Throwback Thursday: Famous Dairy Restaurant

The Famous Dairy Restaurant at 222 West 72nd Street served traditional Jewish food and was a favorite haunt of writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. Stephen Harmon took this photo in 1981 and said the restaurant had the “best blintzes in the world.”

Singer, who died in 1991, apparently had a routine with the manager there, every time he walked in, according to the Times.

Three times a week, Isaac Bashevis Singer would walk into the Famous Dairy Restaurant, a narrow Jewish dining spot on West 72d Street near Broadway whose name bears no relation to its homespun clientele.

“What’s for lunch, Semkele?” the Nobel-Prize winning author would ask his regular waiter of 20 years, Sam Orenstein.

“The soup is mushroom and barley and the liver is on whole-wheat bread,” Mr. Orenstein would respond in what had become practically a vaudeville routine between them. “You’ll have a little dessert and coffee and you’ll be in good shape.”

Check out the menu below, circa 1975. Hot noodle pudding, just 70 cents!


Photo via Museum of the City of New York. (Click to enlarge, though it’s still hard to read.)

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FOOD, HISTORY | 57 comments | permalink
    1. Maria says:

      I remember the Famous Dairy because of friend too me there for the best scrambled eggs with onions for a weekend breakfast. I think they were open on Saturdays. Miss it!

    2. Sharon Stein says:

      The night I moved into my 73rd St apartment
      went there for dinner. I was so tired I fell asleep at the table. Waiter wanted to know if it was something he said.
      Wish it was still around. Thanks Steve for keeping
      UWS memories alive

    3. Rodger Lodger says:

      I.B. Singer was a great writer, but who cares whose blintzes he liked? About 15 years ago a counterman at Barney Greengrass was pushing an expensive cut of lox on me with this sure-fire pitch: Richard Dreyfuss buys this. I dunno, maybe this works on some people.

      • Paul says:

        I believe I read this in one of those late “heard it on the streets of NY” feature the Times used to run: Itzhak Perlman standing in line at Zabar’s Sunday morning, lots of people. He asks for nova, sliced thin. Counterman says, “Izzy, I don’t tell you how to play fiddle; don’t tell me how to cut lox!”

    4. Bob Lamm says:

      I will always miss this wonderful restaurant.

    5. Dee says:

      They were great blintzes! I remember seeing Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder at the counter sometime in the 80s. And nobody bothered them for autographs or anything. It was a civilized time and place.

    6. Cathy says:

      For years, I lived just down the block and I used to eat there on a regular basis. I’m still trying to find out the name and exact location of a restaurant on West 72nd St back in those days that was managed by Ethan Robbins, husband of Mary, of “Peter, Paul and Mary.!” I think it was a Scandinavian restaurant, but that may not be correct. It was, however, definitely managed by Ethan Robins.

    7. Musicman says:

      I was having breakfast in the Famous the week Mr. Singer won the Nobel prize for literature.
      Sam said to Mr Singer”so you got thousands of dollars for the Nobel prize. Do you think you can start tipping?”

      • There'sNothingThatHerringCan'tCure says:

        Singer’s answer was that he’d like to but his heart wouldn’t let him.

    8. Dan O. says:

      It’s 1981. Several friends and I – all of us men in our thirties – are having a Sunday breakfast at Famous Dairy. Cary Schneider orders pancakes, and the mittel-European waitress asks, sweetly, “Would you like some real maple syrup?” Cary responds, “Why, yes, that would be very nice.” Waitress exclaims with a grin, “Hah! We don’t have any!!,” and walks away.

    9. Katherine Bouton says:

      I love this. Famous Dairy was around the corner when I first moved to New York. First time I ever ate mushroom-barley soup, blintzes, and a host of other delicious things I’d never encountered in my bland suburban childhood. Also on the other side of 72nd was Eclair pastry shop, the dessert version of Famous. Miss them both.
      Also had my first Chinese food at Chun Cha Fu (I think that’s right), now Carmines.

      • geoff says:

        wow! i’d forgotten all about Eclair. and next door to that, maybe, was Al Buon Gusto; how i miss their minestrone. it became the model for how i make my own.

        • manhattan mark says:

          The Eclair had the best pastry and cakes, The Opera cake was
          the one we got for every occasion . The best ever!

      • Paul says:

        …and the best burgers were a few doors from Famous, same side of the street, at Tweeds Bar.

      • Cato says:

        I remember Chun Cha Fu! Ah, those were the days.

    10. Diane says:

      I miss Famous. Can’t find this kind of old world food anywhere except, perhaps, LES. A loss for we who remember and those who will never know the pleasure of their creamed spinach.

    11. Steven Lerner says:

      In the 70’s, my wife and I discovered we didn’t have enough to pay the check. The waiter pulled out his tip from the bills in my hand and sent us to the cashier, who said, “It’s ok, you’ll come back and pay later.” Boy, was she surprised when we did.

      • Paul says:

        There was a middle aged waitress (I don’t think any of the waiters or waitresses were under the age of 50)who used to wait on me often. Once I asked for the check and she said “not until you finish what’s on your plate”. And she was serious!

    12. KateBB says:

      This shiksa enjoyed eating at Famous now and then. Once I sat right next to Stiller and Meara at the counter!

    13. Paul says:

      When I drove a cab in the 70s the Famous was one of my regular stops, minimum 2x week. The mushroom barley soup, protose steak (what in the hell WAS that?)and the best mohn (poppyseed)cake I’ve ever had. Owner’s name I think was Max Stein. Whenever I think of the “Famous” it brings back an UWS that exists only in the echos of ghosts — faded Jewish intellectuals passionately debating politics and philosophy in the cafeterias (Sterling, Olympia, Crest to name a few) and on the benches on Broadway.

