Clockwise from left: Photos: Via wd-50, Katz's Delicatessen, 'inoteca, Cheeky Sandwiches, Congee Village
The Lower East Side is home to artists, buildings with Kanji scrawled on their sides, Philip Glass, weird magazine stores, and black denim-clad punks. (We still can't decide: good look or not?). The neighborhood's restaurants make up a similarly odd-but-pleasing mix, with options ranging from $1 dumplings near the Chinatown edge to Trompe-l'œil fried eggs at a temple of molecular gastronomy, to good old knishes on the Bowery. Here's your essential guide to 10 of the best dining spots in the L.E.S., in each multifarious category.
Chef Wylie Dufresne's wacky world of edible laboratory food (trust us, it's good) has been heralded by the press and copied by up-and-coming molecular-chef wannabes, worldwide (cue Top Chef's Marcel Vigneron). Don't let the restaurant's understated exterior fool you, the menu is anything but simple. Dufresne concocts things like fried mayonnaise and aerated foie gras, and if you ask him how he does it, he'll start talking hydrocolloids and thermal circulators. Good thing the food is as tasty as it is playful.
wd-50, 50 Clinton Street (between Stanton and Rivington streets); 212-477-2900.
2. Katz's Delicatessen
We've talked about Katz's before, but a Lower East Side restaurant guide would not be complete without the iconic Jewish deli. It feels very old New York—well, maybe not Gangs of New York, but Funny Face-era New York, perhaps—with its cafeteria-style seating and butchers in little white hats. Pastrami on rye with a side of pickles is the thing to get. It's not cheap at around $16 a sandwich, but it will likely last you through the day.
Katz's, 205 East Houston Street (between Avenue A and Essex Street); 212-254-2246.
3. Congee Village
Open until 2 a.m (lucky for downtown bar-goers), the multi-level Congee Village has stayed true to its Chinese roots, despite an expansion and a whole lotta hype. Case in point: Snails and frog can still be found on the menu—that is, if you can read it. Steamed nature bird's nest in papaya? Sea cucumber and goose web? Whatever, the food is good and affordable, and both the adventurous eaters and the fans of General Tso's Chicken will be pleased.
Congee Village , 100 Allen Street (between Broome and Delancey streets); 212-941-1818.
4. Cheeky Sandwiches
New York Magazine calls Cheeky a "New Orleans-flavored snack shop." Yep, that means fried shrimp po' boys, Zapps potato chips, and chicory coffee. But to make the sandwich shop Lower East Side-friendly, the owners added some vegetarian options, including roasted beets and butternut squash with crispy goat cheese on Flauta bread, and a veggie muffaletta. The rustic white-washed interior with little red stools would work both here and in NOLA.
Cheeky Sandwiches, 35 Orchard Street (between Hester and Canal streets); no phone.
This is a great first-date spot. It's dim and sleek, but not fancy. It's not new, but it's still hip, so you'll likely be able to snag a table without a reservation amongst an always healthy-sized crowd. And, for those looking to make a statement with their orders, there are plenty of sultry Italian options on the menu. Our suggestion? The truffle toast with its oozing egg and broiled-on cheese.
'inoteca, 98 Rivington Street (at Ludlow Street); 212-614-0473 .
Clockwise from left: Photos: Via Cafe Katja , 'inoteca, Sorella, Cheeky Sandwiches
6. Cafe Katja
Cafe Katja is the kind of neighborhood joint most everyone wants—its decor is familiar, warm, and inviting (think: brick walls, pressed tin ceilings, not too self-conscious). And as far as food goes, the Austrian menu has a mix of things you've heard of, and things you maybe haven't (roasted beets with goat cheese; Emmentaler sausage with quark dumplings). You'd want to come here anytime: By yourself, with a book, after a long day, or with three friends for an even-longer evening.
Cafe Katja , 79 Orchard Street (between Grand and Broome streets); 212-219-9545.
When you want a big honkin' pork chop or a slice of key lime pie, the fire-engine red Alias is the place to go. It's as comforting as a diner, but the food is a few steps up: You'll find things like pickled celery and kumquat just as accompaniments. Dedicated to using seasonal ingredients, at Alias you'll find that the choicest of local and only-in-New-York specialties like Di Palo's ricotta make repeat appearances.
Alias, 76 Clinton Street (at Rivington Street); 212-505-5011.
Sorella is not just another wine bar, and has classic Italian dishes like beef short-rib agnolotti and an upper-crust version of anchovies on toast prove it. Throw in the very sexy ambiance and we're totally there. Smooth, curved wood lines the ceiling, and low-glowing lights twinkle in strategically placed spots. Plus, chef Emma Hearst is easy on the eyes to boot, just take a look at the glam shots on Sorella's website.
Sorella, 95 Allen Street (between Broome and Delancey streets); 212-274-9595.
9. The Meatball Shop
The Meatball Shop serves up a healthy dose of "what you see is what you get," and the name says it all. Plus, they've got some daily market salads and killer ice-cream sandwiches. But you can't come here without getting beef, pork, chicken, or vegetarian (!!) meatballs. This tucked-away little gem has all the usual makings of a hip L.E.S. restaurant—two plaid-wearing, photo-ready owners; a white-tiled bar; tongue-in-cheek dish names ("Naked Balls," "Family Jewels" come to mind)—but it's been so successful that it now has a branch in 'Billyburg.
The Meatball Shop, 84 Stanton Street (between Allen and Orchard streets); 212-982-8895.
10. Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles Inc.
Just like good ol' burgers, noodles will consistently find their way onto our restaurant lists. These ones are springy, and as the restaurant's name declares, hand-pulled. In fact, from your table you have a clear view of them being yanked and twisted into the tender strings that eventually arrive in front of you, submerged in meaty broth. The spectacle is so impressive that it earned a glossy shot in the pages of Vogue last year.
Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles Inc., 1 Doyers Street (near Bowery); 212-791-1817.