Just like the neighborhood itself—where Jewish tenements buddies up next to Hispanic pride, where Little Italy seamlessly melts into Chinatown—the culinary offerings available in the Lower East Side are a glorious mixed bag. The LES is home to one of the best New York delis, down-home fried-chicken joints, new-school Chinese restaurants and California-style health cafes. Take a bite out of the best Lower East Side restaurants.
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Best Lower East Side restaurants
The 45-seat restaurant is a sister to chef Jeremiah Stone and pastry chef Fabian von Hauske’s avant-garde tasting-menu den, Contra, two doors down. Contra already had an understated, almost mumblecore approach to set menus—five courses clocked in at $55 when the place opened; elevated to its current $67, it’s still a bargain—but Wildair is even more low-pressure, set with sardine-packed bar tables, a fuzzy midaughts soundtrack and neighborhood affability. (On a recent night, more than one diner recognized wine director Jorge Riera from his tenure at the nearby Ten Bells. Bear hugs ensued.) And though Wildair’s snacky, à la carte menu has less sharp-edged experimentation than Contra’s, there are low-key innovations at play here.
This cavernous cafeteria is a repository of New York history—glossies of celebs spanning the past century crowd the walls, and the classic Jewish deli offerings are nonpareil. Start with a crisp-skinned, all-beef hot dog for just $3.10. Then flag down a meat cutter and order a legendary sandwich. The brisket sings with horseradish, and the thick-cut pastrami stacked high between slices of rye is the stuff of dreams. Everything tastes better with a glass of the hoppy house lager; if you’re on the wagon, make it a Dr. Brown’s.
Start your day off with a little something old and a little something new at this sit-down spin-off of iconic century-old appetizing store Russ & Daughters. All the classics are accounted for but repackaged as composed plates: silky smoked fish is best highlighted in bagel-and-schmear boards, and chocolate-webbed babka loaves are sliced and griddled as French toast. A few roe-topped latkes, and you’ll have enough fuel for a whole day of LES exploring.
One of the best parts of Nicholas Morgenstern’s critics-darling parlor, aside from its far-flung flavors (banana-curry, salt-and-pepper–pine nut), is the late hours. Bustling until midnight on weekends, the scoop shop is a picture-perfect after-dinner retreat, with locals perched at spinning counter seats for behemoth banana splits.
The mosaic-walled backyard of Ivan Orkin’s noodle den is primed for a lingering group. Soak in the fading warm temperatures over small plates like double-dredged chicken hearts and the wonderfully messy maple-and-apple-topped Lancaster okonomiyaki, a scrapple-waffle bridge from breakfast to lunch.
Already one of New York's most beloved destinations for fried bird since opening in 2006, Sarah Sanneh's down-home den is spread its Brooklyn wings and landed in Manhattan. The second location of the lunch-counter–style joint mirrors its Williamsburg sibling (retro red barstools, a skylight) but also touts its new neighborhood, adding touches of Chinatown and the Lower East Side with dishes like herb-chicken dumpling soup and a sweet-and-savory sourdough glazed doughnut. Many of the shop's Southern-fried favorites will cross the East River, including crackly-skinned drumsticks, flaky sweet biscuits and a slew of sandwiches (catfish, chicken biscuit).
If there’s anyone you would want guiding you through the cumbersome world of vegetarian eating, funked with alfalfa sprouts, patchouli and meat shame, it’s plant-focused pioneer Amanda Cohen. Deferential but never soap-box didactic, clever but not overly precious, Cohen pulled herbivorious cooking out of the niche market with the original Dirt Candy, one of the most prominent champions of the genre, well before vegetable-forward was the gastro buzzword on every menu. Cohen bucks the hackneyed health-nut tenets of vegetarianism, shellacking her plants in butter and cream, and added a jolt of joy to an otherwise sober demographic.
Nicholas Morgenstern (Goat Town, the General Greene) serves dishes inspired by the California coast at this Lower East Side eatery, having transformed the former El Rey café-bar into a modern lunch counter. In the 15-seat space—featuring communal tables, globe lambs and a multiwood bar—find Vietnamese iced coffee on tap and pastries like plum-and-ginger Danishes and parsnip-and-cajeta toast for breakfast. Dinner dishes include duck-confit hand pies, winter falafel with minted cauliflower, and cashew grits with braised pork. For beverages, aguas frescas (like cucumber limeade with juniper seltzer) are made in-house, and beers such as Westbrook White Thai witbier and Evil Twin's Ryan and the Beaster Bunny saison are on draft.
Danny Bowien has gone normcore. Since shuttering his kaleidoscopic Szechuan clubhouse Mission Chinese Food in November 2013 due to Department of Buildings violations, the James Beard Award–winning wunderkind has become a father, sheared his trademark Fabio-blond locks and opened a Mexican offshoot, Mission Cantina, to middling reviews. That relative conservatism is at play at the relaunched Mission Chinese, trading in beer kegs, paper dragons and a cramped, dive-punk Orchard Street basement for smart cocktails, banquet-hall booths and an ample dining room in the far reaches of Chinatown, a lively hodgepodge of bespectacled food disciples and beanie-clad millennials spinning lazy Susans loaded with pork cheeks and turnip cakes while golden-age hip-hop pumps through the room.
The zip code’s hottest ticket is this Ludlow Hotel bistro blockbuster, from Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick. Among the ritzy brasserie items—zapped with Moroccan and New Orleans spices—are duck à l’orange dusted in North African ras el hanout and two sessions of côte de boeuf (market price), as a ribeye and a char-grilled skewer with a fat cap. Torrisi ventures are celeb bait—Beyoncé and Jay Z are Carbone regulars—so people-watch over cocktails at the adjacent Lobby Bar before grabbing dessert.
Looking for drinks on the Lower East Side?
Chazz Palminteri Ristorante Italiano
Over the past few years, New York City has indulged its obsession with ‘old-style’ Italian red-sauce joints trying hard to look like they sprung fully-formed out of central casting. Although it only opened October 2015, Chazz Palminteri Ristorante Italiano meets the mark effortlessly. The foyer of this 140-seat restaurant features photos of the big man with his celebrity friends, including Cher, Sharon Stone, Robert De Niro, and Billy Crystal. Tables are filled with businessmen tired of the steakhouse, bridge-and-tunnel families, and ‘wise guys’ enjoying dinner over a few laughs. The dark wood walls absorb the din, and low lighting tempers the conspiratorial mood. In addition to a full bar, they offer a very civilized collection of Classic Cocktails, several featuring Palminteri’s own BiVi Sicilian Vodka. A Classic Manhattan ($13.95), with Michter’s Straight Rye, Italian Sweet Vermouth and Angostura bitters, was mixed by an expert hand. They also offer a 250-bottle wine list, with an impressive roster of by-the-glass options. Palminteri takes pains to feature dishes from his native Sicily, especially seafood. An appetizer of Calamari Fritti ($12.95) showcased lightly-battered rings of squid with zesty marinara, and a special appetizer of creamy Burrata ($13.95) was a riff on the classic Insalata Caprese. A hearty selection of risotto and pasta dishes includes Linguini Nero (MP), lobster and mixed seafood over al dente black linguini. A Bronx Tail ($49.95) —a mammoth 16 oz
Venue says: “Upscale Italian eatery featuring classic Italian meat, seafood and pasta dishes, as well as antipasto and traditional Italian desserts.”