The Best Restaurants On The Lower East Side
photo credit: Adam Friedlander
The Lower East Side is filled with fun bars, but it’s also one of the best neighborhoods to eat in if you’re looking for a wide range of restaurants. Want a classic pastrami sandwich on rye? Covered. An innovative tasting menu for a special night out? The best Neapolitan pies in all five boroughs? A warm bowl of ramen that will make you forget it’s snowing outside? All covered as well. Here are the LES spots you should know about.
Le French Diner feels like an underground dining club that you wish was a lot more exclusive (as long as you got to be one of the lucky members). This tiny bistro only seats about 20, mostly on black leather bar stools. The short, constantly changing menu has a lot of bistro classics like tender duck confit, garlicky escargots, and spicy grilled octopus, all of which are pretty close to perfect. If we had to cut this list down to five places, Le French Diner would still be on it.
This pizzeria on the Lower East Side is the sixth version of this restaurant, and we know exactly why this place won’t die. It has the best Neapolitan pies in NYC—and possibly the world. Una Pizza Napoletana only serves five pies (plus any daily specials), and at least one margherita pizza should always be on your table. But since all the pizzas have the same otherworldly crust, you really can’t go wrong. The owner never stops tinkering with the recipe for the crust, even though it’s hard to imagine the pizza here getting any better.
As a resident of NYC, you should have an answer for when someone asks you: “Where should I go for dumplings?” H Mart is a perfectly valid answer, but for a place that involves no cooking, send them to Shu Jiao Fu Zhou. The decor couldn’t be more basic, but that’s fine because the main reason you come here is for the relatively inexpensive food. A plate of 10 dumplings will run you $4.50, and you can add on some great peanut noodles for $3. Be sure to bring cash.
Yes, Dhamaka is technically located in a food hall, but it happens to be one of the best Indian restaurants in the city. This colorful Essex Market restaurant is from the team behind Semma and Adda, and meals here often consist of dishes associated with four or five different regions of India—some of which are virtually impossible to find elsewhere in the city. Try their lamb biryani and the gurda kapoora in a fragrant onion-tomato stew.
If you don’t have a reservation, getting a table at this Spanish and Portuguese restaurant is a pain in the butt. On any given night, you’ll be told to come back in an hour, or if it’s the weekend, you could put your name on the list, watch a movie, and your table still might not be ready. Don’t give up. Once you’re sitting with a martini and a plate of crunchy shrimp heads, you’ll be glad to be part of the scene. Your efforts will be rewarded with manila clams in vinho verde, a block party atmosphere, and all the vermouth you can handle.
Wildair is a Parisian-style wine bar with highly creative, shareable small plates and an extensive list of natural wines that will help you become a more interesting person. The casual space, filled with high tables, is ideal for a first date—and it’s relatively small, so we don’t suggest coming here with a big group. The rotating seafood-centric menu includes things like spicy grilled prawns and scallop crudo, and it always features a Wildair classic: the hashbrown-like pommes darphin topped with Santa Barbara uni.
We don’t really have to sell you on Katz’s. The classic Jewish deli has been around for over 130 years, and it’s one of the few touristy spots worth your time. Bring a friend, and get the matzo ball soup and a three-meat platter so you can sample the pastrami, brisket, and corned beef. Be sure to tip the person slicing your meat, and don't lose the ticket handed to you as you walk in. Even though the dining room is huge, you’ll still be competing for seats with plenty of people who have flown in just to try this place.
We make a note in our mental calendars (and sometimes our electronic ones) to not let too much time pass between visits to this Vietnamese spot to eat their bún chả and garlic noodles with fried prawns. Stop by for a casual meal, and if the weather’s nice, try and grab one of their sidewalk tables. Their bánh mì burger is one of our favorites, and you can also get interesting cocktails made with ingredients like lemongrass vermouth and sambal chili paste.
There are a few other Korean spots on the LES, but 8282 does anju and banju that operate in a different, more upscale lane. Yellowfin tuna tartar gets tossed in sesame oil, topped with uni and egg custard, and served alongside puffed nori chips, while the dakgalbi kimchi-bap is a full crock of cheesy rice and tender chicken thighs. Portion sizes run a bit small, so split plates between three people max. Or just order two of everything.
