Walking on First Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets, it’s hard to miss the sights, smells, and sounds emanating from the glowing Indian cornucopia on the western side of the street. And, even if you do somehow miss this brightly lit chaos, one of the owners will probably heckle you until — enticed by the mysterious pumping music and radiant red glow — you apprehensively make your way up the rickety iron stairs.
At the top, two Indian men, arms outstretched towards doors on either side, will ferociously attempt to usher you into separate restaurants. The choice is difficult, and only made worse by the owners’ fierce insistence that their side is best. While it is impossible for us at NYU Local to say which one of these string-lighted grottos is superior (even our own reviewers disagreed on the loftier eatery), we can give you a little background information to help you select your ideal First Ave Indian spot.
Nestled directly next to each other, these two East Village restaurants have been battling for customers since 1990, when Panna II (the right-side restaurant) moved in. On the left is Milon, which was established in 1982. The area, affectionately referred to as Curry Row, is also home to two other Indian restaurants nestled directly under these mainstays, albeit far quieter and much less cave-like. Milon and Panna II are known for their incredible similarities – the flamboyant music, lively hanging lights, effervescent wait staff, and – listen up, underclassmen – BYOB policy. They also have peculiarly similar menus, and the same cramped, hectic, and (if you’re in the right mood), bizarrely charming atmosphere.
And, while (at the risk of sparking a heated Milon-Panna debate) there is little difference in the quality of traditional Indian food served at each restaurant, there is some difference in the décor. Milon is definitely more frenzied and chaotic, while Panna II is a bit more toned down, if you can even call it that. Milon’s hanging chili peppers are bigger, the Bollywood hits louder and they somehow manage to cram a few more seats into a space that can’t be more than 20 feet long.
So when you do decide to jump headfirst into a world of visual overstimulation and surprisingly delicious chicken tikka masala, choose wisely. But whatever you do, don’t forget to tell them it’s your birthday.
Photos by Sophia Melas