(Note: A shocking number of these places have closed since this post was published in June of 2008.)
An area of tenement buildings with well-preserved late 19th and early 20th century architecture, the South Village below Houston Street features small specialty shops, restaurants, and cafes in a friendly, well-balanced and human-scaled neighborhood. While the streets of Thompson, Sullivan, and MacDougal north of Houston are well-known and well-trod by the beatnik-loving poets and beer-loving collegians among us, the blocks south offer more restrained entertainments. Once a bastion of the Italian-American community, the area still features a few Italian cafes and shops, and St. Anthony of Padua Church serves as a gateway into the neighborhood.
The many restaurants, bars and cafes of the South Village fit comfortably into the common categories of "casually elegant" and "elegantly casual," and none are too pretentious to visit. In fact, this area of the South Village is home to my most comfortable breakfast place - Vesuvio Bakery, a place I can walk in wearing most anything. Vesuvio is one of those places where the waitress may very well sit down at your table to take your order. (Ed. Note, December 2008): Alas, now CLOSED.) Likewise, when I'm sitting in Milady's, a bar and restaurant of such zero pretense that it's sometimes a sad café, I feel like I could be resting at a truck stop in the remotest part of Brewster County, West Texas. For other places - the new Hundred Acres in the old Provence location on MacDougal or Kittichai on Thompson, for example, I would fix myself up a little, maybe tuck in my shirttail, because they are not at all like something in West Texas.
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In putting this map together (and please view the larger map, as instructed), I intended to stick with a short list of places to visit, but I got carried away. I like the selection of handbags at Peter Hermann Leathergoods (a Mandarina Duck backpack is all I every need), the cookies at City Girl Cafe, the yarn at Purl, the handmade truffles at Kee's, the bread at Grandaisy, the tarts at Once Upon a Tart, the outdoor tables at Bistro Les Amis, the patio dining at Barolo, and the Greek food at Snack.
Father Fagan Park at the south end of MacDougal Street, named for a priest at St. Anthony's who died a hero at the age of 27 after rescuing two other priests from the burning rectory on Thompson Street, is a neighborly park of modest means and a good spot to stop and drink some coffee. This neighborhood is home to many actors, some of whom you'd recognize, but it's best to totally ignore them.
Image: delivery bike at Cubana Café, 110 Thompson Street. South Village. Several more images of the neighborhood at Flickr WOTBA.