New York: The Upper East Side's Best Spots
The Upper East Side, that most old New York of New York neighborhoods, has become a destination again, thanks to a proliferation of cool new boutiques and restaurants.
Nearly 25 years ago, Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe defined the Upper East Side as a place filled with Masters of the Universe and the social X-rays and lemon tarts who loved them. We asked his daughter, writer Alexandra Wolfe, to revisit some familiar territory.
Outside a fluorescent-yellow building, a line of lithe New Yorkers in fur-trimmed jackets files into a white minimalist entryway, letting the chorus of Kanye West’s “Power” blare onto the street whenever the door opens. Along the avenue, half a dozen black SUVs wait for sweaty celebrities in tight, shiny clothing to squeeze out.
They’re not at a Chelsea nightclub but at an otherwise sleepy corner of the Upper East Side; it’s a cycling studio called SoulCycle, and it attracts a bevy of boldfaced names to an area of town most scenesters refer to as “upstate.” The opening of SoulCycle East ($32 per class; 1470 3rd Ave.; soul-cycle.com), along with fitness hot spots like Brownings Fitness (from $85 per class; 980 Madison Ave.; browningsfitness.com) and the kickboxing gym Punch Fitness (from $150 per class; 1015 Madison Ave.; punchfitnesscenter.com), as well as a handful of popular new vegan restaurants, design shops and upscale hotel bars, has turned New York’s last real neighborhood into a destination. An area once defined by Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan blue-blood chic, anchored by establishments like Mortimer’s, Swifty’s and the old-line club triumvirate of Colony, Racquet and Union, is giving way to a nouveau art–set sleek, where Europe and Hollywood meet in the middle to mingle. The Upper East Side for me—a “lifer” at the Chapin School, an all-girls school on East End Avenue—meant wherever my parents would let me go with my bus pass, a laminated card that allowed me across town and perhaps down to Bloomingdale’s on a weekend. The stretch of canopied restaurants and independent boutiques on Third Avenue from 72nd to 86th streets was a preppy cafeteria where my friends and I would wear our Barbour coats over pastel cable sweaters to have fluffy omelet breakfasts at E.J.’s diner, chicken Caesars at Luke’s Grill on 79th and burgers at J.G. Melon, a hunter-green throwback with dark wood paneling and a four-deep wait at the bar. Later we’d use our fake IDs to convince the dubious bouncers at Martell’s to let us get tipsy off one beer.
That Upper East Side still exists—the one where boarding school kids come home from St. Paul’s and Taft, file into Dorrian’s Red Hand, with its jukebox and red-checked tablecloths, or Lexington Bar and Books, marked by mahogany tables and wafts of cigar smoke, while their parents dine at old-world stalwarts like the cash-only Sette Mezzo and Jean-Georges’ JoJo. We still find unique bibelots at the tastefully cluttered William Wayne and rejuvenate old clothes with new closures from Tender Buttons. But now, a decade past our bus-pass days, our old haunts provide a certain retro entertainment. Three Guys Restaurant (dinner, $35; 960 Madison Ave.; 212-628-8108) on 75th Street has changed from the home of the He-Man Special to the only place on Madison that understands eggs “dry, white and light.” Instead of going to Lotte Berk’s ramshackle townhouse on 67th Street to plié and arabesque with our mothers, we hold the plank in Core Fusion at Exhale Spa ($35 per class; 980 Madison Ave.; exhalespa.com). Smuggling Lepanto’s muffins into homeroom has turned into sneaking pink-and-white cups of steaming Sant Ambroeus (1000 Madison Ave.; 212-570-2211) coffee into spin class.
Spending a day on today’s Upper East Side is not only a chance to sample some of the city’s best cuisine, keepsakes and kids’ entertainment; it’s a glimpse of a neighborhood at a turning point, where old and new are still each other’s foils. For a taste of both, start your morning at Via Quadronno (25 E. 73rd St.; viaquadronno.com) on 73rd and Madison, and order a cup of Kobrick’s coffee and a fresh almond croissant to eat Italian-style at the long wooden bar. Burn it off at MB Regan’s 45-minute SoulCycle class, where front-row bikes are reserved weeks in advance. Leave the kids at Kidville (163 E. 84th St.; kidville.com), the brightly colored children’s club occupying four stories on East 84th Street, where they can take music, gym and yoga. After a shower and steam at Exhale Spa, you can have your makeup done by Shiko Vun at Valery Joseph (from $90; locations at valeryjoseph.com); or for a more extreme (yet outpatient) procedure, try French Lips from Dr. Andrew Jacono on Fifth Avenue, known as much for his patients’ pouts as Dr. Frederic Brandt is for his patients’ trademark rosy cheeks.