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Meet 5th Street

Lost Gem
Sophie's 1 Bars undefined


Sophie’s is a classic East Village dive bar that has retained its undeniably sassy charm and old-timer crowd decade after decade. Rich Corton and his business partner, Kirk Marcoe, currently own three long-standing bars in the East Village — Sophie’s, Mona’s, and Josie’s. The duo took over Sophie’s in 2008 and have worked hard to keep it “a neighborhood place for liberal-minded people, ” as Rich described. This same philosophy was practiced by Sophie’s previous owner, Rich’s brother, Robert. He was living on the fifth floor of an apartment building while the eponymous owner, Eastern European immigrant Sophie Polney, resided on the fourth. Robert became her bartender in the 1980s, and when Sophie fell ill, he naturally took over. Sophie moved the bar only once, from Avenue A and 5th Street to its current location, which had previously been another bar owned by Virginia Chicorelli. The name, Chic Choc, is still visible on the doorstep, and it is believed that the space has been a bar since the building went up in the early 1900s. Other than some minor fine-tuning, the original interior and business model of a pool table and jukebox have remained virtually unchanged since Sophie’s era. Although the East Village crowd of the 1980s — artists, musicians, and writers together with the population of older Eastern Europeans — continues to dwindle, old-timers still gather at Sophie’s alongside its newer following. “A good place to stop time. Is there any place left in New York where an old guy can go in the afternoon to have a drink? ” remarked the late Anthony Bourdain about Sophie’s. “It has always been about the people in the neighborhood. We behind the bar work for the people in the East Village, ” mused Rich. Also, check out Josies, which is under the same ownership.

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Ace Bar

When Ace Bar originally opened in 1993, New York City was “pretty lawless, ” according to its owner, Michael Hilf. As he and his business partner, Jim Abraham, built the bar over the course of a year, they would sell beers off of a makeshift scaffold and plywood counter at night and use the money to buy nails and paint to resume working on the space in the morning. Michael joked that this arrangement would not be possible in today’s era of strict inspections and safety codes. To build his customer base, Michael would do what he called his “Pied Piper routine, ” which involved approaching strangers on the street, offering to buy them a beer, and luring them back to Ace where his bartender was more than happy to fulfill the promise. “It was actually really effective marketing. Word spread pretty fast, and I didn’t have to do that after about the first three months. ”From the beginning, Ace Bar attracted “an incredible community of creative people. Black, white, Latino, gay, straight, punk, goth — everyone was accepted, as long as they weren’t corporate. ” Comedians commingled with war veterans and artists. Many customers were drawn to Ace for its music selection, which was carefully curated by Michael himself. He recalled that the likes of Joey Ramone, dressed in all leather even in the high heat of August, would visit the bar to enjoy his playlist and nurse a drink. Throughout the decades, Ace Bar has remained a neighborhood staple and a great place to spend the night with a group of friends. One of the bar's highlights is its vintage games and décor. When entering the bar’s two spacious rooms, you cannot miss the notable collection of old-school lunch boxes and thermoses that are displayed in a glass case. Further inside, there are plenty of activities to choose from, including darts, pool tables, pinball machines, Big Buck Hunter, arcade games and, of course, the skee ball machine. Occasionally, Michael misses the early, lawless days, when pets were welcome in bars, smoking indoors was common, and business was sustained by word of mouth rather than online reviews. “I could keep going on and on like this. Maybe I should write a book. ”

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Risotteria Melotti

Biking with my husband on a beautiful August day, I stopped short when I noticed something new and picturesque on 5th Street. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, but I had been holding out until I discovered the perfect place to grab a bite to eat, and I certainly landed in an ideal spot. The rustic charm indoors, with replicas of the farm equipment used in Italy hanging from the ceiling, captured our hearts immediately, but it was the food – the outstanding rice dishes – that solidified Risotteria Melotti indefinitely on my list of top restaurants to recommend. Since the restaurant was quiet at this odd hour, we were able to chat casually with the staff throughout our meal, and we learned not only about the history of the restaurant, but also about the world of rice. Back in 1986, a couple began producing rice on one acre of land in Verona, Italy. Almost three decades later, together with their three sons, Rosetta and Giuseppe now farm 544 acres of land, all devoted to growing award-winning rice that is sold the world over. There are basically two different textures of the grain that they produce. Vialone, the more traditional rice, is rich in proteins and vitamins and, because it absorbs liquid better, is used for their delicious risottos. Carnaroli rice, “considered one of the best in the world, ” is more readily used in salads because it remains al dente when cooked, adding a chewiness to the superb insalata di riso that we shared. We both marveled at the combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted red and yellow peppers, capers, fresh mozzarella and, of course, brown rice. When we first sat down, a bread basket was placed on the table. Their take on focaccia was very good, but I could not stop sampling their rice cakes throughout our meal – the basic recipe is made in Italy and then flown here to be tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and fresh rosemary and then baked for fourteen minutes. I cannot say enough about how amazing the second dish that we tried tasted. We never knew that you could make polenta from anything but cornmeal, but we had our eyes opened to something new and wondrous when we had our first taste of polenta fritta con caciottina – a fried rice polenta with mushrooms and cheese that was perfectly moist in the middle with an added crunch on the outside. Every mouthful was rich and heavenly. This brand new restaurant – the first outside of Italy – serves about thirty people, making for an intimate setting, especially when evening falls, the lights are dimmed and the candles are lit. Up front there is a little “shop” that sells many of their rice products. The staff explained that the family has made an across-the-board decision to only offer Melotti’s gluten-free rice merchandise in the States. Thus, anyone eating gluten-free can come to their restaurant and be served a carefree, excellent meal. Anyone fortunate enough to live in the area can either have their food delivered to them in their home or office, or stop by, browse the menu, and take it to go. I have no doubt that we would be eating a lot more rice if we lived in the East Village, but we will visit as often as we can.

