If you’re a twenty-something living on the Upper (upper) East Side I can understand if you sometimes find it difficult to find a place to gather your friends at a “hip,” “trendy” and interesting restaurant for some Thursday night fun. I am not talking about the East 60s here. This is for those of you looking for a fun place in the 80s on up. The area is great, but be realistic. A majority of the restaurants – while some are very good – are tailored more for families, will leave a dent in the wallet and do not attract a crowd full of young people catching up with their girlfriends, out for a date or just going out for a fun meal with a mixed group. So I have three suggestions for you: Flex Mussels, Bocca East and Toloache. This is by no means the end-all-and-be-all of where a twenty-something can eat in the East 80s. They are just a few that have come up on my dining radar and may be worth your consideration the next time you scratch your head looking for a place for drinks and a good meal that does not include wings and beers from Brother Jimmy’s. And yes, it is pure coincidence that two of these restaurants happen to be on the same block.
Flex Mussels in itself is a great concept. A beach-vibe restaurant with 23 distinct variety of mussels that come in large, deep pots to share amongst friends. If you enjoy mussels you will definitely find your niche here. Flex has everything from the classic preparation of mussels with white wine, herbs and garlic to more off-the-beaten track and creative innovations to the cuisine with menu items such as the Thai which consists of mussels in coconut curry brothm coriander, lemongrass, lime, ginger and garlic. I have dined at the West Village and Upper East Side locations a number of times so I have sampled quite a few of the selections and never find myself disappointed. The Parma and Bruschetta happen to be my favorites, but I have also enjoyed the Thai, San Daniele and Fra Diavolo (Note: If you order the Bruschetta you will be pleasantly surprised with the generous lobster portion). And what are mussels without fries? Try the regular or the truffle. … but really, just order the truffle fries. You know they will taste better.
If you have some people in your party who do not eat mussels, or do not even enjoy seafood, no need to fret. There are some options for them as well. They can order a nice piece of fish, lobster roll, chicken or take a sampling of some of the appetizers as well. It might not be the best spot for you non-mussel lovers, but it is a lively and fun place so if you can find something on the menu you would enjoy I suggest tagging along with the group. For dessert, the donut collection with a variety of dipping sauces is a must. Might as well skip over whatever else is on the menu because this is clearly the winner here if you like fried dough. I have also ventured off the road most traveled and tried the Deep Fried Whoopie Pie, which was quite tasty as well.
Now, I said this place was fun, so on to a little flavor of ambiance. I won’t lie to you. When you walk in on E. 82nd street, the entry way with counter top and bar seating is quite tight. You fight your way through the narrow entrance to the hostess stand among groups of people enjoying a drink or just taking their meal at the counter. I have never done Flex that way, but it actually looks pretty fun to kick back, be casual and order a pot of mussels at the bar. The crowd is mixed, but I do not think I have ever seen so many young people at an Upper East Side restaurant on a Thursday night. Maybe is was just the night I was there, but it was really a fun scene. Young women dolled up in their heels and outfits ready to take on the town and the young business-looking type men coming straight from the office in their suits (without the tie and with a couple more buttons unbuttoned on their shirts than is “work appropriate”). The place is always crowded and definitely an opportunity to do some good people watching. The decor sets you on the beach with brightly colored walls with ocean-set art work while the black-topped tables and metal chairs make me feel like i am at a real (somewhat upscale) seafood shack.
The service is decent, but can be spotty. The last time I was there our waitress forgot to give us silverware, came back to the table twice to confirm our meal and there was an approximate 25-minute pause between when we finished our appetizers to the arrival of the main course. Iffy service aside. … I will still go back. So the next time you have the urge for a Prince Edward Island treat gather the troops and make a pit stop the Flex Mussels. I do not think you will leave hungry or disappointed.
Flex Mussels, 174 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 717-7772.
When To Book: Flex Mussels takes reservations on OpenTable. It can be tricky sometimes to know how far in advance to book. If you know a week in advance you are going to want to stop in on a Thursday night or the weekend then you should probably book ahead. There are times, however, you can get lucky on a Thursday or Friday afternoon and find yourself a table at a decent time. You can always walk in and sit at the counter or bar as well.
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila. … floor! This Mexican taqueria situated just a few doors down from Flex Mussels on East 82nd street is another fun one for us younger folk. If you have the urge for a couple margaritas, a bowl of guac with tortilla chips and some tacos then drop by Toloache. Do not worry about the cocktail list – they have it covered. When it comes to the food I think it’s best shared among girlfriends since the taco portions would leave a grown man hungry and wanting more.
