Do You Know Your Alphabet (City)?
The Best Restaurants and Bars in Alphabet City (NYC).
The best places to eat and drink in Alphabet City is a heading I would have never even though about putting on paper when I was a kid growing up in this area.
In those days, when I told people that I lived near Alphabet City, they would politely not comment. These days, I get nothing but positive responses, such as, “man, I wish I lived down there”.
There’s also a segment that pines for the good old days, making comments such as, “when it had character”. Which is another way of saying dirty and dangerous.
This sentiment usually comes from the mouths of people who actually grew up on the other side of the bridge or tunnel, trying to give themselves a false sense of street cred, because they had driven through once or twice.
It heats me up when I hear that because, in these neck of the woods, those old times were not very good. “These”, I am quick to say, “are actually the best of times”.
“The neighborhood is getting gentrified”, they say. However, I don’t see the Dominican hairdresser complaining (she pre-dates the change), or the bars that were once filled with derelicts wanting it to go back to when it was.
Yes, there’s good from the old days; such as the businesses I mentioned, and most are still here, except now, they’re actually making money and the streets are all the better for it. Now, their joined by some of the best restaurants are in the City.
Growing up in Stuyvesant Town
In all fairness to those I criticized, I grew up in the Northernmost part of Alphabet City, in an oasis called, Stuyvesant Town (a complex built post-war for families). So, it was easier for me to skirt most of the troubles as I didn’t live in the heart.
Notwithstanding, I still had many run-ins with the tougher kids living south of me. Though I was always told by my parents to not cross the tracks, per se. It was hard not to when we knew we can score beers without an I.D.
Even harder, was to pass up on the food they served in the bodegas those days. Man, I can still taste the oxtail stewed in tomato and pepper gravy with a glass bottle of Coco-Rico soda to wash it down; then running back to Stuyvesant Town.
Now that I’m a parent, I’m glad that “crossing the tracks” is no longer an expression that I need use. The streets in this neighborhood are actually some of my daughter’s favorite streets in which to eat and shop with friends.
Alphabet City in New York City
Alphabet City in New York certainly still has character. I still believe it’s the rock star of all the neighborhoods in New York City, and one of the best representation of New York being an immigrant hotbed.
Nothing speaks to this better than the bodegas that line the Alphabet avenues. As it was when I was young, there’s no shortage of bodegas, where one can still get a bottle of Coco-Rico, and if you are of drinking age, the beers are always cold.
If you are also in the market for a roll of toilet paper, a breakfast sandwich, a pint of ice cream, possibly some litter, and a votive candle with a picture of the Virgin Mother of Guadalupe, it’s also here.
In a bodega, you can still ask for a “regular coffee”, knowing that you’ll automatically be served a cup of coffee dressed with milk and two sugars. Not to be confused with “regular “in size, or “regular” as in black.
Best yet, I don’t need to pay extra to put in the milk and sugar myself. More importantly, I usually don’t have to worry about the hygiene of a bearded young men hovering over my cup as they serve me.
Alphabet City and Stuyvesant Town Today
Like me, many people make fun of those bearded young men, or fashionably dressed young women serving coffee with an attitude. This may be considered the new face of Alphabet City and Stuyvesant Town today, but in reality, that’s a sign that the neighborhood is getting hot.
With that comes a humming social scene. This is represented by the best places to eat and drink in Alphabet City.
Alphabet City Restaurants & Bars
There are certain food offerings that are considered quintessentially New York. Three of which are pizza, hot dogs, and pastrami sandwiches.
Baker’s Pizza at 210 Avenue A
For Pizza, get your slices at Baker’s Pizza (210 Avenue A). They don’t stray from the original New York Style too much, which is much welcomed, as it seems that every pizza joint opening these days are making gourmet or Neapolitan varieties. Being a New Yorker, I can tell you, there’s a difference. Baker’s makes a pizza that is meant to be eaten by the slice and eaten folded over (The long way) with no fork or knife usage.
