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Lower East Side

Cafe Katja

photo by Bradley Hawks

When chefs Erwin Schröttner and Andrew Chase started talking about opening a place, Schröttner didn’t want to cook anymore. He just wanted to own a spot where he could get a proper beer poured — with a nice head, he explains — and maybe a little schnapps. Chase, who’d originally proposed partnering on a fried chicken joint, managed to convince him to serve a little easy food on the side, and they put together plans for a menu of cold cuts and cheese. But when they flung open the doors to their then-minuscule Lower East Side establishment seven years ago, it didn’t take long for Chase to finagle his exceptional bratwurst onto the board, and he didn’t stop there. “Suddenly we had a full-blown restaurant,” says Schröttner. And one that drew legions of fans for its Austrian vision, its pork belly reuben, its red cabbage salad, its goulash, and its meatballs, as well as its joyous (and often raucous) dining room, where you can almost always spot the owners. Cafe Katja became so ingrained in the neighborhood, it had to expand twice, annexing neighbors as leases became available. Still, it’s packed nightly. And yes, you can get a proper pour of beer (we recommend the Stiegl) with a hefty head.

Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant

photo by Nicole Franzen

When Clinton Street Baking Company & Restaurant opened down the block from Wylie Dufresne’s 71 Clinton Fresh Food in 2001, co-owners DeDe Lahman and chef Neil Kleinberg looked up to their neighbor as the senior player of Clinton Street, and they were initially happy to just be on the junior-varsity team. Thirteen years later — and eight years after Dufresne shuttered that fine-dining restaurant — this classic American joint has been on the starting line-up for some time, and customers wait hours for a taste of its simple cuisine, especially during weekend brunch. While the couple “never set out to become the king and queen of pancakes,” says Lahman, the breakfast staple is so beloved here that February is Clinton Street’s “Pancake Month,” during which a menu of specialty cakes — like German chocolate and Japanese pumpkin — changes every few days. Any time of the year, avoid the mammoth brunch lines by heading over for an early dinner. You can still eat breakfast then, or you can try one of the lesser-known savory dishes, like market fish tacos with house-made tortillas and hot sauce.

Congee Village

photo by Robert Menzer

Szechuan-inflected Chinese is having its moment, but old-school Lower East Side Cantonese stalwart Congee Village plods along quietly, always there and always good. The terrible tiki drinks here are as sweet as they are strong, the Tsingtao always seems to be room temperature, and the kitchen tends to have a heavy hand with the cornstarch. Make sure there are soy and chile sauces on the lazy susan before sitting down; hailing a waiter is as difficult as snagging a crosstown cab at shift change. But settle into your meal in one of the crowded dining rooms and let one of the 30 varieties of the spot’s namesake rice porridge work its magic on body and soul: Starchy and soothing, congee is a bland canvas for salty peanuts and ground pork, mushroom and duck, even snails and frogs, if that’s your kind of thing. The house special garlic chicken is not to be missed, the bird hacked into tawny strips and interspersed with whole garlic cloves. Order, too, the excellent scallion pancakes. Oh, and you’re not a New Yorker until you’ve belted out a Queen tune in the karaoke lounge downstairs.

Doughnut Plant

photo Courtesy Doughnut Plant

Long before Dominique Ansel’s Cronut and Justin Warner’s foie gras-stuffed doughnut at Do or Dine, Mark Isreal, chef-owner of Doughnut Plant, was devising doughnut innovations in the basement bakery of a Lower East Side tenement building. “I wanted to make a doughnut that was not only delicious, but also would be as good for you as a doughnut could possibly be, by using superior ingredients,” Isreal says. By adding fresh fruits and real nuts to the glazes, Isreal created something new. His doughnuts caught on quickly at shops like Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s, and he soon outgrew his small wholesale space. In 2000, Doughnut Plant moved to its current Lower East Side address, luring customers with ever-evolving flavors like matcha green tea, rose, and tres leches. For a supremely decadent treat, try the crème brûlée doughnut, which sports a hand-torched caramelized crust and oozes with real crème brûlée filling. The constant lines enabled a space upgrade and a second location that opened in the Chelsea Hotel in 2011; overseeing nine locations in Tokyo and one in Seoul, Isreal is well on his way to world doughnut domination.

