Where Lox Unlocks the Past

  • Share
  • Read Later
Chester Higgins Jr. / The New York Times / Redux

John Bodine waits on patrons at Barney Greengrass, also known as the Sturgeon King, on Manhattan's Upper West Side

The Sturgeon King keeps his palace shabby. "We want the place to be a time capsule," says Gary Greengrass, the third-generation owner of Barney Greengrass, the Upper West Side culinary institution, which this week celebrated its 100th anniversary. The fittings — Formica tables, plain white countertops, yellowing wallpaper — certainly harken to the era when Greengrass's grandfather, Barney, began selling sturgeon, whitefish, blintzes and other delicacies of the Eastern European Jewish palate at the store's former Harlem location. But over the ensuing century, Barney Greengrass evolved into one of New York's quirkiest dynasties: an empire built on smoked fish.

Barney Greengrass has much in common with the city it feeds. It oozes character, is steeped in history and can be rough on the wallet. (The sturgeon sandwich is yours for a mere $17.75.) After moving to its current location on 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 1929, the restaurant flourished. In 1938, New York state senator and Tammany Hall leader James J. Frawley conferred the Sturgeon King title on Greengrass; the following year, the fishmonger shipped 10 lb. (4.5 kg) of the bony, toothless fish to the Thanksgiving retreat of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Warm Springs, Ga.

Since then the restaurant, which Gary Greengrass likens to an "old, comfortable shoe," has kept pace with the Upper West Side's swelling prosperity. As soaring rents forced many of the neighborhood's mom-and-pop stores to yield to an invasion of banks and upscale boutiques, Barney Greengrass thrived. An oft-cited study holds that 60% of restaurants fail within their first three years, but this unassuming cured-fish emporium appears to be gaining steam as it chugs past 100.

Part of its staying power is undoubtedly the quality of its cuisine — it has been named New York's best deli for the past 11 years and running by the esteemed restaurant guide Zagat. But for many of its customers, Barney Greengrass offers a taste of the lost world of their immigrant parents or grandparents. "It's the whole gestalt that knocks your socks off," says Peter Rauch, who has been a customer for about 20 years. "It's like turning the clock back and being in a different time. The waiters banter, the guys behind the counter tease you. And you give it right back to them."

Still, the store's reach goes well beyond those looking to connect with their family roots by partaking in the epicurean habits brought to America by their forebears. While Jerry Seinfeld is a regular, photographs on the wall also testify to the patronage of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio. Like much else of Yiddish culture — bagels and lox, say, or words like chutzpah — Barney Greengrass belongs to all of New York, and as such to an impressive stream of international destination diners.

The restaurant's centenary party, which drew roughly 300 regulars on a windswept Wednesday night, epitomized its peculiar brand of down-home glitz. Under a leaking canopy tent, guests trudged down a "red carpet" of AstroTurf, past professional photographers who spent as much time snapping preening toddlers as local bigwigs. Many of the regulars have long entanglements with the Greengrass family. Nancy Claster, a Philadelphian who grew up on 86th Street, noshed on eggs at the restaurant with her grandfather, who painted the portrait of Barney Greengrass that adorns a wall. Arthur Udell, a customer for nearly 70 years, speaks fondly of evenings when Gary Greengrass's father Moe, an amateur magician, would entertain clients with card tricks.

"This is one of those great New York establishments," says Dr. Jonathan LaPook, who attended the event with his father, a customer since 1938. "It's woven into the tapestry of the city." The place conjurs particularly sweet memories for LaPook, who, moments after proposing to his wife in Central Park, took her for eggs, nova and onions at Barney Greengrass. Their waiter was the first person to learn of their engagement. "It's the same now as it's ever been," LaPook says. "I'm not sure they've even swept the floors."

For many, the tastes of Barney Greengrass are a sensory prompt to memories of their youth. "The food reminds me of the good parts of my childhood," says Steve Hyman, a customer for more than 30 years. The highlight of his week, he recalls, was the Sunday morning family feasts of bagels, lox, onion and eggs. "That's something that drives me here as much as the food. You're reconnecting with yourself."

Gary Greengrass insists his family's winning formula is a simple one: mix top-drawer food with the warmth and intimacy of a traditional family business. "Smoked fish is our marquee," he says, "but there's something about this food that ties generations together."