The crust is thin enough as to be crispy but strong enough that the integrity isn’t compromised by the sauce, cheese, and toppings. The element that separates Baker’s from many pizza shops, is the use of quality ingredients; which becomes instantly obvious once you take your first bite. My daughter and wife prefer the pepperoni slice. I, for one, have always been partial to plain slices.
They have a $5 daily special that’s hard to pass up, which includes a plain slice and a pint of cold draught beer served in a plastic cup. Also, for a bit of fun, look at their Polaroid wall where you’ll find photos of some of the locals in some interesting poses (some nude).
For a more sit-down/restaurant experience, go to Gruppo, 98 Avenue B , Bet. 6th and 7th St., where their New York Style Pizza is thinner than that average crust and served in pie form only. Available in both personal and family sizes.
What’s wonderful about this pizza joint, is the New York Pizza flavors aren’t compromised by the thinner crust.
On the other side of the spectrum is East Village Square Pizza. This joint on Avenue A, right across the street from Tompkins Square Park, offers a square pizza that is loaded with sauce, cheese a toppings. The first time I had the pepperoni slice, I had never felt so full after just one slice.
Hard to explain what makes a pizza New York style versus those made elsewhere, but I think it comes down to the New York City water, which Frank Sinatra himself referred to as the difference maker.
Crif Dogs at 113 Saint Marks between Avenue A and First Avenue
Hot Dogs from the likes of a New York City food cart and establishments such as Papaya King are great. However, if you’re looking for a weiner with more to offer, try Crif Dogs (113 Saint Marks Place). Here you’ll find non-traditional choices such as the “chihuahua” a bacon wrapped hot dog with avocado and sour cream (an ode to a taco), and the “Philly tube steak”, appointed with melted cheese and onions. I’m a traditionalist and prefer the “new yorker” a classic all-beef frankfurter. However, when I do stray, I order the “crif dog”, a handmade pork and beef variety. What makes their weiners so special, is the larger than usual size (I couldn’t help myself) and the crisp casing (which I believe is arrived by grilling it in butter). Feeling like you may want a bit of a tipple, there is a phone booth in the shop, which is a secret passageway to a speakeasy bar, appropriately named, “Please Don’t Tell”.
Harry and Ida’s Meat and Supply at 189 Ave. A
Harry and Ida’s Meat and Supply is a quirky little place. Upon walking in, you’d think you were in a general store in the Pacific Northwest. Throughout the shop, which seems mostly decorated with reclaimed wood from an old barn, you’ll find pickled and smoked items, a selection of dried flowers, along with tins of spices and seasonings. Their smoked eel sandwiches are famed, and their rotating schedule of smoked delectables, which include items such as racks of ribs and salmon, keep you wanting to try new things. But in reality, most everyone comes here for the smoked pastrami sandwiches. Served on a soft hero with pickled cucumbers, dill, and mustard. The portions are hearty and made with care. Grab a seat at the small wooden counter looking out onto Avenue A and take in the “flavors”.
AMERICA IN EVERY CORNER
Whitman’s (406 East 9th Street)
The burger trend doesn’t seem to want to end; and why should it? Few food options are more classically American and satisfying. In the neighborhood, leading the crowd for best burger and best staff is Whitman’s (406 East 9th Street).
The suggested burger combinations are vast and original. A unique offering is the PB&B which is a short rib blend patty with applewood bacon and peanut butter on a potato bun.
There are great side options as well, such as fried pickles and fried shishito peppers. For fans of literature, there are photos and books scattered throughout honoring American Poet/Journalist, Walt Whitman.
Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter (94 Ave. C)
Keeping with the classic American cookery is Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter (94 Ave. C). Though “quail” by definition, Bobwhite serves, what my daughter believes to be, one of the best fried-chickens in Northern Territory.
