This post is part of the “Mommy Shorts Guide to Manhattan,” a series where I share all our favorite family-friendly spots in NYC.
Two weeks ago, I announced a new Thursday series called “The Mommy Shorts Guide to Manhattan.” Last week, I was like— oh shit, this guide is actually a lot of work! I decided to start the guide with the area I know best— the East Village, where I’ve lived for almost 15 years. That should make it easy, right?
The answer is: No, it’s not easy, because I know too much. And not nearly enough, because the East Village stretches from 14th St. and 4th Ave. all the way South to Houston and then East to the East River, encompassing all of Alphabet City and that’s a lot of area to cover. And to be honest, I’m more of an expert on the west side of the East Village because I don’t go further east than Avenue A all that often. Soooo…, this post took me two weeks to write and made me realize that if I really want to make my Manhattan Guide a weekly series, I am going to have to be a little less ambitious. I may have gotten too in depth. And I probably left a lot of great places out too— but that’s okay, right? I’m not Time Out NY. I’m just one mom talking about the places I like best.
Here we go…
The East Village is not known for any major museums or skyscrapers. It’s filled mostly with low walk-up residential buildings and brownstones. This is why, if you happen to live in one of the residential buildings higher than five floors, chances are, you have a pretty awesome view.
Our biggest landmark is probably the cube in Astor Place, which turned 50 this year. “It’s older than you are!” Mazzy exclaimed when she saw the signs commemorating the event. Yes, that’s true. Little known fact about the cube? It spins! But it’s really heavy, so one person usually can’t do it without help. Me, Mazzy and Harlow can’t push it an inch. But if we bring Mike on board? There it goes!
Another mainstay of the East Village is a book store called The Strand on 12th St. They have dollar books in shelves along the sidewalk, tons of rare collector books, signed first editions, newly published books and an awesome children’s section upstairs. It’s a very highly regarded book store, which is why it was quite an honor when they hosted my book reading there.
The next biggest landmark is only important to me. On 9th St. between 3rd Ave and 4th Ave, you will find a random alleyway blocked by a huge iron gate with several foreboding “Keep Out” signs. There are surprisingly few back alleys in Manhattan and this particular alley used to be my dad’s driveway when he lived in the basement apartment of an adjacent building back in the ’80s. That’s where little Ilana and little Dr. B (that’s my sister) used to spend every other weekend after our parents got divorced. It’s prime real estate now! Back then, when the East Village was known mostly for crime and drug dealing, it was a miracle we survived the five feet to walk to our front door.
Speaking of drug dealing, back in the 80’s, you could be sure to find your drugs of choice and various people on drugs in Tompkins Square Park. Back then, you wouldn’t dare to step in there with a child because that place was SCARY and full of some really really weird people. I remember taking a walk with my dad in there once and passing a man walking like a zombie in a full suit of medieval armor. We never went back.
Now you get there via a lovely tree-lined street with a small farmer’s market on the weekends where you might stroll with your newborn.
The park is now totally safe, has been completely refurbished, and is now overrun with NYU students and families using one of three renovated playgrounds (the most popular one on the west side of the park), sitting in the dog park, having lunch on the benches and lying in the grass.
Another popular spot from the days of East Village past is St. Mark’s Place which is the span of 8th St. between 3rd and 1st Aves. Historically, these two blocks were where the counterculture of the time could be found and buses of tourists used to drive by just so the squares could see it. First the beatniks, then the hippies and then the punk rock movement. As a kid up until maybe ten years ago, I remember St. Mark’s being flooded with teenagers in silver studded motorcycle jackets, combat boots and three foot high spiked purple mohawks. Now, it’s just a block with inexpensive restaurants and bars, outdoor vendors selling sunglasses and wigs and the occasional head shop, where you will have to explain to your child that yes, the rainbow colored glass apparatus is pretty, but she cannot buy it. If you want to experience a classic St. Mark’s dive bar that has been there forever, try Holiday Cocktail Lounge. NOT WITH KIDS.
The East Village is also home to one of the prettiest corners in NYC. A little bit west of 2nd Ave. on 10th Street, a random little street called Stuyvesant runs diagonally until it ends at the St. Mark’s Church, creating a curved little corner with a triangular building covered in ivy behind it. It’s a beautiful place for a photo. Plus, you might recognize it because the corner has been featured in countless movies and TV shows throughout the years.
Otherwise, the East Village is known mainly for our restaurants and bars. It’s most popular for ethnic cuisines like Italian, Indian, Japanese, Morrocan and Ukranian and it’s one of the few neighborhoods in the city where you can get a cheap meal that tastes delicious. In fact, the first Michelin-starred Dim Sum place, Tim Ho Wan, just opened on 10th St. and 4th Ave. There’s a line around the block on the daily.
