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Hot Blocks: The Evolution of Kenmare Street’s Dining Scene

A once overlooked Downtown pocket that's getting cooler by the minute
August 29, 2017
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by Randi Gollin

Kenmare Street has been through plenty of ups and downs over the years, but lately this downtown Manhattan corridor, and its ancillary side streets, bordering NoLita, Little Italy, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, has morphed into foodie row. Packed with must-try restaurants, coffee shops and bars, this micro-neighborhood of hot blocks seems to pulsate with renewed energy.

Illustration by Timothy McAuliffe

As with many hip hoods, like the nearby Bowery (a former skid row once better known for its winos than its wine bars) Kenmare’s metamorphosis didn’t happen overnight. And if this all sounds familiar, yes, this isn’t Kenmare’s first time at the reinvention rodeo. Over the past 12 or so years, Kenmare has shape-shifted from a scruffy stretch of parking lots and psychic storefronts to a hopping nightlife nexus to an area ripe for a dining reboot.

Courtesy of La Esquina

The chronology of cool can be traced back to around 2005, when nightlife maven Serge Becker planted his diner-style taco hangout La Esquina at the intersection of Cleveland Place and Kenmare. Nearby, on Lafayette Street, André Balazs’ luxury apartment building, called One Kenmare Square, was on the rise. Still Kenmare Street itself was more gritty than edgy, with laundry swinging from outdoor clotheslines and casual eateries like Hoomoos Asli and Neapolitan pizza parlor L’Asso sharing the low-rent block with old timers like the circa-1926 Italian institution, Little Charlie’s Clam Bar.

La Esquina exterior; image via Flickr/wwward0

One major key to the neighborhood’s evolution: booze. “In areas that are not yet saturated with restaurants it is easier to get approved for a liquor license,” says Kendall Novak, associate director of Eastern Consolidated, a long-standing commercial real estate firm that has handled transactions for eateries in emerging and established neighborhoods, including the new Black Tap branch on Ludlow Street and East One Coffee Roasters in Carroll Gardens.

In 2007, the night owls swooped in. Promoter Ivan Kane planned to turn the red-sauce relic Little Charlie’s space at 19 Kenmare into a branch of his glam burlesque club, Forty Deuce. The club, supposedly backed by David Bowie and Sting, faced heated opposition from the local Community Board 2, however, and the liquor license was denied. In 2010, Travertine, a clubby restaurant owned by Australian chef Danae Cappelletto, took over the space, with a basement lounge called XIX, joining model-magnet Kenmare, a restaurant with a DJ and exclusive late-night bar scene downstairs, owned by Beatrice Inn’s Paul Sevigny and partners. By 2012, Ken & Cook had replaced Travertine, with an illegal basement club called Lil Charlie’s keeping the neighbors up at night and up in arms.

While the party crowd was flocking to Kenmare, other developments began to unfold. The Nolitan Hotel started checking in guests in 2011, signaling a turning point. “Hotels and national retailers are the number one key drivers to an area’s success,” explains Novak. “They will bring a new demographic, rents will rise and boom, and the area is gentrified before you know it.”

Faith Hope Consolo, chairman of The Retail Group, Douglas Elliman, who has her hand in real estate citywide, notes that businesses are drawn to transitional areas like Kenmare for a host of reasons. “The short of it is that the artistically minded are looking for where it’s cheap, and the store owners want foot traffic, and the restaurateurs want a mix of residential and businesses to keep their seats full all day,” she says.

Photo by Liz Clayman

In 2012, the die was cast for the street’s future dining themes. Apotheke vet Heather Tierney opened her bleached-wood juice bar and vegan eatery The Butcher’s Daughter, on the corner of Kenmare and Elizabeth streets and a contingent of Japanese restaurants started to arrive, including noodle shop Cocoron Soba, then Goemon and Ramen Lab, becoming neighborhood fixtures between Mulberry and Mott streets. Foodie destinations also found a home in the neighborhood, including Italian standout Pasquale Jones (pictured above), on the corner of Kenmare and Mulberry; Black Seed, the Montreal-inspired bagel spot; and Mimi Cheng's Dumplings, the sister-run dumpling shop.

