The 10 Best Appetizing Counters in NYC
All photos by Adam Robb
When seeking an enduring taste of this city's culinary heritage, look for preservatives. Smoke and salt have been used as methods of preserving foods far longer than New York has had a grid plan, but the ways in which these techniques were utilized by turn-of-the-century Eastern European immigrants established a subsection of local cuisine -- appetizing -- that was dominant for much of the 20th century.
Used as a noun, the term "appetizing" loosely describes the many pickled, smoked, cured, and cultured edibles served alongside bagels, and in many instances, the places that sell these goods are preserving traditions along with their fish. Their inextricable link to the city has recently reignited, as many relatives of early immigrants look to the past for inspiration while applying newly acquired techniques and culinary know-how. These New Kids on the Kreplach are working within an evolved terroir, but while they look to change the game, plenty of old guard shops have become rarefied destinations in their own right, sustaining a local clientele. Some feature table service, others aren't much more than salty bodegas -- all will give you a pungent taste of New York history. Here are the 10 best appetizing counters in NYC, perfect for noshing on some nostalgia.
10. Avenue P Appetizer (466 Avenue P, Brooklyn; 718-339-7202) This kosher Gravesend store has been operating for over 60 years (and in its current incarnation for the past seven). In addition to freshly baked bagels, the narrow space -- with glass counters that run the length of the shop -- is brimming with smoked and cured fish, juicy pickled herring, and an array of prepared salads, chopped liver, and other spreads. Rugelach and other baked goods are also available, but if you're looking to entertain guests, Avenue P's old school platters can't be beat for their products and artistic design.
9. Fairway (2127 Broadway, 212-595-1888) Despite a history that dates back to the 1930s, you'll find no grand family traditions passed down through generations here. But Fairway is a New York supermarket at heart, at least, and it runs a commendable appetizing section, with buckets of pickles and olives, a formidable smoked fish counter with kippered salmon, whitefish, sturgeon, and multiple varieties of Nova lox. As a corporate operation, it even carries Fairway brand sides of smoked salmon that are perfect for catering.
8. Schwartz Appetizing (3008 Avenue L, Brooklyn; 718-951-8575) This 40-year-old family-owned appetizing shop lies deep in the kosher wilds of Borough Park, where it's known for an impressive array of herring. The oily fish comes pickled, cured in wine, and swimming in oniony cream sauce for shtiglitz herring. The interior is spare and the owners are moody -- it's more of a corner store than a grand appetizing destination -- but flash a smile towards the counter, and chances are you'll walk away happy.
7. Zabar's (2245 Broadway, 212-787-2000) One of New York City's most famous grocery stores, Zabar's started as an appetizing counter within another market in 1934 and quickly expanded, eventually becoming the half-block complex it is today. Its renowned appetizing section features numerous deli salads, five kinds of caviar, olives and cheeses from all over the world, and several varieties of in-house smoked fish. Zabar's also has the benefit of a great bakery section as well, carrying babkas, rugelach, bagels, and bialys.
6. Shelsky's Smoked Fish (251 Smith Street, Brooklyn; 718-855-8817) Peter Shelsky beat the current appetizing craze by a few years when he opened his eponymous appetizing shop in 2011, merging traditions new and old while succeeding in bringing a cultural pastime back to his home borough of Brooklyn. Now in a new Cobble Hill location, Mr. Shelsky and his team continue to offer their charming take on nibbles and noshes, including a take on pastrami salmon that uses Szechuan peppercorns and fermented bean paste. Check out the specialty sandwiches; boutique versions of rugelach and babka are available for dessert.
5. Baz Bagel (181 Grand Street, 212-335-0609) Of the various new-wave appetizing operations, this Lower East Side spot from Bari Musacchio and Barney Greengrass vet David Heffernan is easily the most stylish, with its breezy, Floridian décor that adds a panache that's missing from most of its ilk. There are latkes, blintzes, and matzoh brei to share, and a selection of signature sandwiches, including the Mooch, a garish stack of Scottish salmon and sable topped with cream cheese, tomato, onion, and chives on an onion-garlic bagel. The menu is still being worked out, but occasionally the doughy rounds come topped with marinara, mozzarella cheese, and basil -- a Metropolitan area specialty, and a possible nod to Ms. Musacchio's former career as GM of Italian-American restaurant Rubirosa. And don't forget to save room for babka bread pudding.
4. Sable's (1489 2nd Avenue, 212-249-6177) Danny and Kenny Sze ran the appetizing counter at Zabar's before opening this Upper East Side joint in 1992, where it's remained a neighborhood staple even as the area's experienced an influx of younger renters and homeowners. Smoked salmons fold with softness and fluffy whitefish salad gets scooped onto bagels, but it's the namesake sable, supple and moist, that's most impressive. Provided they're not too busy, the counter staff will offer up tastes of the shop's proprietary lobster salad, which isn't too mayo-forward and makes great lobster rolls either at home or in the shop.
3. Murray's Sturgeon Shop (2429 Broadway, 212-724-2650) Murray Bernstein opened this Upper West Side storefront in 1946, and it's remained a beloved resource for the display case's most luxurious tenant, which is firmer and paler than Greengrass' blushing version thanks to a heavier smoke. Narrow and staid under a fluorescent glow, the counter -- and its trays of pickled salmon, creamed salads, and bronze-and-silver-skinned fish -- is the domain of Ira Goller, who took over the shop in 1990. At any given time, you're likely to find the friendly owner attending to customers, making small talk while deboning whitefish fillets or weighing slices of eastern smoked salmon.
2. Barney Greengrass (541 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-724-4707) New York's oldest surviving appetizing restaurant, this Upper West Side institution opened in 1908. You can sit in the timeworn, beige dining room eating lox and eggs while the wait staff barks orders while grabbing straws for cans of Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray celery soda, or take your pick from the cold case. Greengrass labels itself the sturgeon king, and the flaky, thick slices of pink-hued fish are subtly smoky with remarkable unctuousness. Third-generation owner Gary Greengrass oversees the action these days, which also offers pastries, cheeses, matzoh ball soup, blintzes, and other Jewish comfort dishes.
1. Russ & Daughters (179 East Houston Street, 212-475-4880) In the same location since 1920, and with roots going back 100 years, this family-owned shop has long been the downtown champion of old school appetizing shops. There's a reason Louis C.K. keeps bringing potential girlfriends here to dangle velvety smoked salmon in front of their faces. You'll find eight different kinds of caviar, thirteen kinds of salmon, and an assortment of sturgeon, sable, various herrings, chubs, and trout. Not to mention the display fridges along the western wall, which are filled with soups and prepared foods. Josh Russ Tupper and Nikki Russ Federman, great-grandchildren of founder Joel Russ, recently expanded the empire to include a café where diners can enjoy the family's bounty, as well as updated riffs like babka french toast and halvah ice cream.
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