The Best Bars In The East Village
photo credit: John Shyloski
Sometimes, we feel like the East Village should start a bar relocation charity for neighborhoods in need of good drinking establishments. (Toss a couple of those random places on 1st Avenue up to Midtown East!) Until that happens, there are a lot of bars to sort through. Whether you’re looking for a quiet wine bar, a place to play darts, or a spot where you can dance beneath a disco ball, here are the top places to drink in the East Village.
Motel No Tell is not a subtle place. The motel-themed bar has loud music, neon signs, and a disco ball in every bathroom, and it’s not uncommon to see bartenders here dumping tequila into little paper coffee cups that serve as shot glasses. If you want to go out and meet some people who enjoy frozen drinks and ‘80s decor as much as you, it’s a wonderful choice. Bring a group, and try to snag the couch in the back that looks like it’s been in storage for the past few decades.
This Mexican-American bar on 1st and 1st makes cocktails so tasty and unique, you’ll surrender to being overserved. That’s OK, the party version of yourself will fit right in with the rest of the crowd, who all seem to be celebrating something. Yes, there’s a margarita, but it’s creamy and made with huitlacoche. And there’s a martini, but it’s pleasantly sour from green mango. Squeeze in a birria grilled cheese to soak up the alcohol, and end your night with an orange-pink salted plum milk punch—it happens to match the fluorescent sunset lighting.
Hidden behind a wall of graffiti and a mysterious little red lamp, Madeline’s is a grown-up bar in a part of town that isn’t known for grown-up bars. This lounge on Avenue C—from the team behind The Wayland—is ideal for a first date, with comfortable seating, candlelight, and over a dozen martinis in classic and more creative styles. Madeline's has limited bar snacks (think shrimp cocktail and caviar sandwich), and its cocktails are bigger than most. You might be having a second-date conversation by the time you're on your second drink.
The cool thing about Wiggle Room is that you can use it in a couple of different ways. The main floor has a few nooks that surround a long bar where you can sit with a date and explain why you think marriage is antiquated—but the basement has a whole club vibe. It has squiggly pink neon lights, a disco ball, and a dance floor. If you’re planning to stay until this place shuts down at 4am, get a few of the espresso martinis they have on draft.
HiLot is from the team behind Joyface (another bar on this list). There’s no standing room here, and the space looks like a fancy home from the 1970s, with plaid carpets, fringed lamps, and a mirrored ceiling. It’s essentially a speakeasy that isn’t hidden, and it’s a great option for when you want to go out but don’t necessarily need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with folks who might spill their cocktails on you.
If you’re not paying attention, it’s entirely possible for you to end up here instead of HiLot (or vice versa). Doesn’t matter, both places are cool. This bar has banquettes up front and a shiny black, L-shaped bar next to a DJ station playing tunes all day. On Mondays, you can sign up to take over the turntable for half an hour with your own vinyl. It never seems to get too wild here, but if you need an escape, you can walk through the kitchen to get to a surprisingly big backyard.
At this hidden bar, you’ll immediately notice the Basquiat-inspired art and the creepy family portraits of people who look like they lock their children in the attic. The other things that’ll get your attention are the glow-in-the-dark graffitied bathrooms and how big the space is, which is fairly unusual for a downtown speakeasy. All of the cocktails are either $16 or $18, and if you get hungry, you can conveniently order anything from their attached sister restaurant, Chicken & The Egg.
After spending an hour or two at Accidental Bar, you'll walk away knowing a lot more about sake than when you walked in. The selection here is riddled with descriptions like “for my geeks!” and “holy water for the god of sake,” and all of the food on the short menu is meant to bring out different flavors in your beverage. Most of all, this small place just feels like a party where you could either hang with your friends or take a date.
Mister Paradise feels a bit like an anomaly. The cocktails here are super ambitious and filled with atypical ingredients (salted watermelon, charred corn milk), but we get the feeling that if you ordered a glass of rosé with a few ice cubes here, the bartenders wouldn't immediately ask you to leave. This place is more fun and laid-back than it is pretentious, and the space features soft lighting and big pleated booths. Whether you're drinking with a group or planning a first date, Mister Paradise should be plan A.
What happens when you put a waterbed in a bar then round out the vibe with a disco ball and a bunch of weirdly squishy furniture that was probably found at a yard sale in 1983? You get Joyface. When it's a Saturday night and you absolutely need to stumble around in the dark and feel the flickering lights of a disco ball on your face before lowering yourself into a decades-old armchair, this place should be your number one choice. It's fun. But if you come before 11pm, you might be the only one here.
Speaking of bars that don't get busy before 11pm, here's Ding-a-ling. Similar to Joyface, this place is vaguely 1970s themed. So how do you choose between the two? Ding-a-ling feels like more of a let's-listen-to-loud-music-and-dance sort of place, whereas Joyface feels like a basement party. Think of this spot as a retro, semi-glitzy bar/club where you can eat a hot dog if you get hungry. The late-night lines can get long, and it'll probably be a scene when you finally get in.
There are dive bars, and there are cocktail bars. Sometimes, it's hard to find the in-between: a normal bar. Maiden Lane is one of these places. This spot—just north of Tompkins Square Park—is where you can get a beer/shot combo or a cocktail that won’t cost $22. The setting is nice without feeling overly fancy, and you could easily have a first date or a friend group hang here. Even better news? They serve a bunch of tinned fish that you can snack on.
A lot of bars claim to be “speakeasies.” And while none of them actually warrant that title—alcohol has been legal for a long time, folks—PDT is about as close as you can get to the real thing. You enter through a vintage phone booth within the hot dog shop Crif Dogs. That means you can conveniently order a hot dog (or three) once you’re inside. The space is dark and small, and if you bring a date, they’ll be impressed.
Our friend once ordered a gin and tonic at Amor y Amargo, and the bartender said, “Sure.” The bartender then delivered what was actually a gin cocktail with club soda and grapefruit bitters and quinine syrup. That’s because this is a “bitters tasting room,” and all the cocktails on offer are made accordingly, with bitters. This is an East Village institution that you should check out at least once. Just enter through the shop in front, and you'll find what looks like a small, old-timey apothecary with shelves full of booze.
This divey bar has two key features that draw most of its fans in: a large and excellent beer selection and a large and excellent backyard patio. Unlike most East Village “backyard patios,” the one here is not simply a dark alley with two broken lawn chairs where the bartender puts out the trash at the end of the night. They have an impressive beer selection, so it’s a good place to bring your “craft brew friends.”
Head down the stairs past a flashing “On Air” sign, and you’ll end up in a very dark, graffiti-covered den with a super long sake list. Tables fill up quickly here, so this place works better for you and one other person who you don’t mind yelling at for a few hours. (It gets pretty loud here.) They also offer a decent amount of food like takoyaki, shumai, and hamachi sashimi.