Wandering around New York City at the beginning of January requires a will of steel. There are so many legitimately mouthwatering aromas emanating from the city’s kitchens, not to mention the scent of roasting chestnuts and caramelized almonds from the street carts. For me, it’s almost a game: What should I eat first to break my and everyone else’s New Year’s resolutions?
New Yorkers are so spoiled for choice when it comes to food that they can be forgiven for walking past Murray’s Sturgeon Shop on the Upper West Side. The original post-World War II-era signage that has barely changed since the store opened in 1946 is not exactly eye-catching. Yet, the delights that can be found inside its equally unchanged interior make walking by the store a huge mistake.
“Appetizing,” and all the foods that fall under that umbrella such as knishes, latkes and chopped liver, chicken soup and smoked fish are all foods that were brought to New York by Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the city en masse at the turn of the 20th century. At one point, on the Lower East Side alone, there were as many as 30 appetizing shops. And of all the foods that are represented in the city, perhaps none has remained so tied to Jewish tradition and identity as appetizings. Although appetizing is defined as foods that one eats with bagels — smoked and pickled fish, cream cheese spreads and salads (tuna, whitefish, egg), appetizing stores got their name from the laws of kashrut, which state that meat and dairy cannot be consumed or sold in the same store — in order to differentiate themselves from delicatessens, which served cured and smoked meat and sandwiches.
Murray’s is by all accounts, the last of the great Jewish appetizing stores, a term that is not only defined as Jewish but a specific type of Jewish food that is exclusive to New York. In fact, if you ask someone what picture pops into their mind when they think about Jewish food, chances are their answer will involve a matzo ball, a pastrami sandwich or a bagel with lox and a schmear. This image is a byproduct of a time when there were appetizing shops strewn about the city and in the boroughs in large numbers. Ira Goller, Murray’s third and present-day owner, remembers this era fondly from when he was a little boy in Queens, where his parents ate food from appetizing shops regularly. Goller, who spent the beginning of his professional life on Wall Street and has not only an MBA in economics but a master’s degree in accounting, has owned the shop for almost 30 years.
He told me that after a frustrating seven years on Wall Street, he simply wasn’t where he wanted to be. Because he needed to support his growing family, he looked around for a business that would be a sure winner. Goller and a friend bought the business from Artie Cutler, the legendary restaurateur behind iconic restaurants such as Carmine’s, Dock’s, Ollie’s, and Gabriella’s, but he knew absolutely nothing about the appetizing business. He quickly realized he had some pretty big shoes to fill in running the store founded by Murray Bernstein in 1946 and was considered the gold standard for smoked fish since it opened.
One thing all the owners of Murray’s had in common was a love for the tradition of appetizing, for New York and for top-notch customer service. While the appetizing business has changed over the years, gaining popularity with some demographics and serving younger and younger clientele, some not even Jewish, all appetizing shops have become restaurants or cafes. Sure, Barney Greengrass, Russ & Daughters and Zabar’s do a hefty take-out and catering business but Murray’s remains as it always was, a specialty neighborhood grocer. What’s more theystill use old fashioned pickling and smoking techniques rather than sourcing from mass producers and wholesalers and true to the old traditions – you can’t eat in the shop – you need to take your treasures home with you and unpack your spread at home.
Sure enough, walking into the narrow shop off Broadway is like entering a time capsule of old Jewish New York. Here you will line up to be served and wait patiently, trying not to drool, as employees, some like head slicer Oscar who has been there for 40 years, tend to other customers.
While you wait, you will overhear gossip, conversations about so and so’s mother-in-law and see neighborhood customers pop in, one after another, some just to say hello or to grab a freshly baked rugelach or babka. Some stop by just to inquire about the health of a family member who was feeling under the weather and was healed by the chicken noodle soup.
In fact, if you hang around Murray’s long enough, you become part of the family. It’s impossible not to be awed by the precision and dedication of the European carving, razor sharp knives moving under experienced fingers producing almost impossibly thin slices of nova or lox — slices so thin you can read The New York Times through them. “Would you like a taste?” every customer is asked. “Try this one and see what you think” is the mantra of every Murray’s employee. And try, you must, because Murray’s knows its fish. Goller tastes and inspects each and every whole fish as it comes from his suppliers, wrapped in brown paper, never vacuum packed (because that changes the texture) and he knows all the factors that can influence the taste of a whitefish, smoked whole, its golden skin intact, or what keeps the sable silky and creamy and the salty sturgeon’s pearly flesh firm but succulent.
It’s hard to overemphasize the rarity of this kind of service and attention to detail in modern-day New York, where patrons are used to the “get ’em in, get ’em out” production line of Starbucks and Shake Shack. The long-lost tradition of caring about customers and nurturing relationships with neighborhood shopkeepers is a relic of the past that not everyone appreciates in time-crunched New York city. “We’re not for everyone. If you’re in a rush, we can’t help you,” Goller tells me with a mischievous look in his bright blue eyes.
“What happens is that bagels, lox and cream cheese have become standards now, like pizza. You can get a bagel and lox and cream cheese in any supermarket, any bagel store. It won’t have the same quality as we have here but it will be decent. You can get a standard version quickly anywhere in the city, but once you try ours, you won’t be able to go back to the other version.”
Indeed, Goller’s customers know better and are picky, some having shopped at Murray’s for many decades and still remember the quality even when the store was owned by Bernstein. They are willing to pay top dollar to get a fine product that is not mass produced and is sliced and handled by professionals.
Sometimes, Goller admitted to me, he even sends back fish to his smokehouse if he feels it isn’t up to Murray’s high standards. Even though he’s been using the same suppliers for 30 years, the nature of a handmade product is that every once in a while, a mistake is made and an inferior piece of salmon will come through. It gets returned after Goller tastes it. “My customers pay good money for my product and they have high expectations,” Goller says. “I would never want to disappoint them. My business is about relationships and if a customer is dissatisfied, we will replace the item, no questions asked.”
Perhaps this is why, aside from the high quality of the fish, Murray’s is still thriving after 73 years in the same location without an upgrade to the premises in all that time. The tiling, the shelves, everything here is original, as are the floors and counters, huge mirrors and stainless-steel walls. Nothing has changed here except the owner and the date on the calendar.
Murray’s was always an attraction, a place where magnates and politicians would mingle with policemen and show business greats like Zero Mostel, who was a regular. But it only takes a glance at Murray Bernstein’s obituary in The New York Times to understand why the shop remains a legend.
“Limousines would line up in front of the store, and it regularly shipped sturgeon and other delicacies overseas. But its heart and soul were in the ready smile and deft cutting stroke of Mr. Bernstein.”
Today, like the man who created this little jewel box of a store on Broadway all those years ago, Ira Goller sticks to the same winning formula that Murray Bernstein relied on. “Business has never been better. We ship all over the country and take orders for manyevents, and that’s because Murray’s is about relationships,” he told me. Still, despite the hectic pace and working 6 days a week, Goller still takes the time to write his customers hand written thank you notes after each catering job.
After our interview, Goller pulled me aside as if he remembered something else to tell me about the store. But instead he stepped behind the counter, leaned in, turned on his sweet and amiable smile and said, “Now, what would you like to taste?” And just like that — I too belonged to Murray’s.
Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.