Like the neighbourhood itself, the food scene in the Lower East Side serves up a mixed bag of culinary and cultural splendour.
There are the no-fuss institutions, the upscale home cooking joints, and a collection of smells and flavours from all over the world. For food-lovers, it’s one of the best neighbourhoods in New York City to visit.
Keep in mind, this isn’t a rundown on the best of the best and the critically adored. It’s more about the essential eats – the places you simply can’t miss on your first time round. Hungry? Then here we go.
Russ & Daughters Cafe
While the over-100-year-old original Russ & Daughters on Houston Street might be where the real locals get their bagels, it has one glaring fault – nowhere to sit and brunch the day away. That’s why the newer Russ & Daughters Café gets its place on this list.
Complete with a bar, booths and tables, this beautifully designed café feels like you’ve walked into a New York time capsule – minus the kitsch. The food is clearly delicious, but so is the branding, packaging and interior styling.
But what to eat? As a first-timer, you may to opt for the potato latkes or matzo ball soup, followed by “The Classic” bagel board with smoked salmon, cream cheese, tomato, onion and capers. As a second-timer, you could try a different combination and tack on a smoked pepper-infused Bloody Mary – go crazy.
Herring fanatics will be thrilled to find an entire section of the menu dedicated to the slimy snacks. And the same can be said for caviar lovers with very deep pockets. You’ll find that the menu at Russ & Daughters Café is by no means excessive, but it’s varied and delicious enough to keep you eternally satisfied.
Vanessa’s Dumpling House
With its meagre collection of chairs and tables, Vanessa’s Dumpling House is more a pit stop than a sit-down restaurant. But it’s the attractively frantic atmosphere, combined with an authentic menu, which makes this Chinatown institution hard to pass up.
The dumplings here are good, hot and satisfying – particularly the chive and pork. They’re not incredible, unlike the sesame pancake sandwiches, but for sheer value alone, they make Vanessa’s an essential Lower East Side eatery.
You can get away with four fried dumplings for $1.50, while the pancake sandwiches (get one with Peking duck) start from $1.00. You can also grab three fried pork buns for a whopping $1.50, while soups and side orders rarely exceed $5.00.
Whether you’re low on cash, craving some good Chinese food, or simply looking for a classic New York eating experience, Vanessa’s Dumpling House is the place to go.
This wouldn’t be a proper New York eating guide without a pizza restaurant – and Speedy Romeo doesn’t disappoint.
Walking into the LES joint (the original is in Clinton Hill), you’ll quickly realise it’s not your run-of-the-mill pizza place. It doesn’t have the “hole-in-the-wall” vibes, nor does it serve up outrageously big slices reminiscent of Joe’s Pizza or Artichoke Basille’s. Nevertheless, it’s essential eating for one main reason – it’s really, really yum.
Every pizza on the menu is cooked in a wood-burning oven and grill. The “St. Louie” is a must-try, combining Italian sausage, pepperoni, pickled chillies, and the real kicker, Provel cheese – a staple of St. Louie cuisine. Pizza aside, the grilled octopus and kale apple salad are both impressive, as is the local craft beer, creative cocktails, and Italian wine.
Speedy Romeo feels like a deluxe dive bar that serves deluxe pizza. Trust us, it’s a winning combination.
One does not simply go to the USA and dismiss fried chicken – unless you’re a vegetarian. In this case, you should definitely check out Dirt Candy nearby on Allen Street.
Like many restaurants in the Lower East Side, Sweet Chick is an upmarket take on classic American comfort food – the humbled fried chicken. The menu serves up quintessential dishes, such as fried chicken and waffles, and mac and cheese. It also branches out into more inventive territory with crab cake sliders, pork belly nuggets, braised short ribs, and a solid collection of cocktails and local beers.
From the food to the atmosphere to the relaxed service, everything is unassumingly satisfying at Sweet Chick. Put simply, it’s a great place to be with friends, have a drink, and enjoy some better-than-average fried chicken.
There’s not much to say about Katz’s Delicatessen that hasn’t already been said. Serving up mouth-watering pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, as well as a long list of Jewish deli classics, it has been a New York institution since 1888.
Here, there’s an appealing sense of ritual to your whole dining experience. You take a ticket at the door, you walk up to the counter, you order an iconic pastrami sandwich (ideally), you sit down, you enjoy it immensely. The whole thing is legendary – and doesn’t need to be messed with.
When you’re full and happy, lean back and take in the space. The glossy photos of celebrities lining the walls, the meat cutters slicing away, the general hustle and bustle. As far as cafeterias go, you won’t get much better than this.
Other honourable mentions: Mission Chinese Food, Cocoron, Clinton Street Baking Company (mostly for the pancakes), Dirt Candy, Sauce, and Wildair.
Fancy eating your way around America? Check out Intrepid’s full range of trips to the United States here.
Feature image by Carlos Van Vegas on Shutterstock.