Zabar’s customers have their favorites. An onion bagel with nova, capers, red onion and scallion cream cheese. A cinnamon raisin bagel with lox, tomato, red onion, capers and schmear. But what’s the family’s pick?
Stanley Zabar — currently a co-owner with his brother, Saul, and the son of the market’s original founders Louis and Lilian — opts for a sesame bagel with nova, tomato and cream cheese. His wife, Judith, likes sesame and everything bagels.
“The neighborhood belongs to us, in a sense, and we have to keep it up, we have to be the best we can,” Stanley said during a Zoom book talk on Thursday hosted by the local nonprofit Landmark West and the Preservation League of New York State. “People think we give to it, but the neighborhood gives to us.”
Fond memories rose to the surface as fans and friends gathered to reminisce about the family’s history, detailed by the couple’s late daughter, Lori Zabar, in “Zabar’s: A Family Story, With Recipes.” The book hit shelves in the beginning of May, three months after Lori passed away following a five-year fight against cancer.
Zabar’s, a specialty food store famously located on the Upper West Side, has always been a family affair. “Zabar’s was the place to come and see your mother and father, your grandparents, your cousins ... the Zabar’s store is the center of the Zabar family,” Stanley said.
Building A Legacy
Even after Lori had fallen ill, she continued her work on the book chronicling her family’s history. “Lori really did not stop,” said Rabbi Emeritus Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, at her funeral service. “She always wanted to bring the family together.”
The eldest granddaughter of the market’s founders, Lori graduated from the Columbia School of Architecture Historic Preservation Program, where she had written a comprehensive report on W.E.D. Stokes, who developed the Ansonia on Broadway between West 73rd and 74th Streets, as Landmark West’s Executive Director Sean Khorsandi explained. She later attended law school at NYU, though her bent toward history and preservation continued; Zabar was a longtime board member of Landmark West and of the Preservation League of New York State.
Zabar’s isn’t technically a landmark, in a legal sense at least, Khorsandi said — a long stretch of Broadway, in fact, is unprotected. But the deli has acted as an unofficial landmark, almost like an Upper West Side mascot, for decades since its doors first opened on Broadway and West 80th Street in 1934.
“A lot of people say they’re New Yorkers, or people say they’re Manhattanites, but you typically don’t hear people saying ‘I’m an East Villager,’” Khorsandi told the West Side Spirit. “But you do hear people identifying as Upper West Siders and there’s a certain gravitas that has and a certain weight. And their logo’s iconic.”
“It’s a household name beyond just the Upper West Side,” he added of Zabar’s.
Lori was, to many, an integral part of that Upper West Side sense of community and pride. “It’s hard to think that she’s not here,” Stanley said. Her work keeps her alive. “We’re so glad she left us the legacy of this book, because it makes everything a little bit easier,” Judith said.
More Than A Book
More than a purely historical account, Lori’s book offers a sense of connection. “It’s sort of sweet to read the book,” Khorsandi said, “because it feels like you’re just having a conversation with her.”
In addition to diving deep into her family’s journey as they fled persecution in Ukraine and put down roots on the Upper West Side, she didn’t shy away from recounting their struggles with Zabar’s. Description of her grandfather’s legal slip-ups pertaining to the pricing of items in his shop — which earned him a brief stint in jail — struck Khorsandi as being especially frank. “As many years as I knew Lori, I didn’t know the family story,” he said.
On Thursday night, the movement of Zabar’s iterations and offshoots around the Upper West Side became a major thread of conversation. Members of the family have run a number of markets across the city, including the Vinegar Factory on the Upper East Side (which closed in 2016) and E.A.T. on Madison Avenue. “Reading the book, it just seems like the whole Zabar family had just so much stamina,” said Katy Peace, director of communications at the Preservation League of New York State.
Asked about the beloved Zabar’s Russian coffee cake, Stanley told the story of its Queens borough origins. Judith recounted that when a Banksy mural popped up on an exterior wall of Zabar’s years ago, the family rushed to protect it with plexiglass. Willie Zabar, another family member, spoke briefly about his own project, the “Zabar’s Podcast.”
When beseeched by one attendee, Marge Burman, to “promise to uphold the tradition forever” by keeping Zabar’s up and running, Judith offered up an honest response: “That’s up to the next generation.”
“The neighborhood belongs to us, in a sense, and we have to keep it up, we have to be the best we can.” Stanley Zabar