Katz’s Delicatessen

photo by Robert Menzer

It’s hard to imagine the Lower East Side without Katz’s Delicatessen, that rare restaurant where native New Yorkers deign to rub elbows with tourists. An institution since 1888, the deli may owe its immortality to the fact that it hasn’t varied its beloved kosher-style menu much in 126 years, even as the neighborhood has transformed around it. Jake Dell, a third-generation co-owner, grew up in the restaurant — he recalls hiding from “scary Russians with big knives” at the deli counter and celebrating his bar mitzvah here — and he is intent upon preserving traditions. “The ability to change and grow is important,” he says, “but that’s not who we are.” Diners appreciate the stripped-down cafeteria and old-school attitude, and they keep coming back for the consistently high-quality pastrami, brisket, and corned-beef sandwiches, matzo ball soup, and hot dogs. If you must avoid the out-of-towners, go late on a weekend night, when Katz’s is open around the clock.

The Meatball Shop

photo by Will Sterns

The Meatball Shop may very well take the country someday, but for now, this local chain is limited to New York City, spawned from one outpost on the Lower East Side that opened in 2010. Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow planned a small, counter-service joint, but serving balls in a number of ways required a sit-down dining component. They opened to a line that stretched around the corner onto Allen Street, and in their wake came an onslaught of single-item restaurant concepts in the city. The guys now run five locations across two boroughs, but downtowners still flock to the original for its ability to rev up pre-party crowds with soul-shaking tracks and sate post-bar stragglers with a 4 a.m. weekend closing time. No matter what time you drop in, mark your meatball flavor, sauce, and starch on a laminated menu; pair your meal with sangria; and follow up the main event with an epic ice cream sandwich.

Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse

photo by Robert Menzer

A taste of the schmaltz-fueled good old days makes it nearly impossible to leave Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse without a smile. The mood at this raucous subterranean Lower East Side haunt is infectious, with live music and plenty of flowing booze — most notably bottles of Ketel One frozen into blocks of ice. Chopped chicken liver is given similarly lavish treatment, mixed tableside with caramelized onions and plenty of chicken fat. Of the entrées, none is better than the platter of garlicky skirt steak, a portion so voluminous that it hangs off the plate edge. Golden-brown potato latkes make a bold impression, each one the size of a landmine and packing a fitting quantity of explosive flavor. The victuals might be on the heavy side, but Israeli emcee Dani Lubnitzki keeps the mood light, teasing diners nightly with popular songs tweaked with Hebraic puns. (A bris is still a bris . . . It had to be Jew . . .) Every now and then, the room erupts into dance. Sammy’s is what happens when you mix neuroses and charoses — and a ton of vodka.

Shopsin's

photo by Robert Menzer

There were a lot of rules at the original Greenwich Village location of Shopsin's, the long-menued luncheonette legendarily cranky Kenny Shopsin opened as a market in 1973 and converted to a restaurant in the early ’80s. For one, each person at the table had to order something different. For another, your party could not be larger than four. Break the rules — or offend the proprietor in some other way — and you’d find yourself banned for life. The mood has softened a bit now that Shopsin’s has moved into Essex Market (though, still, follow those rules), but Kenny is still around, often perched on a chair beneath the sundries-crammed walls of his tiny stall. His son runs the show at the tables nowadays, passing out the menus filled with hundreds of items printed in tiny type. Best to pick a section and work from there. An eclectic collection of pancakes — in flavors like red velvet poppy, macadamia, and mac & cheese — is worth your attention, as is the famous collection of “Blisters on My Sisters,” which begin with a base of corn tortillas, greens, rice, black beans, and a sunny side-up egg, and incorporate everything from pasta bolognese to seared duck and kimchi bok choy. We’re partial to the egg nachos, even after the kitchen punished our request for level-10 spiciness by sprinkling ghost chile powder over the top. But it’s a sound strategy to just close your eyes and point randomly — even the weirdest items on the Shopsins menu are tasty, and there’s no guarantee your regular dish is going to taste like it did last time, anyway.

wd-50

photo by Liz Barclay

A thirst for knowledge has always been the driving force behind Wylie Dufresne’s progressive cooking, from his days working under Jean-Georges Vongerichten to his time as a Lower East Side pioneer at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, and finally here at wd-50, his artfully appointed Clinton Street restaurant. Eleven years after pursuing this ambitious solo venture, Dufresne refuses to shy away from risk. The chef’s contemplative dish-development process (it can take upward of a month to nail techniques and flavor profiles) translates into thought-provoking, impactful plates. Although an à la carte menu was available for years, in its current iteration the restaurant offers two prix-fixe options: a five-course tasting of “greatest hits” culled from the restaurant’s extensive history, and a 12-course, $155 extravaganza. Low-rollers should pay close attention, though: There’s a bargain to be found at the bar, where $25 gets you any two courses from either tasting menu, with each additional course for $15. All of a sudden, you’re enjoying a customized four-course, $55 prix fixe at one of the city’s most influential houses of modernist technique. The pun-tastic cocktails are equally impressive and progressive, boasting whimsical ingredients like black garlic oil, oatmeal milk, and squash.