photo credit: Emily Schindler
The Ten Bells
Wine bars aren’t always enjoyable places to hang out. Some of them serve $24 charcuterie platters that seem more like unpacked Lunchables, and some of them have annoying “experts” telling nobody in particular how sparkling wine from anywhere other than Champagne isn’t fit for slap the bag. But there are also places that get it right. They offer a huge selection of both obscure and more accessible options at all price points, served by bartenders who are just as happy to nerd out about different soil types as they are to pour you a big glass of the cheapest thing on the menu. Of the wine bars in Manhattan that fall into this category, few work for as many situations as The Ten Bells.
If you’ve been to this LES spot anytime since it opened in 2008, there’s a good chance you were there on a date. The dark, crowded space, with a wraparound bar and a few high-tops, definitely works for drinks with someone who still laughs at your unfunny jokes - but a wine bar that’s good for dates isn’t unique. The Ten Bells also has communal seating and tables for big groups, and it’s even a great solo option if you want some $1 oysters on your way home from work, or a break from your apartment at 3pm on a Sunday. No matter who you go with, you’ll feel like you could hang out for hours, never being pressured by servers or bartenders to order another glass of wine or round of tapas.
But you also won’t need to be reminded, because you’ll be eager to try more from the long, all-natural wine list. Whether you seek out natural wines or you prefer to leave funky, sour flavors to kombucha and things in the bottom drawer of your fridge, you’ll find something you like here. There are unfiltered wines from Utah and sparkling rosés from Vermont, but there are also more traditional options from classic regions like Piedmont and Chablis. There are a lot of bottles under $40, and the pours by the glass are the most generous you’ll find outside of your aunt’s brunch table when she wants to gossip. The servers don’t preach about fermentation methods or terroir, but if you ask, they’ll explain why an acidic red wine from Slovakia would pair well with the meatballs.
The tapas at The Ten Bells, which are affordable and quite good, are more of a complement to the wine than a reason to visit on their own. We wouldn’t tell you to drop everything to eat the best thing here - spicy, garlicky baby eels served with thick-crusted bread - and we also wouldn’t say you definitely need to avoid the least enjoyable dish (nachos topped with melted cheese, guacamole, and shrimp). We like the puff pastry empanadas with cheese and chorizo, and the mac and cheese that’s charred on top with a pool of hot melted cheese underneath. You probably won’t find yourself typing any of these dish names into Google while lost in a daydream tomorrow, but you also won’t be upset you ordered them, especially considering they’re big portions and they all cost around $10.
The rule that the food here plays a supporting role to the wine has one big exception: the oysters. There are usually three different kinds available, and they’re all $1 every day until 7pm. Pair them with some muscadet or whatever carafes are currently $15, and this place becomes one of the best spots to hang out on the LES, period. Especially because any “experts” preaching about the need for Champagne flutes here were clearly told to f*ck off a long time ago.
For plenty of people, the daily $1 oyster Happy Hour is more of a draw than the wine. Just enjoy both.
They may look more like bait than something you’d actually try to catch, but the baby eels are our favorite things here. They’re spicy, and you’ll want to sop up the garlicky oil underneath with some bread.
If you brought these little chorizo and cheese empanadas to a potluck, you’d have people saying things like “you need to give me the recipe” as they walked away with 12 of them piled on their plate. You’d probably say that there is no recipe, and any finger food with puff pastry tastes delicious. Regardless, four of them are only $7, and you’ll be happy you ordered them.
Mac and Cheese
This is a lot of mac and cheese for $8. The top is charred and the cheese is nice and gooey, and it’s a great option late at night or after a couple carafes of wine.
These shrimp nachos are the kind of thing a college senior who watches too much Top Chef might make after a night out. Each individual nacho is covered in melted cheese and guacamole and topped with one shrimp. It sounds good in theory, but the cheese and guacamole are both bland, and you’ll wish there was a bottle of hot sauce around to make it more interesting.
This thinly-sliced octopus is well-cooked and coated in spices, but it’s served in a pool of oil that overshadows the meat. Now that you have all this oil, though, you may as well soak it up with the potato cubes and pieces of bread that come with the dish.
Speaking of dipping bread, you’ll want to make sure you have an extra plate or two around when the meatballs arrive. There are three to an order, and they’re tender and cheesy, but dipping the (complimentary) bread in the trough of peppery red sauce is the best part.
You should get this brandade, which has the texture of whipped potatoes and the flavor of salt cod, as long as you have Altoids with you (especially if you’re on a date).
At $16, this tartare is the most expensive dish on the menu, but it’s a big portion and the meat, which has some herbs mixed in and an egg on top, comes with a bunch of fried pieces of oily bread. It might not blow you away, but pair it with some Beaujolais and you’ll be happy.