The Upper East Side has long been considered one of Manhattan’s most buttoned-up neighbourhoods, and even a bit of a wasteland when it comes to dining and evening entertainment. But it’s not so hard to find a relaxed spot to hang out in the prosperous streets east of Central Park, with both fancy fine dining and down-to-earth pub grub luring locals and visitors uptown. Here’s a look at three of our faves…
The Writing Room
It was a literary hangout for A-listers, screenwriters and devoted locals but six months after Elanie Kaufman passed away in 2011 at the age of 81, her eponymous, 48-year-old restaurant was no more. But while Elaine’s was heralded more for its ambience and clientele than its food – patrons included Woody Allen, Simone de Beauvoir and Mick Jagger – the family-run restaurant which took its place puts more emphasis on its Gallic-inspired menu, which sets out an updated take on American classics.
With space for 130 diners and 15 more at the bar, The Writing Room is not exactly bijou. Nevertheless, the husband-and-wife owners achieved a cosy bistro-style atmosphere through clever design, with effective use of lighting, tiling, wall-to-wall bookcases and other details. Vintage black and white photographs hang on dark charcoal walls, including some of past clientele, and a mix of textures – leather, exposed brick, various woods – lend a clubby, upmarket feel. As for the vibe, it can be fairly boisterous at times, but as a now-established neighbourhood hub it feels more welcoming than overwhelming.
Open for brunch, lunch and dinner, the list of comforting dishes run the gamut. Light lunchtime salads are an option, yes, but most come in search of the crispy, garlicky fried chicken they’ve heard about on the grapevine, or the thick slab of skirt steak served with shishito pepper, roast tomatoes and chimichurri sauce. Carb-hunting brunchers are also in luck, and a brisk Manhattan stroll will certainly be needed to work off ample plates of Belgian waffles, eggs benedict, salmon bagels and banana bread. Or come in the evening for a pasta dish and cocktails at the bar, and find out if this really is the kind of place where everyone knows your name.
Best for: Lazy brunches, date nights, cocktails with friends
The Writing Room, 1703 2nd Avenue, New York 10128, thewritingroomnyc.com
Lively gastropub The Penrose was dreamt up by the same Irish friends behind The Wren in the East Village and Wilfie and Nell in the West, whose proposal to transfer their retro, reclaimed aesthetic uptown initially raised a few eyebrows in this well-to-do neighbourhood. Of course, it was obviously just what the area needed, evidenced by the late evening, martini-sipping crowds, though it’s far from frenetic at other times of day.
The menu might appear somewhat rudimentary at first glance, but this straightforward, satisfying gastropub grub is not without sophistication. If there’s a few of you, order sharing plates of oyster sliders, beer-battered pickles or a fully-laden cheese board, or steel yourself with smoked gouda mac ‘n cheese or an artisanal Pat LaFrieda burger before moving onto the cocktail menu. Specialising in hard-to-find whiskies, you’ll find plenty of good old fashioned bourbon-based drinks, along with original handcrafted creations like the Dirty Pickle Martini – garnished with a slice of pickle and mixed with pickle brine.
Best for: Affordable dining, happy hours, rare whiskies
The Penrose, 1590 2nd Avenue, New York 10028, penrosebar.com
Chef Michael White may be better known for his raved-about Italian cuisine, with Marea on Central Park South and Al Fiori at Fifth Avenue’s Langham Place two of his ongoing success stories. But it’s all shifted over to the neighbouring country at Vaucluse – the latest venture from White’s Altamarea Group – where a brasserie-style menu is loosely inspired by his summers spent working on the French Riviera, although the new concept embraces the breadth of French cuisine.
Opened late 2015, the 12,000 square-foot venue on the corner of Park Avenue and East 63rd houses a central bar flanked by two sumptuous dining areas: a handsome upper room with buttoned banquettes, herringbone floors and turquoise leather chairs, and a buttery-toned lower room with a vaulted ceiling lined with golden subway tiles. On a recent visit we’re led to the far side of the latter with a view of the central seating area, and if we’d ever doubted the tone of the Upper East Side’s lunch scene, we no longer do. Despite it being a busy weekday, our fellow diners appear well rested, well heeled, and in no hurry to leave, which more or less sums up the essence of this neighbourhood.
But to the food, and opting to judge a book by the classics we start with a velvety rich chicken soup and toasted almond-topped grilled leeks, followed by an outrageously large steak and the not-especially French white label burger slathered in fontina cheese and tomato jam – extraordinarily good. The briefest of pauses and undoing of the odd trouser button follows before dessert. Then, after little deliberation, the Paris-Brest – choux pastry, caramelised white chocolate, praline croquant – is allowed immediate entry into our New York desserts hall of fame, and we hatch a plot to smuggle pastry chef Alina Martell home in our hand luggage.
Best for: Special occasions, business lunches, an all-out splurge
Vaucluse, 100 East 63rd Street, New York 10065, vauclusenyc.com
Dined at any of our featured Upper East Side restaurants? Have any other favourites to share? Tell us more in the comments below and help other travellers heading to New York soon.