Restriction endonucleases are highly specific in recognizing the particular DNA sequence they act on. However, their activity is affected by sequence context, enzyme concentration and buffer composition. Changes in these factors may lead to either ineffective cleavage at the cognate restriction site or relaxed specificity allowing cleavage of degenerate 'star' sites. Additionally, uncharacterized restriction endonucleases and engineered variants present novel activities. Traditionally, restriction endonuclease activity is assayed on simple substrates such as plasmids and synthesized oligonucleotides. We present and use high-throughput Illumina sequencing-based strategies to assay the sequence specificity and flanking sequence preference of restriction endonucleases. The techniques use fragmented DNA from sequenced genomes to quantify restriction endonuclease cleavage on a complex genomic DNA substrate in a single reaction. By mapping millions of restriction site-flanking reads back to the Escherichia coli and Drosophila melanogaster genomes we were able to quantitatively characterize the cognate and star site activity of EcoRI and MfeI and demonstrate genome-wide decreases in star activity with engineered high-fidelity variants EcoRI-HF and MfeI-HF, as well as quantify the influence on MfeI cleavage conferred by flanking nucleotides. The methods presented are readily applicable to all type II restriction endonucleases that cleave both strands of double-stranded DNA.