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 our favorites.
Contra serves a constantly-changing tasting menu for $74, and it’s one of the most interesting tasting menus around, especially for the value. For weird-but-in-a-good-way food that won’t completely bankrupt you, Contra is an excellent choice.
A small plates restaurant and wine bar from the people behind Contra, Wildair has quickly become one of our favorite restaurants in the entire city. We strongly endorse showing up here on a random weeknight alone, but it’s also a great place 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. Be aware that they don’t take reservations.
At first, we thought Le Turtle was some kind of joke. The website looks like a 19-year-old’s video art piece, and there’s one table in there that’s like an elevated VIP booth straight out of Zoolander. But then we ate the excellent food, and found the service to actually be quite friendly, and it became one of our favorite places for an upscale dinner in the area. Also, every restaurant in the neighborhood looks like this now.
Unlike most of your friends, Speedy Romeo didn’t move from the Lower East Side to somewhere on the Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill border. Here, it went the other way around (the Brooklyn location is still open though). Speedy is best-known for its heavily-topped pizzas, and there’s one with pastrami on it here, but we actually like to come here for the cooked dishes, like octopus, steak, or the burger. It’s a good place for a group dinner that’s somewhere between nice and casual, and you can usually get a reservation last-minute.
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.
La Contenta is where you want to be eating tacos and drinking margaritas on the Lower East Side. It’s also just where you want to be hanging out. This is a great place for a casual, but not at all grungy meet-up. The food and drinks are great, and the bartenders are awesome. Just know that it’s roughly the size of a walk-in closet, so expect to wait at peak times.
One piece of advice: don’t drink the house wine at Kiki’s. It’s very cheap, and it will not make you feel good in the morning. That said, everything else at Kiki’s will make you feel reasonably good. Assuming you can get a table. This Greek restaurant is ridiculously popular, and it’s easy to understand why - the food is appealing and affordable, and the place is always happening. Waits can be long, and service can be a little too cool for school, but if you need a place to show up to for a guaranteed good time, come here. Just order some better wine.
Cervo’s is a new wine bar/seafood restaurant on the cool part of the Lower East Side where you’ll find Dimes and Kiki’s. It’s run by the people behind the great Bed-Stuy restaurant Hart’s, and we think 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.
The best dumpling place in Chinatown is not actually in Chinatown. It’s on this quiet block of the Lower East Side, right next to the vastly overrated but better-known Vanessa’s Dumplings. This place is really not much to look at, 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.
Simply put, 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 definitely the Lower East Side’s most famous ramen spot, but Nakamura is worth a try as well if you’re looking to be well-versed in the soups of the neighborhood. Located right by the bridge, this is a tiny, dimly-lit spot and it’s the kind of place you should go if you’re trying to hide from the world on a cold winter night. Sorry, was that too dark for you? Just go to Ivan then.
Run by the same people behind Lovely Day in Nolita, Gohan is a little, casual, healthy Japanese restaurant on Orchard Street. Is it the best Japanese restaurant around? No, but it’s a great option when you want some enjoyable food that won’t give you acid reflux. Come for good soups, sashimi, or a piece of grilled fish with vegetables.
It’s unlikely we need to tell you much about Katz’s Deli, other than the fact that it is indeed still good. Order pastrami, maybe a matzoh ball soup and fries, don’t lose your ticket. Repeat.
If you want a guaranteed fun night out, go to Mission Chinese. The menu ranges from mouth-numbing Chinese food, to a platter of oysters, to a massive prime rib served with crab legs. Oh, they also make Neapolitan pizzas. All of this takes place in a big, incredibly fun room, and there’s also an excellent cocktail list with drinks like a “General Tso’s Old Fashioned.”
This tiny Malaysian coffee shop has approximately three stools, but their desserts and the few savory dishes they make are worth trying. If you find yourself solo on the Lower East Side and in need of a snack, skip the crowded places and grab a bowl of nasi lemak (coconut rice with egg, cucumber, and anchovy), chilled spicy sesame noodles, or kaya butter toast.
Most Japanese soba restaurants are serious, hushed places. Cocoron is the opposite - it’s tiny, noisy, and the menu is cartoon manga characters. In other words, it’s great. This location is newer and a little bigger than the one just a few blocks over in Nolita. Order a “dip soba” - cold noodles that you dip into a little boiling flavorful hot pot.
Tiny place, tiny menu, incredible (and not tiny) sandwiches. The fried chicken on a biscuit and po’ boy are our favorites.
Think of Dimes as the global headquarters of attractive people eating bowls of vaguely healthy food. And then know that all of that food - from grain bowls to acai bowls to a definitely not healthy egg sandwich - is enjoyable. Unfortunately, the service can be pretty apathetic, and sometimes it feels like the staff is confused about why you’re there. If you can tolerate that though, eat at Dimes. We still end up doing it pretty frequently.
There are a number of restaurants on Essex Street that function as venues for drunken birthday parties. All things considered, most of them are kind of the worst. But not Tijuana Picnic. The Mexican food is good, the space is cool, and it’s generally a great time. Planning a group dinner for 10? Have it here.