Do I know all the best restaurants in the East Village?
Nope! I do not.
We have at least five restaurants on every block, two bars, an ice cream shop, a bakery, a coffee shop and a juice bar. Knowing them all would be impossible. Thankfully, most of them are not family-friendly, so for this series, I can weed out about 95% of them right off the bat.
Most East Village restaurants are small storefronts which stretch back like long railroad apartments. They are not large enough to wheel in a stroller without annoying a bunch of people. If you are able to maneuver your stroller inside, there will probably not be anywhere to put it. And there is most definitely NOT a changing table in the bathroom. This was a tough lesson when I first had Mazzy, because I could no longer go to my favorite places. For that reason, I started taking Mazzy around in a baby carrier and eating over her head. With Harlow, we embraced the umbrella stroller which was much easier to fold up and stash away. As for diaper changing, you just have to get creative.
If you insist on bringing a stroller and want to go to a place where people won’t give you side eye when your kid screams for chicken fingers, I do have a few suggestions.
The restaurant we frequent with Mazzy and Harlow most often is The Smith on 3rd Ave and 11th St. It has plenty of space, great food, a ton of booths and tables for big parties, a photo booth downstairs that’s always a hit and a loud ambience that will successfully mask a crying kid.
My favorite dish is the squid ink tagliatelle with shrimp and breadcrumbs. I love it so much that when they took it off the menu, I lobbied to get it back. IT WORKED! They have a secret kid’s menu that isn’t listed but if you ask the waitress, she’ll tell you all about their chicken fingers, plain pasta, burgers, grilled cheese, etc. They are also more than happy to steam some broccoli and give you a plate with a piece of grilled chicken, which is what we usually get for Harlow.
A few other stroller-friendly options in the East Village are Five Napkin Burger (booths, burgers and huge healthy salads)…
…B Bar and Grill (service is terrible and the food is “eh” but it’s got a great atmosphere with a large outdoor garden and baskets of banana bread while you wait for your food)…
…and Gemma, the Italian place in the Bowery Hotel. Poppy is a regular there. My favorite time to eat at Gemma is for brunch outside, where they have an assortment of big wooden tables and chairs on the sidewalk.
It’s great people watching, especially if your kid is napping table-side in the stroller.
Restaurants that are Not Stroller Friendly
If you want to venture outside stroller-friendly restaurants (which I highly recommend), there is one thing in the East Village that really works in favor of “the breeders.” Since the majority of the people who frequent our neighborhood restaurants are young and single, that means they go out late and get up late on the weekends. You can go to almost any restaurant at 6pm and get seated no problem. Most people don’t go out to dinner until at least 8pm. Ditto for weekend brunch, when nobody gets out of bed before noon. If you go to brunch at 10am, you can almost always walk right in.
If your kids are a little more adventurous when it comes to food, I recommend Rai Rai Ken for Ramen (their Chicken Miso soup was my pregnancy craving and I got it almost every day), Mimi Cheng’s for dumplings…
…Vselka for perogies (that’s Grammy’s favorite), Kanoyama for sushi, Crif Dogs for hot dogs…
Momofuku Noodle Bar for pork buns (if you don’t mind waiting on line to get in), Frank’s for spaghetti and meatballs (this is our favorite take-out spot)…
…Cafe Mogador for an amazing Moroccan style brunch, Mermaid Inn for oysters, Luke’s Lobster for lobster rolls, Caracas for arepas, Pylos for Greek food, Fry Guys for fries…
…and Thursday Kitchen for Korean food and something they call Capri-Thursdays, which are oversized clear juice bags that they’ll fill with cocktails or kid’s drinks. At night, they even include a light-up ice cube.
Also, if you read my book and are curious where the dad I met in Mommy & Me was the manager? That’s Supper on 2nd St. and Ave. B. It’s Italian and it’s fantastic.
But if you have to pick one restaurant to go in the East Village, I’d choose a tiny cheap Indian restaurant called Milon, which is among many other tiny cheap Indian restaurants on 1st ave between 5th and 6th St. In the middle of the block, you will see a staircase up to two different Indian restaurants, both with tons of Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling.
The one on the left is Milon, the one on the right is Panna. The rumor is that the two restaurants were originally one restaurant owned by two brothers. Then the brothers got into a fight and split the restaurant in two. They are still feuding to this day and when you approach the staircase, there will be a man outside each restaurant very actively trying to convince you to come into his place over the other. Do not engage. You know where you are going. Just walk straight into Milon on the left, which has been my preferred side for the past 20 years. I used to go there with my mom when I was younger, continued to go with my friends when we were in our twenties and now love bringing Mazzy.
