The summer of 2012 was an exciting time for me. Besides completing an amazing internship at Gothamist, I got to freelance at Martha Stewart Living magazine alongside one of my best friends. On one of my assignments, I got to assist on a photo shoot at the home of the legendary Russ & Daughters family.
Russ & Daughters is a family-owned and operated appetizing (the verb, not the adjective) store that has been in business, and at the same location, since 1914, when the Lower East Side was a Mecca for Jewish refugees. Although this area of Manhattan underwent myriad changes over the years, the store has remained relentlessly popular and thriving. It is a piece of history, really – a telltale relic that reminds us of what the neighborhood used to be.
The story we shot that day was Yom Kippur-themed and I remember there being various types of smoked fish, caviar, spreads, pickled items, bagels and some sweets, all delivered fresh from their store. Admittedly, I was pretty shy during the shoot and didn’t get the know the family as much as I wanted to but I haven’t forgotten about them. I really got a feeling from the family that their business is a part of them, and that they’re a part of the business.
Fast forward to this year when I heard about their buzzworthy cafe expansion. I knew about its development over the past year and couldn’t wait to see the finished product. Rene and I headed over there on a lazy Saturday afternoon after another one of his aunt’s epic lunches. We weren’t hungry but I didn’t want to wait for another day and figured coffee and dessert would suffice.
This cafe is really something else. It has an undeniable old-timey air but is simultaneously cool and contemporary. The bar up front feels like a malt shop from the fifties, thanks to the swivel stools and the young chap dressed in a white smock behind the counter. Toward the back there are roomy booths, and the walls are decorated with old photos of the store and the family. It’s obvious that nothing was left up to chance in the birth of this cafe – every cup, utensil and piece of decor was painstakingly decided on.
The cafe menu consists of their classic offerings, like smoked fish, bagels, caviar and pickles. I kept thinking about a chocolate babka that we were eating at the photo shoot and was happy to learn that it made it to the cafe’s menu – in french toast form. The sweet, chocolaty bread was thoroughly soaked in an egg mixture before being fried, which made it soft and creamy inside, nothing like diner french toast at 4am. And the syrupy berry topping was made from real fresh fruits – nothing canned to see here.
Rene was even less hungry than me and opted for a chocolate egg cream, an archaic treat made of milk, soda water and syrup. We both found it to be a bit odd, but I guess that’s because we expected something more of a milkshake consistency.
All in all, I loved the atmosphere and the simplicity of the cafe. There’s nothing groundbreaking or unique on the menu and that’s the beauty of it. Even if you didn’t grow up eating lox and bagels on Sunday mornings, being at the Russ & Daughters Cafe will make you nostalgic for times past, whatever they may be.