Restaurants

Where to Eat on the Upper East Side

 

ny.eater.com – Robert Sietsema

ver the last decade, we’ve been hearing persistent rumors of real estate refugees fleeing places like the East Village, Williamsburg, Park Slope, and even Bushwick for the Upper East Side, where the rents have lagged behind those in flashier neighborhoods. It’s also one of the few parts of town where new condo construction has been stymied somewhat, and you can still get a feel for New York the way it used to be, with its broad avenues, ancient architecture, and strange specialty shops selling things like buttons, typewriters, and French movie posters. This is especially true of its restaurants: On the Upper East Side success often confers permanence.

Here are some of our favorite eating establishments in that sprawling neighborhood, which runs from 59th Street up to 100th Street, and between Central Park and the East River. Don’t expect many of these places to be new and faddish. On the other hand, if you pick up this guide in 10 years, nearly all are likely to still be open. Prices are designated cheap (C), moderate (M), and expensive (E) — though expensive here tends to mean $50 or $60 per person, rather than $100 or $150, as it is now, somewhat ironically, in parts of Brooklyn. The restaurants are listed geographically from south to north.

La Veau d’Or — Opened in 1937 when this was at least partly still a Huguenot neighborhood, La Veau d’Or is the city’s oldest French restaurant. Sit in its chill dining room surrounded by art that evokes Paris, and chow down on tripe a la mode de Caen (cooked in Calvados), navarin d’agneau (a lamb stew), and, for dessert, an almond-strewn ile flottante in crème Anglais. The three-course prix fixe menu makes things cheaper than you might imagine. [E] 129 E 60th St, New York 10022, (212) 838-8133

Wajima Japanese — This traditional Japanese restaurant just north of Bloomingdale’s slings some of the best and least expensive sushi and sashimi on the Upper East Side. Such antediluvian kitchen specialties as sukiyaki (remember that?) and uosuki (Japanese bouillabaisse) are ably turned out, but don’t expect ramen: this sort of place only serves udon and soba, of which the tempura soba is particularly good. [M] 134 E 61st St, New York, NY 10065, (212) 813-9065

Il Vagabondo — Ever eaten in a restaurant with a working bocce court? Obscurely located near the approach to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, Il Vagabondo specializes in an elegant take on red-sauced Italian fare in a trio of well-appointed dining rooms. Start your meal with a plate of the air-dried beef called bresaola or a Caesar salad; proceed to a shared order of spaghetti, meatballs, and meat sauce; and finish up with one of the veal or chicken secondi. Then play a game of bocce. [E] 351 E 62nd St, New York, NY 10021, (212) 832-9221

Casablanca Grill — Name checking Morocco’s commercial hub, or perhaps the misleading movie of the same name, Casablanca Grill doesn’t provide tajines or couscouses, but rather a North African version of Middle Eastern specialties like chicken shawarma and lamb kefta kebab. Get them in a pita sandwich or on a platter with rice pilaf; or instead order the composed salads matched with hummus and baba ganoush. Casablanca Grill slings one of the city’s best falafel sandwiches, loaded down with Moroccan pickles for extra deliciousness. [C] 1132 1st Ave, New York 10065, (212) 355-3535

J.G. Melon — You’d expect the Upper East to have a formidable collection of Irish bars, and this one, founded in 1972, is the best — or at least the one with the best hamburgers, which are known citywide. Eater’s own Nick Solares calls it “a classic burger that has stood the test of time.” The premises are comfortable, if a bit cramped, with blue checked tablecloths, mullioned windows, and art with a melon theme. [C] 1291 3rd Ave, (212) 744-0585

Jones Wood Foundry — JWF was early out of the gastropub gate, and it was one of the first to have a semblance of an English pub menu, even before the Breslin appeared. It’s named after a forest that stood on this spot in the mid-19th century, and the “foundry” part is what the building was originally. On the menu find steak-and-kidney pie, fish and chips, bangers and mash, a great burger with a little Union Jack sticking out of it, and a further menu of short dishes the chef is pleased to call “English tapas.” [M] 401 E 76th St, (212) 249-2700

Lady M Boutique — One might expect to find an elegant French bakery and teahouse on the Upper East Side, and here it is. Just off Central Park, the place is furnished with small tables and has waiter service, but your attention will first be drawn to a long glass case displaying pastries of surpassing richness, including one of the city’s best cheesecakes, as well as fruit tarts and gateaux, monts blanc, green tea mousse cakes, apple galettes, and, of course, perfect éclairs. [M] 41 East 78th St, New York, NY 10075, (212) 452-2222

Pastrami Queen — Years ago it was located in Forest Hills and called Pastrami King, but it underwent a gender change and now stands right on Lexington Avenue, turning out some of the best pastrami on rye sandwiches in town, offered with grainy mustard and Russian dressing. The corned beef is good, too, which is why it pays to have both put on your sandwich. The dining room is utilitarian, but comfy. [M] 1125 Lexington Ave, (212) 734-1500

Serafina — The thin-crusted wood burning beauties fly from the oven at this bi-level Italian bistro and pizzeria, and so do roasted artichokes, Cornish hens, and the crostini di Sofia, heaped with mozzarella, tomatoes, and prosciutto given a slight smoky spin. We’ve been recommending this place for years as a follow-up or prelude to a Metropolitan Museum visit. Sit in the upstairs, where picture windows overlook the neighborhood. Sidewalk seating also available. [E] 1022 Madison Ave, 212-734-2676

