Review: B&H Dairy, oldest vegetarian restaurant in US

A pendulum has swung in my world. While I once valued whole foods and a stringent (read: obsessive and restrictive) adherence to “clean” eating, I now wistfully cherish the comfort foods and cultural classics that I denied myself for so long.

I still believe in nourishing my body to feel and function my best, but I also feel that this can include items that feed the mind and soul just as much as those that simply sustain the physical self. Several months ago, on a trek through Asia, I decided to (more or less) abandon my existing food rules in favour of Taiwanese street snacks and sweet, steaming mugs of Hong Kong-style milk tea that allowed me to taste these country’s cultures.

Since then, I’ve grown less and less rigid with the way I eat- something that I actually never thought would happen. If you asked me a few years, or even months, ago, I would have said that my disordered eating would be a lifelong challenge. While this may still be true, I am seeing myself slowly regress back to a childlike state of curiosity and ease when it comes to food and eating.

When I was young, I was a fearless eater- willing to try just about anything and everything. Brussel sprouts, capers, escargot- things other kids wouldn’t go near.

I’m almost back to that same willingness (save meat, which I will never consume again if I can help it). I’m also learning to eat intuitively- not just in relation to my own body, but- perhaps more importantly- in tune with others according to the social dynamics of the group. (More on this coming soon).

That was a long lead-in to today’s post, which is a review of B&H Dairy in the East Village. The quaint diner-style restaurant is allegedly the county’s “oldest vegetarian joint” (although it is actually mostly vegetarian, as it serves some fish). The restaurant is also entirely kosher, serving up Jewish and Easter European cuisine like borscht, kasha and of course, fresh-baked challah bread.

B&H is the kind of place where you are transported in time, place and mind. For a split second, you become blissfully unaware of the horrors of white flour and sugar and fried foods… Instead you focus on the delightful sponginess of your challah, served up on a tiny Dixie plate. (You also notice the staff’s corresponding shirts, “Challah! Por favor”.)

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Coffee and complimentary challah to start the meal

The restaurant can get quite cramped when it fills up, but the stellar service (quick and friendly) and tasty food make up for it. The vibe is very hole-in-the-wall, but in a charming way, like you are back in old-school Manhattan grabbing a hearty breakfast before you commute to your office job.

At B&H, low-fat and sugar-free are non-existent. You will take your coffee with cream and  your bread with butter and you will like it, because it’s damn delicious that way (and just how God intended, no?) And we haven’t even gotten to the main meal yet.

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Cheese blintze with sweet cream

I had trouble deciding what to order off of the extensive menu, but was sure that I needed one of B&H’s infamous blintzes. I settled on cheese- not too sweet with the perfect balance of crispy (fried!) exterior and soft, cool filling. The thing was so rich, I probably would have been fine with it as my only order. But I had already requested two savoury dishes, which were also much larger than I anticipated.

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Mushroom knish with gravy

First up was a mushroom knish (which, in actuality, was more like a mound of mashed potatoes). The flavour was nice and the gravy was great, although this definitely wasn’t the dense pastry that I was expecting when I ordered.

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Stuffed cabbage

Next up was cabbage stuffed with rice and topped with red sauce. It was a pretty basic dish, but well seasoned and tightly wrapped (so that the cabbage didn’t fall apart when I cut into it). As I ate I drank; the coffee refills were abundant.

I happened to be dining on a particularly soggy day, making my hot food and beverage all the more satisfying. My jacket was completely drenched but I didn’t care. I left stuffed and happy to have experienced a little slice of mid-century New York.

I’m all about vintage diners at the moment, and this one makes it high on my list. If you are in the area, I recommend you pay B&H a visit. If the sound of this makes you want to die with anguish, just know that I get it. It’s taken me a long (long long) time to get to this place. There are some great podcasts that may help you in your journey towards food freedom. And take it from me that the control and confidence your seeking may actually increase as your restriction diminishes.

What’s more badass than not giving a fuck about what you “should” eat according to others’ skewed opinions or your own illogical rules? What’s cooler than being a diet rebel, eschewing commercialist and capitalistic beauty standards in favour of a flavourful, colourful, exciting life? What would happen if you decided to do and eat what you want? 

Try the matzo brei and the pierogies (and whatever else scares you) and reclaim that shit and the experiences that come along with it because what is life really if you’re living in fear about everything you put in your mouth? Feed your body, but don’t forget to also feed your soul.

You don’t just go to B&H for the food; you go for the whole package. The meal, the environment, and of course the nostalgia that comes along with it. 

B & H Dairy Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

quincy