Table for … None: Restaurants Buckling Amid Lockdown


Wall Street Grill — kosher, luxe and serving hedge funders and financial analysts — is temporarily shuttered after only a year in business. “Right now, nobody is coming back to work on Wall Street,” Steven Traube, a partner in the restaurant, told The Jewish Week.

Two of the better-known New York kosher eateries have also closed their doors for good. The Brooklyn location of the kosher steakhouse Wolf & Lamb closed temporarily at first but recently made it final. The same goes for in-house dining at Abigael’s on Broadway, run by celebrity chef Jeff Nathan.

And just two months ago, restaurateur and cookbook author Einat Admony had seven Middle Eastern restaurants in her New York food empire — Balaboosta, Kish Kash and five locations of Taim, her vegetarian eateries that serve falafel with all the fixings. Today, Balaboosta and Kish Kash are temporarily closed, and only two of Taim’s doors in New York remain open, with help from philanthropists.

From Midtown Manhattan to Avenue U in Brooklyn to the Bukharian neighborhood in Rego Park, Queens, Jewish restaurants, like the wider dining world, are buckling under the coronavirus pandemic. Each restaurant is looking for creative solutions to stay afloat. Some are finding relief thanks to communal support.

“Once customers are again allowed to sit in restaurants, we plan to reopen,” said Wall Street Grill’s Traube. “We might limit in the beginning to become a mini catering hall, serving all of the people who have had weddings or bat and bar mitzvahs in the last few months. Perhaps small private family events of 50 or 60 people. We will focus on that at first. For now, we are closed. We had to let go all 66 of our employees.”

Industry watchers are taking note of the carnage in stark, Darwinian terms.

“It’s survival of the fittest,” says Elan Kornblum, publisher and president of Great Kosher Restaurants Media Group. “Everyone is trying to hustle and do what they can.”

Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Lubicom Marketing Consulting and a close watcher of the kosher food industry, was a little more sanguine.

“Most of the restaurants in the five boroughs adapted to the idea of take-out and pick up, and some of them did quite well with it,” he told The Jewish Week. “The question is whether this model will outlast the Covid crisis. …

“There will be some closures, but overall I think there will be a reset,” Lubinsky continues. “The restaurants that have the wherewithal to survive will survive and probably will grow. New guys will try to fill in the spaces where old people left.  The question is how they will adapt to the new social milieu. Cut down capacity by half? Require masks?”

Although Nathan, the executive chef and co-owner of Abigael’s, closed the brick-and-mortar restaurant (he had been planning to close in December because of a rent hike), he and his team will continue to provide kosher meals to Madison Square Garden, hotels, restaurants and catering halls in collaboration with Park East Kosher Butcher on the Upper East Side.

In Midtown Manhattan, the kosher Barnea Bistro, which recently doubled in size by expanding to space next door, is closed but, as of last week, has a take-out menu. According to owner and founder Josh Kessler, you can order a 21st-century “TV dinner” made up of a main course and two side dishes. The restaurant offers delivery to the five boroughs, Nassau County, northern New Jersey and Westchester.

Jay and Lloyd’s Kosher Deli on Avenue U has recently reopened for takeout. Owner Jay Stern streamlined the deli’s menu. “We are doing strictly pick-up and delivery. Of course, no dining room. I do have a dining room but right now it’s attracting cobwebs,” he Stern. Stern reduced the restaurant’s hours and may soon cut a day off its schedule. On one hand, he’s trying to keep his workers on, but on the other hand the workers often don’t want to commute for fear of their own safety.

Nina and Yuval Dekel, the owners of the kosher Liebman’s Deli in Riverdale, have been busy with nationwide shipping via Goldbelly, an online marketplace for regional and artisanal foods. Thanks to Goldbelly, Liebman’s pastrami, corned beef and other traditional deli offerings have made their way to California, Arizona and Texas. By going nationwide, the owners have managed to keep all of their staff on board. “Our employees are our family,” said Dekel. “They don’t just come and go. We have been loyal to them just as they have been loyal to us.”

Food for the frontlines

Two of Admony’s Taim locations are surviving in large part thanks to support from the Jewish Food Society (JFS) and The Paul E. Singer Foundation in partnership with Feed the Frontlines NYC.

The Feed the Frontlines program buys food from area restaurants and delivers it to healthcare workers, helping keep the restaurants afloat. Other restaurants involved in this effort include Russ & Daughters, Katz’s Delicatessen, the modern Middle Eastern Lamalo, and Modern Bread & Bagel and its sister restaurant, Arba, which serves modern Israeli cuisine.

According to Admony, Taim provides between 200-300 meals a day — dishes like falafel, sabich (an Iraqi sandwich stuffed with eggplant, boiled egg, hummus and Israeli salad), and cauliflower shwarma.

In Rego Park, Queens, the Israelov family, owners of the Bukharian glatt kosher restaurant Ganey Orly, began donating food to healthcare heroes early on. “Originally, we didn’t expect anyone to pay for the food we donated,” said Eytan Israelov, son of the owner and founder. “We did it out of the goodness of our hearts. I’m a nursing student. We have nurses, doctors and pharmacists in the family. The first 250 meals were donated by us. We then started a fundraiser, and in a bit more than a month we have donated more than 1,200 meals to 35 hospitals in the New York area.”

Healthcare workers received dishes like plov, a Bukharian dish made with rice, meat and carrots, or dumplings stuffed with meat and accompanied by salads. And they didn’t have to be Jewish — or keep kosher. For regular customers, dishes are available for pick-up or delivery.

Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers, with five remaining locations in Florida, Queens and Long Island, is also sending food to front-line workers with help from the United Way and private donations. Ben’s recently noticed that night shift workers were being ignored, so it has focused on sending meal boxes filled with sandwiches, cole slaw, pickles, and chicken noodle soup to the night staff at local hospitals. For regular customers, the five delis are offering delivery and curbside pick-up of their full menu, but business has dropped more than 50 percent since their dining rooms are closed. “We are, in large part, keeping our restaurants open for our customers and our staff,” said owner Ronnie Dragoon.

Other restaurants are getting help from smaller nonprofits. Talia’s Steakhouse on the Upper West Side is open for take-out. The owner, Effie Nagar, is working with Fountain of Kindness and Yiddishe Mama to provide meals to hospital workers. Last weekend, at the request of Fountain of Kindness, Nagar personally delivered kosher Mexican-themed meals to workers at New York Presbyterian Hospital. 

Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side is to looking to thepast to determine its future. In World War II, Katz’s encouraged New Yorkers to “Send a salami to your boy in the army”; today its website requests donations towards meals for front-line workers.  The slogan has remained a “part of our deli culture, and in today’s medical crisis it is our privilege to again support those most in need,” according to the site.

In a bit of good news from the East Village, B&H Dairy Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant on Second Avenue, which dates to 1938, announced last week that it has reopened its lunch counter for takeout and delivery service.