Fun. Laidback. Cheap. Not exactly the first words that come to mind for the home of the looming Metropolitan Museum of Art or of the characters in Gossip Girl. But there's more to eat, drink, and do on the Upper East Side of New York City than meets the eye – particularly east of Lexington Avenue. And as the Second Avenue subway expansion chugs along, and promises to flood this residential neighborhood with visitors from all over the city – and the world – here are a few places to check out, without having to spend like Blair Waldorf.
There’s no shortage of good eats in this neighborhood. Hungry locals gather daily at the tiny, no-frills Naruto Ramen for $9 bowls of ramen and $8 pork fried rice. If it’s sushi you’re after, Sushi Seki delivers some of the freshest maki rolls – and addictive shrimp shumai – in the budget sushi category. Those who love a generous pour of wine with their Italian can’t miss Uva, whose hearty portions start at a reasonable $9 (primi) and $17 (secondi).
For something a little different, Kaia Wine Bar specializes in a variety of South African wines alongside tapas-style bites from the region. The organic elk and bison patties of Bareburger, the eco-conscious burger chain that started in Brooklyn, has a home on the Upper East Side, too. Both establishments are a great mix of happening and low-key.
And then there’s brunch, arguably the Upper East Side’s favorite meal. Le Moulin a Cafe serves up buttery croissants and cheesy, savory croque madames that are worth trekking to York Avenue for – as the crowds of Parisian patrons who stop by every weekend will attest. Feeling whimsical? Make reservations at Alice’s Tea Cup, a cozy, cutesy restaurant themed after Lewis Carroll’s famed poems.
Just east of all the sports bars on Second Avenue, Jbird’s extensive cocktail menu caters to the hankerings of more creative and complicated tipplers. The bar has the energy of a downtown bar, but without the frustrating no-reservation policies. The Auction House is another establishment that might as well live in the East Village. A gilded ceiling and gauzy red drapes dress up the exposed brick interiors, adding a seductive touch to a round of the typical pub drinks.
The 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue is much more than a community center, though it certainly offers all the classes one would expect from one – many of which have drop-in options for visitors. With lectures and shows galore featuring artists and industry experts – think Yo-Yo Ma and Woody Allen – it's a veritable hub of culture. There truly is something for everyone here, whether you fancy a night of musical theater, comedy with drinks, or swing dance lessons.
For bookworms intent on supporting small businesses, the Upper East Side is home to a slew of independent bookstores. You could spend days perusing The Book Cellar, the dollar secondhand bookstore in the basement of the New York Public Library, or Crawford Doyle Booksellers, whose owners have been in the book business for nearly 30 years. Or, try Logos Book Store, which is filled with rare books and original artwork. At Kitchen Arts & Letters, cookbooks and culinary tomes abound. Design geeks will love the artsy and elegant furnishings of Archiva Books, and The Corner Bookstore, housed in a former apothecary with plenty of vintage curios. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, try to make an appointment at this private, secret apartment-turned-store.
All the way by the East River, East End Avenue residents have their own little slice of nature in the form of Carl Schurz Park, a humble but much-loved space with a carefully tended garden and two dog runs that are perfect for puppy watching. In warm weather, the benches lining the promenade are perfect for a picnic, or an afternoon reading after you've scored at one of the aforementioned bookstores. You'll have views of the river and the bridges to Queens.
Iconic names like The Pierre, The Carlyle, and The Surrey still reign over the hotel scene on the Upper East Side, but Marmara Manhattan is a favorite option for those seeking apartment-style living among the locals. An outpost of a popular chain in Turkey, the hotel is just a six-minute walk from the 96th Street subway station. Choose from a convenient 360-square-foot studio to a spacious 1,453-square-foot three-bedroom. No matter how much space you need, a full kitchen, wifi, 24-hour gym, and more will always be at your disposal. Current rates are hovering around $160 and go up to about $250 in summer for the studio units – an affordable price for Manhattan.