“That’s the thing, to eat Nova, drink seltzer, and talk about life.”
Larry, the jovial waiter in command of the front half of Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard Street seems to have it all figured out. As he glides from table to table dispensing not just heaping plates of smoked salmon, but his own unique brand of fish-centric philosophy, Larry does so with an easy smile which indicates that there’s no other place he’d rather be. This is his home, and he wants nothing more than to welcome you right on in.
The effortless, unironic hospitality that Larry and the rest of the Russ & Daughters team convey is so hard to find these days, especially in New York, that it’s almost jarring at first. Having opened this past month to much fanfare, the Cafe is bustling with people and there’s a wait at all hours of the day, but once I’m seated, the R&D team implores me to simply relax and smell the Nova. After all it took Russ & Daughters almost a century to return to Orchard Street, so why would they start rushing now?
It’s this confident, yet inviting attitude that has made Russ & Daughters a dominant New York institution since 1914. While so many other storied city shops have been forced to shutter over the past decade, R&D has reached new heights under the guidance of Joshua Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, the fourth generation of Russ’ to hold the keys to the kipper kingdom. Together Joshua and Niki have been able to do maintain the no nonsense approach to eating that has defined their family’s business from the start, while simultaneously understanding how to better market R&D for the future. And so, ninety-four years after their ancestors left the original Orchard Street shop for a bigger location on East Houston, Joshua and Niki have brought R&D back to the roots with a Cafe that blends R&D’s old world charm with the crisp aesthetic of contemporary restaurants.
The Cafe is situated on a block that is quite typical of the contemporary Lower East Side, with faux-rustic craft beer bars sitting adjacent to overstuffed mom and pop leather emporiums. There are still hints of the days when immigrant merchants peddled wares of all variety up and down the LES, but they are disappearing by the day. In light of this, The Cafe is somewhat of a new vision for the neighborhood – it’s an eatery that is so clearly informed by the past, but it’s definitely not stuck there. The menu proudly displays old school Jewish appetizing staples and comfort foods, but it does so with cheeky titles (my favorite was the Yum Kippeded) and in a typeface that is crisp and unmistakably modern.
The food, which is prepared at open air counters much like the main shop, is endearingly uncomplicated, as it has been since the 1910’s, relying on the fish itself for most of the flavor. The restaurant, with it’s clean white tiles and exposed fixtures appears startlingly new, but the staff churns along with a confidence that can only comes from a decade in this industry. As Larry plops down my bagel and lox platter he notes that the platter itself is crafted from the old cutting board at Russ & Daughters East Houston headquarters. Fresh food, quite literally brought to me on a plate of history, there’s really no better way to sum up Russ & Daughters Cafe than that.