When seeking a taste of this city’s culinary heritage, look for smoke and salt. Both have been used as methods of preserving foods far longer than Manhattan 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 twentieth century.
Used as a noun, the term “appetizing” describes the many pickled, smoked, cured, and cultured edibles served alongside bagels and bialys. And more often than not, the places that sell these goods are preserving traditions along with their fish. 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 ten 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 sixty years (and in its current incarnation, for the past nine). 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. Baz Bagel (181 Grand Street, 212-335-0609)
Of the various new-wave appetizing operations around town, this downtown café from Bari Musacchio is one of the most stylish, with its breezy, Floridian décor and Barbra Streisand obsession adding some tongue-in-cheek panache. There are latkes, blintzes, and matzoh brei to share, plus a selection of signature sandwiches, including the Pretty in Pink, a colorful combination of Nova salmon, dill, and beet-horseradish cream cheese on a pumpernickel bagel. Breakfast is served all day, and milkshakes come malted. Musacchio’s doughy rounds also make for an excellent (if pricey, at $12) pizza bagel.
8. Sadelle’s (463 West Broadway, 212-776-4926)
At the Major Food Group’s ritzy Soho noshery, it’s all about Melissa Weller’s doughy rounds, which staff parade through the dining room while chanting, “Hot bagels!” on their way to the bakery and appetizing counter up front. Dense and chewy, they’re perfect on their own or spread with cream cheese and layered with folds of outrageously supple house-cured salmon. Weller’s baked goods — particularly her sticky buns and chocolate babka — shouldn’t be missed, either.
7. Frankel’s (631 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-389-2302)
This bright, whitewashed throwback shop from brothers Zach and Alex Frankel counts indie hip-hop personalities El-P, of Run the Jewels fame, and solo artist Despot as investors (Alex is also a musician who plays as one half of Brooklyn synthpop duo Holy Ghost!). The bagels come from Baz, the smoked seafood from Kings County’s ubiquitous and reliable Acme Smoked Fish nearby. Ashley Berman, a former Food Network kitchen chef, helms the burners, delivering a menu of contemporary appetizing and deli fare — from matzoh ball soup to latkes, hot dogs, and even a brisket recipe that pays homage to a recipe from the brothers’ grandmother Anita.
6. 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, carrying babkas, rugelach, bagels, and bialys.
5. Sable’s (1489 Second 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 has 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 for great lobster rolls either at home or in the shop.
4. Shelsky’s Smoked Fish (141 Court 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, Shelsky and his team continue to offer their charming take on nibbles and noshes, including a pastrami salmon that uses Sichuan peppercorns and fermented bean paste. Check out the specialty sandwiches; boutique versions of rugelach and babka are available for dessert.
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’s 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 waitstaff barks orders, 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 includes 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 a hundred years, this family-owned shop has long been the downtown champion of old-school appetizing. 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 halva ice cream.