A look behind the counter of NYCs quintessential kosher vegetarian diner.
All photos courtesy of Migle Staniskyte
At the intersection of culture and tradition sits the unassuming yet wildly popular East Village diner, B&H Dairy.
Step through the door of this neighborhood staple and you could be in any era of its nearly 84-year-old existence. Because, well, I’m pretty sure nothing has changed since the day it opened. The inside is narrow like a railroad-style apartment—patrons to the left, staff to the right—divided only by the countertop that runs like a river through this lively community.
It’s not just the setup that feels true to its early days. The unique menu, vegetarian and kosher, remains almost entirely unchanged since its inception. Why is this particularly interesting? B&H Dairy is owned by a pair of immigrants: Ola, a Polish Catholic, and her husband Fawzy, an Egyptian Muslim. Though they come from different cultural backgrounds, both take great pride in maintaining the roots of this Jewish Dairy Counter.
Within this eclectic mix of history and ownership, you’ll find the traditional American diner favorites like eggs, potatoes and pancakes alongside cultural classics like freshly baked challah (rumor has it they make 100 loaves a day), blintzes and pierogis topped with a rich dollop of sour cream. A menu that screams comfort for a wide array of breakfast goers, all united by a single universal truth—the large vat of slightly burnt coffee.
On a crisp November morning, I stopped by B&H to learn more about this iconic place. To say I “sat down” with Ola, one of the owners, would be a stretch. But I was fortunate enough to catch her on and off for high-spirited and highly comical excerpts as she bustled back and forth in the narrow space behind the counter serving customers on an action-packed Friday morning.
Ola moved to New York in 2004 from Poland for what she thought would be a six-month stint to earn a bit of money before returning to her homeland. She worked at The Stage Deli, the 2nd Avenue diner and meat shop across the street from B&H Dairy.
Fawzy on the other hand came to New York in 1996 and snagged a job at Halal Snack, next door to B&H. He became a frequent customer for a post-shift meal at both B&H and The Stage. In 2003, Fawzy accepted the opportunity to take over ownership of B&H Dairy.
It only made sense that Ola and Fawzy would cross paths many times at or around The Stage. But, in Ola’s version of the story, she didn’t take notice of him until one fateful afternoon when Fawzy put his glasses on the counter, and Ola couldn’t help but notice his filthy lenses.
She picked them up in her no-nonsense manner and wiped them clean on her shirt. From that day forward, they were inseparable. Ola and Fawzy married a few years later and became co-owners of B&H Dairy, unified in their commitment to honor the diner’s original menu and kosher certifications.
I sipped black coffee on the far end of the counter and watched in amazement as a never-ending stream of people shuffled like ants in and out of the cramped room for their morning ritual. The steady flow of traffic didn’t seem to faze Ola, who was slicing bread, taking orders by phone and simultaneously working the register. Nor did it faze Leo, who somehow managed to flip blueberry pancakes, fry four separate orders of omelets and tend to a mountain of breakfast potatoes with a wide grin stretched across his face.
Leo has been serving the community with his charming smile and wit from behind the B&H counter for 33 years and counting. When I asked about his favorite menu item, he flashed that signature smile and said “I don’t have one. I’ve eaten everything on the menu. Many times. Now, every morning I come in and eat a bagel and coffee. That’s it.”
I figured after 33 years he’s probably seen some weird shit. It’s the East Village after all. But, when I asked him about the most absurd thing he’s been witness to during his time with the business, the guy seated next to me quickly chimed in for him, “it’s probably me.”
Leo just gave a hearty laugh. He didn’t disagree.
The man, Scott, is a longtime patron of B&H and didn’t hesitate to inform me that the cheese blintzes are the best thing on the menu. He’s so well known within the diner’s walls that when Ola saw me chatting with him, she yelled from the far side of the countertop “anything you want to know about this place you should ask him.”
I asked Scott why he thinks B&H has been able to keep its doors open after 80-plus years. And he told me it’s not just the passage of time and a global pandemic that B&H has endured—back in 2015, a gas explosion nearby led to nearly 5 solid months of closure.
So, how did it survive? Scott simply shrugged, looked around, and said “it’s the people. It’s these people.”
For most small businesses, such a catastrophe would’ve been a death sentence. During this period, for B&H, it was an experience filled with an outpouring of love and generosity as the community rallied together to ensure their beloved neighborhood diner would open its doors once again.
Almost as if on cue, the staff erupted in a 9 a.m. chorus of “Happy Birthday” and emerged from the kitchen with two cheese blintzes covered in candles. Everyone sang along as the servers placed the blintzes ceremoniously on the counter in front of Scott who made a wish and blew out the candles.
Ola and Leo paused for a few seconds—the longest either had stood still all morning—to snap a quick picture with their loyal patron and friend, then immediately returned to the fresh batch of hungry stomachs that had materialized in the diner doorway in the blink of an eye.