Between 1890 and 1920, three million Eastern European Jews immigrated into America. Virtually all were processed through Ellis Island, and most settled in New York City. Specifically, the Lower East Side, which at one time was as Jewish as Chinatown is now Chinese. That character disappeared as the Jews diluted into, and indeed conquered the whole city, and many of the diaspora’s institutions did likewise: Katz’s Deli (1888) for one, Beth Israel Hospital (1890), and, still on its 1914 site, Russ & Daughters.
Joel Russ was a Polish immigrant who started selling herring from a pushcart, and after seven years saved enough money to open a store, at 179 Houston Street. He brought his daughters into the business—he was no proto-feminist, he just didn’t have sons. The store’s still there, still specializing in fish—they’ve since broadened out into salmon and caviar—Irish, Scottish, Norwegian—smoked, pickled, kippered, cured—sliced thin enough to read through. And it’s still run by the Russ family. What’s amazing about Russ & Daughters—beyond the fact of its persistence—is how narrow their specialty is: owing to the Jewish prohibition on mixing meat and dairy, a division sprang up between the meat stores (delicatessens) and fish and dairy (appetizing stores). Obviously, fish and dairy is not a huge market sector from which to cover the rent, and this is one of the few genuine appetizing stores that remain; but when a small group of people concentrate on one extremely specific thing for a century, they get good at it.
These days there’s also candies and jams and cups of coffee, but that’s not why, weekend mornings, it’s jammed with New Yorkers stamping the winter off their boots and why you have to wait for (normally) twenty people ahead of you to get served. It’s the fish. And, really, it’s the smoked salmon. In the same way that the international definition of the kilogram—a small metal cylinder—used to be kept in an underground Parisian vault, this is where you’ll find the international definition of the lox & cream cheese bagel. You’ve come all this way; it’s worth the wait. As ubiquitous mouth-about-town Anthony Bourdain says: ‘Forget the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, New York City’s greatest living institution is very likely Russ & Daughters.’ And, last week, the Russ family published a history of their four generations running the store.
You can find Russ & Daughter’s famous smoked salmon at 179 Houston St, or you can pop by our Sunday Brunch at The Tribeca Grand and give it a try for yourself.