and cultural gems are clustered within strolling distance. Here’s a guide to enjoying the Lower East Side, like a local.
Restaurants and Bars
Over 100 years of history permeates the Russ and Daughters Café (127 Orchard Street), the sit-down restaurant whose roots trace back to a pushcart and a New York appetizer-deli institution. An open kitchen gives diners a dynamic experience day and night, and the soda fountain doubles as a bar. Choose between traditional egg creams and caraway-infused vodka Bloody Marys. Discover the difference between smoked salmon, sturgeon and sable, along with other smoked fish and herrings.
Virtually every culture is represented on the Lower East Side. Café Katja (79 Orchard Street) sets the bar high for an Austrian-influenced culinary experience. Speaking of bars, Café Katja is known for its global beer selections on draft, not to mention schnapps, wine and cocktails. The casual neighborhood feel makes this a great place to grab dinner or share a sausage sampler and homemade pretzels with friends. Vegetarian options like spätzle are on the dinner menu, and brunch options include crave-worthy cheese blintzes and French toast.
High ceilings, exposed brick and rustic wood tables are just some of the inviting textures and touches that make the British-inspired The Fat Radish (17 Orchard Street) industrial and intimate. The menu’s emphasis is on farm-to-table practices and local sources. Expect the seasonal menu to change often. At brunch, a full English breakfast includes sausage, bacon, eggs and beans.
Inspired by the way Italians served street food at festivals in the 1950s, the culinary creatives behind The Spaghetti Incident (231 Eldridge Street) are serving spaghetti in a cone to-go. While this innovative approach makes eating pasta surprisingly easy, there is also a menu filled with dishes that will make you want to sit for a while. An open kitchen adds to the appeal of this small space filled with the savory scent of spaghetti and meatballs, spinach fettucine and pappardelle lamb Ragu.
If a place can be rowdy and romantic, Dudley’s (85 Orchard Street) gets both right. A wall of windows lend a peek into the tiny dining room and bustling, fully-stocked bar. Located on the corner of Orchard and Broome, Dudley’s is a popular brunch spot. Even during the week, breakfast is served all day. The menu, which includes everything from crispy rice salad to avocado toast to chicken schnitzel, is known for American bites with an Australian twist.
Expect to wait and cozy up with your neighbors once you are seated at Barrio Chino (253 Broome Street). It’s small on space but big on authenticity. Enchiladas verdes, mole and street style tacos are among many popular choices. Like a little kick? Grab a jalapeño margarita at the bar, paired with some guacamole and chips. Or try Huevos a Lo Mexicano from the brunch menu.
Part vintage boutique, part fashion history exhibit, Pilgrim (70 Orchard Street) is a perfect example of how the Lower East Side has evolved. The upscale designer selection (think Chanel, Guy LaRoche and Christian Lacroix) is featured in a cozy space with a warm, welcoming vibe. Founding partners Brian Bennett and Richard Ives bring their fashion industry knowledge to the forefront and take vintage shopping to a whole new level. Much of the merchandise has not been worn, so the quality is impeccable and the prices are surprisingly inviting for those familiar with designers of this caliber.
Eclectic is a word that is perfectly aligned with this once pop-up, now permanent shop on the corner of Orchard and Broome. Tictail (90 Orchard Street) started and remains an online platform with an Etsy-like devotion to artists and craftspeople. The brick and mortar shop — a bright, airy space with vintage tile floors — is an opportunity to experience the cool factor firsthand. Men’s, women’s and kid’s clothes mix with innovative homeware, accessories and gift ideas. Tictail shoppers are inevitably drawn to the “bio wall,” where dozens of postcards are perched, each featuring bios and insights into the visions of the independent designers whose work is on display.
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.