Which part of Manhattan is hippest?

UTE JUNKER
Last updated 05:25 29/05/2014
Cat cafe in Manhattan
Reuters

EASTERN APPEAL: A cat sniffs a sandwich at a cat café in Bowery, on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

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In any poll of Manhattan's most-loved neighbourhoods, the West Village would be near the top of the list.

Once the hang of beatniks and bohemians, its tree-lined streets - curving at odd angles, in contrast to the rest of Manhattan's grid pattern - are filled with cafes and boutiques, bars, shops and restaurants. What more could you want?

Plenty, say the partisans of the East Village. This neighbourhood, which includes such formerly notorious areas as Alphabet City and The Bowery, may lack the elegance of the West Village, but it makes up for it with a feisty energy that's inextricably linked to its slightly gritty feel. The neighbourhood mix of elderly European migrants, Hispanics, students and creatives gives a unique flavour to its bars, restaurants and shops.

So which neighbourhood does it better? We invited them to duke it out over four rounds. Here are the results.

EATING

West Village: The typical West Village eatery is buzzy yet cosy, serving top-notch comfort food. Italian is big; favourites include Malatesta (Washington at Christopher) and Corsino (637 Hudson).

The latter is not for paleo-fans: it's known for its superb house-made bread and pasta, such as ferrazzuoli, a thick, chewy spaghetti.

For seafood fans, there's Mary's Fish Camp (64 Charles Street), where they serve generous portions of bouillabaisse, fish tacos, mahi mahi and Maine lobster.

The area's signature restaurant is April Bloomfield's acclaimed gastro-pub The Spotted Pig, where you'll find crispy pork belly in broth with vegetables and fried squash flowers.

East Village: The East's traditional dining ground zero around St Mark's Place has long been about value rather than prestige, but in recent years the multicultural offerings have stepped up a notch, with patrons thronging to Zabb Elee (75 2nd Avenue) for its spicy Isaan cooking, and to Ramen Misoya (129 Second Avenue), which showcases three regional types of miso, from the sweet shiro of Kyoto to Nagoya's rich mame.

However, the big news is that chefs with idiosyncratic visions are increasingly finding a warm welcome in the East Village. Standouts include David Chang's Momofuku Ssam (207 2nd Avenue) and Prune (54 East 1st), where Gabrielle Hamilton offers inspired home-style dishes, anything from grilled lamb sausages with oysters to shaved celery salad with blue cheese toast.

The don't-miss dining experience is Dirt Candy (430 East 9th), where Amanda Cohen does inventive things with vegetables. Spinach and grapefruit mille-feuille, anyone?

The verdict: For diversity at all price points and meals that stretch your imagination, east wins hands down.

DRINKING

West Village: Whether you're in the mood for wine, beer or something else, the West Village has you covered.

Vin Sur Vingt (201 West 11th) is a hole-in-the-wall offering an all-French wine list, mood lighting and small plates such as escargots and pate. Prefer something brewed?

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Blind Tiger Ale House (281 Bleecker) has 28 beers on tap, plus 80 more in bottles. Little Branch (22 7th Avenue) is old-school cocktail heaven - booths, bartenders sporting suspenders, and the drinks list of your dreams.

East Village: Cocktails rule in the East Village, where there's a bar to suit every mood. Looking for a bit of razzle-dazzle? At Booker and Dax (207 2nd Avenue), cocktails go molecular, with glasses cooled by liquid nitrogen.

A more old-school atmosphere rules at Death & Co (433 East 6th), and if you're feeling niche, Amor y Amargo (443 East 6th), is all about bitters. Wine buffs will head for Terroir (413 East 12th), which has 50 wines by the glass, while d.b.a. (41 1st Avenue) has a staggering 250 brews on offer.

The verdict: Both 'hoods offer a great night out, but the east wins by a hair.

SHOPPING

West Village: The beauty of shopping in the West Village is that you can find a strip to match your mood.

Feeling hungry? Bleecker Street between Carmine and 7th Avenue is laden with tantalising food shops, from Murray's Cheese to Amy's Bread, as well as ice-cream, pastry and other treats.

Further along, Bleecker morphs into designer central, with shops such as Lulu Guinness, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren.

