The Lower East Side, today one of the best dining destinations in New York City, knows a thing or two about change. In the middle of the 19th century, so many German immigrants planted themselves on the Lower East Side that the area became known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
Around the turn of the century, Central and Eastern European Jews began turning up, many fleeing pogroms in Europe, and the neighborhood changed. Later on in the century, people from other parts of the world would gravitate to the Lower East Side: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and Irish, among others.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the neighborhood would fall into disrepair and become a hotbed of anarchism and punk culture. But then in the early 2000s, the gentrification that had taken over the East Village would spread southward to the Lower East Side, making it what one sees today: a historic and attractive neighborhood whose streets are crammed with great restaurants.
If you want a great deli sandwich or an exceptional taco or a fine bowl of pho or a splurge-worthy spot to celebrate a life event, the Lower East Side has you covered. Here are the best Lower East Side restaurants for whatever it is you’re craving.
Is it Spanish? Is it Portuguese? After a procession of delicious dishes at this Lower East Side eatery, you might instead be asking: how is this so good? Cervo’s could be called “Iberian,” since it forages recipes from both countries on the Iberian peninsula, sticking mostly to seafood.
Everything that comes out of the kitchen is usually a winner—including the seafood that comes from tins. The small food menu gives way to a long wine list with a lot of great natural wine selections.
Clinton St. Baking Company
Anchored on the corner of Clinton and E. Houston Streets, this homey restaurant would not be out of place in a small town in the Midwest or the South. The food here is consistently good—far above that of a general diner, of which Clinton St. Baking Company mimics (or pays homage to).
They do hearty breakfast dishes all day long, including fried chicken and waffles and variations on the theme of egg. But the main reason this place is perpetually packed is for the blueberry pancakes, which many pancake aficionados say are the best in town.
Opened in 2013, this Michelin-starred restaurant has been consistently good since day one. Contra is sort of a neo-bistro in the Gallic manner, doing riffs on classic French-accented fare but serving up taste-exploding minimalist-esque dishes in a handsome and similarly minimalist space.
The menu changes almost daily but expect things like Wagyu beef crudo, super tender blood sausage, and smoked eel on a bed of mashed potatoes. The more casual sister wine bar, Wildair, is right next door.
From the same people who brought you lauded Indian eateries Ada and Semma comes perhaps the most celebrated of all for the Unapologetic Indian restaurant group, Dhamaka. Located on the ground floor of the Essex Street Market, Dhamaka takes the formula of its two sibling restaurants: serve up well-executed Indian dishes that have rarely made the jump across India’s borders to the rest of the world.
That’s right: you’re not going to find butter chicken or chicken tikka masala on this menu. Instead, you might get a way-better-than-it-sounds goat kidney and testicle dish or fall-off-the-bone fennel-inflected lamb ribs or even turmeric-laced baby shark.
Of course, there are less adventurous dishes too. Whatever the case, Dhamaka is one of the most exciting eateries on the Lower East Side.
There are a small handful of restaurants in New York inspired by Spain’s Basque Country. Ernesto’s is arguably the best of the bunch. Named after “Don Ernersto” Hemingway, this popular spot isn’t a theme restaurant by any means. The kitchen takes its Basque cooking techniques seriously, with or without the famous Spain-loving American scribe.
The menu changes with some frequency but expect things like an uni-topped runny tortilla española, stew-y Madrid-style tripe, and grilled duck breast doused with a rich foie gras sauce. There’s also a long, well-curated wine list of bottles from the Basque Country, La Rioja, and France, including some nice natural options.
If there’s a restaurant that dining historians could point to that played an instrumental role in kickstarting the hipster dining revolution—along with Momofuku Noodle Bar and the erstwhile Spotted Pig—it’s this eclectic eatery. First opened in 2004 (along with the other two restaurants mentioned here), Freemans intrigued diners immediately thanks to the fact that it sits at the end of a once-little-known alley.
