Once considered a dining desert, the Upper East Side has flourished in recent years with fine restaurants of every stripe to go along with the neighborhood’s world-class museum scene.
There is Michelin-starred dining for those with expense accounts or a reason to splurge, and there are no-frills spots where you can chow down for pocket change. And everything in between.
Here are the 12 best Upper East Side restaurants.
The name of this restaurant doesn’t necessarily refer to being a free spirit, but instead is an allusion to the western half of the Czech Republic—Bohemia.
Housed on the ground floor of a Czech cultural center, this mitteleuropa spot will bring your taste buds back to the last time you were in Prague with rich goulash (and bread dumplings to soak up the sauce), artery-clogging fried cheese, and svíčková, a plate of braised beef drowned in a sauce made of cream and cranberries. (It also happens to be the national dish of the Czech Republic.)
Best of all, you can drink excellent Pilsner Urquell on tap and finish off the meal with a dose of Becherovka, a lovely Czech-made digestif that some believe to have curative qualities.
Going from Prague to Vienna, Cafe Sabarsky looks like some divine spirit picked up a Secession-era coffee house in the Austrian capital and dropped it on the Upper East Side.
Housed in the excellent Neue Galerie, Sabarsky has all the trappings of a classic Viennese coffee house: newspapers on wooden racks dangling from hooks on the wall, art deco furnishings, furniture by Adolf Loos, and lots of excellent Central European dishes, made by Michelin-starred chef Kurt Gutenbrunner. The roast bratwurst here is good; the schnitzel is even better.
In the last few years, birria has become all the rage for Mexican food aficionados (and the people who love them) in New York and other big cities in the United States.
Birria is a slow-roasted stew (traditionally from the Mexican state of Jalisco) made often with goat (but sometimes beef) along with garlic, chilies, cumin and thyme. It is often served with a consommé that you can either dip your taco in or just drink straight. Or both.
And this taco truck, always parked on E. 86th St. and Third Ave. from noon to 9 p.m., produces some of the best birria tacos in la Gran Manzana.
Lyon native Daniel Boulud’s two-Michelin-starred flagship eatery. In the post-pandemic world, super-fine dining isn’t really on many people’s crave list, but everyone should eat at Daniel at least once in their lives. It’s not cheap, but the experience will likely stick with you for the rest of your life.
It’s prix-fixe meals only, with optional wine pairings. The seasonal menu is always loaded with Gallic-accented deliciousness. Expect a lot of seared foie gras, and things like duck and scallops wading in bold reductions and emulsions. And expect to be treated like visiting royalty.
Donohue’s Steak House
This stubborn steak house is like walking into the 1950s. It has hardly changed since they first fired up their burners in 1950. Donohue’s (845 Lexington Ave.) doesn’t even have a website. The internet? What’s that? Donohue’s is a real treasure that somehow isn’t on the radar of the local food media, and one of the best Upper East Side restaurants.
The steaks and the burgers here are seriously underrated and one of the best experiences is to perch yourself at the bar, martini in one hand, fork in the other, and tuck into a juicy sirloin. This is old New York at its best.
Earl’s Beer & Cheese
A hipster enclave on the way Upper East Side, Earl’s (1259 Park Ave.) is exactly as the name suggests: they have beer, and they have cheese. But it’s oh-so-good beer and cheese.
Sandwiches stuffed with pork belly, a fried egg, kimchi, and of course, cheddar cheese is the stuff of your hipster dreams. There’s also house-lager-infused beer cheese spread, grilled cheese sandwiches, and pork-shoulder-laced tacos (with queso fresco) to go with several canned beers and beer on tap at this diminutive spot.
Usually a fixture on most “best burgers” lists for New York, J.G. Melon has been flipping above-average burgers here since 1972. Fans of the 1979 film “Kramer vs. Kramer” might remember a scene with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep that was set here, making it one of the most recognizable Upper East Side restaurants.
The pressed tin ceiling and the kitschy pervasive watermelon decor somehow make for an ideal venue for noshing on a juicy burger and washing it down with a beer on tap. There is also a long menu of other edible offerings—such as omelets, a grilled chicken sandwich, broiled fish, a roasted Cornish hen—but everyone comes here for the cheeseburger. Bring cash because they don’t take cards.
Kaia Wine Bar
You don’t have to love South African wine to dig this wine bar/restaurant. In fact, you don’t even have to even know anything about South African wine. But you should definitely try it. And Kaia is the place, offering over 50 reds, whites, and roses from South Africa in a cozy, welcoming atmosphere.
The food happens to be good too. The menu has an adventurous—or deliciously adventurous—slant to it with wild boar sliders, elk carpaccio, and a delicious lamb burger at the city’s only South African wine bar.
NR is brought to you by the folks who started and run the astoundingly good ROKC in Harlem. And NR is no less amazing. The 120-seat space in a former seamstress factory has a speakeasy vibe to it.
But have no fear: you need not know the secret password to get in. You just have to have a love of inventive cocktails and inspired Japanese fare.
Ramen is the spotlight of the menu here, but the smaller plates are worth exploring too, including the ultra-tender pork bun that could rival David Chang’s at Momofuku. Regulars might come for the food, but they stay for the cocktails, many of which use unorthodox ingredients and/or are set in curious drinking vessels (one cocktail comes lodged in a fake human skull).
Part of the gastropub movement that hit the city a decade or so ago, The Penrose is a casual (and sometimes raucous) bar and restaurant from the people who opened Wilfie & Nell in the West Village. And like its sister restaurant, The Penrose’s menu is filled with plenty of loveable, edible charmers: fried pickles, mac ‘n’ cheese (made with three different cheeses), garlicky sticky pork ribs, and a fried chicken sandwich.
The name of this diminutive pizza spot is a play on the Roman acronym SPQR that one sees etched everywhere in the Italian capital. Here it means Pizza Quadrata Romana, or “Square Roman Pizza.”
And the name doesn’t lie. The slices here are square and they’re delicious.
Pizzas come with some interesting toppings: potato and rosemary; grape, prosciutto cotto, and truffle flakes; tuna and artichoke; and pumpkin and eggplant. Or you can just opt for the classic Margherita, which is outstanding.
PQR has a few stools in the front window. It’s not the place to make a night of it.
Ravagh Persian Grill
There aren’t a lot of Persian restaurants in New York. Fortunately, though, the small handful of Iranian spots in the city are excellent. And Ravagh definitely falls into that category.
The large-portion standouts here include ultra-tender grilled kebabs and tomato-based stews overflowing with juicy lamb and eggplant. And don’t forget to order some tahdig, the crispy scorched rice that hardens at the bottom of the rice pot while cooking.
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.