The East Village of my romantic youth when I moved to 7th Street in 1986- beat characters writing in tattered notebooks in sad cafés, punk rockers jamming to reggae with Rastafarians in grungy Tompkins Square Park, worn out tenement buildings teaming with ethnic food smells, and true rebels on St Mark’s Place is nearly gone.
All gone but the vapors of the past, replaced by vape shops.
But I digress. This is not about what has gone, but about what has survived, thrived and adapted. The East Village is still one of the most diverse, stimulating and food-crazy neighborhoods in our hungry city. The once dicey neighborhood south of 14th street and north of Houston is one of the most diverse food courts in the entire city.
Little India and Little Poland peacefully coexist side by side on the same block between East 6th and East 7th Streets. A couple of short blocks west of there in a Japanese section that you might miss if you don’t know where to look. Model types travel up a small elevator on 9th Street to the Sunrise Market for the latest beauty products. Venture east and you will find Puerto Rican and Dominican bodegas where pernil and oxtail are ladled over arroz amarillo for a very fair price considering you will get two meals out of it.
When my best friend Mike Schwed and I moved into a cool studio on the top floor (with roof access) of a walk up East Seventh Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, we might as well landed in Europe. We were one of the few Americans in a nearly all Polish building. The smoky aroma of different varieties of pork roasting, the pungent kick of sauerkraut and the sweet smell of sizzling onions waiting for the pierogis, bring me back to those halcyon days in the East Village.
Every day you would hear Polish, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, German, Yiddish, and Spanish spoken in a range regional accent. Chinese and other Asian languages were there too. They had their own stores and restaurants, too. All around us there was amazing, authentic and inexpensive food options. Exploring the avenues and side streets of the East Village for new finds was always a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. It still is.
I’ve seen the city change around me through the years, the East Village has too, but it still has an élan and eccentricity that makes it a magic place. There are still plenty of great restaurants and drinking establishments that make this area special to old timers and newcomers alike. For every hot new place in the East Village is a neighborhood anchor that continues to bring its unique flavor to the neighborhood.
McSorley’s, Veselka, John’s of 12th Street, Lucien, Veniero’s, San Loco Tacos and Two Boots Pizza are all places that were here when I moved in in 1986 and continue to go strong. It is not nostalgia that keeps them going in this sink or swim economy, it is the uniqueness and quality of what they deliver, consistently and with more than a little humor.
For foodies and home cooks, there a some great neighborhood specialty stores that have stood the test of time. Below I will list a few of the East Village stores that stay on my shopping list, as time goes by-
The first place I moved to in Manhattan was 7th St Between 1st and 2nd Aves. After more than 30 years on 3rd Avenue, one of my favorite stores, East Village Cheese Shop, just moved right across the street from the old apartment.
When the topic of the best cheese shops in NYC comes up and all the upscale places are checked off (Murray’s, Citarella, Beecher’s etc…), someone will always bring up the question, “Do you know the East Village Cheese Shop?”. Yes, I do.
Back in the day it was popular as much for its cheap prices as for its assortment of cheeses, it was a mainstay for people with a big appetite for cheese but a thin wallet. if you needed to stock up on cheese in a hurry without breaking the bank, it was a good bet and it still is.
English blue Stilton, Huntsman, Danish blue, Chimay butter, Saga, Norwegian Jarlsberg — their names all handwritten on square or rectangular white paper signs — these imported and domestic cheeses, and other dairy delicacies, have drawn visitors and residents alike in search of the perfect fromage. Check the bargain bin in the back where you can get unbelievably good cheeses for as little as a buck.
In addition to myriad of cheeses, there’s a deli counter and an olive bar, plus shelves lined with teas, juices, cookies, crackers, and condiments. Early-comers can snag baked goods; baguettes and bagels and other goodies.
80 E. 7th St., New York, NY 10003 (nr. First Ave.) 212-477-2601
This place is a feast for all the senses. The rich, smoky aroma that greets you at the door from the vast selection of hanging smoked sausages on your left; bright counters packed with beautiful cuts of meats and traditional side dishes; a side of beef hanging at the back of the store; generations of tall, handsome counter men dressed in white and on Saturdays their gorgeous sisters serving prepared foods.
Julian Baczynsky opened his old-world Ukrainian butcher store in the East Village in 1970. The mission from the start was a “…to bring old-world comfort food to the bustling streets of NYC. We do this by providing fresh cold-cuts, premium cuts of meat, succulent smoked hams, and the best Eastern European products in the city. Our specialty is our smoked sausage (kielbasa), which is prepared fresh every day and then smoked in our kitchen.”
There are many different types of sausage for grilling or boiling, four different types of cold cut ham, two kinds of head cheese (blood or no blood), smoked pork chops, amazing homemade bacon sliced to order and so many pickles and mustards that my mouth is watering just thinking about it.
139 Second Ave. (bet. 8th and 9th St.), New York, NY 10003 212-228-5590
When I first moved into the neighborhood, one block north of “curry row” on E 6th St between 1st and 2nd Ave, I had no idea how much I would grow to love Indian food.
Since 1987, Dual Specialty Store has been providing fresh Indian produce, such as turmeric and curry leaves; chili-spiced crystallized ginger; dried chiles and an endless variety of dried spices. There are wild blends of lentils and rices that make meal planning easy.
A 2005 fire that razed the old shop—but it has survived and is here to stay, even catering to trendy locals by offering over 400 varieties of beer, though Indian spices and specialties remain the core business.
91 First Avenue, #3 (bet E 5th and E 6th), New York, NY 10003 212-979-6045
Walk north from St Mark’s Place on the east side of 3rd Ave, and you come across a bizarre intersection at 9th Street where Stuyvesant St just cuts the grid diagonally and creates a charming area known as Little Tokyo. Karaoke bars and specialty markets have been here since the late ’80’s. All kinds of sushi bars, ramen shops and yakitori restaurants, teahouses, Japanese gift shops, sake stores and street food spots can be found.
Hang a right an rise up one story in an elevator, and you’ll find yourself in bright Sunrise Mart, a well-stocked Japanese specialty market tucked away in plain sight.
Since 1995, Sunrise Mart has provided home cooks with sushi grade fish, fresh gobo and burdock root, bright yellow yuzu, thinly sliced meats for hot pot cooking, fragrant radish sprouts, skinny Japanese eggplant, exotic spices, Korean peppers, and shiso leaves for spicing up dishes or decorating sashimi. It’s selection of soy sauces, different grades of rice and vinegars is strong. Any Asian dish you are preparing at home will benefit from a visit here. Their small packages of prepared fish and other seafood, sliced meats and vegetables makes it easy even if you are cooking a small meal.
4 Stuyvesant St, 2nd Floor (above where old St. Mark’s Books was), New York, NY 10003 212-598-3040
The East Village That Remains will be updated periodically. If you have a place you would like to see featured let us know.