Once inside, diners were similarly intrigued by the interior bedecked with taxidermy and random antiques. As it did from day one, the menu still feels like it was filched from a hunting-lodge eatery somewhere deep in the woods. Whole grilled trout, pan-seared duck, and a thick roasted pork chop are menu standouts.
Meet Ivan Orkin. He’s a nice Jewish guy from New York who set sail for Tokyo to master the art and craft of making ramen. He learned it so well there that he became a celebrity chef in Japan, having garnered the nickname “Ivan Ramen.”
Now Mr. Ramen has his noodle flag firmly planted on Clinton Street, where he’s stirring up various outstanding bowls of ramen, including bowls that have triple the pork and garlic or seafood or a spicy red chili variety or several favorite Tokyo-style concoctions.
Arguably New York City’s most famous restaurant, Katz’s has been smoking meat until it’s utterly delicious since 1888—a relic from the time that the Lower East Side was where various Central and Eastern European immigrants re-planted their roots. The immigrants are long gone, having become American and moved to the great beyond at some point, but Katz’s still remains.
Many people will remember “When Harry Met Sally”’s famous fake orgasm scene with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, in which a woman at the table next to the fake-climaxing Meg Ryan quips, “I’ll have what she’s having.” Well, you can’t go wrong here, as all the smoked meat might give your palate some sweet release of the eating variety. First-timers, though, should lunge for the juice pastrami. If all else fails, just have what she’s having.
Pig and Khao
Filipino-and-Thai leaning Pig & Khao is the baby of talented chef Leah Cohen. The lively restaurant is fun to go with a few or more friends so as to sample much of the menu. The cubes of pork head with a fried egg on top arrives at the table sizzling in a cast-iron skillet. If you don’t order it, you will after seeing the people at the next table enjoying it so much.
Same with the curry-bomb khao soi, a staple of northern Thailand. The tender Hainan duck and rice is reminiscent of the famed chicken rice in Singapore and this version could start a fowl rivalry. The crispy pork belly adobo is garlicky and comes with a slow-poached egg.
Popular is a Peruvian restaurant located on the ground floor of the Public Hotel. New Yorkers aren’t wildly keen at eating in hotel restaurants, but as one of the best Lower East Side restaurants, Popular is an argument that Big Apple diners need to open their minds a bit more.
Helmed by chef Diego Muñoz, who worked in the kitchen of super-acclaimed Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Peru, Popular serves up high-quality Peruvian staples to maximum enjoyment. There are five different superlative ceviches to choose from, wood-fired scallops in chili-butter, and a fork-tender roasted duck leg.
This popular Vietnamese restaurant opened up at the beginning of the pandemic, serving food to go or to eat at sidewalk tables. And even with that, it garnered a regular enthusiastic following. It’s now fully operational with tables outdoors and indoors, and one of the best Lower East Side restaurants.
The kitchen makes pho—naturally—but the best bets here fall into the not-exactly-a-classic-Vietnamese-dish category: the stir-fried garlic noodles, the near legendary fried chicken sandwich, and the pho burger—an item with all the taste trappings of a bowl of pho but in delicious hamburger form.
Looking very much like a typical New York slice joint, Scarr’s is that but so much more. For example, you can cozy up to the pizza counter and order a slice and munch on it while strolling through this particularly ambient swath of the Lower East Side. Or you can walk a few steps to the back of the place where there’s a cool wrap-around bar in which to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine.
In addition to being one of the best Lower East Side restaurants, Scarr’s was also an early purveyor of the cupping pepperoni variety of pizza. Think extra-flavorful, thick dime-sized slices of pepperoni that end up looking like small cups or bowls by the time the pie comes out the oven.
David Farley is a West Village-based food and travel writer whose work appears regularly in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC, and Food & Wine, among other publications. He’s the author of three books, including “An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town,” which was made into a documentary by the National Geographic Channel. You can find Farley’s online homes here and here.