Subterranean gambling dens, exotic sea creatures, the infamous jail the Tombs, and Columbus Park with its chain-smoking mahjong players; New York’s time-forgotten Chinatown doesn’t lack for atmospherics. Or bars, which are some of the best under-the-radar drinking spots in the city. Started in the late-19th century, Manhattan’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest Chinese enclave in the country. But like what happened with Little Italy a generation earlier—when it’s assimilated residents departed for New York’s outer boroughs and suburbs and newer Chinese immigrants expanded outward, enveloping much of their adjacent neighborhood—Chinatown itself is being rapidly subsumed. Except this time it’s not a newer immigrant group as has been historically case in New York—unless you count yuppy hipsters as an immigrant group.
This clichéd New York story of rising real estate costs is driving many of Chinatown’s 100,000 residents to East Harlem, which saw its Chinese population triple between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, as well as to the burgeoning Chinatowns in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens. Second and third generation offspring are moving to the Jersey/Westchester/Long Island suburbs that are becoming immigrant destinations in their own right. But for now, that’s the future and there’s still a lot of the old action packed into Chinatown’s paved-over tangle of former cow paths that predate the Manhattan grid to explore—if you know where to look.
104 Bayard Street
A two-minute walk from the Canal Street subway station is Winnie’s Bar and Restaurant. “The site of many brawls” according to The New York Times, was the location of a 1990 shootout between the upstart Vietnamese Canal Street Boys and the ominously named Chinese Ghost Shadows, who have had the run of the neighborhood for decades now. A Canal Street Boy came in firing, ran out and was himself shot by a cop from the Tombs in Columbus Park. Now, it’s been described as half Chinese, half American, and all drunk. Packed most nights from happy hour (old men) to 4 a.m. (hipster karaoke), you can usually find Winnie buying neighbors shots of Martell Cordon Bleu. Meanwhile her daughter is behind the bar, along with a photo of Winnie and Bill Clinton, igniting Flaming Dragon shots: 151 Bacardi and Midori, sucked down through a straw while still on fire. Word on the street is that Winnie’s may be closing due to a rent dispute but they’re still holding out hope—and anyone who loves reckless drunken karaoke should too.
40 Mulberry Street
If you circumnavigate Columbus Park from Winnie’s you’ll find Asia Roma, its name a nod to its tucked in location at the end of Little Italy’s main thoroughfare, Mulberry Street. Though not so close to Little Italy in reality, you won’t quibble once you step inside. Hip-hop blares for a good-looking crowd upstairs, while the neon-signed underground karaoke bar fills up with a birthday party atmosphere below. Karoake still reigns in Chinatown. Here you’ll want to order Tsingtaos because when in Asia Roma…
32 Mulberry Street
A few storefronts over from Asia Roma is Le Baron, the Chinatown location of André Saraiva’s jetset Paris-London-Tokyo club chain. Saraiva started out as the graffiti artist known as Mr. A, tagged 5,000 Parisian mailboxes, then transformed himself into a nightlife impresario with Chloe Sevigny’s brother Paul with the Beatrice Inn, New York’s most notorious club of the 2000’s and the closest thing there’s ever been to another Studio 54. Le Baron Chinatown occupies the former location of a nightclub called Yellow, where in 2003 the rapper Lin was in a violent shootout with a Ghost Dragon. Now, you’re more likely to find models than mayhem.
9 Doyers Street
A couple blocks east of Le Baron you’ll find a door unmarked behind a large doorman and a larger line. That’s Apotheke, a financier’s dream that’s admittedly fun if you can afford $25 shots of inflamed absinthe (the flaming shots at Winnie’s are $6). Apotheke is taken by many as the nail in the Chinatown coffin, along with its sister restaurant next door, Pulqueria, but a fine time nonetheless.
11 Doyers Street
Pulqueria is the neighborhood’s first non-Asian destination restaurant. Located in a subterranean former Vietnamese restaurant, it kept the old signage but serves Mexican food. More importantly, it stands near where Pell Street, formerly called “Red Street,” as in blood, meets the crooked Doyers Street, known as the Bloody Angle during the Tong Wars that were fought in its underground tunnels. This is also the site of the infamous Chinatown shootout in King of New York, and home to the ancient Ting’s Gift Shop, the site of a 10 pound heroin raid in the 1950’s, along with New York’s first dim sum purveyor, the circa-1920 Nom Wah Tea Parlor, making it the perfect place to cap a day of exploring with a $35 tequila and habanero concoction served in a whole cored pineapple.
BAR ON AND NEXT
45 Mott Street basement and 43 Mott Street basement
Mott Street’s matching pair of unrelated underground karaoke bars are the de facto clubhouses of the neighborhood’s born and bred. They don’t have websites and their signage is minimal so you’ll need to keep your glims peeled, but downstairs both are Blade Runner–like in their futuristic technology. Monitors and touchscreens and images of Hong Kong pop stars and bottles of Johnny Walker Blue will rattle around your head like the sound of the local kids playing liar’s dice at the bar and in the private rooms.
169 East Broadway
Until recently a punky old downtown staple for artists, bums, and bummy artists, it was the legendary “Bloody Bucket” when it served sailors and the Gangs of New York. It still draws the old crowd—when it’s not serving as one of the Instagram set’s favorite Instagram sets.