All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)
Barney Greengrass is near and dear to many New Yorkers’ hearts. Since the Upper West Side deli and appetizing shop opened its doors in 1908, it’s become of the the city’s most cherished institutions—everything from the paper-thin slices of smoked lox to the waiters’ old-school efficiency makes this restaurant the apotheosis of the Jewish delicatessen. In the face of gentrification and a changing NYC, Barney Greengrass reminds people of what this city is, in its essence.
We stopped by the shop recently and spoke with third-generation owner Gary Greengrass, whose grandfather opened the shop—affectionately known as “The Sturgeon King of NYC”—more than a century ago.
Gary, an opinionated man with an staunch commitment to serving the best smoked fish imaginable (we suspect he’s much like his grandfather), chatted with us about the restaurant’s famous fans, the Knicks, and why no one can recreate the magic of the place.
As I understand it, you’re a third generation owner.
Yes. The one that runs it into the ground [laughs].
How old were you when you started working at Barney Greengrass?
I mean, I was a little kid. I worked here when I was in high school and in college. I worked on the weekends—one day a week or something. At the end of the day, you get lured in. Or, rather, you get hooked in.
What’s your personal favorite thing on the menu?
I mean, I eat it all—look at this body. But if you want to try a different sandwich, try whitefish and Nova with vegetable cream cheese, tomato, and onion on a toasted bialy. It’s the sandwich to die for.
It’s no secret that you’ve got some famous fans of the shop—any stories you can share?
We don’t like to publicize, but the ones that have been associated with us over the years are Jerry Seinfeld, Alec Baldwin, and if you want to go back in the day, Al Jolson.
George Burns used to tell a story, how he used to be friends with Al Jolson because Al Jolson got Barney Greengrass, my grandfather, to send sturgeon to The Hillcrest Country Club down in Los Angeles. So George Burns used to tell Jolson how great he was, mainly because he used to share his sturgeon with him. Burns said after a while, he started to like the sturgeon better than he liked Jolson.
I told this San Francisco customer that we ship to Willie McCovey. I was kibitzing around and said, ‘Before they ever had steroids, how do you think he hit all those home runs? It was the sturgeon.’
Now you have a Barney Greengrass outpost out in Beverly Hills. What do you think the difference is between the L.A. and New York clientele?
Out there in Beverly Hills, it’s shishi. Here in New York, it’s just shi. Out in Los Angeles, they need more greens on their plate than they do here. The greens that they get here are pickles. Out there, they’re actually grown somewhere.
I heard a rumor you give out latkes to select customers. How do you decide who’s worthy?
I give ’em to any friend of my wife.
Are your best selling items lox (smoked salmon), sturgeon, and whitefish?
Those are the most popular—particularly Nova smoked salmon, then sturgeon and whitefish. Sable has grown in popularity. We have another fish called Pastrami Smoked Salmon, which is also really popular. And we make homemade cheese blintzes that are really catching on.
How much lox do you go through per day?
We go through hundreds of pounds a week.
What is the story behind your sable (black cod) recipe?
Smoked sable is just a part of the genre of appetizing. You know, years ago, sable used to be known as the “poor man’s sturgeon.” Over the years, it’s gotten ridiculously high-priced. The old timers in the smokehouse tell me that they used to practice on the black cod because it was such a cheap fish. Now, it’s a delicacy, because these world markets—Japan, America, all these Eastern European countries that have money—are buying up the black cod.
Is that also why the price of whitefish has gone up so drastically in recent years?
No, that’s because the fish is becoming more and more scarce. It comes primarily from the Great Lakes—some are from the Canadian Lakes—and this whole global warming thing affects fish. The fish have become leaner in size and leaner in quantity, and that predicates a higher price. Whitefish could become extinct not too far down the road, which would be a really sad thing.
How has the shop changed since your grandfather died?
The look of the place hasn’t changed much at all. You know, people open up businesses and they’re trying to emulate this look. But you can’t emulate it—this is the real McCoy.
The old feel and look is what we’re about—it’s a comfortable shoe. You come back to New York and there’s so much gentrification and so much change—to have something that hasn’t changed really is special.
In terms of the food, we want quality to reign. Everything is hand-sliced; our motto is “food for those who demand the best.” We don’t cut corners, no matter if it’s a tomato I’m buying or if it’s the blintzes we’re making—we want everything to be the best and we make everything from scratch. There’s a lot of labor involved, and this food’s expensive to bring to the table. But if you cut corners, it shows, and that’s just not what we do. I try to bring the best to the table.
People open up businesses and they’re trying to emulate this look. But you can’t emulate it—this is the real McCoy.
What’s your favorite story from working at the shop?
Back in the day, I was friends with Dick Schaap, the sportscaster. He sent a package to Billy Crystal who was filming City Slickers in Moab, Utah—in the middle of nowhere. And here comes this package of bagels and lox from Barney Greengrass. That puts a smile on your face. It brings you close to home. It ties you together.
I’ve heard your a diehard Knicks fan. How are they looking for next season?
The next season—the next 10 years—they’re going to need a lot of help. They’re obviously just a big disappointment, smoke and mirrors. They don’t have enough talent. They’re basically taking guys past their prime and putting them together with a little glue, hoping to get a championship, and that’s not how it’s done. They’re charging ridiculous prices for tickets and they’re not putting out a good product. If I put out a product like that—like, if one out of every two of my sandwiches was good—I would have been out of business 95 years ago.