These days, the typical tale of mom & pop restaurants, small scale bookstores, indie art supply shops, dive bars and many other historical landmarks in New York City goes something like this: Announce closing due to some insane rent increase; ignite an outpouring of shock and grief from those of us living in the the city who still have a soul.
That’s why it was so heartening to hear that B&H, the 76-year old kosher dairy restaurant in the East Village and one of the city’s greatest breakfast joints, had bucked the trend.
It was not a rent hike, but a fire on the block that forced the restaurant to shutter and set it on a meandering, red-tape clogged path of reopening. But perseverance by the owners, and a couple of successful crowd funding campaigns (the most recent of which is still live until August 18) allowed them to reopen with much fanfare this past weekend after a several month hiatus.
And that’s a blessing. B&H, after all, is not just historic, it is a dyed-in-the-wool New York institution. Founded by a Jewish couple in the 1930s, the broom closet-size eatery slung its homey mixture of potato pancakes and mushroom barley soup to Jackie Gleason, Molly Picon and anyone else perched on one of its counter stools. Today, in lovely, only-in-New-York fashion, it is owned by an Egyptian Muslim man and his Polish Catholic wife, both of whom are dedicated to honoring the restaurants’ Jewish (and kosher) heritage.
After so many years, as other restaurants have shuttered or taken shortcuts, B&H still makes its own challah — and most other things — from scratch. I have spent many meals watching the kitchen staff slap puffy mounds of dough into massive loaf pans and set them to rise. Then there are the soups — oh Lord in heaven, their soups! — which simmer away, ready to be spooned out and slung down the counter as soon as an order comes in. My standard meal includes a bowl of hot borscht, heavy on the cabbage and carrots, and “garnished” with a matzo ball — an insane, and entirely genius, move my husband Yoshie introduced me to many years ago.
Never mind that I could eat a bowl of that borscht and a grilled cheese (made on the homemade challah, naturally) every day and be satisfied. Like any restaurant that focuses on dairy foods, breakfast is where B&H truly shines. The cheese and fruit blintzes are browned on a flattop griddle and served with fat tins of sour cream. Eggs are cooked sunny side up, scrambled or fried and paired with a pile of creamy home fries. There’s challah french toast, lox and onion omelets, white fish sandwiches, bagels and bialys shmeared with jam and, of course, messy plates of wonderful matzo brei.
My own connection with B&H goes back a little more than a decade — just a blip on the restaurant’s timeline, but hugely defining for my New York and Jewish identities. And, thanks to New York City’s still beating heart, it will be my go-to breakfast joint for years to come.
Leah Koenig is a contributing editor at the Forward and author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen,” Chronicle Books (2015).