The secret has been out about Russ & Daughters’ ranking in the world of bagel and lox, and other smoked and cured fish, for a smidge over a century. Books have been written (Russ & Daughters: the House that Herring Built), documentaries made (“The Sturgeon Queens”), and the Smithsonian Institute has recognized the Lower East Side shop with humble beginnings—an immigrant sold schmaltz herring out of a barrel. Four generations later and kin of the Russes are still boiling, baking, curing, smoking and schmearing.
But this destination is about more than filling your stomach. To push in the glass door on East Houston Street and pull a number at the shiny silver counter is to become part of something bigger. You can’t experience this ‘something bigger’ without enduring the long wait that is typical of Russ & Daughters, because in this pantry-sized Manhattan place, the wait is—how to say it?—worth the wait alone. It’s a chance to witness a fellowship among lox lovers. A time to inhale true New York life. A place where old faithfuls mingle with food pilgrims and recent converts to taste the bagel, to see a fish selection that can fulfill any bagel fantasy, no matter how weird. There’s herring, salmon, sturgeon, sable, whitefish, chubs, trout. Pickled, cured, smoked. Scottish, Irish, Norwegian.
Conversations bubble. Minds change. Debates ensue. The bialy versus the bagel; the salmon belly versus the gravlox. Original orders lengthen to include hostess and Hanukkah gifts, because nothing says I adore you like 50 grams of Siberian Baerii caviar, a pound of smoked sturgeon, and a dozen raspberry rugelach.
Tickets flutter. Strangers exchange phone numbers: “I’ve got to put money in the meter. Will you call me once they’re close? If you do, I’ll buy your sandwich.” Pity is taken on those who might miss out—“You got a train to catch? Oh no! Here, you take my number. I’ve got 71, you’re 92. You’ll save 20-30 minutes. No, no, really. I insist …”
It’s the most extraordinary thing. In Yiddish, it’s haimish; in Danish, hygge. While this cozy conviviality has no English equivalent that doesn’t mean it can’t be experienced on American shores.
Those without a train to catch might try their luck for a table at Russ & Daughters Cafe that opened three years ago for the 100th anniversary. As for reservations, fuggedaboutit.