Lower East Side Reborn (as a Fat Baby)

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

New York: Top 10 Places to Celebrate Oktoberfest

Zum Schneider (East Village) – New-school Teutonic brings Oktoberfest in July. And also October! Live oompah and DJ four nights a week, with Mösl Franzi and the Ja Ja Jas. Oktoberfest specials to wet your whistle. ● Loreley (Lower East Side) – Industrial entrance on Rivington backwater leads to rollicking little biergarten. Pours ‘em like they do in Cologne, knock back a few Gaffel Kölsch or Reissdorf Kölsch and you’ll be wondering where you left your backpack with the hostel address in it. Seasonal brews and food specials mark the Oktoberfest season. ● Blaue Gans (Tribeca) – The Gutenbrunner Austrian Empire creeps further downtown via charming “Blue Goose.” Celebrate the season with heavy-duty special brews from Munich, plus sauerbraten, sausages, and ginormous pretzels.

The Standard Beer Garden (Meatpacking District) – White plastic furniture keeps pretense in check, as does menu’s focus on draughts and sausages. Serving wenches dressed in the dirndl equivalent of a tuxedo t-shirt. ● Radegast Hall & Biergarten (Williamsburg) – Sit at a picnic table with some well-scrubbed hops hounds, knocking back liters of the German, Czech, and Austrian good stuff. Full menu includes Murray’s cheese and charcuterie, but bratwurst is pretty hard to resist. Go plan your next putsch. ● Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden (Astoria) – Czech your liver at best beer garden in the US of A. Not quite Bavaria, but close enough. Sprawling throwback to a forgotten era makes for an awesome afternoon, sippin’ Spaten under the branches. ● Studio Square (Astoria) – Modernist deconstruction of Bohemian Hall. The biggest in the city, with monster cobblestone patio softened by birch trees and vines. Queens: it’s all about the biergartens. ● Heidelberg (Upper East Side) – Yorkville-circa-1936 holdover with schnitzel, potato pancakes, lederhosen, wood paneling, and enough hefeweizen to make you smell like the inside of a stein for days. ● Der Schwarze Kölner (Fort Greene) – Friendly new biergarten will have you calling the neighborhood Fort Grün. German-only tap and bottle list, plus kraut bites like brats and brezels. Checkerboard black and white floors, communal tables for cool-weather coziness. ● Bia Garden (Lower East Side) – Celebrating Oktoberfest in a Vietnamese beer garden? Why the hell not, it’s New York City! And when your holiday is about drinking beer to excess, does it really matter so much if the suds come from Laos and not Munich?

W2W2: What to Wear to Bia Garden, NYCs Cooler Boozefest

The Spot: Bia Garden (Lower East Side) – Summery Vietnamese outdoor spot just in time for fall.

Patron Saint of Style: TV host Alexa Chung, a British expat-about-town known for her extremely laid back style, and for mastering the mixology of grungy denim, flats, and cheeky accessories, the perfect uniform for Bia Garden’s endless LES summer.

Ambiance: It’s like grabbing street meat from a trendy cart, and heading over to your pal’s backyard party, with more space. And a better beer selection, if you’re into all-Asian vendables. Beverages range from Taj Mahal to Sapporo and are served in packs of 6, 12, and 24 packs straight to your table in ice-filled coolers. Hanging plants and wooden picnic tables compliment the truly pleasant backyard feel, one that even the douchiest of D-bag patrons would be hard pressed to ruin. Gather a group to enjoy your afternoons well into the fall.

The Look: Fun BBQ parties can’t be too serious, especially when Alexa-dressing means picking through your closet’s odds-and-ends and pairing them with staples. Work the denim-on-denim trend and use cheeky accessories as a buffer to transition your wardrobe into fall. Oversized bags, dishy sunglasses, and vintagey purses compete for attention, but they’re subdued against androgynous denim. Summer polka dots take on a tongue-in-cheek sentiment when paired with fall’s new favorites; designer Ts, loafers, and studs. Imagine being 8 and picking your outfit to go play outside with your friends. Combine with beer in the Lower East Side.

Get the Bia Garden Look: Clockwise from left: ● Shoes: Nappa Tassel Loafers, Raparo (available at luisaviaroma.com) – $470 ● Denim Shirt: The Perfect Shirt, Current/Elliott (available at net-a-porter.com) – $200 ● Sandals: Gladiator Sandals, Steve Madden (available at Steve Madden) – $163 ● Belt: Suede Stud Belt, Dorothy Perkins – $33 ● Purse: Jersey Quilt Chain X Body Bag, Miss Selfridge – $30 ● Bag: Heart Shaped Bag, Asia Jam (available at AsiaJam.com) – $24 ● Skirt: Polka Dot Silk Skirt, Michael Kors – $718 ● Shorts: Atom of Love Distressed Denim Short, (available at Sass & Bide) – $163 ● T Shirt: Cotton Girl Print, (available at Topshop) – $33 ● Denim Jacket: 3/4 Jean Jacket, (available at iconogenic.com) – $33 ● Sunglasses: Luella, Linda Farrow Vintage