More precious items can be found at local success story Alexis Bittar (353 Bleecker), known for his sculptural jewellery. Only-in-the-Village treats can found at America's oldest apothecary, C.O. Bigelow (414 6th Avenue), established in 1838 and selling a range of old-school toiletries and natural remedies in a cavernous space lit by chandeliers.

Gear nerds will love Lomography (41 West 8th), devoted to Russian analog Lomo cameras, and Greenwich Letterpress (39 Christopher), a custom printing shop where you can also pick up niche stationery.

East Village: The East Village was traditionally not a retail destination, but these days an increasing number of funky retailers and designers is setting up shop.

Some stores have a single focus, such as Fabulous Fanny's (335 East 9th), which stocks an astonishing array of spectacles, or Azaleas (223 East 10th), an emporium of girly lingerie, swimwear, loungewear and other things slinky and sexy.

Those with a leather fetish should head for Jutta Neumann (355 East 4th), where the range of leather accessories comes in every colour under the sun, while design-heads will love exploring the wares at Still House (117 East 7th), which include everything from jewellery and homewares to designer postcards. For a real slice of the East Village, pop into Obscura Antiques and Oddities (207 Avenue A), where you'll find everything from antiques to taxidermy to piranhas in jars.

The verdict: No contest - whether you have an hour or a day to devote to retail therapy, the west is the place to go.

SLEEPING

West Village: No other hotel nails the West Village vibe as well as The Marlton (5 West 8th). This new kid on the block opened late last year in an old lodging house where the likes of Jack Kerouac once holed up.

They've worked hard to keep the neighbourhood feel, with a lived-in lobby that leans towards oak panelling and comfy couches that are the perfect place to curl up, especially in front of the fire on a cold day.

The bedrooms are small -14 square metres - but more reasonably priced than you'd expect, and they have a classic feel, with headboards, moulded ceilings and antique-ish bathroom fittings.

East Village: The Bowery Hotel (355 Bowery) is one of those properties that creates an alternative history for itself. Although it's located on what was once Manhattan's most notorious Skid Row, it feels like a gone-to-seed old-school gentleman's hotel: opulent Edwardian antiques, think velvet upholstery and oversized palm trees made of silk.

Stephen Fry would feel at home here. The open-plan rooms are swish, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and there's a great buzz about the place, particularly in the guests-only lobby bar.

The verdict: For capturing some of the area's real history, at great-value prices, this one goes to the west.

STROLLING

West Village: The West Village was made for meandering. This place is off the grid - literally.

Tree-lined streets shading elegant brownstones twist and turn in a manner completely unlike the rigorous geometry that rules the rest of Manhattan.

The cobblestone streets are lined with old-school architecture, from Greek revival style to art deco, including some of the oldest buildings on the island.

East Village: In today's pristine and polished New York, the East Village is a blast from the past, a place where elderly migrants run small corner shops, buskers and thrift stores thrive, and students fill up at cheap Asian restaurants.

St Mark's Place, once the haunt of punks and goths, may be less out-there, but still has a grungy buzz. The long avenues of Alphabet City can feel unwelcoming, but the community gardens that punctuate every vacant block are charming.

The verdict: While each neighbourhood is worth exploring, for pretty streets and unexpected finds, the West Village is the winner.

The writer travelled courtesy of British Airways and The Marlton.

FIVE MORE AREAS WHERE THE VILLAGES FACE OFF

BOOKSHOPS

Three Lives & Company (154 W 10th) has nooks and crannies piled high with an eclectic range; in the east, St Mark's Bookshop (31 Third Avenue), is big on film studies, graphic design and philosophy.

LIVE MUSIC

It's hard to beat the Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Avenue): jazz legends have been playing here since 1935. Over east, Nublu (62 Ave C) is more avant-garde.

THEATRE

F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein launched works at the West Village's Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce); Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill have premiered pieces at the New York Theatre Workshop on 79 E 4th.

GALLERIES

The venerable White Columns (320 W 13th Street) in the West Village is still one of the most cred venues. In the east, Kenkeleba House (214 East 2nd Street) shows many minority group artists.

CAFES

Joe (14 Waverly Place) in the West Village nailed the formula - specialist baristas, sweet treats and off-duty celebs. Homegrown East Village fave The Bean (54 2nd Avenue) has a devoted vegan following.

- FFX Aus

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