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As someone who grew up in New York City, one could even say that bagels run in my blood. Although New York is rapidly changing, especially Manhattan, the Lower East Side still has many of the best places to sample Jewish food in New York. This guide to the Lower East Side is set up as a self-guided walking tour of the best Jewish bakeries and restaurants in the LES (if not Manhattan).
As someone whose great grandparents lived in the Lower East Side after immigrating to the United States, the Lower East Side has a certain nostalgia for my family. I’ve tried to include my dad’s favorite places from when he was young (that still exist!) as well as some newer institutions that have opened up.
Come hungry and bring cash with you as you might not reach the credit card minimum at some places. Photos do not keep institutions in business, but money does. Although there are numerous food tours of the Lower East side, you can certainly go on your own without the rush of a food tour. I discuss the history and what to order at these famous Jewish cafes on the LES, so sit down, enjoy, and take a moment to enjoy these institutions without the rush of someone telling you that you must keep walking!
The walking route of the Lower East Side should take at least 2 hours with stopping off at various places to eat and wait in line. Think of this as an extended lunch or dinner. I recommend starting near the Broadway-Lafayette St Station subway. As a tip, New Yorkers do not pronounce Houston Street like the city in Texas, but rather closer to “House-tun.”
Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery
One of the key institutions of the Lower East Side is Yonah Schimmel’s. This knishery has been making knishes at the same spot in 1910. Prior to this, Yonah Schimmel sold his potato and kasha (buckwheat) knishes with a pushcart throughout the LES. This New York institution is a time capsule, so don’t expect posh decorations. They keep it simple.
A knish is a Jewish traditional pastry that is made with baked dough and a filling. It’s often made with potato, onion, and kasha. I usually recommend sprinkling it with a bit of salt and pepper for added flavor. (There are also sweet knishes, but I think of it more as a savory snack!)
Although there used to be more knisheries throughout New York City, but many are closing. (The other main knishery is Knish Nosh, which is located in Forest Hill, Queens.) Quite a few movies were filmed here, including a film by Woody Allen. (The wall on the back has clippings from various films.)
Order your knish to stay or to-go at the front. I recently had the potato knish when I visited, but you’ll find other variants including the kasha knish, spinach, and a potato/cheese knish. (It’s quite a heavy snack.) I recommend bringing cash as the knishes are cheap enough that you’re unlikely to trigger the credit card minimum, even with a drink.
Too many of New York’s classic Jewish delis are closing, but I suspect that Katz’s will be around for years thanks to the infamous orgasm scene within When Harry met Sally. This classic deli was established in 1888 under another name, but the name was changed later on. In 1988, the deli changed hands, but it’s still the same food.
You can also visit their second location within the DeKalb Food Market in Downtown Brooklyn if you’re not keen on waiting in line. To avoid the crowds, I recommend coming to the main location after peak lunch hours (after 4pm) or before lunch. They’re open all nights on weekends in case you’re looking for a hearty snack without the line! (I so recommend the pickles!)
The classic here is a Pastrami sandwich on rye bread (with mustard), which is often made from beef. I also recommend the matzo ball soup (if you can share or get a half sandwich…) It’s a very Jewish dish made from chicken broth and matzah meal that is often referred to as “Jewish penicillin.” It’s perfect for warming up in winter. Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach as the portions are hearty.
Others swear by the hot dogs (with mustard and sauerkraut), but to me, you can get a hotdog anywhere–but you cannot get Katz’s sandwiches anywhere else. Some other Jewish dishes that might be worth a try are the blintzes, which are often served in Eastern European cuisine. It’s similar to a pancake except folded with a sweet filling inside. Although I generally reserve latkes for Hanukkah, Katz’s serves these fried potato pancakes year-round with applesauce.
Ordering is not so complicated if you’re okay with not having table service. When you enter, take a ticket for each adult. Do not lose your ticket. From here, head to the counter for the food that you want to order. You’ll give your ticket in prior to getting the food and ticket back. Find a seat and pay when you leave!
Economy Candy might be the best candy store that you’ve never heard of. This candy store that opened prior to the Depression is a sweet lover’s paradise due to their cabinets upon cabinets of candy from all over the world.
Whether you’re looking for kosher candies, Pez, high-quality chocolates, or just anything tasty, you’ll find something to buy. I spent a while browsing their homegrown candies as well as the various candies before setting on some sour candies for another day. Your inner kid will thank you!
Russ & Daughters
In 1905, a Polish immigrant arrived in the Lower East Side ready to sell his goods to whoever would buy them. Joel Russ specialized in mushrooms and later herring. His pushcart was so popular that he was able to open a store specializing in appetizers. The “J Russ International Appetizers” store moved to the current location of Russ & Daughters in 1920. Around this time, he added & Daughters to his business name after his daughters came into the business. This was the first business in the United States to ever do so. The rest is history and the business is still family-run today.
The actual Russ & Daughters shop is fairly cramped and there’s no seating. Grab a number as soon as you walk in if you intend on ordering fish or bagels. I recommend the bagel with lox and schmear (salmon and cream cheese). On the other counter, you can also purchase chocolate babka, a delicious cake made with leavened yeast.
You generally will need to get your bagel to-go, however there are benches across Houston in the park. For a sit-down brunch, head to the Russ & Daughters Cafe for the food without the fuss.
The (New) Essex Market
The Essex Street Market was the first public market to house the pushcarts that once roamed the Lower East Side. In 1940, Mayor Laguardia pushed many of the pushcarts into covered indoor markets, which resulted in the market up in the Bronx at Arthur Avenue.
The Essex Market was one of these markets, but the push to develop more housing in recent years has meant that the city has spent over a million to rehouse the vendors (and new vendors) in a shiny new market that opened in summer 2019 at the bottom of a new affordable housing development. It’s a bit of a shame to lose the old building, but the world keeps turning and hopefully these new developments make the LES affordable for more New Yorkers.
The new market is shiny, nice, and credit-card friendly. I stopped off at a few stalls, including Porto Rico Coffee, for a snack and coffee. You’ll find food from all over the world here. The Jewish food at the moment is from mainly from Davidovich Bakery, which has great bagels. You can have your bagel with craft beer, if you please. There’s ample seating upstairs with free Wi-Fi. There’s also clean (& free!) toilets at the market.
Kossar’s Bagels & Bialys
The bialy is a lesser-known Jewish bread item that originated in Bialystok, Poland. This recipe made its way across the Atlantic (most likely through Ellis Island!) and landed in the Lower East Side where it became a popular fixture of Jewish food in New York City. There were once so many bialy makers that they had their own union.
I’ve had a lot of bialys and I don’t understand they don’t get the same love that bagels do. Kossar’s has the best bialys that I’ve tried in New York City (or anywhere; I have yet to visit Bialystok!) Bialys by themselves are pretty inexpensive and taste best warm out of the oven! There are a few tables where you can sit to eat.
The Pickle Guys
If you love pickles and you were not satiated after your visit to Katz’s Deli, I recommend stopping by the Pickle Guys for New York pickles. They’re new to the block by comparison to some of these one-hundred-year old businesses, but they make good pickles. A great snack for later!
Afterward, I recommend heading to the Tenement Museum for one of their tours (I recommend booking tickets in advance as they sell out!). At this fascinating museum, you can experience what life was like for the many immigrants who came to New York City by seeing their apartments as they would have existed at the time.
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