Burger One NY — Keeping its original propensity for burgers, toasted cheese, and egg and pancake breakfasts, this antique lunch counter has added Mexican food to its menu, with excellent results. For the neighborhood, the tacos (chicken, steak, chorizo, and carnitas) are totally top notch, and so are the tortas and burritos, but why not go multi-culti with a special of tacos and french fries (put the french fries in the taco) or a fiery Mexican omelet with plenty of jalapenos? [C] 1150 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10075, (212) 737-0095

Cascabel Taqueria — This is one of a few Mexican restaurants in town at least partly inspired by the Mexican cooking of Chicago’s Rick Bayless, and stands in stark contrast to the Pueblan- and Mexico City-style taquerias that dot the landscape (see El Aguila, below). The colorful furniture is straight out of the 50s, and your taco choices run to tongue, shrimp, chicken chipotle, vegetarian (made with oyster mushrooms), and chorizo. The place has a full and diverse Mexican menu, serves strong margaritas, and don’t forget the warm churros with chile chocolate sauce for dessert. [M] 1556 2nd Ave, (212) 717-8226

Neofytos — What could be cuter than this Greek combination grocery store and deli, which concentrates on overstuffed European baguette sandwiches sold to neighborhood folks with big appetites? But wait a minute! In the back is concealed one of the neighborhood’s greatest pizza parlors, turning out a limited number of pies with a nice thin crust, plenty of cheese, and — only if you crave it — pepperoni. [C] 1118 Madison Ave, (212) 717-2722

El Aguila Taqueria — El Aguila (“The Eagle”) is one of the UES’s greatest pit stops for snacks or a quick meal. The selection of taco meats would do one of the city’s Mexican neighborhoods proud, not stinting on things like al pastor, carnitas, and barbacoa, but also offering cross-cultural ham-and-cheese tacos. Not just on weekends, three kinds of tamales are also available, along with tostadas, nachos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas. A handful of tables provide comfortable seating, and dig the range of salsas and chiles in the fixin’s bar. [C] 1215 Lexington Ave, New York 10028, (212) 988-8884

Andre’s Bakery (aka Budapest Café) — Let’s forget for a minute this place is also a bakery, with the best poppy strudel in New York City. The cafe menu, however, is purely Hungarian and Austrian and commonplace as hell, offering cabbage stuffed with ground meat, veal wiener schnitzel, solent (gentile cholent), stuffed peppers, and chicken paprikash, all accompanied by mountains of potatoes. Perhaps most interesting is turoscusza tepertovel, a flavorsome heap of egg noodles, bacon, and sour cream. For dessert: chestnut pudding, or one of those strudels. [M] 1631 2nd Ave, (212) 327-1105

Schaller Stube — A new concession planted in the chest of 1937 German meat market Schaller & Weber like a pacemaker, Schaller’s Stube serves up the store’s delightful sausages on minimalist buns with sauerkraut and grainy mustard, or in several other configurations that you can enjoy in the small dining room in back if the weather’s too cold or rainy to eat them right on the sidewalk, recalling the days when this neighborhood, then known as Yorkville, was principally German. [C] 1654 2nd Ave, (212) 879-3047

Ithaka — The Upper East Side has become a sort of safe haven for restaurants, where they can relocate and last a lot longer than they would have in their own neighborhoods. A case in point is Ithaka, once located just off Sheridan Square in the West Village. Driven out by high rents, now it thrives in Yorkville, still named after Ulysses’ home island and still turning out perfect grilled octopus, loukaniko sausages, and whole fish, and the bread dips that constitute the most appealing apps. [M] 308 E 86th St, (212) 628-9100

Papaya King — The oldest and most venerable of Manhattan’s hot dog stands was founded early in the 30s right on this corner. The dining space is unspeakably narrow, necessitating a characteristic dance as patrons try to squirm around each other. Franks share the bill with grainy fruit beverages, said to have medicinal properties. Wild new wiener configurations are the order of the day, such as the bulls eye, featuring onion rings, BBQ sauce, and liquid “cheese.” [C] 179 E 86th St, (212) 369-0648

Pio Pio — This place was the first to bring Peruvian spice-rubbed chickens to Manhattan, and still sells some of the best. An unexpected asset is a dining room much more dark and elegant than most Peruivan chicken joints, and a menu that includes ceviches, fried seafood (pick the omnibus, belt-busting jalea), and South American style Chinese food. And don’t miss the $9.50 lunch special (weekdays only). [M] 1746 First Ave, 212-426-5800

Kaia Wine Bar — One of the city’s few South African restaurants, Kaia also functions as a wine bar, a great place for a glass of wine and a quick bite before a movie, say, or after an early evening walk in Central Park. But the menu is way more ambitious than most wine bars, featuring such South African classics a bunny chow (vegetable curry in a hollowed-out loaf of bread), biltong (Boer jerky), and Durban-style Indian samosas. Plenty of seating at the bar, raised cocktail tables, and conventional tables. [M] 1614 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10128, (212) 722-0490

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