There are numerous barbershops and hair salons in the East Village, but I understood why the East Village Barbershop was so popular the second that I met Ruben, the owner. His charisma is infectious and his cheeky, humorous one-liners had me and the Manhattan Sideways photographer, Alex, grinning from the moment he began to speak. “I would have gotten my nails done if I knew you were coming, ” he joked before telling us about his extensive history as a barber, while expertly cutting a customer’s hair. He got his start in 1996 in Bayside, Queens and worked there for almost two decades before opening East Side Barbershop in 2013. When I asked him what sets him apart from other barbers, he replied, “My specialty is just being me. ” His customer, a young man named Steven, spoke up, telling me that he started going to Ruben just a couple months after he opened and has been visiting him for his haircut ever since. Ruben smiled and said, “I have the best customers who come here. This neighborhood is amazing – they’re not even my customers, they’re my friends. ” As Ruben continued to tell me about his life, how being a barber runs in his family and how he learned the art at a young age, three more people walked into the small shop. He greeted each person who came by warmly, including those who did not even enter the store: He yelled greetings at pedestrians who waved from the street. It was clear that for the blocks surrounding his store, Ruben is a celebrity. The gruff man from Queens continued joking around with both us and his customers, making everyone laugh with lines like, “Will you hug me? ” and “Imagine me with makeup... now forget about it. ” When a man on the street shouted a precocious quote back at him, he turned to us and said, “You see that? All the men around here think I look sexy. ” Meanwhile, he performed incredibly precise work on Steven, creating a perfectly straight line along his part. Afterwards, he finished by massaging Steven’s head with a hot mint oil towel. With a look of satisfaction he said to me, “I’m good at what I do and I don’t care about anybody else. ”
What could be wrong with sitting in a classic barber shop chair and having a beer - or two - while getting a quality hair cut by personable and talented barbers? According to my son, absolutely nothing. This is his go to place. And that is just for day time fun. Come by in the evening, as we have done on several occasions, and walk through the sliding doors of the barber shop (that closes at 9: 00pm), and stroll through into a living room atmosphere with cozy chairs and small alcoves to sip your well-concocted drinks. Bottom line is that this is a terrific find at any hour of the day.
Without a doubt, this is the neighborhood place for guys of all ages to be on Saturday afternoon – for a haircut, at least. When we stopped by, the shop was busy with all four chairs occupied and some folks happily waiting... and consistently, every time we walk by, those chairs are filled. Shaves, shampoos and facial massages are on their menu of services.
Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.