Fewer & Better Guides: The Upper East Side
As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I have spent a lifetime accumulating favorite places in Manhattan, from the Upper East Side to the East Village and pretty much everywhere in between. I asked my Instagram followers if they would be interested in “Fewer & Better” neighborhood guides, and I was really happy to see so many people share that they’d like to see them! The overwhelming vote for the first guide was for the Upper East Side.
These guides aren’t intended to be exhaustive guides of everything that I like on the Upper East Side–these are the “fewer & better” places that I find myself gravitating to again and again, through all times of my life. I’m counting the Upper East Side as the upper 60s through 96th Street (with the exception of the Conservatory Garden)–and plan to do an Upper Carnegie Hill guide as well. I hope you’ll share what you think. Please let me know if I’m missing a place, or if you have something you’d like to see!
I’m definitely a “live to eat” person, and I’ve spent a lifetime finding favorite places. Here are some of my favorites; please share yours with me!
JG Melon, 1291 Third Avenue (74th and 3rd)
There is no better burger in Manhattan, let alone the Upper East Side, than the JG Melon burger. I’ve been a lifelong regular and one of the things I’ve missed the most during the pandemic is my Melon’s burger and cottage fries! (And apparently I’ll be missing the cottage fries forever, now–but this is still a #fewerandbetterapproved place.) You’ll run into everyone here, from CEOs to neighborhood regulars to fashion people (Tory Burch once bought me a drink!)
Fewer & Better tip: Order the bacon cheeseburger with a side of fries, extra crispy, with blue cheese dressing. Sit at the bar for the best service and people-watching!
Take note: JG Melon is cash-only.
Best French food
Le Charlot, 19 E 69th Street (69th and Madison)
For the best steak frites in the city, look no further than Le Charlot’s famous blue awnings. The service is leisurely and familiar in the best way; settle in and enjoy an unhurried meal, the way it should be.
Fewer & Better tip: Order off-menu by requesting the cajun chicken.
Take note: Make a reservation in advance, unless you are a regular. Request a seat under the awning or at the window for people-watching; in a banquette for a more relaxing and cozier meal.
Best Italian food
Bella Blu, 967 Lexington Avenue (70th and Lex)
Everything at Bella Blu is prepared and cooked to perfection; I’ve honestly never had a bad meal here. The atmosphere is cozy and convivial–a true gem in the neighborhood.
Fewer & Better tip: The pizza is to die for!
Take note: This is a small restaurant; make a reservation in advance, or be prepared to wait.
Best place to shop if you’ve forgotten you’re hosting a party
William Poll, 1051 Lexington Avenue (75th and Lex)
It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and you realize you’ve invited friends over for drinks, or you’ve been invited somewhere, and would like to bring a gift. Enter William Poll. Not only are their takeaway sandwiches delicious, once you’ve had one of their dips and housemade chips, you’ll never shop anywhere else. They also offer homemade appetizers, tea sandwiches, and soups if you’re really in a pinch!
Fewer & Better tip: If you’re not local, they will ship to you! (Minimum order of $100, but that goes quickly!) Don’t forget you can also stock up your freezer with some of their prepared food to avoid late-night takeout.
Take note: This is a popular spot; be prepared for a bit of a wait if ordering sandwiches (it’s worth it!)
Russ & Daughters, 1109 Fifth Avenue (93rd and Fifth)
While this Russ & Daughters location is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, I’m leaving it on the guide for when it reopens. This uptown outpost of the beloved Lower East Side institution is extremely welcome–they offer a reduced menu, but all the staples–bagels, lox, and caviar. The restaurant is located in the basement of the Jewish Museum, and does not require admission to enter.
Fewer & Better tip: Get bagel sandwiches to go and find a bench in Central Park to enjoy them!
Take note: This location is temporarily closed due to the pandemic. When the restaurant reopens, enter through the main entrance to the Jewish Museum.
Best place for martinis and oysters
East Pole, 133 East 65th Street (65th between Park and Lex)
The East Pole is an excellent neighborhood staple for everything, but it’s especially great before dinner for martinis and oysters. Their selection is varied and excellent, and their martinis are top-notch.
Fewer & Better tip: Ask for a seat in the Map Room or outdoors.
Take note: Arrive on the early side if you are dining elsewhere; it’s a popular spot for dinner!
Midnight Express, 1715 2nd Avenue (89th and 2nd)
Midnight Express is open twenty-four hours a day and offers a wide range of typical “diner” food, all of which seems to meet the standard for the “most” New York diner food (at least in my opinion!) Their breakfast is especially excellent.
Fewer & Better tip: Don’t expect fine dining, but do expect a filling and delicious (albeit not calorie-conscious) meal.
Take note: If you are local, they have a fairly broad delivery area!
Best place for a quick bite
Via Quadronno, 25 E 73rd (73rd and Madison)
There is nothing like a Via Quadronno meal! A perfect spot to grab a quick bite, and conveniently located near Central Park.
Fewer & Better tip: Great for every meal, be sure to order the paninis! The coffee is also excellent.
Take note: If you’re not local, VQ coffee will soon be available for your Nespresso! You can also pick up a panettone at the restaurant during the holiday season–a perfect hostess gift.
Sant Ambroeus, 1000 Madison Avenue (Madison between 76th and 77th)
There are actually four Sant Ambroeus locations on the Upper East Side, and more throughout the city, but the best one is located on Madison between 76th and 77th. Wonderful for outings with your family, a date, or a girls’ night, Sant Ambroeus has excellent pasta, pastries, and gelato.
Fewer & Better tip: The best coffee on the Upper East Side. Get it to go and enjoy the cheerful pink cup!
