The Lower East Side is one of the best neighborhoods to eat in New York City, not simply because the restaurants are good, but because there are so many different kinds of them. Want a classic New York sandwich? Covered. An avant garde tasting menu? Again, covered. A party time scene for your birthday? Covered. An excellent vegetarian restaurant? That too. These are the spots you should know about.
There are a lot of places you could go when you’re finally feeling confident enough to wear that big wool hat you bought yourself last year and haven’t taken out of your closet yet. But very few of those places serve good, affordable food. That’s what makes Kiki’s rare, and it’s also the reason why waits at this walk-in-only Greek spot can be an hour long on a rainy Monday night. But assuming you’re OK killing time at Clandestino or Forgtmenot until your table is ready, this is a great place to drink $24 liters of wine, eat grilled octopus and fantastic lamb chops, and, of course, show off that hat.
You’ve been on a couple dates and you haven’t spilled red wine on this person’s lap or repeatedly mentioned your ex. Now you need someplace for dinner that’ll impress, but still show that you’re not taking things too seriously. Check out Le French Diner, a tiny spot that feels like a secret bistro only you know about. The French food is simple but excellent, and there are some good, affordable wines that you can do your best not to knock over.
The LES doesn’t have any place that goes as big on production value as Carbone or The Grill, but Dirty French, which is from the same team, comes close. From the loud music to the oysters being paraded around the room on elaborately decorated trays, this is not an every-night kind of spot. But if you’re OK with dim lighting and pretty high prices, you should come here to eat some very good French-influenced food, like mushroom millefeuille over squash curry and duck a l’orange coated in North African spices.
Contra does an $89 tasting menu with the kind of precisely plated dishes often served in stuffy spots where you might celebrate a 15th anniversary. But here, the seven courses are served in a narrow, brick-walled space where you wouldn’t feel out of place in jeans and a T-shirt. The menu changes often, but all of the food, like soft tofu with caviar and monkfish with romesco, is excellent. If you don’t want to commit to the full tasting menu, sit at the six-seat bar, try something from the long, mostly natural wine list, and get the three-course dinner for $48.
Wildair is a small plates restaurant and wine bar from the people behind Contra. We strongly endorse showing up here on a random weeknight alone, or for a night out with a few friends. Assuming your friends are into things like beef tartare with smoked cheddar or a crispy potato topped with uni and jalapeno.
This place makes some very good Neapolitan-style pies using high-quality ingredients, and the classic margherita is a great example of fork-and-knife pizza done right. (Just know that it’s not huge, and at $22, it’s also not cheap.) But it’s not just about the pizza here: there are also excellent small plates and desserts, and an interesting wine list, all of which are handled by the people behind Wildair and Contra.
Here are some things that will probably cross your mind while you have dinner at Davelle: spaghetti cooked with ketchup is delicious, there’s no such thing as too much uni, and you should drink more pet-nat wines. You’ll also think that you want to come back to this tiny Japanese spot as soon as possible.
La Contenta is where you want to be eating tacos and drinking margaritas on the Lower East Side, and the dark, loud, crowded space is also a great place to hang out. The food, like a huge portion of shrimp enchiladas with thick melted cheese, and the cocktails, like the one with mezcal and jalapeno-infused agave nectar, are great, and the servers are really friendly. Just know that it’s roughly the size of a walk-in closet, so expect a wait.
If La Contenta has an hour wait, which it probably will, head around the corner to Barrio Chino. The dark, crowded space and bar seats make it similarly great for fun dinners with a date or friend, and while the Mexican food may not be quite as good, you’ll still be very happy with the guacamole with housemade chips and the shredded chicken enchiladas. Definitely also explore the long tequila list or get some margaritas, especially during Happy Hour.
The original Russ & Daughters is an over-100-year-old institution, but it had one major flaw: nowhere to sit. The newer nearby cafe has both seating and an extensive menu that adds eggs, platters, and even alcohol to the usual bagel and smoked salmon.
You don’t have many choices for upscale tasting menus on the LES, and you have even fewer if you’re vegetarian. The best option is Dirt Candy, which offers two tasting menus (five courses for $63 or nine courses for $97, tip included) involving dishes like a rich portobello mousse and carrot sliders on carrot buns that taste kind of like mini ham sandwiches. The food is unusual and filling enough to please non-vegetarians as well, and the big, dark space works well for dates or groups.
A lot of places around the city try to pull off the cozy mountain house feel, but nobody nails it like Freemans. We’re not sure if it’s the taxidermied animal heads on the walls, the bookshelves and old couches, or all three, but this place will make you want to wear flannel and drink bourbon, even if you don’t like either of those things. The American food here, like the best artichoke dip in the city and the delicious filet mignon with mashed potatoes and horseradish creme fraiche, is ideal for group dinners when you want to feel like you’re at a tavern upstate.
Truly unique dining experiences are tough to come by, even in NYC, but Shabushabu Macoron qualifies. In fact, it’s not just unique for the LES or New York in general - it’s the first shabu shabu omakase restaurant anywhere in the world. Sit at the eight-seat chef’s counter, and watch as things like pork and two different types of wagyu are cooked in a pot of boiling water in front of you. It’s $128 per person, but a great option for a special occasion date.
