This is the first article in a West Side Rag series about the most essential eateries on the Upper West Side. Spurred by the sudden closure of H&H Bagels last year, we asked ourselves the question: what other restaurants, markets, and bakeries are absolutely essential to the neighborhood? This is not a list of the “best” restaurants; it’s an homage to the places that define the neighborhood, the spots where we hope and expect our grandchildren will be noshing decades from now.
By Tracy Kaler
More than a century after its opening, Barney Greengrass is still the go-to establishment for the freshest smoked and cured fish in New York City. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Gary Greengrass runs the show at the “Sturgeon King” six days a week on the Upper West Side.
On weekends, customers flock to the quintessential deli for an assortment of Nova Scotia salmon, house-cured gravlox, whitefish, egg scrambles, bagels, and the tastiest potato latkes in Manhattan. Lines are out the door; Greengrass followers come from near and far for a piece of old New York history, and a plate of Jewish soul food.
Recently I ate brunch myself, and sampled what seemed to be half of the menu. I wasn’t disappointed in anything on the table. “Have you had the orange juice? Greengrass asked. “You have to try it”. I think that was one of the few items that I didn’t order. Two minutes later, a waiter delivered a glass. It had to be the most mouth-watering, freshly squeezed OJ that I have ever tasted. Greengrass wasn’t surprised by my reaction.
Barney Greengrass came to New York City at a young age as a Russian immigrant. The original shop was at 113th and St. Nicholas in Harlem, but in 1929 it moved to Amsterdam Avenue between 86th and 87th Streets, and has been there since. Gary Greengrass learned the business from his father Moe, working by his side for more than twenty years. He began helping on weekends and during Yom Kippur, which was the busiest holiday.
Eventually, after graduating from NYU, he made a choice to join the family business and work in the store full-time. “People don’t realize all that goes in to running a restaurant.” When I asked him what advice he would give to new entrepreneurs, he recommended a good formula, word of mouth, and a public relations agent. Although Greengrass doesn’t need press today, he can remember a different time. “Back in the early eighties, the New York Times ran an article on us and our business doubled overnight”, he said. Through the years and even in a weakening economy, Barney Greengrass has managed to thrive.
Currently, Gary Greengrass is the only member of the family involved in the business. But that could change; his five-year-old son Moe is starting young. Moe can often be found running around the shop, and has already expressed interest in owning a restaurant like his dad. That’s keeping it in the family.
The long hours and dedication have paid off for other less obvious reasons. “We tie generations together,” Greengrass said. “People of all ages come in here.” Greengrass has added the grandchildren of his original customers to the growing list, as well as an international following. “We serve people from all over the world. Somehow they find us.”
Despite the less-than-polished décor, Barney Greengrass has been used as a filming location for numerous movies and television shows. The somewhat dowdy interior doesn’t keep the celebrities away either. “We’re like an old comfortable shoe. Why change it?” Greengrass admits that he does quite a bit of maintenance on the building that customers would never notice. If they did, more than likely he would hear about it. Its shtick is the dated look that hasn’t changed in years; it’s like stepping back in time.
One recent afternoon, I asked him for the secret. How is it possible to have a successful shop 104 years later? His answer was simple, “Hard work and top product.”
“We don’t cut corners,” said Greengrass. “We’re the real McCoy.”
541 Amsterdam Avenue at 86th Street
Tracy Kaler is an Upper West Sider, who was a cool kid back in the 70’s, when everything was cool and a little scary. Now she’s a writer/blogger, dancer, interior designer, amateur cook/foodie, fashionista wannabe, and overall creative soul. You can read more of her writing at Tracy’s New York Life.