Take note: This location is especially busy immediately after school lets out for the day, so plan accordingly!
“Only in New York”: Three Hidden Gems of the Upper East Side
Best “Old New York” experience
Bemelmans, 35 E 76th Street, in the Carlyle Hotel
Is there any place more iconic than Bemelmans? Famous illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans (Madeline, Sunshine) created his only public mural for the Carlyle in an effort to settle his hotel bill. Its creation story and its continued existence is iconic, the sort of “only in New York” story that makes the bar such an enjoyable place to spend the evening. Don’t miss this very special place.
Fewer & Better tip: Try to time your visit on a night that pianist Earl Rose is playing for the full Bemelmans experience.
Take note: Dress for the occasion. This is a special space!
Best “quiet” space
Conservatory Garden, Fifth Avenue at 105th Street
The only formal gardens in Central Park, the Conservatory Garden was originally designed by Olmstead and Vaux as an arboretum. In the 1930s, it took its current form, but fell into disrepair until Lynden Breed Miller began her restoration of the Garden in the 1980s. This is a very special place and a true hidden gem on the Upper East Side.
Fewer & Better tip: Find a sunny bench and bring a good book!
Take note: This part of Central Park is open from 8am until dusk. Beware the raccoons that live in the wisteria arbor!
Best New York story
Pale Male’s nest, 927 Fifth Avenue (visible from the Model Boat Pond in Central Park)
Pale Male is one of the most “New York” stories ever–a red-tailed hawk comes to Manhattan, intent on making it here… and he does, making his nest on the façade of arguably the most beautiful building in Manhattan. He and his mates raise their children—more than twenty chicks—and many have settled in other buildings in the city, which is rare for red-tails. I remember going to visit my great-aunt with my mother and then walking a few blocks up Fifth to look at the nest. He’s still there, and so is the nest!
Take note: Bring binoculars to get a good look!
Best places to stay
Whether you’re visiting or need a staycation, here are two Fewer & Better-approved hotels (and one club) to explore. Please note that several other favorites are indefinitely closed during the pandemic; I hope to update this guide with them in the future!
The Carlyle, 35 E 76th Street (76th and Madison)
The Carlyle Hotel is iconic, and for good reason. The rooms are beautiful, the service unmatched, and Bemelmans is downstairs. It’s pricey, but for a special occasion, completely worth it.
Fewer & Better tip: If you are organizing an event in Manhattan, the Carlyle will offer a courtesy block of rooms (no more than ten) at a discounted rate upon request.
The Mark, 25 E 77th Street (77th between Fifth and Madison)
While I haven’t stayed at the Mark, one of my best friends–who truly has exquisite and discerning taste–swears by them. The room service, staff, and rooms are all up to her exacting standards, which alone makes me itch for a trip!
Fewer & Better tip: Several rooms offer terrace access.
The Lotos Club, 5 East 66th Street (66th between Fifth and Madison)
The Lotos Club is located in a townhouse originally built for a Vanderbilt daughter and was purchased by the Lotos Club in 1947. The Club is one of the oldest literary clubs in the United States and has counted among its members Brooke Astor, Mark Twain, Renee Fleming, Margaret Mead, Beverly Sills, Angela Lansbury, and PG Wodehouse, among many others. Staying at the Club is a wonderful experience–the staff are excellent, the rooms are spacious and quiet, and it is a lovely experience.
Fewer & Better tip: Each room is decorated differently, and all are lovely! Stays include breakfast in the morning.
Take note: Staying at the Lotos Club is restricted to members and members of reciprocal clubs.
Whether you’re a local or a visitor, visiting the amazing museums in Manhattan is always a great way to spend a day. Here are four of my favorites (out of the many, many, many in the city!)
The Met, 1000 Fifth Avenue (Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street)
Is there a museum more iconic than the Met? You can easily spend an entire day there–or many days, if you’re in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–and still not see it all. My favorite is the Egyptian Wing, but there is so much more to see, from art to sculpture to concerts to lectures and everything else.
Fewer & Better tip: Sign up for a membership to the Met and eat in the beautiful Trustees’ dining room! Don’t miss the rooftop when in-season.
Take note: If you are not a New York State resident or a Met member, “pay as you wish” admission is no longer an option.
The Frick, 1 E 70th Street (70th and Fifth)
While the Frick is temporarily closed for restoration, this is a true little gem of a museum. You can view their collection at the Frick Madison, in the old Met Breuer building. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, with an easy, accessible collection that won’t leave you with “museum fatigue.”
Fewer & Better tip: The Frick’s beautiful library is open to researchers–learn more here.
Take note: As noted above, the Frick is temporarily closed. Please check the Frick Madison page for details.
Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue (86th and Fifth)
Neue Galerie is often overlooked, but it is a lovely museum featuring German and Austrian art (and some of the best food in Café Sabarsky!) Their museum shop is also filled with lovely and original pieces–a great last-minute place to shop for gifts.
Fewer & Better tip: The paintings are magnificent, but don’t miss the decorative arts collection as well!
Take note: Children under 12 are not admitted during regular hours, but are admitted during Family Mornings. On the first Friday of the month, the museum offers free admission between 4 and 7 p.m.
Cooper Hewitt, 2 E 91st Street (91st and Fifth)
Located in the former Hewitt mansion, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt founded the Cooper Hewitt as the Museum for the Arts of Decoration at Cooper Union. The Cooper Hewitt is now a Smithsonian Museum, and offers a substantial permanent collection, as well as fascinating temporary exhibitions.
Fewer & Better tip: Go before lunch, then take a walk in the garden before enjoying lunch at the café.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Fewer & Better guide to the Upper East Side–please let me know what you think, and if I’ve missed anything!