A lot of people visit New York City and are completely overwhelmed with finding a great place to eat. After all, NYC is a special place in the culinary world and you don’t want to waste a meal by just going to an “ok” restaurant. So many readers and Instagram followers have asked me for my favorite places to eat while in New York, I thought it would be helpful to add to my guide to cheap eats in Times Square + Midtown with a list of recommended dining spots – this time setting my sights on Downtown NYC, starting with Chinatown and the Lower East Side (LES).
Where exactly IS “Downtown”? Also known as Lower Manhattan, Downtown is basically anything below 14th Street. It’s where I lived for most of my years in New York and really is the epicenter of everything cool and hip in Manhattan. Every trip I make back home, I try to hit some favorite spots as well as check out some new restaurants that have opened since I moved.
Here are some great spots for breakfast/brunch, lunch, and dinner in Chinatown and the Lower East Side for you to sample some awesome food in the Big Apple!
Recommended for: Brunch with friends
One of the things I liked about living in the heart of Chinatown was living down the street from Winnie’s, a famous Chinatown karaoke dive bar where I spent a lot of time belting out tunes from their ancient songbook (no songs after 2001) for $1 a pop to an unenthusiastic crowd of old Chinese guys sipping canned beer at the bar.
However, one of the things I hated about living in Chinatown was that there was no decent non-Asian food in the neighborhood. Yes, even I got sick of noodles and rice dishes sometimes and there were zero options for alternative cuisines in my neighborhood.
Flash forward to the end of 2016 when I felt mixed emotions when reading that someone had taken over the old Winnie’s space (the bar closed in 2015 when their landlord didn’t renew their lease) and was opening a “New Age ’70s Mexican diner” called Lalito.
On the one hand, I was sad because… gentrification. On the other hand, I was kinda excited because younger me would have killed for a restaurant like this when I lived there.
Lalito is a hip space with cheery yellow upholstery and a pretty bar, making the spot look much more spacious than the old Winnie’s. On a ledge above the corner booth, a mini-shrine to Sade is sits by a window. On a Sunday morning, the crowd was casual – one family with a young daughter, a few couples, and a co-ed group of friends.
The menu is eclectic – with items like the very tasty Cali Kasha Varnishkes (butter toasted kasha, parsley, crimini, onion agrodolce, and farfalle at $12 – pasta for breakfast!!!) alongside more traditional brunch items. But even the “regular” brunch dishes have a bit of a twist.
For example, I really like the Roasted Yam Granola with flax, millet, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, Greek yogurt ($9). The yam is an unexpected addition that adds heartiness to what is often times a light breakfast option. Plus it’s pretty healthy and it is SO much food – I couldn’t even finish everything on my plate. Definitely great value on that one!
The French Toast is lovely, which is an ube bread pudding with persimmon, black sesame seed, yogurt ($12). When I took my grandma here for brunch, she said this was her favorite thing on the menu!
Recommended for: Early dinner vibes
It’s taken me ages, but on my last trip to NYC I finally got a chance to go to the Chinatown “It” restaurant, Dimes, and it did not disappoint. Know for their delicious take on “hippie” food, this stylish cafe is filled with the exact kind of people you think it is — young, beautiful folks armed with perfectly disheveled hair and killer Instagram photo skills.
But don’t let that, or the no-reservations policy, deter you. Get there when they open, and you are likely to get seated in a decent amount of time. One Saturday evening, my friends and I got there maybe 40 minutes after they opened – they took my name and cell phone number down and in less than an hour, we were seated at one of their brightly-colored dining tables.
The menu is a flexitarian foodie’s dream. As a teetotaler, I loved the Basil-Kaffir Limeade on a hot summer’s day. Try the Grilled Asparagus with tofu cream, hibiscus/lava salt to share with the table.
I absolutely fell for the Black Rice with eggplant. If you’re like me and always want a little bit more protein, make an off-menu request to add some salmon to your dish. The fish was this incredible buttery sushi-grade sashimi with a great dipping sauce that took the dish to the next level. I could eat that dish every day of the week.
My vegetarian friend loved her Spiced Quinoa – a multi-colored bowl of kimchi kale/black sesame, sweet potato/cabbage slaw, and nori shiso pesto.
Recommended for: Dinner
Whenever I’m back in New York I usually end up taking my grandma, who lives in Chinatown, out for a meal while I am there. While there are many great places to eat Chinese food in the neighborhood, it’s hard to find one that fits the bill of “nice place to take your grandma” because most Chinatown restaurants feature a puzzling interior decor that is one part 90’s banquet hall (gold dragons and gaudy crystal chandeliers), one part dance club (ceiling soffits illuminated by multicolor LED lighting), and one part sports bar (multiple large screen TVs set to CNN, the Discovery Channel, or the History Channel).
That’s why I was so excited when I read about the upscale Chinese dining establishment, Hwa Yuan, in the New York Times. Housed in a former bank, this multi-level restaurant is absolutely gorgeous with a decor that mixes mid-century modern with tasteful Chinese status and wood carved room dividers. The service is attentive and reserved.
