Barney Greengrass (BG) is a New York City “Jewish Deli” eponymously named after its founder who opened the business in Harlem in 1908. The deli has been at its present location, 86th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan since 1929 and is a New York institution.
Although a Jewish deli, it is not kosher. Simplistically, this is because meat is not separated from dairy at the restaurant.
What is a deli anyway? A deli is short for a delicatessen, a place where fine or foreign prepared foods (delicacies) are available. In the late 19th century, delicatessens were popularized by Jewish German immigrants serving in some cases cured or smoked foods, hence the name Jewish deli.
BG has turned itself into, with its mail-order business, an empire of smoked fish. The moniker of its founder, the sturgeon king, speaks for itself.
On a recent visit to Manhattan, my traveling companion and I researched “delis” in the area and saw that BG was a straight shot north on the subway line from our hotel. Unfamiliar with BG, we decided to eat there based on logistics. Although our decision to eat here was based on just dumb luck, the lunch at BG was one of the best of our trip.
BG is both a market and a restaurant. What struck me as I entered was how little it must have changed over the years. One sees the perhaps original deli case in the front of the restaurant accented by Formica tabletops, linoleum floors and aging wallpaper which curiously, depicts the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Though usually crowded on weekends, we arrived there about 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon and the place was relatively empty. Our waiter, both attentive and engaging in a repartee apparently emblematic of BG, quickly took our order.
Wanting room for our mains, we decided on a modest appetizer, the whitefish salad and Nova Scotia salmon. This was excellent with both the whitefish and the salmon smoked in house. For the salad, chopped smoked whitefish is mixed with celery, onions, green peppers and a modicum of mayonnaise. Both smoked fish portions come with onion, tomato, olive, in house prepared pickle and your choice of bagel. We picked onion which was a wonderful accompaniment to the smoked fish.
We almost could have stopped there but foolishly decided to order not one, but two sandwiches to split. The sandwiches were delicious and enough for two each.
They have a number of triple-decker sandwiches on the menu which asks you to order your sandwich by its designated number. The number five looked great and came with roast beef, chopped liver, turkey, coleslaw and Russian dressing. The bread choices are rye and pumpernickel. We chose the latter.
The chopped liver, an acquired taste, was plentiful and delicious. The owner, Gary Greengrass, was there and told us it was made from chicken liver, schmaltz (chicken fat), caramelized onion and egg. Heaven on pumpernickel!
We also ordered BG’s pastrami Reuben. It was served open-faced, with oodles of delicious in-house-made pastrami, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and sauerkraut. It was also heaven, but this time on rye! I can say that this was some of the best, if not the best pastrami I have ever had. This sandwich was the last one brought to the table and our server remarked that we were up for a 13 block walk after eating all this. “No” I responded, “more”.
Serendipitously we found BG and were very glad we did. Quality food such as this does not come cheap though. The total for this meal with tip was $85.00. As for your Mastercard, please leave home without it. Barney Greengrass does not take credit cards and is cash or check only. If you plan to be a regular, talk to them about an in-house charge.
The food at BG is excellent and highly recommended. This should be no surprise as BG has been consistently rated one of the best delis in the city. There was no kvetching here with our meal and I’m certain there will not be any after you eat here as well. A must-do when in or near Manhattan.