On Avenue C, it’s still possible to watch Alphabet City reinvent itself
As the old saying once went, “A you’re alright, B you’re brave, C you’re crazy, D you’re dead.” It’s not news that Alphabet City is no longer the minefield of socioeconomic misfortune it once was, but even today, when the focal point for gentrification outrage has migrated to Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bushwick and Crown Heights, there’s still a surprising amount of upheaval happening on the east side of Manhattan.
Avenue A is as established as Central Park West (hell, even the rhyme couldn’t find anything negative to say about it). Avenue B, for its part, was once a pleasingly lawless strip – close enough to the safety of A for a quick escape but darker, studded with rowdier bars, velvet-curtained second-floor hideouts, and those mystery loft/storefront/abandoned tenement spaces that drew band practices and parties. Now, that velvet-lined den is a well-marked, bowties-and-arm-garters cocktail lounge and Tompkins Square Park is home to hipster hockey leagues.
But even three short years ago, Avenue C was another story, a country unto itself where brand-name pharmacies and supermarkets still feared to tread. Between the Laundromats and bodegas were long stretches of rusting fire escapes, graffiti murals featuring neighborhood heroes, not rock idols, and families picnicking on their stoops. Since then, a smaller, more interesting kind of takeover has happened, one not led by kids looking for the next cheap buzz but by food and drink pioneers looking for a quiet space to do their own thing.
At Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter (94 Ave. C; bobwhitecounter.com), that thing is a concept that, by all rights, should be old news. All fried chicken, all the time? Hold on a second, Dirty Bird, Hill Country Chicken, all five locations of BonChon and Charles’ Pan-Fried just called to invite you to 2008. But what Bobwhite has done is subtler, more exciting than simply lodging another vote in the brine-or-no-brine debate. They’ve built an old-fashioned lunch counter straight out of small-town Virginia in an elegant, modern space – no tired red plastic baskets and gingham to be found. Fried chicken dinners come with a buttermilk biscuit, honey, hot sauce or the mustardy relish called chow chow for customization; sides include Brunswick stew, a homely regional favorite that includes tomatoes, corn and pork.
Edi & the Wolf (102 Ave. C; ediandthewolf.com) is another unexpected space, this one tying the nouveau industrial aesthetic of dark wood and iron to bright, big windows and bunches of side-of-the-road greenery dotting the communal table. Perhaps because Austrian cuisine’s reputation is still tied to hearty schnitzels and sausages, Edi’s food manages to be both authentic and innovative, depending on who you ask. The schnitzel is there, but so is a farmer’s cheese and pumpkin seed spread to share, and wild mushroom ravioli with grilled chard.
And while cocktail atavism is big business on the LES and across Manhattan, with “original formulation” spirits and ungarnished Old-Fashioneds the only way to go, nobody is going as far, and having as much fun, as Evelyn Drinkery (171 Ave. C; evelynnyc.com). Skip way over Prohibition, past the Roaring Twenties and back into the late 19th century and you’ll find the phosphate, the soda fountain standby that added an acid tang to everything from cola to claret. Evelyn plays with these in a number of cocktails dispensed through a CO2 tank for light, fizzy refreshers that belie the complex combinations of bitters, spirits and house-processed juices underneath. For the New Yorker’s take on the soda fountain, there are also egg creams, made with infused milks and flavored syrups to take on not just the old classic (in which they rightly use Fox’s U-Bet rather than making their own), but Earl Grey tea, an Orange Julius, and the root beer float.
Avenue C still feels like home for the families and the Laundromats, and in these heady days it’s easy to believe that the neighborhood will find its own balance, keeping out the cheap beer holes and encouraging the pioneers looking for a little room to express themselves. If not, there’s always Avenue D.
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