A Tour of the East Village's Borscht Belt Restaurants and Lunch Counters

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee, unless otherwise noted]

Say you took an East Villager from the 1980s on a tour of the neighborhood today. What would they say of the glass condos popping up weekly? Would anything look the same?

They'd certainly recognize B & H Dairy, established in the 1930s and still standing. They might balk at the nine dollars Stage Restaurant charges for pastrami, but they'd know how good it can be. Some things, it's nice to know, haven't changed. But that's no guarantee for tomorrow.

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A 19th and 20th century immigration boom of Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians established the East Village and Lower East Side (the two neighborhoods were once the same) as Manhattan's borscht belt. Today, the area has changed in more ways than we can count, and now is an uncertain time for cheap lunch counters like Stage Restaurant, which has been dishing out pierogi and potato pancakes for over 30 years. The building was sold last year to new developers known for gut renovations, and its lease only stretches another five.

We New Yorkers love and support our historic legends, our Katz's Delis and Russ & Daughters, but we're less charitable to the also-goods, the local spots too unassuming to become tourist destinations. And landmark committees won't pay their bills.

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Polonia, Christine's, Jolanta, Teresea's—these are just a few restaurants on a long list of casualties as modernization rolls over the East Village's past. Declining regular customers is one cause, but no matter how many pierogi a decades-old business sells, there's little it can do in the face of a 350% rent increase, such as the one that forced Polonia to close.

But they are worth preserving, because immigrant restaurants in New York are never for immigrants alone. The East Village's borscht belt takes all comers, old foreigners next to fresh new faces, forming some of the city's most democratic public spaces. And come icy winters, their bowls of chicken soup and plates of potato dumplings satisfy like nothing else. New York owes its New Yorkishness to businesses like them and the communities they represent.

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Fortunately, the East Village remains Manhattan's go-to neighborhood for Eastern European restaurants, and plenty still serve good, honest food at bargain prices you'd never see at their trendier neighbors. Here's a roster of the old timers that are still standing, with field notes on what to order.

Stage Restaurant

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No one does potato pancakes as craggly-crisp as Stage Restaurant, or pierogi as blistered with oily caramelized onions—just two of the reasons it's won a loyal following over the past three decades. Some of the friendliest service in the East Village helps, no matter if you're a white-haired regular or a fresh-faced NYU kid looking for a cheap meal. It's the quintessential lunch counter, down to the bar stool seating and coffee cups of borscht, though its immediate future is also the most endangered.

Short order: Pierogi and potato pancakes, corned beef hash, and daily specials like pastrami on rye or an open-face turkey sandwich piled so high you won't see the bread.

Open: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

B & H Dairy

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Another slender lunch counter with an even longer history, B & H is a kosher dairy restaurant, which means the food's all vegetarian. (To Jews, lox and herring are vegetables.) It's not uncommon to find a line outside during peak breakfast and brunch hours, and once you taste the kitchen's homemade challah, it's easy to see why. B & H has long been a port of call for lost, broke souls eking out a living in the East Village, and its mushroom soup has remained the perfect source of comfort.

Short order: Mushroom-barley soup, blinztes, homemade challah, egg and cheese sandwiches.

Open: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Odessa

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Odessa lost a part of itself when its dive bar/cafe closed last year, but its 24-hour diner half is still alive and kicking. Its Avenue A address lies close to bars that feed it a steady stream of the drunk and hungry. Conversely, a pre-bar-hop meal there on a Friday night is a peaceful way to pad yourself for the evening ahead.

Short order: French toast with homemade challah, Reuben and tuna melt sandwiches, blintzes, egg cream.

Open: 24 hours a day.

Little Poland

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The crowd at Little Poland is older than others on this tour, and the 70's-style wood panelling does have a certain geriatric feel. So some advice: sit at the counter—always a good idea, but especially here—and strike up a conversation with the genial staff. The accents may be thick and the discussion terse, but it doesn't take much to get them to open up.

Short order: Bigos (sauerkraut and pork stew) and sweet cheese pierogi.

Open: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Streecha

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Streecha is literally and figuratively an underground restaurant—it's a basement kitchen cafeteria that only operates on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Proceeds from the food (cooked by a rapidly aging crew of female volunteers) go to the Ukrainian church across the street, and if you walk in with $20 in hand you can walk out with most of the menu. Not all the East Village's borscht belt restaurants operate as community centers, but this one is an anchor for the local churchgoing population.

Short order: Pork-stuffed cabbage made by East Village Meat Market and soft, mildly flavored Ukrainian-style varenyky.

Open: Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Ukrainian East Village Restaurant

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[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

The Ukrainian East Village Restaurant lies down a hallway inside the Ukrainian East Village Home, a cultural center that sets the tone for the restaurant's clubby vibe. It even looks like a clubhouse—of the Eastern Bloc cabin variety—and it's supported by events like tango nights in the back party room. The food here plays second fiddle to the lively vibe, but I've always had a good time on my visits, and cheap beer and mountains of sour cream to spread on black bread have a pleasure all their own.

Short order: Halusky with sauerkraut and bacon, black bread and sour cream, and a Brandy Alexander because you only live once.

Open: Lunch and dinner.

Veselka

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Veselka opened in 1954, but for a 60-year-old it looks pretty spry. The restaurant is this list's most impressive success story; good business strategy and a forever upbeat atmosphere have made the 24-hour Veselka perpetually popular, often drawing waits come dinnertime despite its higher prices. Some say the food isn't the neighborhood's best, and where pierogi and potato pancakes are concerned I'd agree, but there's plenty to love here, especially the classic diner burger.

Short order: Burger, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage, bigos, blintzes, egg cream.

Open: 24 hours a day.

Neptune Restaurant

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As the Polish community dwindles, Neptune markets itself more and more to other tastes, which may explain the bar with beer and TVs. The Polish food isn't the strongest here, and it looks like most customers come by for a pre- or post-drinking meal (the restaurant is open until 11 p.m.), but there's some appeal in late-night chicken soup or simple griddled kielbasa, cooked until the snappy casing is ready to burst.

Short order: Chicken noodle soup and kielbasa.

Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late evening.

Shops and Delis

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Though most of the East Village's true borscht belt delis are a thing of the past, there are a few hangers-on worth knowing about, from East Village Meat Market and its kielbasa and stuffed cabbage to Polish G.I. Delicatessen's selection of cured fish and dark breads. Also of note is First Avenue Pierogi & Deli's to-go pierogi business, where 20 bucks buys you a dumpling meal for four (my favorite variety: the sweet cheese).

New Keepers of the Flame

Khachapuri Adjaruli at Oda House

[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Above are what's left of the East Village's borscht belt past, but as immigration patterns change, so too do its restaurants. A new crop now caters to the city's Balkan and Caucasian immigrants (different cultures to be sure, but with some overlap in food), and they're doing so in exciting modern ways. Kafana, for instance, is Avenue C's Serbian social club, a charming, dimly lit cafe that hosts a tight-knit community over homemade sausage and phyllo pies. Oda House does something similar for Manhattan's Georgian population, offering them one of the only restaurants to call their own north of Brooklyn's Midwood neighborhood. There's some good cheese bread to be found there, and a disco ball gets called into service on live music nights. And Korzo Haus spreads the goulash and spaetzle gospel with a winning trick: craft beer to wash it all down.

Do any of these newcomers offer the same egalitarian old country feelings or dirt-cheap prices of the neighborhood's borscht belt old timers? Not at all, but they're a sign that comfort food from far away holds a place in the East Village's future, and that 30 years from now, we might recognize some of our favorite places to eat today.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the New York editor and ice cream maker in residence at Serious Eats. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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