Built by the son and grandson of Shorty Tang, the creator of the now ubiquitous cold sesame noodle dish, Hwa Yuan is of course known for their elegant take on the sweet and salty noodles. The Cold Sesame Noodles ($12) served here are a positive delight. The peanut butter perfect hovers above your taste buds with every bite. The dish also features minced pork and green scallions, giving it additional flavor and texture.
I can never say “no” to snow peas whenever they are on the menu and the Snow Pea Sprouts in Supreme Broth ($18) are worth the price. One of my absolute favorite items on the menu is the Chinese Eggplant with Garlic Sauce (with minced pork) ($16). It’s a little bit spicy, but the sauce is incredibly tasty and the eggplant pleasingly soft but not stringy.
I love this restaurant as a quiet respite from the clattering noise and hurried service you usually get in Chinatown.
Recommended for: Satisfying bowl of ramen
If you’ve seen the latest season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, then you’re probably already familiar with Ivan Orkin: A self-described “Jewish kid from Long Island” who got a degree in Japanese from the University of Colorado Boulder, and many years later, found himself as the proprietor of a wildly popular ramen shop in Japan, before returning back to the US to bring his brand of ramen to NYC by opening Ivan Ramen.
I’m pretty biased towards Chicken Paitan ramen (I love its lightness in comparison to pork-based broths) , and his is unlike any other’s. The broth is warm and comforting, rich in flavor and mixed with minced chicken, egg yolk (that you break and mix into the rest of the soup), and shio kombu. The rye noodles have a distinct springiness and an earthy flavor. It’s really not traditional ramen, but it’s got all of these complex flavors and is an absolute joy to eat.
Ice & Vice
Recommended for: Mid-day sweet treat
No surprise here – Ice & Vice is one of my absolute favorite ice cream shops in all of NYC. I have already raved about their Times Square I Scream kiosk as a great way to sample their excellent ice cream, but nothing beats going to the original shop in Chinatown.
With super cool black and white walls and decorations, it’s probably the hippest ice cream shop you’ve ever been to. Usually, there is a line inside – but I’ve never been there when there’s been a long queue out the door like you’ll find at Morgenstern’s in the LES or Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain in Carroll Gardens — it’s generally a pretty civil situation inside, which is kinda crazy seeing as how their ice cream is some of the most inventive, delicious cold treats you’ll ever taste.
One thing you gotta understand about I&V is that the flavors might have crazy names and descriptions (e.g. – Opium Den – a white sesame, toasted poppy seed, lemon bread crouton flavor), but they are NEVER stunt flavors – they always taste good and will consistently surprise you with the next-level quality.
Flavors change all the time and they’re pretty nice about letting you try out a few flavors before deciding. If you’re not feeling particularly daring, but want an amazing ice cream experience nonetheless, go with the Basic B (Mexican vanilla, black lava sea salt) — almost guaranteed to be available — and up-level it with a Salted Blue Corn Konery cone.
Canal Street Market
Recommended for: Quick bite to eat with a group
In a neighborhood where cheap food is pretty easy to come by, why should you stop into Canal Street Market? Just like so many of my other favorite food halls in NYC, Canal Street Market has curated a killer line-up of food vendors like Ilili BOX, Lulu (for great smoothies), Boba Guys (I have friends that swear this is the best boba in town), Nom Wah Kaui (famous Chinatown dim sum), Kuro-Obi (the Ippudo off-shoot), Oppa (Korean comfort food), making it a great one-stop shop for getting some low-cost tasty food with a bunch of friends. Just order directly from the stall you like and then everyone can meet up and chow down in one of two communal eating areas in the market.
The one directly in the back near the bathrooms has a bunch of long standing-only tables, but I prefer going through the doorway on the left and snagging one of a few tables over on the retail side of the market. There are comfortable and colorful stools to sit on, and the light that pours into that space is lovely.
On a recent visit, my mom and I actually shared one order of the Sesame Chicken Bibimbap Bowl from Oppa ($12), which was a huge bowl of chicken, rice, pickled veggies, and kimchi. It was so much food! I also ordered a yummy Ruth smoothie ($8) from Lulu that was made up of kale, mango, pineapple, strawberry, matcha, maca, coconut water, coconut milk topped with pomogranate seeds.
Other Chinatown favorites
A classic NYC ice cream shop with a Chinatown twist: the “regular” flavors are Green Tea, Almond Cookie (my favorite), Lychee and the “exotic” flavors are Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate.
Excellent option for vegetarian Chinese food. Buddha’s Delight Pan Fried Noodle is my absolute fave.
I think this is the one restaurant in Chinatown that has an elegant, well appointed, relaxing interior. (No horrific mismatched neon accent lights or blaring flat screen TVs.) The food is excellent “American”-style Chinese food. I always love Chicken Pan Fried Noodles and these guys to a bang up job with this dish.
Unless you get here pretty early, you’ll likely have to wait for a table in this below-ground restaurant. It’s generally dark, noisy, and steamy, but they’ve got the most delicate, scrumptious Soup Dumplings you will wait any length of time, and endure any noisy clatter just to taste one. Go with the Crabmeat and Pork version – they cost a little bit more than jus the regular Pork version but are much more flavorful.
Map of where to eat in Chinatown and Lower East Side, NYC
Wondering where all these places are? Check out this handy-dandy map below that plots out all of the mentioned Chinatown and Lower East Side spots from this post plus a couple of other additional favorites: