Get us in your inbox

Search
Union Square Farmer's Market
Photograph: ShutterstockPhotograph: Shutterstock

Union Square guide: The best of the neighborhood

Find the best things to do, restaurants, bars and parties around Manhattan's Union Square

Written by
David Goldberg
Advertising

Union Square is now a beloved spot for al fresco lunches, high-octane protests and farmers markets. But it took a long time to reach today's cheery, sunny status. Until 1831, the square was a graveyard for unidentified bodies, and didn't enjoy the fruits of its revamp to public park until the 1860s, when labor and union organizers started staging protests. Designed by the planners of Central and Prospect Parks Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, Union Square became a cosmopolitan hub by the 1870s.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of things to do in Manhattan

Today, it remains the city's essential gathering spot for activists and organizers, and a nexus point between the East Village, Flatiron and Gramercy neighborhoods. And the park is never without things to do. You can head to the Greenmarket on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (8am–6pm) year-round; visit the holiday market come wintertime; and enjoy free movies, boot camps and beyond with Citi Summer in the Square. 

To find out more about things to do, see, eat and drink in Manhattan, and discover other neighborhoods in the area, visit our Manhattan borough guide.

Restaurants near Union Square

Union Square Cafe
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • American
  • Gramercy
  • price 3 of 4

Reboots are RISKY business—for every The Force Awakens, there’s a The Phantom Menace. Remakers have the punishing task of satisfying two audiences simultaneously: the established fan base, those who experienced the original run, and the new demographic, the young’uns looking for fresh twists among the familiar beats. Luckily, the force is strong with the new incarnation of Union Square Cafe, the beloved flagship of the formidable Danny Meyer empire that stood on East 16th Street since 1985, long before a Shake Shack patty ever sizzled on a griddle top. A rent spike at the original location prompted a move three blocks north to a 10,000-square-foot two-story space that’s nearly double the size of the bygone room; where the old boasted cramped low ceilings and a head-scratching multilevel layout, the new is a light and lofty setting designed by architect David Rockwell. For all of his updates, Rockwell also seasoned the space with nostalgia, little Easter eggs for the devoted set: the cherrywood service stations, the dark-green wainscotting, the quirky and colorful paintings that line the walls. The service is as well trained and personable as ever—though, recent meals commenced with long, winding PR spiels that we hope will be edited down as months go by—and a warm, convivial spirit still dominates the dining room. (Don’t be surprised if strangers stop to inquire about your bowl of tortelloni in brodo on their way to the restroom.) But the most crucial holdover is in the kit

  • Restaurants
  • Pizza
  • Greenwich Village
  • price 2 of 4

This 90-seat Greenwich Village pizzeria, co-owned by Rosario Procino and chef Pasquale Cozzolino, specializes in traditional Neapolitan pies and composed Italian dishes, like spaghettoni al Pomodoro and zucchine scapece. 

Advertising
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Restaurants
  • Italian
  • Union Square
  • price 2 of 4

For those New Yorkers who don’t flee to the Hamptons or the Hudson Valley at the first sign of warm weather, the annual hunt begins here in the sweaty, sticky city to find alfresco environs in which to eat, drink and embellish upon a daydream of being far, far away. Tucked behind the bustle of the Greenmarket, Union Square’s Pavilion now houses New York’s latest seasonal hideout: Bocce USQ. The mini limestone coliseum has a climate all its own, even foreign to someone (read: me) who frequents the area. The chirping of birds echoed through the space as light snuck past the cracks in the mint-colored blinds onto our marble table. Bocce balls clinked together on the outside court as guests clinked their spritz cocktails at the bar. “Where the fuck are we?” exclaimed my dining companion in wonderment. Under the lead of Roberta’s-trained chef Tim Meyers, Bocce concentrates on pizza and other summery Italian fare, all reliant on produce straight from the adjacent farmers’ market. A snap-pea Caesar salad’s grassy crunch balanced the creamy, Parmigiano-rich dressing. Sliced cucumbers dressed in white balsamic offered a sweet tang and a fiery-yet-pleasant horseradish tingle in the back of the throat. Even the typically heavy bowl of fresh pasta was lightened with delicate pappardelle tossed in a garlicky pesto with earthy pistachios. Before we even made a dent in our starters, two beautifully blistered pies arrived, overwhelming the table (and us) with a few too many plates. The pe

