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On the Street of Superlatives

Urban Studies


A PASSER-BY might be forgiven for dismissing the block of Seventh Street between First Avenue and Avenue A as undistinguished; it lacks the chaos of St. Mark’s Place, the dense crush of Sixth Street’s Indian district.
 
“Seventh Street is kind of a hideaway,” admitted Tony Yoshida, the owner of Kyo Ya, one of the city’s few Japanese restaurants to earn a Michelin star.

But this block has quietly attracted culinary talent from around the world, resulting in a profusion of “bests” that is unique even to the East Village.

“It is one of the streets or blocks in New York with the strongest concentration of good food,” said Ed Levine, a longtime food writer and founder of Seriouseats.com, a Web site tracking city food. “You can go around the world in one block. That makes it really unique for any neighborhood.”

Threaded between salons, spas, boutiques and an elegant stone church are a series of restaurants, food shops and dishes that have been declared “rare” “best” and “unusual” by the city’s food cognoscenti.

They include cupcakes at Butter Lane (“one of the best cupcakes in New York” according to Cupcakes Take the Cake), the Michelin-starred Kyo Ya (“ethereal,” raved TimeOut), sophisticated Greek food at Pylos (“operates with unusual grace,” noted The New York Times), Porchetta’s celebrated Italian pork sandwich (cited regularly by New York magazine as the city’s best) and innovative ceviche at a sliver of a restaurant named Desnuda (a “rare” find, said Time Out).

“It definitely has some magic on it,” said Maribel Araujo, the 33-year-old owner of Caracas Arepa Bar, another restaurant on the street.

Once a destination for Eastern European cuisine, specifically Polish and Ukrainian, only a few outposts remained by the time Ms. Araujo and her husband discovered the block in 2003, among them Odessa, a diner around the corner on Avenue A, and Veselka, a few blocks away on Ninth Street.

But changes to the East Village, and to Seventh Street in particular, had already begun.

Pylos was under construction. An upscale 24-hour diner called 7A had already opened next door. Ms. Araujo and her husband leased a tiny space at the corner near First Avenue.

Over the years, more restaurants arrived, some hidden down worn staircases or tucked into miniature storefronts. They represented dreams of immigrants and entrepreneurs in an East Village poised between its avant-garde roots and its gentrifying population.

Explaining exactly why the block has garnered so many culinary accolades is unexpectedly tricky. One theory has to do with the variety of ethnic groups that have found a home in the area, including Italians, Israelis and Southeast Asians. Another has to do with the preponderance of locally run shops and restaurants, encouraged by relatively affordable rents and intimate spaces.

“Even though you cannot deny that the East Village is a little more upscale,” said Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History, who specializes in the history of local food vendors, “these are businesses that are not chains. They’re small businesses, and small businesses are what make neighborhoods unique.”

Many of the block’s restaurateurs hoped to pioneer New York’s next food trend, from arepas (Venezuelan pocket sandwiches) to ceviche (the next sushi?).

“There are quite a few notable Greek restaurants, but they were all seafood,” said Christos Valtzoglou, the 57-year-old owner of Pylos. “My idea was to do something that represented the entire Greek cuisine.”

At first, Mr. Valtzoglou, who emigrated from Athens nearly four decades ago, was afraid that Seventh Street was too quiet to support a restaurant of his ambition.

Laughing, he said, “I am very happy to say I was proven wrong.”