Think of a title for a movie about Manhattan’s destination neighborhoods and The Vanishing might jump to mind. Look at the Flower District. Or don’t—it’s essentially gone, supplanted by a proliferation of characterless high-rises where countless blossoms once bloomed.
Be glad New Yorkers can live without orchids but will always need to eat, then, because the Bowery’s ragtag agglomeration of restaurant supply stores is hanging on, despite ever-closer encroachment from rent-raising hipness. Between Delancey and East Third Streets, cooking essentials still spill out onto sidewalks in front of more than a dozen outlets; inside, the stores are crammed with necessities big and small, from tiny rubber spatulas to stockpots sized for a cannibal’s kitchen. And these days, not one posts the dreaded “To the Trade Only” sign.
Once upon a time, anyone in need of industrial-grade cookware and equipment had to head to this restaurant-supply stretch, but now that everyone’s a Colicchio other options for cheaply outfitting a kitchen abound, in town and online. Still, the Bowery experience remains worth a trip. Where else can you hear an Asian clerk describing the merits of various models of colossal rice cookers to Latino shoppers—in Spanish?
Amateurs, even Keller wannabes, were once about as welcome in these stores as a health inspector in a Taco Bell. But today cash is cash (and credit cards are credit cards). A store where a chef can take as long as she likes dithering over whether to buy square plates or round, for an order in the hundreds, will not turn away the home cook in search of a $1 saltshaker or a $2.50 cocktail muddler. And you no longer have to buy by the case; pick up a single 1-ounce ladle for $1.50—or a quart-size one for $7.
Most of the stores are about as far from Williams-Sonoma as your average Greek diner is from Anthos; don’t come expecting ambiance. Industrial equipment is built for efficiency, not aesthetics— and on this street, catering to an industry in which closure is common, much of it is secondhand (or fifth-hand).
For the uninitiated, two of the more accommodating stores are Bari, 240 Bowery, and Bowery Restaurant Supplies, 183 Bowery. The first is comparatively sleek and very orderly, with polished wood floors, a carefully edited selection of serious cookware and appliances and an emphasis on pizza gear. Offerings include meat grinders, chafing dishes, hot fudge dispensers, pizza screens, KitchenAid mixers, heavy-duty blenders in at least a dozen models, seven permutations of rice cookers, assorted sizes of sturdy pots called calderos and your choice of rolling pins: wood or stainless steel.
Bowery Restaurant Supplies is a maze of wire shelving heaped with everything from wire pot scrubbers to chinoises in all sizes. It has an Asian accent (bamboo steamers, sake cups, stainless-steel skimmers, bags of 100 bamboo skewers for all of 30 cents and the white soup spoons in which trendy caterers serve one-swallow hors d’oeuvres). But it also stocks aprons and graters and cheese shakers, tartlet tins for 75 cents apiece, even escargot tongs ($1.50 each).
There’s no forgetting the target clientele: the muffin tins have four times as many indentations as those for home bakers.
Daroma, 231 Bowery, carries a good selection of serious knives in the back, while nearby Balter at 209 Bowery is best for glassware in shapes and sizes only a mixologist would specify. Globe, a dusty shop at 266 Bowery, stocks slicers, and not the gleaming red antique Berkels favored by the likes of Mario Batali and other salumi aficionados; these are purely utilitarian.
Most of the stores sell more than cookware and dinnerware; many carry appliances such as dishwashers and walk-ins so huge you’d need a Ryder truck to haul them home. Furniture—chairs, barstools, even booths—is usually segregated in its own stores, but everything else can be under one roof: Woks of all widths, parrot-shaped tiki mugs, popcorn machines, pizza peels, teapots and sneeze guards.
It’s not all spanking new. A fair amount of merchandise looks to have been through a few lives already. Some stores boast “We pay top $$$ for used.” But R&S Equipment has a big sign in the window: “No used! No rent! No lease!”
The grittiness of the neighborhood can make you think everything is a deal, but it’s good to know what kitchenware goes for before you jump on the V or F to Second Avenue and Houston. A $2.95 oven thermometer is worth the subway fare, but a $20 ceramic bowl might be cheaper in Chinatown. You can do much better than in the past with tableware—most is a long way from clunky Buffalo China, if not quite Lenox.
English is not often the first language at these stores, but the Internet has made communication even easier—a number of the stores have Web sites, including Bari (bariequipment.com ) and A Plus (apluskitchenequipment.com ), which sells mostly large equipment.
Proximity to more-restaurants-per-square-inch Chinatown is one explanation for the concentration of supply stores here, but cheap rents have always had more to do with the location. And that of course is changing. The Bowery itself, long synonymous with boozing and bums, is looking more savory than it probably has since it was the center of theater in Manhattan, from 1860 to 1875. In the interim, saloons and flophouses have made it the epitome of seediness—the 1939 WPA Guide to New York City actually lumped restaurant-supply houses in with those urban blights.
The Bowery Mission and a Salvation Army outpost remain, as does the Sunshine Hotel, immortalized in a 2001 documentary as one step up from sleeping in the subways. But clubs and restaurants like Katra and BLVD have moved in; the shiny New Museum stands just steps from daunting displays of chafing dishes and battered sinks. Bowery Wine sells imports rather than Mad Dog, and not from behind gated windows. North of Houston Street, Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen is opening this spring in a new building where one-bedroom apartments rent for more than $4,000 a month; across the intersection Keith McNally’s latest is under construction.
A Patricia Field boutique hides under a decrepit-looking sign reading Pat’s Favorita Restaurant Supplies. Next door is Chef Restaurant Supplies, its windows full of pricey espresso machines and its sidewalk shelves full of cheap china. Inside a chef might be deciding between two woks so wide they block the aisle.
For now the district is still a district that is centered on this one wide boulevard. But Howard Nourieli of the Chelsea Market’s Bowery Kitchen opted for Rivington Street when he opened a second location. He wanted to fill a niche for more high-end kitchen equipment, such as knives, gadgets and chefwear, he says, but “the Bowery is too expensive now.”
Experience it while you can. There probably won’t be a sequel.
Restaurant row: This once-gritty stretch is still a go-to district for commercial kitchen equipment from monster muffin tins to mega meat slicers. Photo credit: Max Flatow.