Speaking of territories, the business has decided to establish itself on Avenue C, which for all intents and purposes, is considered pioneer country. It took balls to open here, but when the type of chicken they serve is what it is, people follow. In people following, so have other businesses, and Avenue C is now a true destination.
The capacity is small and the setting charming. So get here early if you’re planning to have it for dinner. You’ll have better luck with lunch if you can swing a few hours in the middle of the day.
I’ve already spoken about the chicken, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sides. The Mac and Cheese and the Curried Collard Greens get honorable mention.
Not to be outdone is Root and Bone. My pick for the best Fried Chicken. Succulent, perfect crispy batter, and excellent southern sides, the best being the collard greens. The aesthetic is here is Southern chic, and food and service even more impressive.
Another reason to come here os for the Bourbon Bloody Mary. Now if that’s not southern, I don’t know what is.
THE WORLD’S FLAVORS
There is an excessive amount of Italian and French eateries in the City of New York. Alphabet City has its share. If this is what you are looking for, try Gnocco for Italian (337 East 10th Street) and for French, dine at Le Village French Petite Bistro (127 East 7th Street). However, when visiting Alphabet City, it almost behooves you to try something different. After all, it’s cultural diversity that has always given this area character.
Haile Ethiopian Bistro (182 Ave. B)
Experience flavors from Africa at Haile (182 Ave. B). This is possibly the best Ethiopian restaurant in New York City. Run by two sisters, the ambiance is nothing short of being invited to a house party. No utensils needed here as the cuisine is served true to custom, on a big plate for all to share with the use of their hands. Though there is meat on the menu, it’s the vegetables that are the star. Depths of flavor is achieved through the use of fragrant spices that are typical of the eastern region of Africa, such as cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, coriander, and cloves. Eating with the use of hands brings those at the table closer, and the dining more eventful. A great place to bring good friends and family.
Very Thai (186 Ave B)
Thai cuisine is having a moment, and it’s about time. Of the Southeast Asian countries, Thailand, in my opinion, has the most diverse flavor profile. Very Thai (186 Ave B) does a good job in representing the range of which I speak in its menu. There is the quintessential Pad Thai noodle dish for those who want to keep it safe (for the record, excellent). For deeper flavors, northern Thai dishes such as Kao Soy noodle soup, a curry based soup with influences from neighboring countries such as Laos and Burma is a good option for those searching for something a bit more unique.
Cuautla Morelos (438 E. 9th. Street)
What would a neighborhood be without a restaurant eating joint? Well, Alphabet City certainly has many to offer. We like our Mexican food in a simple way because some of our greatest memories visiting Mexico include being in front of local taco stands, whether it be in a metropolis like Mexico City or coastline, such as Playa del Carmen. Our choice in this neighborhood is such a place, named Cuautla Morelos (438 E. 9th. Street). The eatery can only seat 8, but many order at the register and eat outside the storefront. Favorites are the tacos, made with homemade tortillas with a choice of filling. We find the best to be the Al Pastor (shredded roast pork) and the Mexican sausage (chorizo). They also make their own guacamole and sauces in-house. The experience doesn’t disappoint.
Thursday Kitchen (424 East 9th Street)
Our favorite restaurant for cuisine that is a little less ordinary is Thursday Kitchen (424 East 9th Street). This charming little restaurant produces delectable French and Spanish Influenced Korean food. The plate presentation is tapas style, meant to be shared by the table. The aesthetic of the restaurant is as clean and unexpected as the food. Chef Hyun’s execution puts forth dishes that offer an element of surprise to the palate by taking aspects from typical Korean and integrating international influences from France and Spain. Their drink menu is equally as creative, and the staff helpful and energetic. The vibe, excellent on any given night, especially on a Thursday with the weekend looming.
GOMI Korean Wine Bar
Korean Food is making a splash all over the city. For good reason, the spicy/sweet concoctions that come from this cuisine is unmatched. The best places to have Korean is Korea Town in Midtown, Manhattan.