Cervo’s is a wine bar/seafood restaurant on the part of the Lower East Side where you’ll also find Kiki’s and The Fat Radish. It’s run by the people behind the great Bed-Stuy restaurant Hart’s, and it’s best used as a place for a drink and a snack. Eating a full meal here can get pricey, but come and have some unusual wines and a few small plates of Portuguese-ish seafood.
When you ask your text chain if anyone wants to go out tonight, you usually get one yes, two maybes (a.k.a. nos), and no response from everyone else. But on the rare occasion that everyone wants to join, go to Congee Village. This two-story Chinese spot just off Delancey, which has a tree growing in the middle of it and bamboo everywhere, is filled with big tables. Almost everything on the very long menu is served family-style, so you should share things like the salt and pepper shrimp, congee with salted chicken, and chicken and yam that’s served on a sizzling hot plate.
Pig And Khao
The LES has no shortage of places with pink cocktails and very loud music where you can party with a group, but if you want to do those things and also eat some really good food, head to Pig And Khao. The big portions of Thai and Filipino dishes - like papaya salad, khao soi, and sisig - are affordable and ideal for sharing.
The Fat Radish was one of the scenier spots on the LES when it opened in 2010, but to earn that distinction now, it’d need to have champagne bottle sparklers and multiple bouncers wearing earpieces. It certainly doesn’t have those things - it really just feels like a neighborhood restaurant where you can get cocktails and oysters with a date at the bar, or share entrees and bottles of wine with your cool parents. The menu is vegetarian-friendly, with dishes like celery root pot pie and a whole roasted hen of the woods that tastes like a massive, very good hunk of pot roast. But there are plenty of seafood and meat options as well, like al pastor-style chicken and a bacon cheeseburger with duck fat fries.
While The Fat Radish works for just about any situation, Bar Belly - which is from the same people and right across the street - is ideal for early-in-the-game dates. The dark, narrow space has a cocktail and raw bar up front, along with a bunch of small tables past the live music in the back. Besides oysters, which are $1 during Happy Hour, they also serve good small plates like lamb meatballs and octopus.
Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine is right next to the better-known Vanessa’s, but this is where you should be going for dumplings. You’ll probably be sharing a table with strangers, and the dumplings only come steamed, but trust us when we say that six of these are the best $2 you can spend on the Lower East Side.
You’re going to spend plenty of money later while bar-hopping around Orchard or debating whether you should get in the pool at Mr. Purple, so you don’t want an overly expensive dinner. Kopitiam serves some of the best affordable food on the LES, with excellent Malaysian dishes like pan mee soup (flat noodles and dried fish in a sweet broth) and oh chien (an oyster omelette with seafood sauce). Also, you probably shouldn’t go swimming at Mr. Purple, but you already knew that.
This is some of the best ramen in New York, with an excellent outdoor patio to boot. The non-ramen portion of the menu - from meatballs to pastrami buns - is worth trying out as well.
Ivan Ramen is the Lower East Side’s most famous ramen spot, but Nakamura is worth a try as well. Located right by the bridge, this small, dimly-lit restaurant is the kind of place you should go if you’re trying to hide from the world on a cold winter night. Or whenever you want some ramen with virtually perfect chicken-based broth.
If Nakamura is packed, or you just decide you could go without having broth in your ramen, head next door to Niche. This tiny Japanese spot is from the same people as Nakamura and serves some excellent mazemen (brothless ramen). Our favorite is the one with ribeye and spinach, and we also like the small plates - especially the $8 uni toast with a very big portion of sea urchin.
We probably don’t need to tell you much about Katz’s Deli, other than the fact that it’s still good after about 130 years on Houston Street. Order pastrami, maybe a matzoh ball soup and fries, don’t lose your ticket. Repeat.
If your priority is wine rather than food, The Ten Bells is where you should be drinking on the Lower East Side. That’s not to say that the food here is bad - in fact, the tapas (like thinly-sliced octopus and spicy, cheesy meatballs) are very enjoyable, and all cost less than $16. But this is first and foremost a wine bar, where you come to drink natural wines from small producers around the world in a casual atmosphere. The dark, loud space is ideal for dates, especially during the daily Happy Hour, when you can get $1 oysters and $15 carafes of wine.
The original Cocoron in Nolita is one of the most underrated restaurants in the city. This location on the LES is very similar, but it’s a slightly bigger space. It’s not quite as homey and cozy as the one on Kenmare, but the food is exactly the same, so if you are coming from slightly further east, or encounter a wait in Nolita, walk across Bowery for another place to get some phenomenal soba. For something different, try the yuba dipping soba - it’s not always available at the other location and is a lighter alternative to the legendary Mera Mera.
