Heir to the Sturgeon Kingdom

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The world famous Barney Greengrass has been feeding generations

By Christopher Moore

“You must not be Jewish,” Gary Greengrass said by way of welcome. “You’re right on time.”

Greengrass was standing behind the cash register at the front of Barney Greengrass, an iconic food shop at this Amsterdam Avenue location, just north of West 86th Street, since 1929. The business, which used to be in Harlem, is even older. Greengrass first “crawled into” this store decades ago, as the grandson of the store’s founder. Now he’s the only family member on the job, a man who has inherited a brand name with power, value and authenticity, especially among West Siders.

His brother, Barney Greengrass, chose a life in the financial realm.

Gary Greengrass studied marketing, finance and journalism at New York University, but felt the family business was where he belonged. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

“He’s in stocks and I’m in lox,” our proprietor told us. “He’s Barney Greengrass and I’m Barney Greengrass, Inc.”

Greengrass never knew his grandfather, who started the business in Harlem, but worked side by side with Gary’s dad, Moe, for almost 20 years. Moe Greengrass died more than eight years ago.

“I miss my father,” Gary Greengrass said. “I need somebody to fight with.”

Did he really fight with his dad?

“No,” Greengrass quickly admitted. But he can’t help himself. The quips come with the caviar, the personality of the countermen here being as much a part of the place as the old-time fixtures and decades-old wallpaper.

Actually, Greengrass speaks thoughtfully about his decision to help his dad at Barney Greengrass—and the costs and quirks of what turned out to be a 24/7 responsibility. Many people drop into this shop, so clearly steeped in the tastes and traditions of another era, and they might think a business like this can run itself.

“They don’t have a clue what’s involved,” Greengrass said.

His father’s career advice? “All I got out of it is not to go into the business,” he said, mentioning that this is a job that goes home with him. There’s a lot of sacrifice and attention that might otherwise go to his wife and child.

Moe Greengrass, son of the original Barney Greengrass (and Gary’s father), in front of the Amsterdam Avenue store in the 1940s.

At New York University, he studied marketing, finance and journalism. He thought of other careers. In the end, though, he felt that his father needed help. Greengrass became a master slicer through practice before busy Yom Kippur holidays. He wanted, eventually, to continue a tradition.

“At the end of the day,” he said, sitting not far from the famous smoked fish, knishes and potato salad, “I felt something special.”

So many people do.

“We had Richard Dreyfuss here yesterday,” he said. Journalist and food writer Alex Witchel stops by, as have Philip Roth and Alec Baldwin. The window facing the street features photographs of Barbara Walters, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Jean Stapleton (who shot You’ve Got Mail here, among other West Side hot spots). Not long ago, Harvey Keitel stopped by, just as a magazine was doing a big story and photo shoot. Keitel got into the act, donning an apron to take a picture with Greengrass.

“I got a full-page in that magazine, where I might have gotten a smaller shot,” he said.

The store will be in an upcoming episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Writers reach for words to describe what this place means to New Yorkers.

“The cuisine at this Upper West Side delicatessen is one of the greatest gifts Jewish culture has brought to mankind since the Ten Commandments,” the New Yorker gushed in 1996, “so nobody much cares about the décor. (Call it ‘early-20th-century barbershop.’)”

For all the celebrity anecdotes, press praise and the outpost at Barney’s in Beverly Hills, Greengrass describes himself as “a little guy in the game.” Someone who is committed to quality. He sounds honestly conflicted about the high costs of doing business in the city—and the ugly reality of having to pass along those costs to customers. Overall, he describes his food this way: “It’s expensive, but not overpriced.”

It’s also a part of a way of life. President Franklin Roosevelt famously had some smoked fish sent to him when he was in Warm Springs, Georgia. Today the store targets visitors with a sign suggesting they can take the cuisine with them when they are no longer in town. A sign says: “Going to the Hamptons…? Take Barney Greengrass Along With You.”

Or customers can consume right here on the Upper West Side, where Greengrass has always lived and feels at home. He likes the diversity, although he admits that there are more banks and drugstores and fewer mom-and-pop places.

“The hand that I’m dealt is that I’m always going to be here, so I don’t aggravate myself,” he said, dismissing the notion of relocating.

He sounds reasonably content and proud of the family legacy.

“We’re here for a reason. We put out a great product,” he said. “We’re not living off our name. I can’t cut corners. If you cut corners, you lose.”

He’s not planning on losing. Or giving up the traditional look or emphasis on quality that his dad taught him all about. There are modern conveniences—there’s a computer and a fax machine and the rotary phone is long gone. Upkeep is important, and the store sports fresh coats of paint and newly upholstered chairs. But when visitors walk through the faint odor of onions and other delicacies as they enter the store, many might feel as if they are walking back in time. To something safe and, yes, special.

“Everything seems to have worked for the last hundred years,” Greengrass said, “so it would be a mistake to change anything.”

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