Twenty, even ten years ago, the Lower East Side was a Mecca for counterculture and rebellion. The Tompkins Square riots gave voice to a people disgusted and fed up with the city’s authorities, and with corruption in general. Nowadays, one look at the corner of 1st and 1st will tell you that things have changed. Glass-framed skyscrapers tower over tenement rows, and trendy restaurants are steadily replacing old-school sidewalk cafes. Punk is dead, many people say. But the truth of the matter is that punk is just waiting, biding its time. Though diminished in scope, New York’s punk scene is about as far from dead as Rasputin ever was.
Despite gentrification, there remain places where you can get a taste of old New York, of patch-studded jackets and striking green mohawks. Bars where Top 40 is the last thing you’ll ever hear, where pop is replaced by hopping rockabilly and intense hardcore. Where The Clash has taken over for Justin and Beyonce.
25 East 1st. Street
(between 2nd St & Extra Pl)
New York, NY 10003
Mars Bar is not for the faint of heart. This 1st street is so divey you’ll probably need a bathysphere to salvage what’s left of your inhibitions on the way out. A staple of the punk crowd since the dawn of time, Mars Bar wastes no time on decoration or ambiance: they let their patrons create both. Graffiti covers literally every surface, and you’re invited to add your own tag, if you can find the free space. Back in the day, rapscallions in tattered pants would hang outside and suck down 40s of bodega-bought King Cobra in hopes of finagling their way inside for a drink. That crowd is all grown up now, and they’re sitting inside on stools, still wearing the same torn-up denim jacket and the tight jeans with squatter flaps. Drinks are cheap and potent; this is the kind of establishment that is eternal—it never seems to die. Intimidating to some, and home to others, Mars Bar is the kind of place you go to fight or drink, while the jukebox effortlessly puts out classic after classic, from Discharge to Aerosmith.
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Double Down Saloon
14 Avenue A
New York, NY 10009
The Double Down defies easy description. On one hand, it’s not that much more than a big, dark room where people come to get wasted. Yet it’s also something else entirely; the Double Down is probably the only bar in New York City to serve a bacon martini. One of the first things you’ll see upon entering this simmering sanctuary of sin is a massive jar of vodka, perched behind the bar, and filled with marinating bacon. Just like its signature drink, the rest of the Double Down is pretty congruent in tone. Two signs hang over the bar. One reads "PBR and a shot $6. All Day. NO SHIT." The other? “No F--king Hippies.” The irreverent staff meanders before the macabre wall mural of smoky skulls and stylized vixens. Fetish porn plays on the television, spliced with clips from hardcore punk videos and cult horror films. Horror is the prevailing theme, from the prop skeletons abused with sex toys to the house’s ‘Ass Juice’, a combo that tastes only slightly better than a Hurricane and three times stronger. Just remember the one rule, printed on a big sign for convenience – “You puke, you clean.”
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25 3rd Ave
(between 2nd Ave & 9th St)
New York, NY 10003
Riding on the upper end of the punk bar bell curve, Continental is trying to make something more of itself. Unfortunately for them, the patrons just aren’t having it. There used to be a space for local bands to play shows, but that has since gone the way of the Dodo, making room for more drinking space. While the décor and ambiance don’t exactly scream ‘punk’ these days, the crowd is the real sell here. A mixture of clueless tourists and die-hard veterans subsist on what is probably New York City’s best ‘I desperately need to forget my name and how much I hate myself’ value: five shots of anything for $10. Perfect for pregaming, postgaming, or flat-lining. Sure, The Continental may appear lifeless to those who knew it ten years ago, but the spirit remains. A film projector makes regular showings of pulp movies, from the original Dick Tracy to the modern noir of Pulp Fiction. The Continental may be singing a swan song to the old days of carefree punk, but the new sound is still worth a listen.
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99 Avenue B
(between 6th St & 7th St)
New York, NY 10009
Owned by Dick Manitoba, front man of the legendary proto-punk band The Dictators, Manitoba’s is a throwback to New York’s 1970s burgeoning punk scene. Far from the extreme grime of Mars Bar, or from the shock-chic of the Double Down, Manitoba’s finds a comfortable niche by taking a little bit of both, and seamlessly blending it with a classic pub atmosphere. Located in the heart of the Lower East Side, and just a block from the legendary Tompkins Square Park, the heart of NY’s punk scene, Manitoba’s is awash in the history of punk. Aged photos of Iggy Pop and Patti Smith hang on the walls, while Handsome Dick himself stands by in person. The basement has been converted into a game room, with pinball and some old-school arcade games; most people seem to overlook its existence, so it’s a good spot to retreat to if you’re in need of some breathing room. The jukebox plays tunes the heyday of classic punk; Yellow Card, the Dead Boys and the Ramones. You don’t need to be a punk to enjoy yourself at Manitoba’s, this place is all about embracing the unpretentious good time that punk is supposed to be.
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Otto’s Shrunken Head
538 E 14th St
(between Avenue A & Avenue B)
New York, NY 10009
A punk rock… tiki bar? Don’t worry, you’re not hallucinating. Otto’s Shrunken Head pays homage to the voodoo vibe, while throwing in just enough divey kitsch to make itself feel at home on East 14th street. Musical acts from all over showcase their sound, with many evoking the OC-style rockabilly sound made famous by Social Distortion, though Thursdays are the designated night for Jamaican beats. Though the punk and rockabilly acts compose the mainstay of Otto’s lineup, you can also hear metal, surf, classic rock, country and blues on any given night. And if there’s no live band scheduled, a DJ will pick up the slack. The drinks are delicious, though be warned that they’re stronger than you might expect from an average tropical cocktail. With a vintage vibe and patent la