These are not your typical over-stuffed, extra large soft tortilla tacos. These are daintier and can fit in the palm of your hand. And if you are with your boyfriend or a group of young dudes, tell them to look at the side of the menu entitled, “Platos Fuertes.” Those dishes are probably more their speed. But then again. … this is a taco place. So just over-order and get a bunch of tacos, quesadillas and more to share.
The restaurant does a pretty good job of highlighting all of its signature dishes. I do not think you can go all that wrong by following those guidelines. I ordered one of the signature quesadillas with truffle, corn and manchego cheese that was delicious. It was not too big nor too rich, but it did leave me wanting more. Definitely start with some guacamole. It’s not the best in New York City (there’s quite a bit of competition), but nevertheless pretty good and will hold you over while sipping on margaritas waiting to order.
The restaurant is larger than you would think when walking in the door. There are a couple rooms in the back and the tables are spread out enough that you do not feel like you are bumping shoulders with your neighbor. The dining room was a little dark, but I guess the mood was set and the lights were not dimmed to a point where I wanted to fall asleep or anything. Again, being on the Upper East Side (and in Manhattan for that matter) the crowd was naturally mixed, but as I surveyed the tables around me there were a number of parties who looked to be in my same age range, whether they were on an awkward-looking first date or a group of girlfriends looking to catch up on each other’s week. Good”margs,” good food and good people. Another neighborhood solid in my book.
Toloache, 166 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 861-4505.
When To Book: Toloache takes reservations on OpenTable. You can usually get a table the day of your planned reservation or try to walk in.
This one is for you Italian lovers. The newer comer to the Upper East Side is an off shoot of one of my favorites from the very very West Side on 55th and 9th. When Bocca East opened on 78th and Second Avenue (it’s basically in the East 80s for those following this post and trying to fault me on a technicality) I was very excited to see how it would compare to the original Bocca Di Bacco. It did not disappoint. In some ways I even find this location more enjoyable. It is definitely more centrally located. This wine bar and trattoria is good for anything from al fresco dining to enjoying a nice glass of wine or devouring a big a bowl of pasta.
One of the more unique things to note about Bocca East (and it’s sister restaurant) is the wine system. The restaurant has a very complex wine storage system that essentially allows them to serve a very wide variety of vino on “tap.” In addition there is a fairly comprehensive selection of Italian wines, beers and cocktails to choose from. The dining room is rustic with wood floors, tables and chairs. The glass windows allow you to peer outside from your table and not feel closed in by the restaurant walls. You can always exercise the option in warmer months to take a table outside too. The dining room in the summer is a tad over air-conditioned, so if you are able to get outdoor seating I suggest doing just that. Plus, outdoor dining is usually more enjoyable anyway.
The menu is well rounded and consists of enough options for whatever Italian dish for which you might be in the mood. I would recommend sharing a number of appetizers. The Crostini Misti, Baby Artichoke Salad and Buffalo Mozzarella are all worth trying. Our waiter also suggested the Seared Yellow Fin Tuna and Grilled Shrimp, but we already had too much on the table. I will save those for next time! I have always been biased toward the meat dishes when dining at Bocca di Bacco on the West Side, so I decided to go with pasta on this visit and realized I had been missing out. The Bucatini all’Amatriciana (This happens to be one of my top three favorite pastas. … kudos to Bocca for somehow predicting that and putting it on the menu) was light, flavorful and cooked al dente just as it should be. It was quite a generous portion but there was nothing left when I was done with that plate. Others in my group ordered the scallops and skirt steak, and both were pleased with their meals.
The service was attentive an friendly enough. My one qualm was with the Buffalo Mozzarella appetizer when the waiter tried to convince me that bresaola was of the pork variety and not beef (Note: I am not a beef eater). When the dish arrived it was pretty clear there was cured beef on the plate in front of me. I get my Italian cured meats confused from time-to-time as well, but if the restaurant wants to be authentic its servers should be able to discern the difference! The Buffalo Mozzarella was creamy and delicious so it did not bother me too much. I ate and moved on.
Bocca East is a great for a date, vino with the girls or even a meal with the family. Again, it is very pleasant to sit at one of the outdoor tables so make your visit quick before the late Fall and Winter months force your meal indoors.
Bocca East, 1496 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10075. Phone: (212) 249-1010/
When To Book: Bocca East takes reservations on OpenTable. If you plan on dining at Bocca East earlier in the week you can likely book the day of or one day in advance. For Thursday, Friday or Saturday reservations I would suggest booking a week in advance or very early in the week. The prime-time tables can book up.