Cafe Pick-Me-Up (145 Ave. A at 9th St., 673-7231) -- It's hard not to love this place for its name alone. The French-owned and -operated coffee shop serves great drinks (you can get delicious dark coffee in those huge bowl-like mugs, plus wine and beer) and the usual coffeehouse pastry fare in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Parisian café -- especially on certain weekend afternoons when an accordion-accompanied classical singer completes the mood. And if the mélange of old wooden tables gets too crowded (or the cigarette smoke too thick), aim for a seat on the sidewalk -- Tompkins Square Park looks so pretty from there.
The kitschy décor of Yaffa Cafe (97 St. Marks Pl., 674-9302) looks simply fabulous next to the gaudy garb of its patrons (not to mention the gravity-defying hairdos of some of the waiters). Cheap, natural fare from greek salads to crêpes to stir-fries is served up 24-7 at this perpetual neighborhood favorite. And while the food may not make your palate sing, the huge outdoor garden seating area with its eerie yellow lighting will lure you back on mild summer evenings.
I was a little disappointed upon my first visit to discover that they don't serve drinks out of beakers at Barmacy (538 E. 14th St., 228-2240). Nevertheless, the retro drugstore turned hip-watering hole (glass cabinets stocked with vintage medicine bottles and fifties pharmaceutical advertisements line the walls), complete with a stylish, retro-attired clientele and affordable drink prices make it an appealing spot on the East Village bar circuit. The last time I stopped in, I was lucky enough to witness lingerie-clad go-go dancers (with matching jet-black locks) shaking their respective thangs (to hip-hop, of course) on a tiny platform lit by hanging strands of colored bulbs -- and surrounded, naturally, by a dumbfounded crowd. Not exactly conducive to conversation, but inevitably entertaining.
With its low lighting and cozy quarters, OG (507 East 6th St., 477-4649) seems to harbor a hidden secret. And maybe it does (though the weekend wait for a table implies that quite a few people are in on it). Tucked away from the busy avenues on one of the East Village's quieter blocks, this pan-Asian restaurant's location surprises the same way its food does: light and healthy dishes like bamboo steamed vegetables sort of sneak up on you with their richly spiced, eclectic sauces. And it's always a fun challenge to negotiate your tuna steak with chopsticks.
Another one of those bars you have to know about or else you'd never find it, Angel's Share (9 Stuyvesant St., near 9th and Third Ave., 598-3041) hides within a Japanese/Korean BBQ restaurant -- which draws a crowd in its own right -- in a space above Around the Clock that you probably wouldn't notice either. Imbibe comfortably (they only accept as many patrons as chairs) beneath a mural of seraphim-sprinkled clouds. And since you're already feeling ultra-exclusive, you might as well sample one of their snazzy, specialty cocktails. ("The bellinis are so . . . high tech," remarked one patron.)
In Tompkins Square Park dogs run FREE! and they look so happy doing so. It gives all of us who lament the poor creatures' city lives a bit of relief and enjoyment to see them sniff, run, bark, and do all those other less attractive doggie things in an open area that almost suggests grass. Add the weekend fairs and farmer's markets and constant basketball games and it's hard to imagine the drug-addled shanty town that once dominated the park and kept neighborhood residents at bay.
A thousand times more interesting than Tompkins Square Park itself is the family of East Village freaks therein. One example: An elderly woman recently offered me tapioca pudding, gesturing to the plastic grocery bags huddled around her feet like pigeons. For all I know that might be the code name for some drug coveted by geriatric junkies -- you know, soft on the brain, soft on the dentures. Though I declined, there actually were some takers. Let's hear it for sharing the wealth.
St. Mark's Bookshop (31 Third Ave., 260-7853) not only houses a thorough stock of the classics (you won't find Danielle Steele on these shelves unless she's mentioned in some Routledge collection on women and pornography) but also displays one of the city's most impressive collections of alternative publications and 'zines. Tall metal shelves divide the space into cozy, narrow aisles that make you want to settle into a corner and read for hours. The NYU influence is obvious; critical theorists are heavily represented and all the Bukowski books are kept behind the counter (presumably to deter shoplifters).
One of many community gardens in the East Village, the 6th Street and Ave B Garden is so overgrown with wildflowers, vegetables, trees, and roses that stepping into it is like stepping out of the city and into Alice's Wonderland. A new gate (decorated with little brass hands along the top) encloses numerous plots, a wacky, four-story-high sculpture (made of a haphazardly balanced pile of wood, metal, stuffed animals and other toys -- some prefer to call it garbage), mosaic-tiled picnic tables, and a small stage with a painted Rousseau-like backdrop. There's even a children's garden (with a little playhouse) for tiny green thumbs. Bring a book or a lunch and soak up the surroundings before you tackle the concrete jungle for yet another day.
Punk rock lives at club/performance space Coney Island High -- well all over St. Marks Place, really (if you graciously overlook the Gap store and McDonald's that now bracket the street). You'll invariably find the kings and queens of studiously unkempt vanity here (i.e., kids who've spent hours working their ten-inch mohawks spikes just so.) And that's not counting the time it took making those difficult decisions concerning accessories: "Should I wear the dog collar tonight? Or the bicycle chain ensemble?" I feel much better about pausing to apply lipstick this morning.