By Tracy Kaler

As I walk South on Broadway, I always know how many blocks I have left until I reach Zabar’s without ever looking at a street sign. I see the crowds of pedestrians ahead, the commotion and energy as I approach the store, and when I reach West 81st Street – the orange and white bags.

For more than 75 years, the landmark specialty store, originally owned and managed by Louis and Lillian Zabar, has been located on the block between 80th and 81st Streets on Broadway. Now owned by their sons Saul and Stanley, the destination attracts locals and tourists alike.

Every Wednesday, Saul Zabar hand selects and tastes each lot of smoked fish before any hits the shelves. Much in the same way, Zabar samples every batch of coffee for flavor consistency on Tuesdays.

In addition to coffee and fish, Zabar’s is also especially known for their gourmet cheeses, breads, olives, and a block-long prepared food counter where impatient customers keep 5-6 employees on their toes at one time. It’s not unusual for 20-30 patrons to wait with their numbers in hand on a weekend, as they eye the array of dishes like seafood paella, beef brisket, and Zabar’s own version of chicken parm in the packed display case.

Zabar’s began as a single storefront, but expanded over the years as neighboring spaces on Broadway became available. The mezzanine opened in the 1970s, and sells a plethora of kitchen gadgets and housewares including espresso machines, food processors, and portable grills. These non-food items comprise about 20 percent of the store’s total sales.

Long-time general manager Scott Goldshine says that despite the expansions over the years, Zabar’s is still very much a family business. Goldshine, who started at Zabar’s as a garbage boy 35 years ago, has managed the market for 15 years.

“I live on the Upper West Side, and Saul and Stanley live here too. We’re proud of being in this neighborhood, and being independent.” Zabar’s is part of a dying breed of small family businesses that have mostly disappeared from the streetscape of the Upper West and much of New York City. According to Goldshine, many of the employees have remained for 10 or 20 years and more, and it’s not uncommon for children and grandchildren to follow in the footsteps of their parents and seek a job a Zabar’s. “We have a loyal, dedicated staff. They care for the store, and for our customers, and it shows.”

Open 365 days a year, the busiest are holidays such as Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving. “We’re not like most markets. We rarely say ‘No’ to a customer.” Zabar’s frequently has clients call or come by on Thanksgiving morning for turkey and the standard accouterments. “We take orders up to the last minute.” As a result, holidays often warrant 24-hour shifts from the staff to get all of the orders out in time. Procrastinating New Yorkers know they can turn to Zabar’s. “We never turn away an order,” said Goldshine.

Saul and Stanley remain active in the shop’s operations on a daily basis. “They’re still very involved. There’s always a manager available on any given day,” Goldshine commented. Good management may be a main ingredient in Zabar’s recipe for success, but so is “tight quality control and selling the best product,” explained Goldshine. Along with top quality, they try to keep prices reasonable.

Personally, my favorites include the smoked salmon, French feta, and the rye bread, to name a few. There’s only one problem — I haven’t quite figured out how to maneuver from the cheese section to the fish counter to the bread department when I’m in a hurry. Then I tell myself that it’s only 15 minutes of my life, and soon I’ll be out of the madness of Zabar’s and on the street in the madness of Manhattan, until the next time.

I lamented to Goldshine my experience with crowds while shopping on the eve of Rosh Hashanah or at Passover. He understood.

“Occasionally, I have to lock the doors because there are too many people inside,” he said. But eventually, those crowds from inside filter back out onto Broadway; he unlocks the doors, and thousands of others fill the store again.

2245 West 80th Street

This is the fourth 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.

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.

Photos by Tracy Kaler.

COLUMNS, FOOD, NEWS | 3 comments | permalink
    1. Ivan Farkas says:

      Zabars is a gem. The best bang for the buck for gourmet foods, kitchenware, bread, coffee…you name it. Super friendly staff, generous tasting morsels of their exceptionally delicious food specialties, great and affordable selection of cheeses. All this within a few minutes’ walk/ride from home. How much more delightful could heaven be?

    2. Steve Stevens says:

      This article was brought to you by Zabars!! The most overrated food destination on the planet.