However, for a quick fix and some good drink selections, in a really laid back atmosphere, head to Gomi Korean Wine Bar on Avenue A.
There is a special brunch menu every weekend, in which you can order traditional favorites, such as Bulgogi with a Mimosa for $10!
It wouldn’t be a New York article without a mention of a Diner. One of the greatest of them all is Odessa Diner. Not only can you find traditional diner fare here, you can also find great Eastern European food offerings.
The french toast is great here, and so are the blitzes. You can opt to have bacon with your eggs, but why not kielbasa for a change. Maybe even forego the burger and opt for the stuffed cabbage.
This place is open 24 hours, 365 days a year. I came ate here as a kid in the morning, as a teen after school, as a young partygoer at 4 am, as a young professional on Sundays, and as a father to a new generation ready to eat here whenever she wants.
This tacky, lovable Ukrainian haunt has actually been opened on this spot (119 Avenue A) only since 1994, the original bar and diner was next door on 117 Avenue A, the previous 50 years before that.
The new place, if you can call it that (25 years) tries to replicate the feel of the old bar in the back. You can almost picture the likes of Debbie Harry having drinks with the Ramones after a gig (which I’m told they did).
My daughter and wife Love Ice Cream. Alphabet City has excellent places in which to support.
Mikey Likes It Ice Cream Truck
Mikey Likes It Ice Cream Truck can be found all around Alphabet City and Stuyvesant Town. Mikey is a big and lovely black gentleman. He grew up in the Lower East Side and created this business to not only purvey artisanal ice cream but also to employ kids who may otherwise get into trouble as he once did. The ice cream creations here are excellent; and the names which they are given, make ordering fun. There are cultural references when naming the flavor creations, one of which is BLACK STREET. On the menu board, it reads, “Every chocolate ice cream lover likes the way Mikey has worked in the chopped chocolate malt ball pieces and the mini sweet chocolate chips. Play on player. No diggity. No doubt.”
Alphabet Scoop (543 East 11th Street)
Alphabet Scoop (543 East 11th Street) not only serves excellent ice cream made on the premises, it is also a job and life skills program for teens. The program is designed to prepare teens with the skills needed to advance in their school and work endeavors. Teenagers receive classroom instruction and work under a shift supervisor in the retail store. I think this is pretty cool, and for the record, if you’re a mint chocolate chip fan like me, look no further.
Big Gay Ice Cream Shop (125 East 7th Street)
For those who have an affinity for soft serve ice cream, Big Gay Ice Cream Shop (125 East 7th Street) is your place. Ordering here is simple. The flavors are always vanilla, chocolate, swirl, and one flavor of the day (last I visited, it was birthday cake). What it lacks in flavor options is equaled by endless choices of toppings. Not feeling like putting a combination together? Well, don’t fret. On the board are house blends. One of the more popular ones is called, Salty Pimp (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, and chocolate dip). The place? Very Happy.
Ray’s Candy Store (113 Avenue A)
If you are searching for authentic kitsch, the king of all things sweet is Ray’s Candy Store. This place is an anachronism. If you weren’t on Avenue A, you’d think you were in Coney Island 1950s. When reading the menu you’ll be brought back in time.
They serve hot dogs, New York style egg creams, French fries, beignets and soft served frozen custard, just name a few. The joint has been across the street from Tompkins Square Park since 1974 when the neighborhood was less appetizing , if you will.
Ray, well over 80 years of age, is still behind the counter. He’s usually joined by an attractive tattooed young lady to help him dole out snacks and smiles to everyone that comes through. An institution, I hope, will never be replaced.
Roost on 222 Ave. B
A good cup of coffee can be found on every block. Starbucks has entered the fold with one their Reserve properties. Say what you will about gentrification, but everyone seems to be quite happy it has arrived. However, this article isn’t to highlight a business that is ubiquitous. That’s where a coffee house named, Roost, comes in. What sets it apart is that it doesn’t feel so much like a cafe at all. The white subway tiles is reminiscent of an establishment that would be plating out raw oysters and drinks instead. It’s vibrant and keeps one awake as opposed to prolonging sleep. It mirrors New York well.