Courtesy of The Sosta

More recently, Samantha Wasser, co-founder of by CHLOE, and chef Ali LaRaia, brought the pink-hued quick-serve Italian hot spot, The Sosta, to Mott Street off Kenmare. The Nolitan introduced Mare, a Vietnamese-inspired cafe with chef Jamie Tao (ex Wildair) helming the kitchen. Nom Wah Nolita, a hip, industrial-style sibling of dim sum standby Nom Wah Tea Parlor opened up shop on the growing block. And after the nightspot Ken & Cook called it a day, De Maria, a chic, scene-y spot run by the stylish chef Camille Becerra, set up residence in February, bringing the Instagram-happy brunch crowd in droves.

Courtesy of De Maria

While Kenmare has moved into a more established phase, the buzz and feeling of fraternity shared by many food and beverage inhabitants in this small swath continues to swell. Australians Giles Russell and Henry Roberts, who opened the Bondi-inspired Two Hands Cafe on Mott Street, off Kenmare, in June, 2014, trusted the “good feeling” they had about this pocket, believing it would continue to blossom, with the spread moving south from NoLita and east from SoHo. “That mixed with slightly cheaper rents and the amazing community that live in this meeting point of SoHo/NoLita/Chinatown/Little Italy/LES made selecting this area a no-brainer for us,” says Russell.

Here’s where to eat on or near Kenmare Street right now:

The Sosta 
By CHLOE co-founder Samantha Wasser is behind this chic fast-casual Italian in NoLita offering pastas by chef Ali LaRaia (with gluten-free and veggie alternatives), focaccia sandwiches and salads in a pink-accented, Instagrammable space. Also expect antipasto and weekend brunch, plus espresso drinks and beer and wine on tap.

​186 Mott St.

De Maria
Chef Camille Becerra and hip design team The MP Shift are behind this chic NoLita all-day cafe offering colorful salads, grain bowls and other New American plates. The food is complemented by a chic and sunny interior with soft and earthy colorblocked tones and a neon-lit painting of the Virgin Mary in the bathroom.

19 Kenmare St.; 212-966-3058

Mare
This recent addition to The Nolitan Hotel serves a Vietnamese-inspired menu of eclectic fare from Jamie Tao, the former sous-chef at Wildair. The eatery offers breakfast and lunch at the moment, with dinner to follow sometime in September.

30 Kenmare St.; 212-925-2555

Nom Wah Nolita
Spun off from a vintage Chinatown favorite, this fast-casual NoLita branch offers a pared-down selection of dim sum, noodles and rice boxes served on Chinese tableware in a space with group tables, iPad ordering, white tiles and comic-style graphics.

​10 Kenmare St.; 646-478-8242

Mimi Cheng's Dumplings
Two years after establishing their hit East Village original, Marian and Hannah Cheng opened this NoLita spot, offering scratch-made dumplings and new bento boxes in a minimalist fast-casual setting decorated with blue tables and greenery.

380 Broome St.; 212-343-1387

Two Hands Cafe
Australians Giles Russell and Henry Roberts have created an ultrachic environment for Instagram-worthy plates of avocado toast, flat whites and other healthy fare.

164 Mott St.

Pasquale Jones
The Charlie Bird team’s celeb-laden sequel specializes in wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, veggies and meats in modest, relatively tight quarters.

187 Mulberry St.

The Butcher's Daughter
Shabby chic juice bar and eatery from former bartender Heather Tierney serving vegetarian (and mostly vegan) fare.

19 Kenmare St.; 212-219-3434

chinatown
lower east side
nolita
little italy
camille becerra
bowery
italian restaurants
noodle shops
japanese restaurants