Eli Zabar just might have the most famous last name in the world of gourmet groceries. But he’s not actually connected to that line of stores, which have plied the Upper West Side for the last 80 years with smoked fish, rugelach, bagels and hand-sliced pastrami. “By the time I finished with school, the company that my father had founded, Zabar’s, was still a very small business, and my brothers didn’t really run it; they had a managing partner. And there really wasn’t any room for me,” Zabar explains. “ Also, my brothers are 15 years older than I am. I was the baby and always would be the baby.”
So instead of becoming the odd man out in the family business, Eli Zabar handily established himself as the king of the Upper East Side’s specialty foods scene, opening his first shop, E.A.T, on Madison Avenue in 1973, followed in steady succession by E.A.T Gifts (1985), Eli’s Vinegar Factory (1993), Eli’s Manhattan (1998), and the recently launched Eli’s Essentials and revamped restaurant, Eli’s Table, whose chefs shop the massive branch of Eli’s Manhattan each day (be sure to give your regards to the butcher, who prepares all of the incredible charcuterie in house). They also source directly from Eli’s Bread, Eli’s Flowers and Eli’s List, which is Zabar’s attached wine shop, dedicated to his passion for Burgundy and Old World vino.
And believe it or not, that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the constantly on-the-go Zabar. We chatted about what’s next in his ever-growing dynasty, why he prefers European-style markets to classic New York appetizing shops, as well as (we couldn’t resist asking!) his favorite non-gourmet guilty pleasure foods.
Needless to say, you grew up in a famous food family. So did you always feel like you were predestined to go into the grocery and restaurant business, or did you ever have dreams of doing something else completely?
When I got out of school, I thought I was going to become a builder or developer. But I grew up in the grocery business, so when it came to actually making a living, I wound up opening a little store on Madison Avenue with one helper. I had been fired by anyone else I’d ever worked for, so I was obviously born to work for myself. I didn’t know how to cook or bake at the time, but I was getting very discouraged by what I bought from other people and knew I could do it better myself. That was the real catalyst, I had to get angry that someone’s pastry or bread was no good, so I got some books and eventually taught myself all of the necessary skills.
Zabar’s pays homage to New York’s great appetizing tradition, while Eli’s, E.A.T and Vinegar Factory are more inspired by European food halls. What elements of those European markets really spoke to you, and how did you seek to interpret and expand on them in your own stores?
Aside from smoked salmon, which used to be the only fish I ate, I kind of grew up rejecting what I had been brought up on and where I came from. The whole family lives and works on the West Side, and I’m the only one that lives on the East Side. And my outlook has always been European; I’ve spent a lot of time there. And I love to shop and go to markets and seek out special items and producers and foragers. Finding those people and products, and recognizing those people and products, is part of the joy of what I do.
You’ve had a pretty good thing going since the 1970’s, and could have just rested on your laurels after opening a store or two. What keeps you inspired to keep adding different stores, different concepts?
There’s always an order and logic to it. For instance, I was partners with the Peconic Land Trust in Amagansett, where I have a house, and when they were gifted a parcel of land back in 2008 and sought to turn it into a farmers market, they asked me to organize and run it. It was like a throwback to the way I began, with one little store run with one other person. We had only so many farmers, only so many products, and I would devise all sorts of soups and salads and sandwiches based on what was available in the market on that day. And out of that experience came my newest store, Eli’s Essentials, where as opposed to our other stores that sell tens of thousands of things, the selection is boiled down to what you really need. And we’re building a wine bar out of that, which will open in April, but in contrast to the 16,000 bottles in my wine cellar that I’ve been collecting for 15 years, the bar boils it down to the 18 you should really be drinking, and that go with the food that day.
From Eli’s Manhattan to Eli’s Table, what would you say is the through line between all of your businesses, that really speaks to you and what you’re about?
I think the attention to and pursuit of quality. And there’s an abundance in my stores, lots of choices that are abundantly good. I also like sharing. So as far as the bars and restaurants go, I prefer for the food to come out when it’s ready, and for it to be shared family style, instead of serving first course, second course, third course, dessert.
What made you decide to transform the restaurant that was here prior, Taste, into Eli’s Table?
I’m so actively involved, that’s the reason I changed the name! I hadn’t had much to do with Taste, and didn’t really like the style or point of view. So when the chef left, I took it over. And I’m here all the time to taste and test. If I don’t like something, I’ll take it off the menu. So if YOU don’t like anything, it’s probably my fault.
You obviously have access to some of the greatest products imaginable. Do you love to cook as much as you love to eat?
I love it. But I only really get a chance to cook myself in the summer when we go to Provence or Paris and I go to market and buy things for the day. But grilled cheese is my favorite thing to make, on country bread or health bread. All you need is a little Black and Decker toaster oven, and maybe a tomato in season. That’s my go-to dish. And all the food we serve on our menus should be as simple as that. They shouldn’t have more than a few ingredients.
What are some staple products from your stores, that you tend to always keep in your home fridge and pantry?
I always have cheese and bread. I eat two slices of our health bread every morning. I’ll often take Maine crabmeat home from our fish department and put it on toast. I love white asparagus. We eat a ton of white truffles; someone’s gotta do it. We get truffles delivered twice a week, and anything that’s left over from the first delivery that’s now three days old goes to the kitchen or goes home with me.
Do you have any favorite guilty pleasure foods, like Funyons or Twinkies; some trashy antidote to all of these fabulous gourmet goods?
We have bins of candy in the store, and I’ve been known to put my hands in the Peanut M&M’s and stuff my pockets. We also brought a baker in to make panettone the other day, and I must have eaten two or three loaves myself. Is that trashy enough?
You obviously have no intention of slowing down anytime soon. So what’s next on the docket?
We’ve got to finish out the wine bar at Essentials, but for my next project, I’m going well beyond my comfort zone in every possible way. I’m doing a really beer-centric spot on 79th Street, to try to appeal to the younger crowd. During the day it will be like Essentials, with sandwiches and such. But in the evening, I want to attract young people from 21-30 years of age, with a really great selection of beer, like Devil’s Backbone (we’ll be the first to carry it outside of Virginia), some inexpensive old world wines and inexpensive food, like chili and quiche and quesadillas. An Essentials for young people. And since it won’t be a big build out, I think we’re going to get it done in May. I also have a project on 72nd Street and Lexington Avenue which I probably wont get open until the fall, but where I’ll really be getting back to my roots. It will be kind of a deli, with smoked sturgeon and white fish and sable and bagels and bialys. Another project taking me back to where I came from.