The East Village has the most kinetic, rapidly evolving, and downright fun restaurant scene in the city. In addition to boasting almost any type of cuisine you could hope for — from around the nation, and indeed, the world — the neighborhood is also a wellspring for numerous highly original restaurants. Due to its small parcels of real estate, progressive attitude, and history of counterculture, the neighborhood is an incubator for aspiring young chefs and restaurateurs — just as it has been for musicians, writers, poets, and revolutionaries in decades past.
But the neighborhood wasn’t always such a remarkable place to eat out. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that any significant dining scene began to develop, and it really wasn’t until this century that the East Village produced world-renowned restaurants.
The East Village as a distinct geographic entity only dates back to the 1960s. Prior to that it was considered part of the Lower East Side, and was populated for much of its history by German and Jewish immigrants. The oldest remaining restaurants in the East Village don’t reflect this heritage. McSorley’s Ale House (1854) is an Irish pub, Veniero’s (1894) is an Italian pastry shop, and John’s of 12th Street (1908) is a picturesque Italian red sauce joint. B&H Dairy (circa 1939) is one of the few remaining vestiges of the neighborhood's Jewish culinary tradition.
It was in the post-World War II era that the East Village became known as the "pierogi belt," due to the spate of restaurants that opened up to feed the hungry Ukrainians and Poles who flocked to the neighborhood. A few remain with us, such as Veselka (1954) and Odessa (1965). But most of these establishments, like Leshkos (1957 to 1999) and Kiev (1971 to 2000), are distant memories. Also of note is Second Avenue Deli, which operated in the East Village from 1954 to 2006 (it relocated after a lengthy closure and is now located in Murray Hill).
Indian restaurant Shah Bag (now closed) opened at 320 East Sixth St. in 1968, and by the 1970s, there was a significant number of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi restaurants centered on Sixth Street, popularly known as “curry row.” By 2000, there were over 25 of such restaurants, but these days, that number has dwindled significantly. There is also still a slight remanence of the neighborhood’s bohemian roots. Casa Adela also opened in 1976, serving classic Latin fare, and it remains open to this day. But Angelica Kitchen (1976), a pioneer of vegetarian cooking, closed in 2017 after a 40-year tenure, and Dojo, which opened on St. Marks’s Place in 1974 and closed in 2007, lasted by name until 2018 with a recently closed Greenwich Village location.
The early 1980s saw the opening of a number of quirky, eclectic, casual restaurants, and fast-food joints that would help to define the neighborhood’s culinary zeitgeist and lay the groundwork for what was to come. Life Cafe (1981 to 2012), Yaffa Cafe (1983 to 2014), and San Loco (1986 to 2017) are now closed, but Cafe Mogador (1983), Two Boots (1987, which started off as a full-service restaurant), and Paul’s Palace (1989, now known as Paul’s Da Burger Joint) are still around today. They may not reflect the most avant-garde expressions of their respective cuisines, but they are all East Village originals.
The openings of Sapporo East (1983 to 2013, replaced by the very similar Beronberon) and Hasaki (1984) were arguably the most significant openings of the mid 1980s, as they foreshadowed the ascension of Little Tokyo, which would grow rapidly in the following decade.
An interesting footnote to cap the decade was that in 1989, a young chef by the name of Bobby Flay took the helm of the kitchen at Miracle Grill. It was his first executive chef job and showed that the East Village could be a fertile ground for a young chef.
By the 1990s, the East Village had become a full-fledged nightlife destination with bars and clubs proliferating in the neighborhood. This helped to boost the restaurant scene as well, and often the two worlds blurred together. Lucky Cheng’s (1993) was part drag cabaret and part Cali-Asian fusion restaurant. And both Decibel (1993) and Angel’s Share (1994) represented part of the Little Tokyo scene and anticipated the cocktail and spirits obsession of today.