Now, the other rumor I’ve heard is that the two restaurants actually share the same kitchen and the food is all the same, but it doesn’t matter. Everyone has their preference and will swear by it to the death. I swear by Milon. The other thing that you have to do when you are there is tell someone it’s your kid’s birthday. At the end of your meal, the whole restaurant comes to a stop as they switch the music to a really loud festive Indian song and flash the Christmas lights, as they bring over cups of mango ice cream. It’s fantastic.
The coffee shop Harlow and I used to stop at every morning for muffin dates is called Third Rail Coffee. Harlow loves their pumpkin bread, but truth be told, I don’t love their coffee, although other people seem to. It just happened to be on our way to preschool for the past few years. If you go there, you can play “Spot the Miniature Rarity Doll” and perhaps have an awkward moment with the infamous Kevin.
If you want to go to the coffee shop that actually has the best coffee, that’s Mud on 9th St. This is where Mike goes every Saturday and Sunday morning to bring us both back a cup. Their back indoor garden is also a great place for brunch, but you are definitely not getting a stroller in there, and don’t even try to change your baby in the bathroom.
I let Mike handle this one because he has very firm bagel opinions. The most well-known bagel place in the East Village with the longest lines is Tompkins Square Bagels (one location on Ave A between 10th and 11th St. and a second location on 2nd Ave between 11th and 12th) but this doesn’t stop Mike from walking up 1st Ave. all the way to Ess-a-Bagel on 20th St. (outside of the East Village) because he believes their bagels are far superior.
Now, if you asked him who has the best white fish salad? That would be Bagel Boss on 1st Ave and 15th St. There is also the world famous Russ & Daughters on Orchard and Houston St, but since it’s on the South Side of Houston, I believe that it’s technically the Lower East Side and not the East Village. We’ll get to the Lower East Side in another post. If you want a super Instagram-able rainbow bagel, you can find that at Bagel Belly on 3rd Ave and 13th St., but I’ll warn you: these rainbow bagels are imposter bagels and for photos only. They do not taste great. You can find the original rainbow bagels at the Bagel Store in Brooklyn.
If you are one of those crazy people who prefers a Montreal style bagel (which I think tastes more like a soft honey wheat pretzel), Black Seed Bagel on 1st Ave. between 10th and 11th St. is the place for you. But yes, I’m judging you.
Joe’s Pizza on 14th St. is by far and away my favorite pizza place for a New York Style Pizza. It’s a little shoebox of a place serving slices and pies on paper plates, as it should. It has a second location in the West Village which is equally as great.
But, if you asked Mazzy and Harlow, they’d say Iggy’s is their favorite pizza, because that’s where Grammy likes to take them. My favorite place to order delivery from is Gruppo on Avenue B, which is actually stroller friendly too. Their plain thin crust pizza is crispy and AMAZING. It’s not too cheesy and on the smaller side, so it’s one of the few slices of pizza that Harlow will eat without me having to cut it up into pieces.
This is a tricky one because there are a lot of choices, and unlike the restaurants, we have probably tried them all. My favorite is Davey’s ice cream.
They make hard ice cream on the premises and the flavors actually taste like real coffee, real chocolate, real sea salt caramel and real peppermint. It’s also got a very Instagrammable store front that you will recognize from my photos.
The best soft serve is ChikaLicious Dessert Club, not to be confused with the fancier sit-down ChikaLicious Dessert Bar across the street which I do not recommend at all. The CLUB serves only vanilla and green tea soft serve, but it’s the ice cream vessels which make this place particularly special. They recently gave birth to something called the ConeChurro which became very popular this summer. A ConeChurro is soft serve ice cream and variety of toppings inside and out (like nutella, chocolate ganache, nuts, sprinkles, caramel, etc.) using a huge cronut-like thing as a cone (see top left of photo below). The ConeChurro is a little much for me and I prefer to order something that is not on the menu. Ask for vanilla soft serve ice cream served in an eclair and you will be in for a TREAT. They will hand it to you vertically with the ice cream coming up out of the top and you’ll have to eat it fast because the ice cream can melt through the bottom, but OHMYGOD that ice cream soaked eclair is so so so good.
Besides ChikaLicious Dessert Club, the other ice cream shops I’d recommend (clockwise from top right) are Stuffed (a new place that makes something called the Stuffed Bouquet), the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop (famous for their their Golden Girl themed ice cream) and Ten Below (which makes ice cream tacos).
