Barney Greengrass | New York, NY

Barney Greengrass (Facebook / @Real_Barney_G)
541 Amsterdam Ave. (map it!)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 724-4704
Open Tues-Fri, 8:30a-4p; Sat & Sun, 8:30a-4p
Accepts cash only
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

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 The design is delightfully outdated: small, old counters and shelves, lots of mirrored doors, display cases loaded with goods, tables and chairs positioned back-to-back.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.

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  1. mary jane says

    The deli is a favorite of our only child who lives in Brooklyn..The devastation in Staten Island and Brooklyn has my sweet angel volunteering between work, the deli’s gave and continue to serve people with no food, heat, electric..Oh, my when people ask me about Hell I tell them it is here when you lose your loved ones, home, electric, heat, food..why don’t people get it? I read with joy and anticipation your blog each and everyday, even saw your special on breakfasts in PBS…loved it. We live in the pacific northwest right across a bridge in washington state, near Portland, but we love Seattle better, we go up all the time on amtrak and stay with cherished relatives and friends, our only child lived there nearly 5 years, she knew all the breakfast places, she dated a local kid she had known here since kindergarten he works for the police and knows all the places to dine, food carts are now getting up there a lot and we love them, farmers markets are all year long, largest city in the entire state and sweet burbs with sweet places to catch breakfasts, my favorite meal of the day..Also a thriving wine industry in eastern washington..many of her classmates from university are into the wine scene in the front or back of the industry, we travel by car to sip some of the best wines in all of the country, I am a californian by birth but raised up here, hubbs is a brooklyn native and when I say they wine is great here oh, my goodness and organic tiny restaurants that serve local foods, oh, my and breakfast at some are their specialty oh, my goodness!!!!!!! Keep up your blog, I go to it early to read about you & your wife and two boys daily! Happy Holidays coming up, it is cold, dark, dank and windy most of 200 plus days of the year, but we have the greenest grass and moss a person could ever look at, skiing employs lots of people and snow is in the north cascades and in oregon they will open early big industry, I love to go to ski areas and not ski and dine for breakfast at tiny places a big treat for us…hubby is retired I work two non-profits for health care, hunger a big issue in our small town and unemployment!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Grrrrr…because our areas is lovely, but one cannot eat lovely…Education is the key but when your tummy hurts hard to go to school, I volunteer for food pantries and a food place at a church I don’t even belong, but I am a great cook so I enjoy it and are humbled by the people who frequent it daily, it keeps them going, why not help out in this the greatest country in the whole wide world…ciao

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