The Greengrass family have been making New Yorkers happy for 112 years now, with three generations of "Sturgeon King" royalty hawking their smoked fish and appetizing dating back to 1908, when Barney opened the namesake shop first in Harlem, then moving to the current location on Amsterdam Avenue in 1929. In 1955 it was Moe's turn to run things and, among his other passions and skills (mostly involving smoked fish), he amused all with his card tricks by the register even after turning over the store to Gary in 1982.
Gary Greengrass, who mans the register and answers the phone to this day, has taken the business into the 21st century, and brought it online, though both the character and attitude of the place remains steadfastly old school New York. That includes Gary's behind-the-counter schtick, which delivers more groaners per minute than the entire Borscht Belt in its heyday. "I had a customer call me up the other day," Gary told us, "and she ordered four Nova Scotia sandwiches with cream cheese, tomato, and extra extra onion. She emphasized extra onions. I asked her if that was her version of social distancing?!"
Right now, like most every place in town, Barney Greengrass is hurting. Despite keeping the doors open for take-out and delivery, Gary says that "overall, business is down 50%. Our restaurant is closed, and that impacts us the most. But even the over-the-counter business, or shopping in the store, is down almost 80%" from the pre-pandemic days. Gary says that he got shut out during the first round of PPP loans, and has tried again on the second round, though "nothing has come through yet."
Fortunately, the Greengrass family has a long history of shipping smoked fish around the country, and that part of business has seen a nice uptick of late, "thanks to many customers who moved from the city to their summer homes," Gary said. "We have been doing mail order since my grandfather's days, though back then the shipping labels said 'if not delivered in three days never mind!!' I am grateful for the work Fedex has done during this difficult time."
Pretty much the entire Barney Greengrass menu is available for same-day delivery, pick-up, or next-day shipping. There are at least ten different kinds of smoked fish, a whole slew of salads and cream cheeses, tins of caviar, jars of pickled fish, sliced meats like pastrami and corned beef, a variety of breads and bagels, and sweets like chocolate babka and black & white cookies. In other words: serious feast potential.
For a large part of my life I lived within walking distance of Barney Greengrass, and have been going there for occasions large and small since the 1980s, so it was my great pleasure to place an order last weekend for, frankly, way too much food for my current solo quarantine situation in Crown Heights. The sliced smoked fish is as sparkling fresh and full of flavor as ever, in this case a half pound of oily Eastern Nova and another half pound of rich and robust Sable.
A giant slab of cream cheese made for a worthy companion to the fish, and the half dozen bagels, in several varieties, were decent carriers for all of the above, as well as the scallion-heavy egg salad. The whole spread cost me about $80 (I biked in and picked it up at the store, so saved on shipping), but it easily feeds four or five people... or, in my case, provides for four or five different meals. The wrapping and packaging don't feel wasteful, but are ample enough for easy storage, and the fish keeps fine for days in the fridge. Highly recommended for a special treat during these grim days, however and wherever you're spending them.
So what does the future look like for this Upper West Side institution? "If I could predict the future, I would be picking stocks and not lox!" says Gary. "However, we’ve been in business for 112 years and I expect we will be able to endure at least another 100 years, maybe not 112! Everyone at Barney Greengrass is healthy, working hard with a limited staff, and thankful for being open. But what we do isn't nearly as hard as those on the front lines of this pandemic have it, the doctors, nurses, and paramedics. They really are heroes."
You can support Barney Greengrass by placing an order here.