When it was published in 1991, the impact of Luc Sante’s book Low Life was incalculable. Soon, everyone you knew was reading the thing and talking about it. The Belgian-born scholar and scenester had been knocking around the East Village and the Lower East Side since the 70s while attending Columbia University. He’d lived in Allen Ginsberg’s building in the East Village, and penned lyrics for the Del-Byzanteens, a band that included filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Sante and I first met while attending a cook-out in a vacant lot on East 14th Street surrounded by burned-out tenements, and probably saw many of the same punk bands at CBGBs.
Subtitled Lures and Snares of Old New York, the book was an account of life among the underclasses during the previous century, partly set in the very same downtown neighborhoods then being recolonized by bohos. Readers learned, for example, that there was once a rat-baiting ring at the corner of East 10th Street and 1st Avenue, and that urchins were paid as much as $5 apiece for the largest rodents, which then battled packs of terriers as gamblers wagered on the outcome. We learned that the names of downtown bars were far more evocative (Paddy the Pig’s, Chick Tricker’s Flea Bag, The Morgue) than those of today. We heard tales of gangsters and prostitutes and skin-popping morphine addicts, and the streets seemed once again alive with the characters Sante so vividly described.
After an impressive literary career in the city, Sante decamped for the Hudson Valley, where he is now a Visiting Professor of Writing and the History of Photography at Bard College. And when a restaurant named Lowlife opened recently on the Lower East Side at least partly named after his book, I couldn’t resist inviting him downriver to share a first meal there, wondering what he’d think of the Lower East Side these days. The restaurant is situated on the block of Stanton just east of Clinton, and consists of four dining rooms in the usual "railroad" arrangement that characterizes the tenement apartment, though the rooms are bigger. It was a stormy night and the dim lights seemed to flicker as we were led further and further into the rustic, wood-paneled interior, past a bar and then an open kitchen, up a few steps to a wooden balcony that surveyed the entire darkling premises.
A waitress approached and I asked her what the name of the restaurant meant. She cheerfully replied, "It’s named after a song, an album, and a book." After she’d taken our drink order (an excellent bottle of small-batch Alsatian Riesling from Catherine Riss, $42), Sante observed, "The two recorded products, the song ‘Low Life’ by Sting and the album ‘Low-Life’ by New Order, also influenced the title I gave my book, though note that the name of this restaurant is styled somewhat differently." He went on, "I lived very near here briefly in the 80s, it was one of those blocks that was extensively burned out in the late 70s, and a lot of the buildings you see now are newer than most Lower East Side buildings."
We’d ordered two apps and two mains from the relatively brief menu, which had all sorts of French and other fine-dining flourishes, plus a native Lower East Side standard or two, such as a borscht with trout roe and cream, a Russian-Jewish mainstay that must have been served in this neighborhood millions of times a century ago. First to arrive was a classic French bistro preparation, celeriac remoulade ($12), tweaked with apple cubes and white beans. It was a study in off-white, and not bad. Much better, scintillating in its freshness, was a lamb tartare ($18), served with a cup of melba toasts.
Between courses we worked on the bottle of wine, until Sante, scanning the premises, dropped a bombshell. "Did you know that the block that this restaurant’s on appeared in Low Life?"
"Oh, yeah?" I looked up.
"At one time in the late 19th century this was the most populous block of any city on earth."
"Well, maybe that’s the immediate reason for the name of the restaurant," I offered.
The point remained moot as the conversation was interrupted by the arrival the next course, a medium-size dish and a large one: guinea hen ($20) and Sasso chicken yakitori (half, $28; whole, $54). The guinea hen, a favorite bird of mine, had been turned into a bouncy mousse and then stuffed inside the crisp skin of the bird, and the sparse presentation included carrots, chervil, and bread sauce. It was supremely delicious. The chicken was more abundant, a heap of poultry pieces that reminded us of chicken teriyaki, but a shade better than you’d find at Japanese restaurants nearby.
We had a chance to talk about Sante’s new book, The Other Paris, which is something of a sequel to Low Life. I asked him if he’d spent a lot of time in Paris doing the research. "Well I went there several times, of course, but nowadays much of the research can be done online," he said nodding his head. We talked a bit about East Village and Lower East Side restaurants of the past, and he mentioned a place called Bernard’s on Avenue C, a French restaurant from the early 1980s that I didn’t remember, and then we both tried to recall a Chinese restaurant on 3rd Avenue near St. Marks where the prices were high and drinks served with straws that were several feet long.
We finished up with a couple of memorable desserts: a marmalade-accented apple tart with ginger ice cream that Sante was particularly fond of, and a stylish dish of frozen and shaved raw milk, like something you might get at Snow Days. Then, retracing our steps through the restaurant, we went outside into the drizzle, he on his way to the Port Authority to catch a bus upstate. 178 Stanton St, (212) 257-0509