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“My parents were definitely not thrilled when I opened the restaurant, ” said Thomas Chen, executive chef and founder of Tuome. It didn’t matter that he had taken classes at the International Culinary Center or worked at restaurants as renowned as Jean-Georges, Commerce, and Eleven Madison Park. His parents, Chinese immigrants who had opened a restaurant to survive, believed that working as a chef was not the way to a better life. Since Tuome opened in 2014 to great critical acclaim, Thomas’ parents have started to come around. But no matter what they think of the restaurant, there is no denying the huge influence they have had on Tuome. According to Thomas, many of the menu items—including his personal favorite, chicken with gem lettuce—are modeled on the foods he ate as a child. Even the restaurant’s name is a tribute to his mother, who called him “Tommy” as a child, but pronounced it “Toe-me. ”Thomas has also taken culinary cues from the high-end New York restaurants where he started his career, and he describes Tuome as “American with Asian influences. ” A trip to Asia played an important role in his cooking style as well—he was especially inspired by the made-to-order dim sum in Hong Kong and the unique flavors of Thai food. I was eager to ask Thomas about his entrees, many of which require hours of preparation. The “Pig Out for Two, ” one of Tuome’s best-selling dishes, is cooked for fifteen hours in duck fat, while the veal and the egg tartare both take three hours to prepare. “We do sell out at a certain point, ” Thomas explained, “because we only have one convection oven and the amount of food we can produce is limited. ” But the restaurant has never had any catastrophes; a former accountant, Thomas has a system in place to predict how much food he will need on any given night. With its hip décor and intimate atmosphere, Tuome is perfect for a weekend date night. But Tuesdays may, in fact, be the best day to stop by, as Thomas tends to showcase off-menu dinner and dessert items at the beginning of the week. I asked him for a few examples and immediately regretted it—for the rest of the afternoon, I daydreamed about duck dumplings, summer sundaes, and Chinese beignets with goat’s milk caramel, fig jam, and red bean glazed ice cream. When I asked Thomas what he cooks at home, he smiled sheepishly. “I don’t really cook at home, ” he said. “Water bottles are the only thing in my fridge. ” Instead, he often goes out to eat at restaurants near his house, finding inspiration in their unique flavors and ingredients. Though he doesn’t live in the East Village, he decided to open a restaurant there because he was attracted to the atmosphere. “It’s a melting pot for different cuisines, ” he told me, “and the locals really appreciate good food in a casual setting. ” Tuome is also a favorite among foreigners—particularly tourists from France, Switzerland, and Hong Kong—who discover the restaurant online. On my way out the door, I asked Thomas about the challenges of owning a restaurant. The hardest part, he told me, is the lack of sleep—on a normal day, he arrives at Tuome around 1pm and doesn’t leave until 1am. But he loves experimenting with new ingredients and creating his own menu, and he is constantly searching for ways to improve the restaurant. And that is what he plans on doing in the near future: changing Tuome’s menu seasonally, mixing things up, evolving.

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White Trash

Though native to Philadelphia’s suburbs, Stuart Zamsky has earned the label of “true New Yorker” after decades of living in the East Village and running the antique shop, White Trash, half a block from his apartment. Stuart and his now-wife, Kim Wurster, were actors doing odd jobs and frequently traveling out of town in the 1990s. On their trips, they visited flea markets, stockpiling housewares, 1950s collectibles, and kitsch, which they would resell on weekends on the street outside of their home. “We amassed a huge amount of stuff” and garnered a following from neighborhood locals, Stuart said. “We just loved it. ”Over time, the couple’s sidewalk sales drew the ire of police, so they transferred their growing inventory to a nearby storefront and have continued selling beautiful furniture and “value-oriented pieces” ever since. Kim went back to teaching while Stuart managed the business — he nonetheless still relies on her good aesthetic judgment when picking his wares. Though Stuart is sometimes saddened by the migration of his fellow antique shops to isolated showrooms or online platforms, he is delighted to see that the digital age has ushered younger buyers into the world of antiquing. During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, he found that people stuck at home increasingly felt the urge to “buy themselves real furniture and leave their cinder blocks and milk crates behind. ”As for the shop’s unique name, Stuart admits that it was inspired by an inside joke. When he and his wife would return to the city — hauling kitchen tables strapped to a DIY roof rack on their car and with furnishings and knickknacks poking through the windows — they would quip, “We look like the worst white trash in the world. ” Humorously, the title stuck, even as the business left its hodgepodge beginnings behind and started offering more modern pieces.