Some people think the Upper East Side is just where you go to drink a $20 cocktail at The Carlyle and/or bid on a painting by Jackson Pollock. And, while you can technically do both of those things there, the neighborhood also has a lot affordable options. For some food that doesn’t cost too much, try one of the spots on this guide. It has a bunch of great restaurants where you can eat a full meal (an entree and a drink, or an entree and an app) without having to spend more than $30. These places are all perfect for weeknights, affordable dates, and any time in your life when you’re trying to save money for your A/C bill or a new Jackson Pollock painting.
Blake Lane wouldn’t be noteworthy in Nolita and Noho, which are full of all-day spots serving mostly healthy stuff like salads, rice bowls, and seafood to people who put a lot more thought into their gym outfit than the baggy t-shirt you got for participating in a dance-a-thon sophomore year. But, Blake Lane is at 80th and 3rd, and not only is it one of the few spots in the neighborhood to get a glass of wine in your gym clothes, but the food is also affordable and very good.
Heidi’s House by the Side of the Road, or HHBTSOTR if you’re short on time, sounds like a trinket store you’d see when you pull off the highway for gas in rural Vermont. Don’t let the name throw you, though, because this a good spot to drop in for a drink and affordable bite on your way home from work. The dark, narrow space works best for either solo dining or a low-key date at the bar. Get the very thick burger on an English muffin or the crispy mac and cheese with bacon and jalapenos.
J.G. Melon has some other bar food on the menu, but you should be coming here for the cheeseburger. This place has served one of the best burgers in the city for decades, and you can pair the burger ($12) with some cottage fries ($6) and a beer ($7), and leave here feeling full for about $30.
When you walk inside, PQR mostly just looks like a regular slice shop. But all of the slices here are Roman-style rectangles, and they use scissors to cut them up. There are also many different kinds, with toppings like pumpkin, sausage, and various cheeses. They won’t be labeled, however, so you’ll just have to point at things and ask questions. Once you get a few slices, you can either sit up front, or go to the little dining room in the back where you can sit and enjoy some crust that might be some of the best in the city.
We like Peng’s Noodle Folk because it has options. If you want to get ramen here, you can do that. But there are also a few different kinds of banmen (brothless noodles), as well as some proteins that you can get over rice. We usually get one of those things, and the dumplings here are also great. Plus there’s beer and sake (starting at $6), and none of the food here costs over $15.
If you live on the Upper East Side, Up Thai is your neighborhood Thai spot. Or at least it should be. First off, the space feels sort of like an indoor garden from a Pier 1 catalog (which is a compliment), and the food is better than it needs to be. You can get a whole fried snapper here. Or some crispy duck covered in tamarind sauce. Or, if it’s a weeknight and you’re trying to spend less than $30, you can just get a plate of noodles and Thai beer.
Our favorite pho on the Upper East Side currently exists at Pho Shop, and a bowl of it will cost you roughly $12. Add some summer rolls if you’re especially hungry or get a glass of wine if your day hasn’t been ideal, and you’ll still be under the $30 mark. They also make some bánh mìs here with a good ratio of bread to fillings, and the space is plain and casual with big windows and bottles of sriracha on every table.
There are a few La Esquinas around the city, and they all serve good tacos in a spaces in that look like old-school diners. All of these spots, including this one on the Upper East Side, are counter-service, and they also have tortas, grilled corn, and great guacamole. So bring a friend if you need something quick and affordable, or come by yourself and eat a few tacos while you drink a margarita and you stare out at the traffic on 2nd Avenue.
Mei-jin Ramen1574 2nd Ave
Mei-jin makes a solid bowl of ramen, but you can also get some chicken or pork tonkatsu over a rice and curry here. Both are fairly substantial options, and you probably won’t be able to eat much more than one of these things, so you can either save the rest of your money or spend it on a cocktail. There’s a full bar here, and the dark, minimalist design kind of makes it feel like you’re eating in a really clean cave.
San Matteo is a neighborhood Italian restaurant that specializes in pizzas, calzones, some items known as panuozzi. These are essentially very large sandwiches made with pizza dough instead of bread - and if you get one stuffed with prosciutto and arugula, it makes for a well-balanced meal. There are also pastas, if you prefer to eat with a fork, and there’s plenty of room inside.
Technically, East Harlem Bottling Co. is a bar - but it’s nicer than about 90% of other places where you can sit on a stool, eat some wings, and drink a beer. Think of it as a really nice pub where you could sit with a date who’s in at least one book club, and try it for dinner the next time you want a good sandwich and a craft beer. They serve things like a burger and a fried chicken sandwich, as well as some salads and small plates. And there’s also a happy hour that goes until 7pm most weekdays.
One kebab platter at Beyoglu is a full meal. It has vegetables and rice with a mound of meat on top, and it’ll cost you around $15. Bring a friend, and you can also split a large mezze platter - at which point, you’ll have an excessive amount of good food. This is a casual Turkish restaurant that’s somehow affordable enough for both a weeknight dinner and a night out with your grandparents, and you shouldn’t have a problem getting a table here, seeing as how there are two floors and plenty of seats.
The food here at Calexico is California-style Mexican, which really just means that you can get something like a burrito bowl, a quesadilla with chipotle mayo, or some fries with steak and cheese sauce. And, as long as you don’t consider it authentic Mexican food (and keep in mind the fact that nothing costs more than $12), this is a great place for an inexpensive meal. Bring some friends or a few children that you’re trying to raise. There’s plenty of room.
Like Calexico, The Meatball Shop is a mini chain where you can spend less than $20 on a meal. They specialize in meatballs here, and you can get yours one of several ways: on a roll, over a side (like spaghetti or polenta), or in a little bowl by themselves. There’s also a vegetable plate called the “kitchen sink,” and the vegetarian meatballs are surprisingly good. You can also add a cocktail or a few jello shots to your meal, and, for dessert, you can get cookie ice cream sandwich.