Gentrification may have long since sunk its tenterhooks into the East Village, but thanks to rent stabilization and diehard denizens who refuse to move away, the neighborhood still holds the distinction of being the most eclectic in the city. That goes for the restaurants, too — here, you can find old-school diners, fine-dining gems, cab-driver-filled bodegas, and trendy cantinas, sometimes all on the same block, which makes it an exciting place to fill your belly. Here, we present the 10 best East Village restaurants. And given the sheer quantity of excellent spots, we already know we’ve forgotten your favorite — so please let us know what we’ve missed in the comments.
10. (Tie) Huertas (107 First Avenue, 212-228-4490) and Donostia (155 Avenue B, 646-256-9773)
The East Village got a pair of Basque pintxos bars in the course of the last year. Huertas attempts to make the Spanish tapas experience relevant to New York City by passing stylish takes on traditional bites around its front room, dim sum-style. Hit the back room for a modern Spanish prix fixe. Donostia channels Spain’s love of the conserva (basically, fancy canned food) to put out a surprisingly robust menu of traditional pintxos; don’t miss the tortilla Española. The bar also pours the largest sherry collection in the city.
9. Somtum Der (85 Avenue A, 212-260-8570)
You won’t find curry on the menu at Somtum Der, nor will you find many of the other specialties that fill the lists of more Americanized versions of Thai restaurants. This offshoot of a Bangkok eatery specializes in fare from the northeastern Isaan region of the country, and it’s unyielding in representing that cuisine authentically. Somtum der refers to the green papaya salad, and so that dish is front and center here — there are several different variations to choose from. After you’ve selected yours, you should move through pork rolls and sundried beef, a platter of chopped meat larb, and soup, skewers, or one of the versions of fried rice. And chile fans should note that heat can be dialed up intensely here — so if you’re sensitive to spice, you might want an order of sticky rice to temper your meal. That made it our Best Thai Restaurant in Best of NYC 2014.
8. Prune (54 East First Street, 212-677-6221)
Prune is the East Village — the wee restaurant’s served as a neighborhood gathering place since Gabrielle Hamilton opened it 15 years ago. Today, you’ll still find lines flanking it for its famous brunch, when diners settle in for pasta carbonara, montecristos, and eggs in cocotte, paired to innovative takes on the bloody mary. Hamilton revamped the dinner menu earlier this year, though the fresh dishes still come from a personal place. This is creative New American fare lovingly cooked, and it’s as good as it ever was.
7. Edi and the Wolf (102 Avenue C, 212-598-1040)
The maestros behind uptown fancy Austrian restaurant Seasonal have been humming along on Avenue C with this more casual (but still not exactly casual) homage to their homeland. Here, you’ll find killer traditional fare like schnitzel and spaetzle, innovative takes on Austrian dishes, and a solid list of Austrian wines. And you’ll dine in what feels like an enchanted forest. Kill time before a reservation — or have a nightcap — at the Third Man, a cocktail bar from the same owners located a half block away.
6. Momofuku Ssam Bar (207 Second Avenue, 212-254-3500)
What would the East Village be without David Chang? We don’t want to imagine it. The chef may now have an international empire, but it all came from these eclectic blocks. And while it’s difficult to pick a favorite Momofuku, we’ll give honors here to Ssam Bar for its excellent large format feasts. Gather a group and tuck into the bo ssam, which nets you a pork shoulder, a dozen oysters, and all the accoutrements to make Korean-style lettuce wraps. Or check out the whole rotisserie duck ssam, which comes with chive pancakes and sides.
5. Tuome (536 East 5th Street, 646-833-7811)
Thomas Chen honed his knife skills and tended burners at Eleven Madison Park and Commerce, and now he’s putting lessons learned behind those storied lines to work at Tuome, his East Village restaurant where he’s turning out “ingredient-driven refined food with Asian influence in a casual setting,” he says. It’s hard, however, to get a feel for what to expect food-wise from the menu, which is loaded with familiar-looking dishes: There’s a watermelon-and-ricotta salad, for instance, and octopus with fingerlings. There’s even kale, sort of — it’s tucked into a rice dish at the bottom of the menu. But for all the trendy ingredients, what actually hits the table is full of surprises, because Chen has a penchant for giving dishes unusual twists. That watermelon-ricotta salad? Coated in crunchy puffed farro to become a light summer refresher. The fingerlings beside the octopus turn out to be a foamy espuma, added to the plate tableside. And the kale, well, it goes into a banana-leaf pouch with sticky rice and lap cheong, that piquant Chinese sausage. Those twists add extra delight to an expertly executed meal, one that takes the familiar and turns it truly exalted. That made it our Best New Restaurant in Best of NYC 2014.
4. Sigiri (91 First Avenue, 212-614-9333)
On the East Village’s strip of Indian restaurants, it’s a Sri Lankan place that really stands out. This narrow second floor dining hall is unassuming when compared to its glittering neighbor, but its food more than makes up for the lack of ostentatious ambiance. The kitchen here serves traditional specialties like black curry and pol roti, all laden with spice and brimming with complex savory flavor. Whatever you do, don’t miss the kotthu roti, a roadside specialty made of chopped up pancakes, eggs, and vegetables that’s stirfried until the flatbread is crispy. Sigiri is BYOB.
3. Stage (128 Second Avenue)
New York City is losing its institutions at an alarming rate, but the East Village, thankfully, still has a number that shine on. The best of these is the Stage, where a you’ll cram yourself into a counter seat and be waited on by the very people that cook your meal. Stage makes one of our favorite egg on a rolls, but it also turns out Ukrainian and Eastern European specialties that deserve your attention. We recommend the blintzes, stuffed cabbage, and any of the soups.
2. Kyo Ya (94 East 7th Street, 212-982-4140)
It’s hard to locate Kyo Ya, even if you’re armed with the address — it’s located down a flight of stairs, and not marked at street level. That hasn’t prevented this city’s kaiseki fans from finding it, though, because this is one of the best kaiseki experiences in the city. Reserve your table at least 24 hours in advance, and you’ll be treated to a metered, seasonal multi-course feast of pristine Japanese food. Drop-ins are welcome, too, but then you’ll be ordering a la carte off of the ever-changing menu.
1. Mighty Quinn’s (103 Second Avenue, 212-677-3733)
Mighty Quinn’s, a Smorgasburg success story and a leader of New York City’s barbecue renaissance, has settled into this neighborhood nicely; its flagship emporium of smoked meats still sees regular lines, even as the concept has expanded into other locations. The masses come, primarily, for the brisket, which is crusty-edged and tender, and rosy with throat-stinging smoke. We like the burnt ends, which get you the fat-addled crispy bits either on a sandwich or naked. Go through the line and pick up some sides, too — like the burnt end baked beans and slaw spiked with enough vinegar to play excellent foil to the meat.