We have a teenage daughter who likes dining in places that have character and good food. She likes places that remind her of her travels. She also has a pretty extensive palate, and when out with friends and their kids (who often have a more limited taste bud) a compromise often needs to be made. This often means, ending up in a generic place with a menu that offers just about everything under the sky, poorly.
Raclette (512 East 12th Street)
Raclette (512 East 12th Street) is one of those places that can save those type of situations. This rustic eatery offers an atmosphere that is Left Bank chic and a menu that include delectable tartines, raclette, and the best Croque- Monsieur in the city. A kid of any age can appreciate dining and spending time here.
A PLACE TO TALK AND HAVE A DRINK
Drop Off Service (211 Avenue A)
There are plenty of bars in the neighborhood, so I’m only going to mention one – Drop Off Service (211 Avenue A). It’s simply a good drinking establishment. Though the place only serves alcohol, children are welcome to hang with their parents, which reminds me of the pubs I frequented in the UK.
There is a long wooden bar, two large windows from which daylight tends to shine, and plenty of comfortable seating throughout. Due to the fact that it’s Alphabet City, the atmosphere is lively with lots of chatter and characters. You’ll have your typical overweight group of men (mostly fathers from the neighborhood) glorifying their past before the future dries up and the occasional person looking to mend his broken dreams with some good craft beer.
If you like to people-watch while enjoying a well-poured drink, this is your place. It also has an excellent Happy Hour that lasts until 8 pm. My wife and I often sit and have a pre-dinner drink here after a day’s work; and when the sun sets and the candles are lit inside, few places are more inviting.
(Insider tip: They allow you to bring in your own food. A popular place in which to get good take-out is a Zaragoza Mexican Deli, where a nice little Mexican Gentleman doles out whatever his wife has made for the day).
Boutlon and Watt
For a more slightly more upscale experience, head to Houston Street and A and grab a good bourbon drink and maybe some barbecue in the Southern inspired, Boulton and Watt. Alway fun when passing time on a weekend.
For some good old beer drinking, go no further than Sum Schneider. Located on 107 Avenue C, it’s a great place to have some great Bavarian Food and steins of great German beer.
Come here during Octoberfest, Christmas, and when the World Cup is in play. The energy and tradition are unmatched.
WHERE TO BUY YOUR OWN DRINK
Convive (196 Avenue A)
My daughter has two salespeople on both sides of the family; one being my wife, and the other, me. We love good service and people who understand their brand and stick behind their product. Why, because we have done it all our lives, and understand the value of it. It brought us great delight when we stumbled into Wine and Spirits shop named, Convive (196 Avenue A).
Jesse Warner-Levine and his pals opened themselves up to the neighborhood. Their selection is not “run of the mill” and priced very well in comparison to the market. The service is always convivial and the place spotless, yet not void of character. If you are in search of a “wine guy”, As I was, and never want the feeling of drinking alone, just come here.
Before you know it, you’ll have a friend that understands your palette; moreover, understands you. Now, that’s a neighborhood wine shop!
There are late night joints throughout the Avenues. A favorite of ours is a jazz club named, Rue B. The aesthetic is akin to Paris jazz joints of the mid- 1900s. It also harkens back to the age in which the likes of Charlie Parker use to live and play the neighborhood.
Located on 188 Ave. B, it’s just steps away from Charlie “The Bird” Parker’s townhouse on 151 Avenue B.
On my way back, I saw that he was still where I had last seen him. As I approached, he gave me a nod, and this time I extended my hand. We shook and greeted each other more formally.
His life, still no further from mine; also having returned to the neighborhood after having lived away for some time. The sun had finally let up, and his daughter (about the same age as mine) whom he had been waiting, ran over to him. We pleasantly said our goodbyes and I crossed the street where there was once a track.
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