We don’t eat anything else nearly as much as we eat ice cream, but I’m going to go ahead and recommend Butter Lane for cupcakes, Zucker Bakery for Alfajores…
…Max Brenner if your kid would be floored by a chocolate fountain and chocolate pizza, Dun-Well for doughnuts…
…Moishe’s Bake Shop for Mike’s favorite Babka, Venerio’s for world-famous Italian pastries that have been around since 1894 and ChikaLicious Dessert Club (again) for made-to-order, fancy, to-go desserts that you would usually only find in a full service restaurant. Like, if you suddenly get a hankering for a molten lava chocolate cake or an apple crumble, they will make it on the spot and serve it in a little paper cup with vanilla ice cream on top.
I have to pass by that place every single day and the smells coming out of it are UNREAL.
The East Village is filled with bars, most of them packed with NYU students and single people in their twenties, but there are a few grown-up places if you are looking for a seat and a more sophisticated cocktail while your kids are safely back at the hotel with a sitter. Immigrant Bar is a tiny wine bar on 9th St. which only has room for about five people at a time. How they stay in business, I do not know.
Angel’s Share is a lovely hidden spot with thick floor to ceiling curtains and fancy sofas that you access up a dirty staircase, through the back of a random Japanese restaurant off of 3rd Ave.
Crif Dogs (the hot dog place I mentioned earlier) has a cool speakeasy-like bar called Please Don’t Tell (oops) that you can find by walking into the restaurant, stepping into a phone booth and picking up the receiver. You tell the voice on the other end how many people are in your party and if there is room, a panel in the phone booth slides open to let you into the other side. I also love the bar at the back of the Bowery Hotel.
Just enter like you are staying at the hotel, walk through the sitting area all the way to the back and you’ll find the most perfect little bar on the left. I traded jokes with Cuba Gooding Jr. there once. Ace Bar is a well-known East Village bar on East 6th street which has arcade games, skee ball, pool tables and darts that’s really popular with kids (and by kids I mean NYU kids, not your four-year-old) on Saturday afternoons.
Our favorite toy store is Dinosaur Hill on East 9th street. It’s a quintessential old fashion toy shop. There are no big name brands but tons of great stuff that feel very carefully curated to be educational, engaging and enriching. That’s where we buy almost all our gifts for birthday parties and where I’ll take Mazzy and Harlow whenever I promise them a small little something for a special reward.
They have lots of bins of little toys for $10 or less and its easy to give them a low budget and still have a lot to choose from.
Our other favorite toy shop, which just opened a few years ago, is An.mé. It’s a smaller shop with a delightfully quirky collection of throwback toys (like Monchichi dolls) and Japanese favorites like Tokidoki. They also sell some really cool designer kids clothes and accessories.
Another great gift shop for both bridal showers and baby showers is Pink Olive on 9th St. I should mention that 9th Street in general has lots of fun little boutiques for adults too.
Places to Stay
The Bowery Hotel is an amazing hotel that was meticulously designed to look like it’s been there forever. The inner lobby almost looks like a setting from a movie, with room keys on bright red tassels lined up behind reception, newspapers on wooden scrolls and a beautiful plush sitting area with classic NYC red brick interior walls. It has the perfect little bar in the back that I talked about earlier, a gorgeous outdoor garden with seating and the Italian restaurant Gemma. It is also one of the few hotels in the city that I’ve actually spent the night. The first time was because my dad threw an engagement party for Mike and me in there and the second time was because my sister got married there. My sister’s wedding was nine days after Mazzy was born, so we got a room where I could run up and down from the party to nurse her throughout the night, while three of my best friends hung out there and ordered room service.
The other hotel I recommend is the Standard East Village, also on the Bowery. I’ve never stayed there but I absolutely love the restaurants on the first floor which include Narcissa (an upscale eatery with amazing food), the Summer Garden (truly one of the prettiest outdoor spaces in the city to sip a cocktail or coffee)…
and the Standard Cafe which is a more casual eatery, great for breakfast or lunch that spills outside onto the sidewalk.
What else can I tell you? Oh! The graffitti! If you are interested in taking some photos in front of cool murals, you can find plenty in the East Village. Here are three of my favorites.
These butterfly wings are inside the PureGreen smoothie and juice bar at 152 2nd Ave.
These hearts are on the Southeast corner of 11th St and 1st Ave.
This entire wall made up of smaller side-by-side murals is outside of Pastel Nail Salon on the Northwest corner of 12th St. and 2nd Ave.
So, that’s it! I think. If anyone has any questions about the East Village or feels I left out something important, feel free to to tell me or ask me in the comments below.
I can almost guarantee you that in the future, no “Mommy Shorts Guide to Manhattan” post will be nearly this long. But at least, I hope you understand why it took two weeks to write!