The decade also saw a number of French bistros pop up that are still around, such as Jules (1993) and Lucien (1998). And the area also became known for affordable Italian trattorias and wine bars. Frank Prisinzano opened Frank restaurant in 1998, and he went on to launch two more neighborhood spots — Lil Frankie’s and Supper, a pizzeria and trattoria, respectively. All three are still thriving today. As the decade closed, Gabrielle Hamilton opened Prune (1999), which would become one of the most influential and important East Village restaurants of its day. It set the tone for the decade to come.
While the road to 2000 is fairly easy to follow, the meteoric ascension of the East Village as a dining neighborhood in the 21st century — especially in the last decade — is somewhat harder to quantify, so dizzying has the progress been. Currently, there are more than 300 establishments licensed to serve food in the East Village, and the diversity is staggering.
Unquestionably, gentrification has played a role in the evolution of the neighborhood's dining scene. The escalation in real estate prices led to a younger, wealthier demographic in the neighborhood. But the rise in the number of restaurants speaks beyond pure economic and demographic shifts, and demonstrates the ascension of the local culinary arts.
The cultural space and mindshare occupied by music and art in decades past is now increasingly focused on restaurants and dining. Some notable openings from that era were ramen restaurant Rai Rai Ken (2000), the Greek Pylos (2003), the Mermaid Inn (2003), Marco Canora’s Hearth (2003), and Degustation (2006). All remain notable in their field, except the now-closed Degustation, and Canora, especially, has garnered national recognition for almost single handedly kicking off the broth trend.
But it is David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants that have been the most influential. From $5 soft-serve ice cream to $500 tasting menus, Chang has conquered the East Village. Momofuku Noodle Bar opened in 2004, followed by Momofuku Ssäm Bar (2006) and Momofuku Ko (2008).
Collectively, they revolutionized dining, stripping away much of the pomp and fostering a new era of creativity by allowing chefs to cook what they felt like. Chang’s restaurants occupy an especially important place because they have had a global impact. As the brand spreads out across the planet, chefs and restaurateurs around the world draw inspiration from the food and service style of the Momofuku restaurants.
Beginning in 2008 with the opening of Gemma, the Bowery corridor began to attract big-name chefs. Daniel Boulud opened DBGB in 2009, followed in quick succession by Brad Farmerie’s Saxon + Parole, Andrew Carmellini’s Bar Primi, John Fraser’s Narcissa, and Josh Capon’s Bowery Meat Company. DBGB has since closed.
They are all very good restaurants, but with all due respect, it is hard to consider them part of the restaurant culture of the East Village. They are big, ambitious projects from chef/owners who made their names and fortunes elsewhere. The spaces they occupy are discordant both architecturally and culturally with the rest of the neighborhood.
Rather, the East Village is better defined by restaurants like Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy (2008, relocated to Lower East Side 2015); Sara Jenkins’s sandwich shop Porchetta (2008 to 2016) and trattoria Porsena (2010); and Northern Spy Food Co (2009 to 2016). The neighborhood is also particularly adept at generating oddball fast-food brands. The aforementioned Two Boots Pizza and San Loco are early examples, and more recently we have seen Crif Dogs, Artichoke Pizza, Luke’s Lobster, and David Chang’s Fuku all branch out and become mini-chains.
The East Village has more recently seen a burst of creative energy, with openings like Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku’s Korean hit Oiji, Jonah Miller’s Basque-tinged Huertas, Thomas Chen’s Chinese-New American restaurant Tuome, Alex Stupak’s Mexican-influenced Empellon Al Pastor, and Chung Chow’s Hawaiian-inspired Noreetuh.
And a surge of Chinese students in the area has led to a boom in stylish new restaurants serving hyper-specific regional Chinese cuisines, meaning the neighborhood is now home to Yunnan-style mifen (rice noodles) at Little Tong Noodle Shop, Sichuan dry pot at MáLà Project, Cajun-Chinese seafood boil at Le Sia, and Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Ho Foods.
None of these places existed a decade ago, yet they now rank among the most compelling restaurants in downtown Manhattan.