The Best Meals For Around $20 On The Upper East Side
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
Some people think the Upper East Side is just where you go to drink a $20 cocktail at The Carlyle and/or bid on a painting by Ed Ruscha. And, while you can technically do both of those things there, the neighborhood also has a lot affordable options. For lunch or dinner that doesn’t cost too much, try one of the spots on this guide. It has a bunch of great restaurants where you can eat a full meal for around $20 per person. These places are all perfect for weeknights, affordable dates, and any time in your life when you’re trying to save money for your A/C bill or a new Ed Ruscha.
For more UES spots, check out The Best Restaurants On The Upper East Side.
Heidi’s House by the Side of the Road, or HHBTSOTR if you’re short on time, sounds like a trinket store you’d see when you pull off the highway for gas in rural Vermont. Don’t let the name throw you, though, because this a good spot to drop in for a drink and affordable meal on your way home from work. The dark, narrow space works best for either solo dining or a low-key date at the bar. Get the very thick burger on an English muffin or the crispy mac and cheese with bacon and jalapenos.
If the window display at Roy’s didn’t have a pink neon heart with the word “sushi” inside, it would look like just another old-school, neighborhood fishmonger. Follow the neon heart, pass the refrigerator of fish heads, salmon fillets, and crabs, and you’ll find yourself in Roy’s sushi bar corner. Since you’re purchasing sushi inside of a very small fish market, your seating options are limited to a small bench with no table. But it also means that the quality of the rolls, nigiri, and sashimi combos is noticeably impressive - especially considering the majority of the combo platters cost under $15.
Viand is part of a dying breed of dignified, sticky-tile-floored uptown diners. It’s where you should go in pursuit of omelettes with homefries, stacked turkey clubs, or pancakes served with bacon draped on top like a meaty weighted blanket. This is an especially great option if you’re near the bottom of Central Park and want neither a $50 breakfast nor a Starbucks yogurt parfait.
If you’re in the East 80s on a weeknight and you’d rather spend $13 on light, lime-y beef pho instead of groceries, go to Vietnaam. You’ll never have trouble getting a table, since the dining room is so large that the owners felt compelled to put up a line of decorative birch trees to create a divider in the middle. Bring your kids, your friend you like to talk sh*t with, or the only person who deserves your company on a cold Sunday night (you).
photo credit: Chris Stang
J.G. Melon has a whole menu of bar food, but you should be coming here for the cheeseburger. This place has served one of the best burgers in the city for decades, and you can pair the burger ($12.50) with some cottage fries ($6.50) and a beer ($7), and leave here feeling emotionally and physically full.
If you return to Sweetgreen again and again like a ghost who haunts a creaky mansion, it’s time you found a new place to eat grain bowls, salads, and platters with multiple vegetables. Teranga, an African counter-service spot near the northern end of Central Park, is one such place. We especially like the bowls with fonio (a light, nutty couscous) or kewele (spicy fried plantains), and the fact that you can easily turn a meal here into a picnic in the park. Just keep in mind they close at 7pm.
When you walk inside, PQR mostly just looks like a regular slice shop. But all of the slices here are Roman-style rectangles, and they use scissors to cut them up. There are also many different kinds, with toppings like pumpkin, sausage, and various cheeses. Once you get a few slices, you can either sit up front, or go to the little dining room in the back where you can sit and enjoy some crust that might be some of the best in the city.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
A unique dining experience on the UES usually involves at least $100 per person. Eating at Bangklyn East Harlem is a way around that though. This Thai counter-service spot doubles as a vintage clothing store, and the owner used to be a big deal in the Bangkok streetwear scene. So, when you take a casual date or a friend here, you can brag with confidence that Alexander Wang also ate at Bangklyn once - try to say that with as little pretention as possible.
We like Peng’s Noodle Folk because it has options. If you want to get ramen here, you can do that, but there are also a few different kinds of banmen (brothless noodles), as well as some really good dumplings. Plus there’s beer and sake (starting at $6), and none of the food here costs over $16.
Pio Pio serves some of our favorite roast chicken in the entire city. For $10, you get half a juicy rotisserie chicken and a side of slightly spicy Peruvian green sauce. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of literature here about someone named Mama Juanita - the person who the chicken is named after. Try her namesake bird, and you’ll understand why we often list her as our emergency contact.
If you live in the east 70s, Up Thai is your neighborhood Thai spot. Or at least it should be. The space feels sort of like an indoor garden from a Pier 1 catalogue (which is a compliment), and the food is better than it needs to be. You can get a whole fried snapper here, some crispy duck covered in tamarind sauce, or, if it’s a weeknight and you’re trying to spend less than $20, you can just get a plate of noodles and a Thai beer.
Our favorite pho on the Upper East Side currently exists at Pho Shop, and a bowl of it will cost you roughly $13. Add some summer rolls if you’re especially hungry, and you’ll still be around the $20 mark. They also make some bánh mìs here with a good ratio of bread to fillings, and the space is plain and casual with big windows and bottles of sriracha on every table.
There are a few La Esquinas around the city, and they all serve good tacos in spaces in that look like old-school diners. All of these spots, including this one on the Upper East Side, are counter-service, and they also have tortas, grilled corn, and great guacamole. So bring a friend if you need something quick and affordable, or come by yourself and eat a few tacos while you drink a margarita and stare out at the traffic on 2nd Avenue.
Mei-jin makes a solid bowl of ramen, but you can also get some chicken or pork tonkatsu over a rice and curry here. Both are fairly substantial options, and you probably won’t be able to eat much more than one of these things, so you can either save the rest of your money for things like health insurance and buying your friend a birthday present.
photo credit: Emily Schindler
San Matteo is a neighborhood Italian restaurant that specializes in pizzas, calzones, some items known as panuozzi. These are essentially very large sandwiches made with pizza dough instead of bread - and if you get one stuffed with prosciutto and arugula, it makes for a well-balanced meal. There are also pastas, if you prefer to eat with a fork, and there’s plenty of room inside.
Technically, East Harlem Bottling Co. is a bar - but it’s nicer than about 90% of other places where you can sit on a stool, eat some wings, and drink a beer. Think of it as a really comfortable pub where you could sit with a date who’s in at least one book club, and try it for dinner the next time you want a good fried chicken sandwich and a beer. Especially if it’s before 7pm on a weekday (that’s when they have Happy Hour deals).
Xi’an is one of the only NYC chain restaurants that has the ability to boost a neighborhood’s street cred. So you should absolutely take advantage of the location on 78th Street. We like to order the spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles whenever we want to remember what it’s like to feel something (they’re delicious, very spicy, and cost $10). You should do the same.