When I emerged from the Delancey & Essex Streets Subway Station on New York’s Lower East Side (LES), I had only one place in mind to visit. I had recently heard of the Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street as being a rare opportunity to visualize the life of immigrants in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
From the station, I turned onto Orchard Street where old tenement buildings with their iconic fire escapes lined both sides of the street. At the museum, I learned that the tour I wanted to take wouldn’t start for over an hour, so I headed north on Orchard across Delancey Street to explore the neighborhood.
The boundaries of the Lower East Side are Canal St. to Houston St., and the East River to the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. There’s much history there as well as new business development, nightlife and music venues. Delancey Street is named after a French Huguenot family that owned much of the land in pre-revolutionary America. Some may know of it from the 1988 film, Crossing Delancey, that was set in the area.
Along the route, there were many types of shops and boutiques, some new and trendy while others must have been there for ages. I also saw many lounges and bars that were closed at that time of day.
I passed by intriguing French restaurants like Zucco Le French Diner at 188 Orchard. Épicerie Café Charbon at 168-170 Orchard is an interesting place with a façade that gives the impression of having a crèmerie (dairy) and tabac (newsstand) located there, too.
I was particularly drawn to Lucien, a bistro at 14 1st Avenue. I peeked in the window and the look of the place gave me the feeling that I was in France. Although I wasn’t quite hungry for lunch, I decided to stop in for a glass of wine.
I was greeted by a pretty, smiling waitress who was happy to let me sit at a prime table by the window even knowing that I wouldn’t be having lunch. At a table on the opposite side of the narrow room, two men were enjoying their food, wine and conversation.
As I waited for my glass of bordeaux, one of those gentlemen came over to my table and offered me a dish of French fries to eat “while I was waiting”. He said that they were “the best in New York”. By the way, they were delicious.
It turns out that the man was Lucien Bahaj, the very charming owner of the restaurant. He kissed my hand and returned to his table. I’ve since found out that he and his restaurants are quite well-known and highly regarded in New York. The waitress then brought my wine and a basket of French bread and butter. Since I seemed surprised to be served so much food while just having a drink, she pleasantly said, “Oh, you’ll be fed very well here.”
I was thoroughly enjoying watching the scenes outside and enjoying the warm ambiance of Lucien’s, but knew I’d have to leave soon for my tour. I had gotten my check when Lucien asked the waitress to pour me a glass of Cahors, a remarkable deep red wine from Southwest France. I half-heartedly declined, but ultimately couldn’t resist.Lucien sat down across the table from me and we had a short, but memorable conversation. He talked a bit about his early days in the United States, some of the famous people he’s met along the way, and the time he spent in Northern California many years ago. He also told me about his other popular restaurant, The Pink Pony on nearby Ludlow Street, and its literary and filmmaking clientele. Lucien is very interesting and I was glad that I had stepped inside his bistro on a whim.
I wished that I could spend more time at Lucien, but the Tenement Museum tour was next on the agenda. I hurried along to 97 Orchard Street, smiling all the way.
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Related guest post on Traveldudes:
New York’s Tenement Museum: An extraordinary look into the lives of immigrants