B & H Dairy is a throwback to another era. When you first walk in and see the specials posted behind the Formica counter—specials like spaghetti or lasagna with a cup of soup, a potato knish with mushroom gravy, or a grilled cheese sandwich—you may be forgiven for not noticing that, except for fish, everything on the menu is vegetarian. You can order à la carte but your best bet is to go with one of those daily specials. I was in the mood for something Eastern European, so I decided on the stuffed cabbage ($11.50) instead of the spaghetti with veggie balls ($10.00) or the mac & cheese ($9.00) specials. To continue the theme, we tried a side of kasha (buckwheat groats, which would be $3.75 on its own) covered in mushroom gravy.
My meal actually began with mushroom barley soup, which tasted rustic and homemade. The soup is thick with barley, flecked with carrots and dill. It needed a pinch of salt, but the rich vegetable broth was very flavorful. Make sure you ask for the challah if they don't give it to you; the sweet, egg-y bread is perfect for sopping up the soup.
The stuffed cabbage can't hold a candle to my grandmother's, but it's still very good. The soft stuffing is made of compressed rice, and is heavily spiced. Luckily the sweet and sour tomato sauce helps offset the spices. The kasha is fluffy and toasty, though it is a bit dry and it needs the mushroom gravy.
B & H is also great for breakfast. They make fresh egg sandwiches, served on thick slices of the same challah. Blintzes ($7.50 for two) are another B & H specialty. The crepes are double-wrapped and then fried, so that the outer layer gets browned and crispy but the inner one remains moist and tender. The fillings are hit or miss—the spinach filling is under-seasoned and the cherry, super sweet and an unnaturally bright red, but the cheese is slightly sweet and comforting.
Walking into B & H Dairy is like stepping back in time. It's a literal lunch counter, something out of a Hemingway short story or an Edward Hopper painting. Sure, the prices may be higher than they used to be, and the clientele is now composed of young hipsters rubbing elbows with older Jewish men, but I'd be willing to bet that the vibe hasn't changed in 30 years.
B & H Dairy
127 2nd Avenue, New York NY 10003 (map) 212-505-8065