      Does anybody remember a lunch counter, “The Norwood”, on 99th and Broadway, west side of the street? The two counter guys, Mike and (??),knew everybody by nicknames they gave the regulars. Mine was “Chicago” and when you were a regular they’d yell back to the cook, “make it nice” (that meant maybe an extra potato or a bigger helping of meatloaf).

    14. L.K. says:

      We loved this place! Especially the cheesecake! When my folks came to visit, my father said if he lived in NYC he’d eat there all the time.

      • Bob Lamm says:

        Best cheesecake I’ve ever had, including at Junior’s and other famous cheesecake places.

        • GG says:

          Been to Veniro’s?? Down on like 10th or 11th on 2nd Ave.?

          They have some good treats in that spot, or at least they used to. I haven’t been in a decade or two but I can still taste that chocolate chip cheese cake. MMMMmmm and those canolis.:)

    15. EDDIE Izso says:

      I️ was a manager atfamous for over 5 years in the 80’s. What great memories. SAM , CECILE, HERMAN , jack behind the counter. All the special customers.
      Real New York karen nd of place

    16. Sherry Dworsky says:

      thanks for posting good memories

    17. jean says:

      I remember reading the Singer short stories in the New Yorker. There was frequently some conversation going on in some humble cafeteria it seemed. I told myself someday I’ll move to NYC and find that place. Here I am on West 70th but the Famous isn’t. It’s all in the timing.

    18. Nelson says:

      Anyone remember AL BUON GUSTO on 72nd Street in the 80s? OMG that was the cuisine of my youth. I can still see the neon sign outside, “Not Fancy But Good.” Ohhh, the chicken parm. Who remembers???

    19. Ira Stein says:

      My family owned the restaurant from the early 60’s until summer of 77 (or 78?). It’s where I learned how to make the perfect egg cream, and that lox is better than nova. I always promised myself that if I ever hit lotto I’m going to recreate it somewhere in the city.

    20. Roseann says:

      I had the great fortune of meeting Mr. Singer. He was a treasure. It’s something I’ll never forget. I’m so lucky.

    21. Marcia Epstein says:

      I wish I could go. I miss places like that.

    22. GG says:

      Now this is what this site should be about.

      I could read these little stories and memories all day. This is the real deal. Keep the stories coming. How about a feature like this once a week…or a discussion of some neighborhood nostalgia. I don’t know. You guys are the media experts.

    23. William Kessman says:

      Loved the blintzes and the cheesecake at Famous. Went there often during my time in NYC in the 70s.

    24. Jimbo says:

      Anybody remember Bloom’s bakery on 72 St???

    25. I recall going to Famous Dairy Restaurant with IB Singer who had been my writing teacher my senior year in college and then became a mentor afterwards. It was a good spot to go eat for both of us, as neither of us ate meat. I have lots of wonderful memories and stories of Mr. Singer who was always good for a great story or two. When I predicted he’d win the Nobel Prize he thought I was wrong. He told me “There’s too much anti-Semitism in the world.” Maybe so, but I was happy when I found out he got the Prize after all. Then I kidded him about my being right. What an amazing writer he was and how generous he was to me as a young writer. I’ll always remember him with a smile.

    26. Miss It says:

      The coffee was dreck, but I loved the place.

      • Westside_Mimi says:

        OMG that is funny! I totally agree! And the eggplant parmigiana – FEH! But I remember when I first moved to the west side and ate there,I felt I was home!

    27. Maria says:

      Al Buon Gusto – first time I ever had pesto! Got my purse stolen there. They had a sign not to leave it hanging on the back of the chair. Well, I was young and naive and that’s what I did and it was stolen!

    28. Leah B says:

      Does anybody remember Steinberg on West 82nd Street also a hangout of Isaac Singer?
      Or the Garden cafeteria where he went all the time on East Broadway?They were both delicious and now only exist in memory.Why aren’t there more dairy restaurants?

    29. Rachel says:

      Loved going there with my grandmother and my young baby!!!! Have so many memories of the waitstaff!!!
      “Bring back famous!!!”

    30. Zeus says:

      At Famous, the waitress named Violet used to pick up a fight with me, every time I’d sit to eat.
      That was in the late to early 1980’s.
      She was a tiny older lady, good looking in her own way, but boy, she had a mouth like no other. But it was a part of eating there, and I looked forward to our next encounter – always.
      Later on I saw her walking with a younger woman, who was a health helper. Violet retired and was getting there in years.
      She lived across the street from me, and our war of words turned into a true friendship.
      I’d help her with shopping and carrying her stuff, and once took her to her doctor.
      Loved the food there, even though a hot dog cost north of $8 – and that was at least 35 years ago.

    31. Bruce Bernstein says:

      why we miss the old UWS:

      1) all of these places were good and affordable. commercial rents weren’t insane.

      2) apartments were inexpensive enough that writers and actors could live in them… BEFORE they got famous.

      3) the neighborhood was diverse by race and class.

    32. jezbel says:

      For the record Zabars sell frozen fresh made blintzes. They’re just like my grandmother used to make. Not the bloated overly sweet ones that are deep fried by most restaurants. But the delicate ones made of Pot cheese (Farmers cheese)& delicately wrapped in a crepe like wrapper. They’re amazing. Either garnish with sour cream or your favorite fruit topping.

    33. Eric says:

      I used to eat lunch there with my dad in the late 70’s with dad Harvey Probst who was the tv repairman at Broadway TV a few doors to the east (maybe you can do a throwback thurs on Broadway TV-I’ll see if I have a picture).
      I worked summers making deliveries and helping my dad install window airconditioners all over the upper westside (5 story walkups included)
      My dad had a theory about eating soup on a hot summer day to raise your body temp and bear the outside heat better. I also learned to love kascha there.

    34. Wijmlet says:

      Long missed