Barney Greengrass (Facebook / @Real_Barney_G)
541 Amsterdam Ave. (map it!)
New York, NY 10011
Open Tues-Fri, 8:30a-4p; Sat & Sun, 8:30a-4p
Accepts cash only
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Date of Visit: Saturday, October 20, 2012 at 9:30 a.m.
Saturday morning. Our one big morning in New York City. There’s lots of pressure on what we choose for breakfast – we have to make it count. Fortunately, our reading and research let us to the New York gem Barney Greengrass. Nicknamed “The Sturgeon King,” Barney Greengrass is a 104-year-old Upper West Side deli, serving all of the true deli classics: smoked and cured fish, caviar, bagels, fresh roasted coffee – lots of prepared foods alongside fish and meats by the pound and other grocery items.
If you grew up in New York or are more experienced eaters than us, maybe you’re used to establishments like Barney Greengrass. I’ve experienced more simplified local delis or the imitation ones that dot America (excepting more unique finds like Katzinger’s in Columbus or Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor). But Barney Greengrass is the real deal. As suave as we think we are as travelers, we stood out like sore thumbs. We stepped right into the middle of a busy Saturday morning rush, and while we were warmly welcomed, we definitely felt that we should keep a low profile amongst all the regulars.
The space was crammed and busy, but we didn’t wait long before being given a seat close to the door. The busy crew at Barney’s seemed to know everyone, and there were a lot of families with kids. The design is delightfully outdated: small, old counters and shelves, lots of mirrored doors, display cases loaded with goods, tables and chairs positioned back-to-back. It the front window is a list of all the famous movie and television scenes filmed in the restaurant.
Mrs. Bfast w/Nick is a big fan of smoked salmon and lox. That, plus knowing that we were dining with the Sturgeon King, meant that we were both in mood for some fish. Our eyes were draw to the list of specialties, which features different salmon and sturgeon preparations. The platters below include more of those, plus whitefish and sable.
We started with coffee, served in small green and white cups. It was strong, hot, and delicious, and they kept it filled.
At the suggestion of our server (who was the best – more on that soon), we started with an order of latkas. We noticed, however, that he referred to them as “potato pancakes” to us. Again, despite our efforts to blend in, we were clearly outsiders.
Expectations were high on these, and they delivered. I’m by no means the latka king, but these easily top my list. They’re thick and chunky. Shredded potatoes inside are moist and well-seasoned, and wonderfully crisped on the outside. Served with the sides of sour cream and applesauce.
Like I said earlier, Mrs. Bfast w/Nick is a big fan of smoked and salted salmon, so she naturally ordered the lox platter. Her request, though, was met with a simple, “It’s too salty for you” from our server. Plain as that. When she tried requesting it again, he just repeated, “No, it’s too salty for you.” He wasn’t mean about it, just honest. I’m sure they’ve had so many tourists try the lox, find it too salty, and try sending it back. I loved it. The server and the restaurant are so true to their DNA that they won’t let you order something they know you won’t like. After the server “lox-blocked” her (Mrs. Bfast w/Nick’s term), she asked for the gravlax salmon platter instead, which he let her order. Gravlax (spelled “gravlox” on their menu) is a preparation using dill and other spaces. She gave it rave reviews. Super fresh, delicate, and flavorful. Notice the small bite of salmon next to her coffee cup. She caught her server later and asked if she could just try a sample of the lox. He gave her a small slice. Turns out he was right: it was really salty. Amazing, but salty.
As we were in the land of the Sturgeon King, I ordered the sturgeon cooked with eggs and onions. It was a dense plate of protein, salty and a bit smokey. The eggs were cooked just right, the sturgeon flaked apart, the onions offered a nice little punch of flavor. I took each bite slowly, savoring the wonderful flavors.
Each meal came with their house-made bagels. I asked our server which bagel we should order, and he replied “the everything bagel” without hesitation. They were terrific. Big, mostly crispy, a bit chewy, very salty. Served with a tiny slab of cream cheese. It was simply delightful to pair with the fish and eggs.
My seat gave me a direct view of the bagel case. I heard that simple clicking sound of the plastic doors opening and closing pretty much constantly. If we hadn’t had a day of wandering Manhattan ahead of us, we would have taken a dozen home.
We loved our experience at Barney Greengrass, so much so that we kept geeking out about it throughout the day. I felt that we discovered a New York institution and got to join the crowd of regulars enjoying their Saturday breakfast. The food was delightful: authentic, house-made, packed with flavor. A little expensive, too: our meals were about $15-19 each, but a.) we were in New York, and b.) it was well worth it and speaks to their 100-year-old tradition of excellence.