Like the sign says: New York’s Best Egg Cream.
St. Marks Place is only three blocks long, but packs an astonishing 63 places to eat along its truncated and colorful length, some of them nearly invisible. It constitutes one of the city’s foremost tourist destinations for the under-40 crowd, those adventuresome enough to leave Times Square and the Statue of Liberty far behind.
The atmosphere changes block by block: Just east of Third Avenue, it’s a mad clash of tourists and locals — the former wandering aimlessly and nearly getting run over, the latter just trying to forge ahead through the crowds, while vendors hawk wonky hats, and cabs and trucks mired in traffic honk furiously. The next block going east is more bucolic, and here the restaurants are so laid-back that you might actually want to sit outside, while the final block is a gateway to Tompkins Square and its own louche catalog of delights.
We spent a week sampling the various dining opportunities along the three-block stretch, and have come up with the following list of the most desirable dishes, the crème de la crème of St. Marks eats. We hope you try them all and agree with us — but if not, please let us know.
Mamoun’s may not look like much, but the falafel sandwich is terrific — and cheap!
10. Falafel sandwich at Mamoun’s The falafel sandwich debuted in New York at the Greenwich Village outpost of Mamoun’s sometime in the early 1970s, and the evocation at the more modern East Village location is still something of a standard for the genre: crisp nutty balls roughly jammed inside a split pita, lathered with tahini, heaped with roughage, and optionally squirted with hot sauce. The E.V. location has outdoor seating, where you can watch the throngs pass, or sit and read a book, as the guys above are doing. 22 St. Marks Place, 212-387-7747
9. Tea-smoked duck at Grand Sichuan OK, there’s no real barbecue available on St. Marks, but the tea-smoked duck at this upstairs Sichuan restaurant is every bit as smoky. This branch of the venerable Chinese chain is where they test out new recipes from Sichuan and Hunan provinces, and much of the food is every bit as spicy as you want it to be — except for the duck, which is a cooling oasis of rich, flavorful meat and bronzed, crackling skin. 23 St. Marks Place, 212-529-4800
8. Chocolate egg cream at Gem Spa This corner newsstand, now obscured by stalls selling hats, piercings, and gewgaws, used to be the crossroads of the East Village, where early denizens stopped for newspapers, gossip, and excellent egg creams — no egg, no cream, but a refreshing frothy beverage of seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup, made by an age-old method at the tiny soda fountain by twirling a spoon in the glass with successive squirts of soda. 131 Second Avenue, 212-995-1866
The chocolate egg cream at Gem Spa is light and frothy on top, but gets progressively more chocolatey as you probe its depths.
Old-timer Natori is still one of the pillars of the East Village sushi culture.
7. Early bird sushi assortment at Natori Here’s the catch: You have to show up at this rickety old Japanese restaurant between 5 and 7 p.m. to take advantage of the amazing $14 early bird special, which includes a dozen pieces of perfect sushi, a cup of miso soup or a salad, and your choice of beer or sake. The place is picturesque, too, with a couple of tables outside and two narrow dining rooms, a vestige of the time 20 years ago when Japanese restaurants were the de facto diners for crowds of cash-strapped young residents hipping out in cheap apartments. 58 St. Marks Place, 212-533-7711
6. Vegetarian soups and salads at Café Rakka An East Village mainstay, Café Rakka has graced the corner of St. Marks and First Avenue for nearly 30 years. An assortment of budget salads and soups makes an impressive meal, including the creamiest and most lemony lentil soup on earth, a heap of cracked wheat topped with caramelized onions called mujadara, a phyllo-dough spinach pie, and fattoush, a tart salad made of toasted pita fragments with tomatoes, green onions, and lettuce. 81 St. Marks Place, 212-982-9166
5. Morning Jersey at Crif Dogs You’ve never been to a hot dog parlor quite like Crif Dogs before, giving Chicago’s Hot Doug a run for its money. A profusion of frank styles are available, but why not discharge your breakfast and lunch obligations in one fell swoop by ordering the Morning Jersey: a deep-fried house frank wrapped in Taylor ham and topped with a fried egg. Now, that’s a gutbomb! 113 St. Marks Place, 212-614-2728
Salacious signage is one of Crif Dogs’ trademarks.
A fave for rockers since the days of the Ramones, there’s no better neighborhood slice in downtown Manhattan.
4. Plain cheese slice at Stromboli Pizza St. Marks is paved with slices, most of them mediocre. Hot out of the oven, the cheese slice at Stromboli’s is almost an anachronism these days, harkening back to the times when nearly every block of the city had its own pizza place, and the pies were made with love and attention to detail. The tomato sauce is herbal and slightly sweet, the cheese is liberal but not too dense, and the crust is one of the city’s best. This was once a last stop after a long night at CBGB’s. 83 St. Marks Place, 212-673-3691
3. Slider at Mark Burgers The tiny hamburger called the slider has gone a long way since being invented at White Castle in the 1920s, but this narrow stall and beer bar — which offers some chill seating under a very East Village mural in the back — takes the product back to its roots. The beef is freshly ground and formed into a patty about twice the size of the original, making two nearly a full meal, and the taste is a vast improvement over the venerable fast-food purveyor — but delightfully in the same vein. 33 St. Marks Place, 212-677-3132
2. Spicy miso ramen at Ramen Setagaya Crowds line up for Ippudo on nearby Fourth Avenue, but the noodles at Ramen Setagaya — another prominent Japanese chain — are every bit as good. In fact, if you take price into account, they’re even better. Seven types of ramen are offered in generous bowls, of which our fave is the astonishingly hot “spicy miso ramen.” The tender-tongued among us may want to try shio ramen instead. 34½ St. Marks Place, 212-387-7959
The incendiary spicy miso ramen at Ramen Setagaya — there are many milder choices, too.
An assortment of Moroccan vegetarian appetizers at Mogador makes a splendid meal.
1. Moroccan appetizer assortment at Mogador Served with puffy homemade pitas, the appetizer list offers a choice of 10, and five easily make a meal for two. Our favorites include slices of fried eggplant drizzled with tahini, thick yogurt laked with olive oil, the sweet tomato-and-pepper dip called matbucha, bright red marinated beets, and spicy carrots scented with cumin. Nothing better in the summer than sitting outside in the sunshine and eating Moroccan comfort food with a glass of French rosé. 101 St. Marks Place, 212-677-2226