Dirt Candy was one of the first restaurants in NYC to treat vegetables as the focus of fine dining. Most tasting menu spots don’t easily accommodate vegan diners, but almost every dish here can be made with only plant-based ingredients. The seasonal dishes might include zucchini soup dumplings with squash blossoms, or eggplant with black sesame tahini, and you can enjoy them in an industrial-looking space with black plants painted on a white brick wall. The $95 tasting menu comes with five courses, and the price includes gratuity.
Ask any stranger on the Lower East Side what their favorite slice shop is, and they’ll probably say Scarr’s. (The odds increase dramatically if said stranger is wearing Aimé Leon Dore or New Balance 550s.) Home to some of the city’s best pizza, Scarr’s is now in its second location on Orchard Street, which has more seating than the original. There’s a good chance you’ll have to wait in line to place your order, but the thin-crust slices made with house-milled grains and zesty tomato sauce will always be worth it.
If you see a quick-moving line of people on the sidewalk around Orchard and Delancey, it’s probably for Okiboru, a noodle shop with a few other locations in Georgia. Only counter seating is available, so you’ll get to hear everything going on in your neighbor’s life as you eat one of the two types of ramen offered here. The tsukemen comes with udon-like cold noodles that you dip in a warm chicken and fish broth, and the ramen has a super rich, milky broth that will immediately conjure images of pork bones in your head.
This tiny omakase counter has only eight seats, so you have slightly better odds of booking just one instead of two. The 13-course meal is $85 per person (with an optional $55 beverage pairing), which is a pretty decent deal considering the fact that it contains some of our favorite individual pieces of fish at any price point. People tend to strike up a conversation across the counter here, so don’t be surprised if you leave with a new favorite sub-$100 omakase spot and a new friend.
There are about a million places in NYC to have a bowl of pasta at the bar, but there are a few reasons why you should skip most of them and head to Forsythia. The LES Italian spot has a great lineup of seasonal fresh pastas, some well-executed Roman classics like carbonara and cacio e pepe, and a perfect, low-lit atmosphere that works for dates or some solo carbs if you just want to read a book and occasionally bother the bartender.
If you’re looking for a place to meet up with a few friends who spend too much money at sample sales, head to Corner Bar in the opulent Nine Orchard hotel. Open all day, this spot from the Estela team offers a memorable breakfast and a top notch burger that’s only available at lunch. At dinner, straightforward and solid French and Italian bistro classics like caesar salad and steak au poivre make up the tight menu. Sure, you might pay $50 for a fancy plate of buttered noodles, but they’ll be some of the best buttered noodles you’ve ever had.
The original Russ & Daughters on Houston is an over-a-century-old institution that’s absolutely worth a visit for the smoked fish alone (not to mention smoked fish on chewy bagels). That location has one major flaw, though: There’s nowhere to sit. That’s where Russ & Daughters Cafe comes in. This full-service restaurant offers both seating and an extensive menu that adds things like eggs, platters, and cocktails to the usual bagel-and-nova situation. Note that this place isn’t open for dinner.
Gem Wine is a great middle ground between a restaurant and a bar, and it’s an ideal place for a date. The menu changes frequently, and it’s full of interesting small plates, as well as more substantial options like lamb tartare tossed in a creamy oyster emulsion. They only serve wine (mostly from low-intervention producers), but there’s no printed list, so you'll have to discuss what you're looking for with your server.
There’s not a ton of good, casual sushi on the LES . Along with Gouie, Douska fills that void with its straightforward handrolls. Stop by for a date at the sushi bar, and order a set of temaki with crab, scallop, toro, and more. If you’re looking for something slightly more extravagant, Douska has a few omakase options ($50 or $70) as well as some sushi and sashimi combinations that start at $29.
Wayla’s space outshines nearly every other restaurant in the neighborhood. The dark dining room connects to a beautiful back garden filled with plants, wicker furniture, and twinkling string lights. The next time the weather’s nice and you want to appear cool and in-the-know, make a reservation for the backyard, then bring a few friends for some shareable Thai dishes. The food—like the crispy fried chunks of branzino, slightly sweet noodles spilling out of a lobster’s head, and crunchy noodle-wrapped meatballs—will always make you feel just the right amount of deluxe.
Want to see some D-list celebrities eating bucatini? If so, come to Casino, where the floors are bright red, the lights are dim, and the crowd is always partially composed of people who’ve never been to Brooklyn and/or don’t know what a rent check is. The French/Italian food can be hit or miss, and it definitely isn’t cheap—but who cares? This is a fun, sceney place where you can down a few cosmos and meet your next short-term relationship.