The Upper East Side is a new slice of cool in New York
Manhattan’s Upper East Side is shaking off its stuffy reputation and evolving into a cool neighbourhood. Here are our favourite places to eat, drink, shop, stay and see the sights
Manhattan’s Upper East Side is home to some of the city’s most famous museums and, of course, the star-studded Metropolitan Museum Costume Gala Ball, which this year takes place on May 1. But despite the gala and the museums, the district hasn’t enjoyed the coolest reputation, being the natural habitat of wealthy ladies who lunch and frat boys.
However, the neighbourhood is evolving, with trendy cocktail bars competing with the old crop of sticky sports pubs, chic boutiques have popped up alongside department stores favoured by the blue-haired set, and there are restaurants that can go head-to-head with the best in downtown dining.
But what makes the Upper East Side so exceptional isn’t just what’s new; it’s also what hasn’t changed. While the rest of the city gives way to frozen yoghurt shops and SoulCycle, the Upper East Side has become a bit of real New York trapped in amber: a melting pot, right alongside Central Park and ensconced in some of the city’s loveliest pre-war architecture.
For non-New Yorkers, the Upper East Side is likely best known for its “Museum Row”– the blocks along the park boasting tourist draws including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Guggenheim. Less well-known are the area’s smaller, more manageable, but no less impressive collections. The Frick Collection is in our opinion one of the very best museum experiences in the city. A beautiful historic mansion filled with some of the finest art. Nothing too avant-garde here, but something to blow the minds of discerning art lovers.
Also in the area is perhaps the best kept art secret in the city: The Neue Galerie, another manageable but astounding collection of classic pieces in a beautiful historic home, this time dedicated to Austrian and German works of art. Call ahead to check if any of the collection’s pieces by Otto Dix are on display. If they are, drop everything and book your tickets immediately. Dix’s dark impressions of first world war-era Europe are eclectic, and these days, sadly prescient.
Shopping on the Upper East Side has typically been defined – some would safe stifled – by New York’s big-name department stores and the fashion brands of Madison Avenue. These days there are boutiques just off the main strip to satisfy the savviest shopper. Impress even your most esoteric fashion-blogger friends with shoes from Schutz, the cultish Brazilian footwear designer. Or maybe splash out on a dog bowl from Alessi – the Italian kitchen and homeware design house whose chic appliances will tell the world that you are someone with refined continental sensibilities. We may have taken aim at well-known department stores just a few sentences ago, but the Barneys on Madison Avenue remains one of our favourite places to shop in the whole city. Bring your most forgiving credit card.
From the Plaza Athénée to the Carlyle or Lowell, there are plenty of boutique and bigger hotels. However, The Mark hotel is one of the most chic residences in the area. On the corner of Madison and 77th and right next to ‘Museum Mile’ it’s the spot from where the Met Gala unofficially kicks off, booked out that day by celebrities, designers and their entourages as a launchpad to the neighbouring event – and one of the most photographed red carpet events in fashion.
The Mark, completely renovated in 2000, was designed by the Frenchman Jacques Grange, who also did interiors for Yves Saint Laurent and Francis Ford Coppola. From the signature black and white graphic stripes to the vintage-feel bathrooms; this hotel is a bold, contemporary design statement, filled with surreal interiors and art deco-inspired elegance harkening to building’s completion in 1927. The fabulous sky-lit The Mark Restaurant By Jean-Georges hosts a fair proportion of New York locals so doesn’t feel like a soulless hotel spot. But for those who want to go full tourist, we love the thoughtfully curated special guest experiences – ranging from Suite Slumber Party, private museum guides, to sledding in the park in the winter. Our favourite is a brisk ride in a plush monogrammed house pedicab around Central Park.
When it comes to dining, the Upper East Side has something of a stuffy reputation. Historically the area boasted temples to fine dining – Daniel Boulud remains the unchallenged gastronomic king of the neighbourhood with both Daniel and Café Boulud – and grungier New York classics such as H&H bagels, Pastrami Queen, and J.G. Melon (home of the best bacon cheeseburger on the planet) – but not much in between. Those days are long gone, and things are changing.
Northeast is still the right direction for fine dining and in our books the man who runs the neighbourhood – aside from Boulud of course – is Michael White. Apart from Marea – if you manage to get a reservation at Marea, please call us – White’s finest restaurant is his pan-Italian neighbourhood favourite, Ristorante Morini.
NY celebrity chef Michael White brings some Italian love to HK White has been called the best pasta maker outside Italy and his talents are on display at Morini, where thanks to some of the best service in the city, and a passionate, generous sommelier even an early Tuesday dinner has a way of becoming a night to remember.
The sports bar still rules the region, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Still, a new crop of wine bars, microbrew beer bars, and world-class cocktail lounges have also sprung up. If you’re looking to drink in a sophisticated, classic New York locale, splash out on a martini at Bemelmans Bar under the murals at the Carlyle Hotel. The barroom can get crowded but is never anything short of civilised. We also love The Penrose, a low-key neighbourhood joint with brilliant cocktails, great bar snacks, and one of the best whisky lists around. It’s the kind of bar you could spend all day in.
For some reason the Upper East Side is in the throes of a New Orleans obsession, with Creole restaurants and Bourbon Street theme bars proliferating overnight. Our favourite is Infirmary – named we’re just guessing for that famous New Orleans funeral anthem St. James Infirmary. Infirmary is a bar for adults – no beads and party yards here – and for great Cajun bites and expert twists on New Orleans cocktails classics such as the Sazerac and the Vieux Carré, this place can’t be beaten.
One of the best bars and the spot that started the whole “the Upper East Side is actually cool” movement is Seamstress. Hidden behind a small boutique shop, forgive Seamstress its pretensions, because once inside the food is soulful and warming, and the drinks are exciting, bracing, and expertly concocted.
Additional reporting by Jing Zhang