15 East
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Union Square
  • price 3 of 4

New York is the city of self-invention. This is no more apparent than in today’s restaurant scene. March became Nish, Onera transformed into Kefi, and now two downtown gems, the old Tocqueville and Sumile, are the raw-fish hideaways 15 East and Sumile Sushi, respectively. The talented Josh DeChellis, who in 2003 started the innovative Japanese-French hybrid Sumile, helms the latter; Tocqueville co-owner Marco Moreira has returned to his aquatic roots—he was trained as a sushi chef—in that restaurant’s former space, where he’s assisted by Jewel Bako veteran Masato Shimizu. Architect Richard Bloch (Masa) muted the colors and created a distinct sushi bar and dining room at 15 East, turning what felt like a country inn into a solemn temple of Japanese cuisine. Meals here are also deadly serious: The service is slow and martially precise—water glasses were filled and edamame shells discarded with eerie regularity. The multi-page sake list is decent, and the sushi is very expensive: ten pieces of nigiri for $55; à la carte still more punitive. Fortunately, it’s worth the steep prices. The fish was consistently luscious: The scallop was as smooth as chocolate mousse, and almost as sweet. If arctic char always tasted as buttery as it does at 15 East, it would no longer be the ugly duckling of the salmon family. I also tried several grades of tuna—for the aficionados, there’s a $75 sampler with six different cuts—including an otoro on par with the city’s best. I was less impressed

Advertising
TsuruTonTan
  • Restaurants
  • Japanese
  • Union Square
  • price 2 of 4

A noodle’s only as good as its slurp, a notion Japanese udon chain TsuruTonTan stands by. Its name breaks down the sloppy audio of the noodle experience: tsuro means “the sound of slurping noodles,” ton is the “sound of kneading and shaping udon,” and tan is “the sound of cutting the strands.” The chain’s first international location, set in Union Square, features 36 rotating udon options, including creamy mentaiko made with cod caviar, a curry udon and a kitsune with deep-fried tofu. The 128-seat space’s minimal design is punctuated by three artful walls: One is made of stucco bowls, another of wooden rolling pins and one of a custom fabric collage that mimics udon.

Tocqueville
  • Restaurants
  • French
  • Union Square
  • price 4 of 4

Part of the charm of the original Tocqueville, which opened in 2000, was its understatement. The 40-seat room didn’t attempt to be much more than a nice neighborhood spot, and this made the smart, fresh French-American fare all the more enjoyable. After a six-month renovation, Tocqueville recently reopened a few doors west of where it used to be, and in the process it’s turned the original proposition upside down: It is now a large, gorgeous room with a menu that doesn’t live up to the setting. The upgrade hits you upon entry, when guests with valuables (furs, laptops) are each presented a key to their own private locker. Tocqueville now comprises three sections: a modern 20-seat bar area; a balcony for private dining; and a grand, 17-foot-high dining room with a metallic bent, featuring silver mohair upholstery, a nickel chandelier and gold floor-to-ceiling silk curtains—through which servers come and go as if in some nifty magic act. The wizards behind those curtains are still Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky, the couple that parlayed a catering company into Tocqueville. He heads the kitchen and she works the front of house. Chef de cuisine George Mendes remains as well. Three or four of Tocqueville’s top dishes survived the migration too, such as the sea urchin and angel hair carbonara. But while the formality of the room and the prices (average entrée: $32) scale new heights, many of the new dishes fall short. For instance, when Moreira drops a soft-cooked Araucana chi

Bars near Union Square

  • Bars
  • Cocktail bars
  • Gramercy
  • price 2 of 4

Step back into spooky 18th-century New England with this gastropub, which evokes a Colonial tavern via flaming lanterns, exposed wood beams and comfort grub. Dishes encourage eating with your hands: Fried chicken breast is drizzled with honey and baby back ribs are glazed with an apple-cinnamon sauce. Twenty-five taps dispense heavy brews like Keegan's Mother's Milk and Sixpoint Diesel Stout. For a stiffer drink, sample twists on classic cocktails, such as a Corpse Reviver, made with Four Roses bourbon instead of the traditional gin, and a Manhattan accented with Italian amari Averna and Fernet.

  • Restaurants
  • Gastropubs
  • Flatiron
  • price 1 of 4

Amid the swank food sanctums sprouting around Park Avenue South, this classic tavern remains a shrine to unchanging values. Most old-time Old-Towners go for the much-praised burger, which we found in need of a little salt. For lightweights, there’s a smattering of salads and other sandwiches. Some things, however, do change. Bloomberg’s antismoking legislation has made the once befogged booths and long mahogany bar strangely haze-free.

Advertising
  • Restaurants
  • Korean
  • Midtown West
  • price 2 of 4

A sister outpost of Midtown’s Barn Joo Korean gastropub, Barn Joo 35 gives the peninsula’s bold flavors a shareable spin in a cozy wood-clad setting. Korean fusion dishes are served tapas-style on a menu that ranges from kimchi pancakes and spicy pork belly tacos to sizzling stone bowls of bulgogi.

  • Bars
  • Wine bars
  • Gramercy
  • price 2 of 4

This tiny wine bar from Mario Batali and chef Andrew Nusser sits adjacent to Casa Mono, their Spanish eatery. Find a space along one of the communal tables before selecting from the impressive Spanish wine list and tapas menu. Supplement a dish of peppery tuna nuggets with a vivacious “gazpacho salad”—starring a blanched hollowed red onion filled with cucumber, tomato, sea beans and olive oil croutons—with hand-carved Iberian ham and aged Manchego cheese.

Advertising
Pete’s Tavern
  • Bars
  • Pubs
  • Gramercy
  • price 1 of 4

According to history buffs, in 1904, O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” in what was then a quiet Gramercy pub. Today it’s three deep at the bar, and O. Henry would have a hard time parking it anywhere. Though Pete’s—a Civil War–era survivor—draws its share of tourists, you’ll also rub shoulders with neighborhood types who slide into the wooden booths to snack on affordable Italian eats with standard suds (16 beers on tap include a hoppy house ale) bubbling in frosty mugs.

Shops near Union Square

  • Shopping
  • East Village
  • price 1 of 4

Not far from Union Square, this independent-owned bookstore is truly a bibliophile’s happy place. With more than 2.5 million books–used, new and rare–stacking up the Strand’s four floors, the selections are purely mind-blowing. From architecture to travel guides, browsing for the right book will be just as fun as buying it. Strand also has some cool totes, calendars and NYC souvenirs, along with audiobooks, CDs and DVDs.

  • Shopping
  • Bookstores
  • East Village
  • price 1 of 4

If you're looking for a shop with an alternative feel that still delivers a vast selection, than the NY-branch of this UK cult megastore is sure to make you happy. While you browse new comics, ranging from big-ticket publishers like Marvel and D.C. you may find yourself picking up manga DVDs and books, anime and sci-fi toys and action figures, offbeat horror and imported magazines like Gothic Beauty, role-playing games and quirky character T-shirts. And there’s no need to feel intimidated. If you’ve never heard of Neil Gaiman, the helpful staff is more than happy to give you a crash course. Be sure to check the store’s Twitter feed (@fpnyc) for updates on when artists and writers will be stopping by.  

Advertising
  • Shopping
  • Shoes
  • East Village
  • price 4 of 4

Sneaker fiends flock to this footwear utopia to buy and sell every type of kicks imaginable, all on consignment (with 80 percent of the profit going to the seller and 20 percent to the store). Around 10,000 pairs of never-worn, plastic-wrapped shoes are stacked in 15 rows that run the entire length of the mammoth store. Though the inventory changes daily, it is so abundant that even vintage styles usually come in multiple sizes (including some for women, though it’s very hit or miss). All of the typical brands are represented: Converse, Vans, Adidas, Puma, New Balance, Reebok and, of course, Nike, which dominates about two thirds of the wall. Surveying the selection is almost dizzying but well worth it if you’re in the market for a pair of tweed Nike Dunk High Premiums with suede accents ($145), plaid wool Converse high-tops ($75) or classic Vans slip-ons with a beer-drinking, bandana-clad Homer Simpson hand-painted on the toe ($200). True ballers head to the back of the store, where several dozen extra-exclusive pairs are protected by glass panels—presumably to catch the drool. A pair of limited-edition, black-and-pink Air Yeezy sneakers—Nike x Kanye West’s collaboration shoe—fetches a whopping $1,500. An equally stunning array of nonconsignment hats occupies the opposing wall. Most bear the familiar logos of pro basketball, baseball and hockey teams, with a few exceptions, like a fitted New Era Muhammad Ali–themed hat with “I Am the Greatest” embroidered in block letters on

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising