Lower East Side Reborn (as a Fat Baby)

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At the beginning of the aughts, scenesters were already chattering that the Lower East Side was dead. After decades of hosting immigrant cultures and earning a reputation as the neighborhood most likely to relieve you of your wallet, Max Fish be damned, its moment as an urban frontier for artists and cool kids, off the radar of tourists and the tragically unhip, ended quickly. It rapidly swarmed with high-end boutiques and expensive lounges and out of town guests directed there by a knowing concierge, while staples like Luna Lounge, Tonic and Collective Unconscious were forced out of the ‘hood they helped create.

Because the new offerings were targeted to a bland, wealthy audience dependent on the ‘00s boom economy, and unlikely to move into apartments the size of tenements, whatever the counter-tops were made of, it was predicted that customer traffic would eventually trickle down and high-rents would topple the new neighborhood order. Blogs like Eater pulled no punches when reporting on venues like The Blue Seats, whose initial customer “deal” was to offer NFL game-day seat reservations for $50 a piece – excluding the cost of drinks. (Despite being “Deathwatched,” Blue Seats is still open for business.) Back in 2006, I had an assignment to write a piece about the rumored closing of Ludlow Street’s split-level club Libation and what that meant for the neighborhood. It, too, is still open.

In fact, despite the financial and real estate markets having soured, business is still booming on the LES. Clothing boutiques abound in even greater numbers than they did five years ago. The pricey and unremarkable restaurant at the Hotel On Rivington, now called Levant East, seems to be humming along after several misfires. The weekend lines outside the overpriced, widely-reviled, tightly-packed rock club Fat Baby are long, and brimming with a bridge and tunnel crowd. There’s no shortage of acclaimed restaurants or $6 draft beers within arm’s reach of the intersection of Ludlow and Rivington. It’s hard to get weekend seating at beer havens Spitzer’s Corner or the Marshall Stack and just about impossible to spend less than $20 on two beers and an appetizer in either venue.

And, there’s so much more to come. At least two dozen nightlife venues have opened, or are about to open, in the hood this year, despite the recession. Apparently, flavorless gentrification can go on and on and on, a lesson we should have learned from the Meat Packing District.

The LES’s new hangouts include, The Doghouse, a cavernous dive bar that serves free hot dogs; Meatball Shop, self-explanatory; T-Poutine, dishing up the newly trendy Canadian confection involving fries, gravy and cheesecurds; Los Feliz, a three-story upscale taco and tequila bar; Thompson LES, a trendy hotel with a poolside lounge and a zero-star restaurant (hello, alumni sorority mixer!); Bia Garden, a mostly-hidden Vietnamese beer garden; an upcoming piano bar AND an upcoming karaoke lounge; and yet another unnamed, unlisted speakeasy far from the subway. I don’t intend to label any of these concepts as dreadful (Los Feliz and Bia Lounge seem to be well-regarded), but none of them seem particularly inventive, with their well-studied, one concept hook. Would you brag about any of those things to your out-of-town friends to justify your four-figure rent?

Of course, if you’re forced to hang on the LES, which inevitably, you will be, many of the spots that opened in the aughts, and especially the later aughts, aren’t so bad. If you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well enjoy a Banh Mi and a good cocktail. So if you do find yourself wandering south of Houston, east of Bowery, here’s a game plan that works. The LES is dead, long live the LES.

Eat lunch at An Choi. The entire menu is superb, and it’s a particularly suitable place to grab a lunchtime banh mi and beer — and if daytime drinking is not your thing, the Roasting Plant serves exceptional coffee mere steps away. Grab first date drinks at Allen & Delancey, which still runs an impressive bar even if the kitchen is infamously volatile. Get your snack fix at Mikey’s Burger, imminently opening in the old Rush Hour space, where Michael Huynh promises to offer clever Asian spinoffs of the American classic. Browse leather jackets at Orchard Street on Sundays, when pedestrians reclaim the street from vehicles and the storefront’s move their racks to road’s center. Drink one of the last cheap PBRs around at Welcome To The Johnsons, which hasn’t changed since you were last there in 2004. Find one of the first respectable LES sushi restaurants at Uo (mostly unmarked, above longtime resident 151 Bar). Eat fresh liquid-nitrogen-made ice cream — indeed, they make it right in front of you with KitchenAid Artisan mixers — at Lulu And Mooky’s. Get your dance party fix at 200 Orchard, once the hottest new neighborhood nightclub in 2007, for just over a month until it had licensing issues — it recently reopened, finally. You know exactly what you’re getting at Stuffed Artisan Cannolis (as a self-respecting Italian I can tell you that the regular cannolis are good, but the cannolis with unusual fillings, PB&J, pumpkin spice, are better). Finally, if you are nightlife royalty and you must do one thing that is late-night, exclusive, luxurious and satisfying, stop at The Eldridge. You will find a buzzworthy hotspot that delivers the goods — if you can get past the doorman