There are lots of places on Essex Street that function as starting points for nights that’ll inevitably end with a half-eaten slice of pizza on your living room table. All things considered, most of them are kind of the worst. But not Tijuana Picnic. The Mexican food here, like shrimp tacos with a mezcal marinade and blue corn quesadillas, is good, and the two-floor space with a separate bar downstairs is fun for groups.
If you feel like you aged out of Tijuana Picnic five years ago, go to Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya instead. While they both feel like a party, Blue Ribbon has a slightly older crowd spending slightly more money on slightly better food. The big space on the second floor of the Sixty LES Hotel has a casual room with a long bar, as well as a bigger, fancier room with booths, low communal tables, and a sushi bar. The sushi they make behind that bar is pretty good, but we prefer the skewers, especially the one with beef short rib and garlic aioli, and the small plates, like spicy cucumber salad and fantastic chicken liver mousse.
To get into Yopparai, you press a buzzer, then walk up some stairs in an apartment building on Rivington, and enter through a sliding door on the second floor. That might make this sound like a gimmicky speakeasy, but once you sit at the long chef’s counter and the food starts arriving, you’ll realize that isn’t the case at all. It’s a really good Japanese spot with a huge menu ranging from sashimi to barbecue to oden (small bowls of dashi broth with your choice of ingredients). The fried chicken with green tea powder is great, but our favorite thing here is the chef’s selection of three types of oden for $12. The two-person, cushioned stools at the counter are ideal for dates, and there are a couple larger tables if you come with a group. Either way, you should also explore the massive sake list.
Walking into Cafe Katja feels like stepping off a very crowded block on the LES into a low-key tavern in Vienna. The brick-walled space has a deer head and wreaths on the walls, and there are a bunch of Austrian and Bavarian beers on tap at the big horseshoe bar. The food (like bratwurst, gulasch, and spaetzle) is generally very heavy - but it’s also all enjoyable. We particularly like the tender, well-cooked wiener schnitzel that’s the size of a Macbook. Come with a group and drink some steins of beer, and you’ll quickly forget that you’re down the street from Hair Of The Dog.
Trapizzino specializes in $8 pockets of sourdough pizza crust that you can get with fillings like eggplant parm, braised oxtail, or stracciatella and anchovies. They’re not exactly light, but they’re really tasty, and they work whether you’re trying to lay down a sturdy base before a big night out or planning to spend the rest of the night debating between reruns of Broad City and starting whatever Netflix has decided you need to watch next.
Kings County Imperial has been serving some really good Chinese food in Williamsburg since 2015, and now you can enjoy it without crossing the river. You’ll stop just short, as this second location is about 15 feet from the Williamsburg Bridge on the LES. The space and menu are both pretty similar to the original, which means you should come here with a group, drink some cocktails (like the one on tap that has rose wine and sake), and share some steamed chicken buns, mapo dofu, and mu shu duck.
There’s probably no such thing as “enough” places serving good New Orleans-inspired food in NYC, but at this point, it’s clear that we’re not even close. One solid addition, though, is Parish. This bar on the LES serves things like gumbo, jambalaya, and po’ boys, along with a massive, very good muffuletta (even the half-size is really big). Come during Happy Hour (weekdays until 8pm) for some $4 beers and discounted food, or get a booth with a group and drink some cocktails before checking out the DJ in the back room.
Trying to look like you know what you’re doing on the dance floor is difficult enough. Trying to do it with a stomach full of extremely heavy food can be downright unpleasant. So before heading to Home Sweet Home or Hotel Chantelle, keep things relatively light with some Greek food at Souvlaki GR. The casual, white-walled space has a long menu of dips, salads, and pitas, but our favorite things to get here are the skewers, especially the ones with grilled shrimp or chicken and tzatziki.
The use case for Jajaja is pretty straightforward: if you’re vegan, you should eat here. You can find better Mexican food in the neighborhood, but considering the chorizo burrito doesn’t have chorizo and the fish tacos use chayote (a type of gourd), this food is enjoyable. Come with a friend or date who you think would be into the cursive neon sign and pastel color scheme, and get some cocktails, like the multicolored frozen margarita. Also, a lot of things on the menu are gluten-free.
You really want to make this date work, but both of you are only free tonight. Rather than trying to schedule something in three weeks (that’ll almost definitely never happen), head to Excuse My French. Get a couple seats at the long bar, share small plates like escargots and steak tartare with a runny quail egg, and take advantage of two-for-one cocktails during Happy Hour (until 8pm Sunday-Wednesday and 7pm Thursday-Saturday).
These days it seems like every neighborhood has multiple attractive, all-day Australian spots where you can meet someone for oat milk matcha lattes. And Sonnyboy is one we like on the LES. They serve dinner here, but we prefer it for brunch or during Happy Hour (4-7pm every day), when you can get a burger and fries for $10 and a cocktail for $9.
You’re going to Clinton Street Baking Company for one reason: pancakes. They’re big, fluffy, and topped with things like chocolate chunks or bananas and walnuts. They’re really good, but whether they’re worth a two-hour wait on a Sunday morning depends on how much you love pancakes. And how hungover you are. You can always make a reservation and eat them for dinner.