As many people who I have regaled with my Christmas Epiphany story, I am not a religious person. But if your visiting New York you should take a peak at these places. If you live here and haven't yet indulged, then shame on you. This is something I wrote about a year ago, and have sent individually to many friends, but now I post for all the world to see (and eat hopefully)
Food on the upper west side : Each of these three places deserves and has their own special and excellent reputation. The only reason I’m putting them together is – well the whole is more that just the sum of its parts. The whole is pretty much an experience to be reckoned with and as a New Yorker I thank the lord I can reckon with it on a pretty frequent basis (did you ever notice the only time I ever get religious is when foods involved?). And I can say you pretty much have to thank the Jews for this incredibly delicious conflagration that managed to occur and survive.
I am not well versed in either the historical of sociological history of the upper west side, but I’m about to give you my opinion and analysis of how this amazing experience came into being. Just beware that this little story I tell is based on rumor, innuendo, old wives tales and just a little bit of family history to boot (okay, it’s bullshit, but it’s supposed to be funny bullshit so just read and enjoy). Back in the day when everybody kept to their own kind, the Eastside (Park Avenue, 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue) was over taken by the WASPS of the world. Needless to say, WASPS don’t eat and back in the day, they didn’t even bother to eat salad. But that’s not the point of this story, the point of this story is that WASPS took over the East side and kept anybody who wasn’t a WASP and who didn’t work for them and disappear into the woodwork, out.
What you may not have known is that one of the reasons Jews have been such successful business men in history is that part of the religion dictates that to be a good Jew you must teach your children to read the bible. In a world where illiteracy was common, this was a major step up from the general population. Another benefit is that the Hebrew alphabet is also a numbers system, so to learn to read involved learning math and hence the tradition of being an accountant was born. More importantly, unlike WASPS, Jews love to eat. This is often a over looked aspect of the religion because, let’s face it, the traditional Jewish holiday foods leave a great deal to be desired (e.g. leg of lamb so dry it reminds you of the desert, flunken that is about as appetizing as it’s name, and the ubiquitous gefilte fish and the gelatin that it’s found in that my sibs and I kindly called “fish snot”). Jews are also great bargain hunters and will forever search out where they can get the best bang for their buck. Hence thank the Jews who populated the west side giving rise to a multitude of wonderful stores that specialize in great food at good prices (or thank those WASPS who forced to Jews onto the West side to begin with).
Fairway’s – Okay, this is the original, my first and still my favorite although as it has grown over the years, I’ve found my passion for it fading just a little bit. What makes Fairway’s stick out on this tour is its’ produce. Okay, and the fact they were the first place in NYC I found carried Schrafenberg’s chocolate. The sale items line the sidewalk just tempting you every time you pass by. When you enter you are greeted by the yummiest of sights and smells. This is especially tempting on a chilly day when you can picture yourself in a kitchen cooking up a storm. The great thing about Fairway’s piles of fruits and vegetables is that you don’t have to wade through them in order to find that unbruised one or something a little fresher that won’t rot on you by the next day. It’s all good, it’s all fresh and it’s all great quality (and did I mention the variety, I seem to recall about 10 different types of apples). This goes for everything in the store. The Dairy case is stocked with some of the best varieties available and the prepared foods can be found in back (just ready for that picnic in central park or that impromptu party or get together with friends). There is an olive bar and the isles of the original part of the store are stocked with imported food items. The cheese area is divine and I can never pass picking-up a container of the grated pecorino Romano which is about a cheap as those imitation Parmisian cheese sprinkles Kraft keeps manufacturing. They also have a great collection of spices. Sure you can get dried basil anywhere, but only so many places carry smoked whole black cardamon pods. In the newer section you’ll find the fresh fish and meats in the back along with the frozen desserts (I would indulge in these more except that they melt before I get home to Brooklyn). The main part of this new section is the center aisles of regular branded staples like bounty paper towels, or Francesco Renaldi tomato sauce. Of course there are the more upscale brands peppered throughout these shelves, but in the end, it’s just regular grocery store items at not so fantastic prices.
If you manage to find the elevator and squeeze in to get to the second floor you can experience the organic food section which is huge. This is litterally a store within a store and has it’s own produce, dairy, bulk and frozen foods sections (also it’s own checkers with shorter lines than found downstairs. And did I mention the prices. Although organic in general can be pricey, these are some of the cheapest prices in the city. I usually stock up on tempee here.
The second floor also has a little café restaurant. Again, good food, good prices and if I remember correctly a liquor license (which explains why all those WASPS can be found luncheoning here). I wouldn’t pull out your knitting unless it was a very usually uncrowded day. This place is too crowded and your likely to get something spilled on a project
Downside – over the years they have discontinued making my 2 favorite salads. A salad nicoise that was in the prepared food section made with real pan seared tuna and a grated carot and raisin salad dressed with their dijon vinagrette instead of that yucky yogurt gook other places seem to use. Both yumm and I want both to come back.
West Side Market – The most grocery like of the stores in this collection. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just walked past this store between my shopping sprees at Fairway’s and Zabar’s thinking “how could this place even compete”. A roommate actually got me to go in one day and now it’s a regular on my route. Alright, so part of the reason I love this place are all the freakin different types of potato chips they carry. But if you can get your eyes past the all those bags of chips that line the store you’ll notice the most important things. Produce is fresh, a necessity given the competition and prices are also great. Cheese selection is incredible and if you go on a Saturday morning they often have samples to try and did I mention the prices are great. Prepared foods that are definetly yumm (I always pick up stuffed grape leaves/dolmas when I stop by) and did I mention the prices are great.
Zabar’s – Cheese glorious cheese. Cheese, cheese and more cheese. Okay so they do have the smoked fish and bakery sections which aren’t slouches either, not to mention the olive bar, prepared foods and upscale grocery section (with lots of exotic spices as well), but don’t come here unless your prepared to indulge and buy cheese (most cheeses freeze pretty decently, especially if you plan on cooking with it after defrosting). And you’ll never have to worry about quality here. Zabar’s will take a loss and not sell an item if it’s not up to their standards (which I am sure is more educated than my palate any day). This fact is legendary and true and has probably earned them more loyal patronage than their incredible prices on cheese ever did.
Zabar’s has the biggest international reputation of the three and therefore you will squish and bump through their narrow isles with the most tourists and their lines are as long as Fairways but simply not as fast. Make your way upstairs if you want to drool over the best cooking impliments. Their prices aren’t bad either considering the quality. I did buy my silicone baking pads here because they were at least a few bucks less per than anyplace else, including the internet (these items are imported from France for some reason and are expensive). However, I leave the $5 linen dish towels alone (I guess it’s plain ole cotton for me) and simply ogle all those copper pots and kitchen appliances that I dream about actually owning one day. Oh, and I can’t forget the knives. They have the most incredible collection of knives and brands. And there really is a difference between a good knife and an ordinary knife in the heft and feel.
Next door is Zabar’s café. More of a place to pick up your bagel (with a shmear) and a cup of coffee, than to sit down and indulge in a full meal, but who’s complaining. Again, keep your projects tucked away unless there is a big snow storm and you happen to be one of 5 people in the place.