South of the border

BelDel (below Delancey) is poised to become the next It neighborhood

It's 10am on a Friday, and there's a flurry of construction on the Lower East Side. At 76 Orchard Street, a few men are adding details to the facade of a bar called Outlet. Next door, entrepreneur Nick Metalias walks through the almost-finished Ronald's Pizza, an Italian restaurant he's opening with his brother Tito. Across the street, Holly Grabelle hangs a sign in the window of her new Mexican street-food joint, El Bocadito. A block away, at Ludlow and Broome, shiny signs announce the arrival of Casanis, a French bistro. And on Canal between Essex and Ludlow, Laura Travers has taped a piece of paper on the metal gate of her new nightspot, Clandestino, that reads, BARTENDER WANTED. The mood is upbeat, the buzz palpable.

This area south of Delancey Street—a three-by-four-block neighborhood roughly bounded by Delancey to the north, Canal to the south, Essex to the east and Allen to the west—used to be an eating and drinking no-man's land. But in the past year, half a dozen places have opened, and four new spots are slated for arrival soon. The neighborhood has attracted enough attention to earn its own acronym: "BelDel," short for "Below Delancey."

Development here was inevitable. The proliferation of restaurants and bars on Ludlow, Rivington and Orchard Streets north of Delancey—and the backlash against the noise and crowds they attract—has made it hard to open new spots: Bar owners have to fight for liquor licenses, and rents are soaring. So while Delancey once served as the highway that divided booze-infused revelers from the rest of the Lower East Side, it was only a matter of time before restaurateurs discovered the vacant storefronts and failing lingerie stores that litter BelDel. "For better or for worse, the old Orchard Street businesses are getting priced out," says Dylan Dodd, co-owner of the two-and-a-half-year-old Mexican eatery Barrio Chino.

BelDel, then, is a new world to explore, and one that poses two seemingly opposing questions: Will enough foot traffic find its way across the divide? And, more worrisome, will the neighborhood become just an extension of the already cluttered ber-trendy LES? Danny Milan, who opened the tiny bar-caf King Size in December, believes BelDel is still off most people's radar. "It feels as if most people stumble into this neighborhood by accident," he says. "Even people who grew up in Manhattan haven't been down here." And yet, he's also aware that the unveiling of these destinations could signal the end of one of downtown's last undeveloped enclaves. "We wouldn't want [this neighborhood] to be like it is above Delancey. That's really out of control." You can't have it both ways, can you?