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Calamity on the Upper West Side: Barney Greengrass Is Closed
Calamity on the Upper West Side: Barney Greengrass Is Closed

NEW YORK — The metal gates were pulled shut Sunday, and confused patrons, some thumbing New York City guidebooks, had to look elsewhere for their smoked-fish fix. A bright yellow sign that said “Closed by the order of the commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene” was placed prominently in the window.

Inside Barney Greengrass, the 111-year-old restaurant and Jewish deli whose sturgeon was mailed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chairs were stacked on tables, lights were shut off and a plate of black and white cookies sat uneaten, encased in plastic wrap.

Health inspectors conducted an unscheduled inspection and shut the Amsterdam Avenue establishment Thursday, the day after Yom Kippur, and following one of the busiest periods of the year for smoked-fish purveyors.

The Health Department said they closed the store to protect public health.

The Health Department conducted a routine inspection of Barney Greengrass and observed food not held at the correct temperature; close to 300 mouse droppings, including droppings in the kitchen and food storage areas; live roaches in the kitchen; and “conditions conducive to pests and other food safety concerns,” Danielle De Souza, a spokeswoman for the department, said in a statement. She said the shutdown was temporary, and the store could reopen once it had corrected the issues and passed an inspection.

That didn’t reassure the owner, Gary Greengrass. “It gives me an ulcer. It is a stab in the stomach,” he said.

Greengrass said inspectors showed up unannounced at 9 a.m. Thursday. By midday, he was informed of the decision to close the store.

Greengrass said he and his staff had been working nonstop earlier in the week to fill orders for Jewish customers who break their Yom Kippur fast with smoked fish and bagels, among other foods.

“Yom Kippur in the bagel and lox business is the busiest week of the year. It is like Christmas season into one day times 1,000, and you are dealing with a perishable,” Greengrass said.

“The timing was pretty surprising,” Greengrass said.

Greengrass plans to work with the city to reopen as soon as possible, but is not sure when that will be. He said his customers have been very supportive.

“This business is my whole life,” Greengrass said. “I live and breathe it.”

This is not the first time the Health Department has found health code violations at the store and restaurant. In March, health inspectors cited “evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or nonfood areas" and said the store was harboring “conditions conducive to attracting vermin to the premises and/or allowing vermin to exist.” Several months later, inspectors reported that a cold food item was stored above the temperature the health code requires. Inspectors also found evidence of mice and roaches in 2016 and 2017, records show.

Greengrass said that after each of the past visits, when the inspectors returned, he got an “A” grade from the city.

“Listen, these inspectors come in and it feels like they’re performing a colonoscopy on you,” Greengrass said. “No one’s home would pass inspection.”

The restaurant’s founder, Barney Greengrass, died in 1956, and his son, Moe Greengrass, took over the title of “sturgeon king.” Gary, Moe’s son, became president in 1983, a year after he started working at the store full time.

Over the years, customers have included Marilyn Monroe, Brad Pitt and Jerry Seinfeld, and the 60-seat restaurant has been a setting for “Law & Order” and the movie “You’ve Got Mail.”

Josh Kingsmill, who lives on the Upper West Side and said he comes to Barney Greengrass about once a month for lox and bagels, had been planning to eat there with a friend Sunday morning, when they discovered it was closed.

Kingsmill said he was surprised that “such an iconic place would be so sloppy to let that happen to it. It’s not like they’re new in business.”

“I feel for him and what he’s going through,” said Sandy Zenker, 70, who lives in Chelsea and said his family has been patronizing the restaurant for about 80 years. “We had our breakfast from him this year as we have had for however many years, and we all survived. We’re all fine.”

Randi Hutter Epstein, 56, a doctor who lives on the Upper West Side, said she has placed a takeout order with Barney Greengrass every weekend for the past 20 years. She said she learns of the dates of the Jewish holidays every August when she gets a letter from the restaurant asking if she would like the same order as last year to break the Yom Kippur fast — nova, whitefish salad, tuna and scallion cream cheese.

“I am assuming its temporary, and it is a public health glitch,” Hutter Epstein said.

She said she expects Greengrass will get things cleaned up: “I think these things are problematic to many restaurants in New York.”

Her family ate Barney Greengrass’ nova Sunday morning, she said, and her first reaction when she heard about the shutdown was: “Thank God we have leftovers.”

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