Long before I lived in the bleak area where Chinatown juts up to the Lower East Side, my ex-boyfriend’s mother grew up here. When I signed the lease to my third floor walk-up, she asked in a concerned maternal tone, “Why would you want to live there?”
I often wondered that myself, especially after one of the firemen next door told me never to walk east, that danger lurked on those dark streets. So for years I would not cross Allen Street, a nervous transplant from Massachusetts who clutched my purse tightly, who considered bars for the windows, who triple-checked the lock on my door whether I was leaving or entering.
There was a long span of time that I could not get a decent cup of coffee, never mind a great dinner (unless I craved Chinese), and for me, that was like a pious person who needs a house of worship to pray. Out of my friends I was the one who had to make pilgrimages to meet for brunch or pizza or a decadent meal.
At the nearest liquor store where I once tried to buy dessert wine for a dinner party I had to place my order with the clerk behind bulletproof glass. Who was I kidding? They’d never heard of dessert wine, instead showing me a dusty bottle of some cheap red. Whiskey, rum, vodka comprised their vocabulary, not Late Harvest Reisling.
Food-wise, this area was a wasteland so barren that taxis stood in as my host at a restaurant, taking me, a very hungry guest, to a desirable table.
But how times have changed, as they always do on New York City’s blocks that can change as people do: some overnight, some years later, some never at all. Now, and for the past several years, my friends come to me for coffee dates and dinners with reputable wine. This squared area, roughly below Delancey Street and above Canal, from Allen Street to Essex is now—and I did not foresee it on that cold November day when I became a New Yorker—regarded as a food destination. This area is like a weathered actress finally getting her starring role—she had potential and we’re all glad she stuck around. The grittiness is still apparent on the garbage-strewn streets, in the graffiti covered doorways, but now there are jewels in the form of fine food and drink that peak out from among the graying tenements, as though someone painted pretty flowers onto a Hopper painting.
Following, a few places I recommend:
Allen & Delancey/ 115 Allen St/212-253-5400
Allen & Delancey, housed in a former Salvation Army, was a pioneer in this neighborhood of cheap dumplings and hipster bars when it opened in 2005. Locals and visitors alike are happy it’s been a mainstay, with dishes from chef Kyle Bailey like fresh tagliatelle with braised rabbit, prosciutto-wrapped veal loin, and roasted striped bass. For dessert, try the sweet cream French toast with bacon caramel. Thankfully the dining room is dark and windowless, so as not to see the traffic and M15 bus passing by. If money is an issue, go on a Tuesday night when cocktails are half-price and you can order from the bar menu.
Bacaro/ 136 Division St/212-941-5060
Fashioned after a Venetian “bacaro,” a workingman’s pub where you can order snacks and wine, Bacaro is a low-key place for dinner or drinks. There are two floors, but head downstairs: you might feel like you’re in the candlelit basement of a medieval castle, not a former aquarium. I went with a friend who lived in Venice for 10 years. We weren’t entirely impressed with the food (we had polpette, bacala, gnocchi, tagliata—decent but not outstanding), yet still, Bacaro has its charms so it’s worth a visit, at least to the bar.
Barrio Chino/ 253 Broome St/212-228-6710
At this small bar/restaurant, tequila lovers can choose among 50 types for shots or margaritas and there are plenty of other cocktails, too, to drink along with ceviche, homemade guacamole, calamari tacos or grilled ahi tuna steak. That way you won’t get too drunk. Get there early so you don’t have to wait.
Broadway East/ 171 E Broadway/212-228-3100
Upscale and “green” aren’t usually synonymous, but they commingle perfectly at Broadway East. The food: fresh, produce-oriented, organic, and eclectic with vegetarian options. Plus they believe in reducing their carbon imprint by recycling, filtering their own water, and donating oil for recycling. Look for a new menu since the rumor is that Patricia Yeo (formerly of Sapa and Monkey Bar) will be the new chef.
Il laboratorio del gelato/ 95 Orchard St/212-343-9922
If you love ice cream, and who doesn’t, get in line at Il laboratorio del gelato. Purists with a penchant for classic flavors will enjoy vanilla, chocolate (with a choice of milk, dark, white and malt), while those with more adventurous palates might like to try something from the long list that changes daily, including Thai chili chocolate, honey lavender, Mexican cinnamon basil, black mission fig, prune armagnac, and crème fraiche.
Little Giant/ 85 Orchard Street/212-226-5047
It’s easy to get a table at lunch. Dinner is another story, so make sure you reserve in advance to taste the upscale comfort food created from market-fresh produce, including macaroni and cheese, truffled asparagus and duck egg, and my favorite, the chicken liver mousse served with fig-onion compote. Must-try dinner entrees: swine of the week and dayboat scallops.
White Slab Palace/ 77 Delancey St/212-334-0913
It might seem strange to eat from the raw bar while watching traffic whiz by on Delancey St, but after a couple of aquavits, that won’t matter. All that matters is that the owners of the now-closed Good World Bar & Grill have reestablished themselves a few blocks north—and they’re still serving their eponymous Good World burger. Other highlights: Västerbotten saganaki, licorice-gratinéed lobster.