Tucked among the parade of mid- to luxury-priced stores, salons, swishy restaurants, and fancy fitness studios on Fifth Avenue is Eisenberg’s, an anomaly of a sandwich shop where most plates don’t top $10. The Flatiron lunch counter serves Jewish-tinged sandwiches and other comfort fare in a no-frills space that’s barely been changed since opening in 1929. It’s frankly a miracle it’s still around.
But as of May 1, Eisenberg’s has been under new ownership, and regulars are nervous for potential changes to the time capsule of a space, the kind that is endangered in high-rent New York City. How will a historic NYC restaurant with a quieter legacy — lots of loyal regulars, not massive busloads of tourists — fare in an ownership transition, and can it stay the same as it’s always been?
New owner Warren Chiu seems to understand what he needs to say and is quick to allay fears. Of the space: “I won’t be renovating the place to make it entirely different, but I’d certainly restore it properly, so I can bring out the best,” he says. Of the food: “Why change when people are already loving the food?” And of the low prices: “There’s no immediate plans to modify the pricing.”
It’s not a guarantee that nothing will change, but the previous owner, Josh Konecky, chose Chiu for a reason. “It was important to me to try to find someone who would continue the Eisenberg’s tradition,” Konecky says.
It’s a long tradition. The place was opened in 1929 by the Eisenberg brothers and stayed in the Eisenberg family for a few generations, until the 1970s, when it was sold to a Polish couple who owned it for less than a decade. Steve Oh bought the restaurant in 1988, running it for 17 years before selling it in 2005 to Konecky, who was a regular at the restaurant.
Konecky bought the restaurant with no previous hospitality industry experience whatsoever. But what Konecky lacked in restaurant prowess he compensated for with intimate knowledge of Eisenberg’s. He’d been going to the restaurant for a decade and a half, coming in a couple of times a week for breakfast or lunch, lured in initially by the scent of bacon wafting out of the exhaust system onto Fifth Avenue on his first day working in the area.
Thanks to his frequent visits, Konecky became friendly with the previous owner Oh, which led to him buying the place. He scored a 17-year lease and scrounged up the money for it from relatives, banks, and friends.
“My mother was one of the investors, and when I took her for lunch to see the space, she said, ‘You want to buy this shithole? Do you know how much money you’ll have to put into this?’” he recalls. “But she just didn’t get it.” His mother’s skepticism inspired Konecky to create a new tagline for Eisenberg’s: “You either get it or you don’t.”
Changes have been very minor under Konecky’s ownership, save for some recipe tweaks and the addition of burgers to the menu, which meant installing a grill and exhaust system. He updated certain dishes with his mom’s recipes, like the chopped liver, but that’s about it. “We’re not trendy. There’s no kale or quinoa, we still don’t do wraps, and we just added avocado to the menu in 2017. I held out as long as I could,” he says.
The neighborhood has transformed considerably in the past 15 years, ushering in a younger crowd living and working in the area. “I wasn’t sure if they would get it, but they did,” Konecky says. “There’s a sense of camaraderie here, and it’s a great place to eat alone, especially at the counter; you don’t stick out.”
In recent years, the crowd has evolved into a mix of locals of all ages and walks of life: “White-collar workers, blue-collar workers, celebrities,” Konecky says. There’s also a surprising influx of tourists, thanks to write-ups on Eisenberg’s in various foreign-language NYC guide books, and one television spot in particular: Popular German TV personality Jumbo Schreiner came in 2016. “Right after that, we had a spike in German tourists, and they’re been coming in since, because they saw us on Jumbo’s show,” Konecky says.
The 2008 recession proved fruitful for the luncheonette. With the demise of similarly old-school coffee shops and diners in recent years, Konecky saw loyal regulars from those erstwhile places find solace in a sandwich at Eisenberg’s. Business “increased dramatically,” he says.
“All the expense-lunch people didn’t have their expense accounts anymore, so they came here, and entertained clients here — and then, after things turned around, they stayed,” Konecky recalls. “We are recession-proof. I could’ve made a lot more money doing this, but as much as I’d love to raise my prices, I don’t want to alienate people.”
After 13 years of running the place, Konecky, 64, says he “decided he had enough. It is bittersweet, but the stress level was incredible.” He started to shop around for a buyer earlier this year while there were still over four years left on the lease so that it would still have some value, he says. There were four or five interested parties.
Konecky chose Chiu, who was able to add another five years to the lease under its current terms, helping ensure its survival. “Had the landlord offered me that, I might not have sold it. But I’m glad Warren got it,” Konecky says. “The next question is whether he’ll be able to maintain it. He has more of a corporate background, and Eisenberg’s is the anti-corporate, so we’ll see what happens.”
Chiu is only the fifth steward of the Eisenberg’s legacy in its nearly century-long history. It’s his second restaurant venture; he and a few business partners opened a tapas restaurant in San Francisco, Bota, in 2016. But Chiu’s been in the hospitality industry for years. His family owns international hotel chain Warwick, and Chiu will continue to hold a role there. Right now, though, his primary focus is Eisenberg’s.
He lived in the neighborhood and was an Eisenberg’s customer before taking it over. “It’s such a special place; it’s an iconic landmark,” that even predates some NYC attractions like the Empire State Building, Chiu says of the place’s appeal. “Who wouldn’t want to run Eisenberg’s if the opportunity arises?”
His immediate plans include a light restoration, one that he likens to “buying an old, antique car and putting it back together, making sure it works well.” He’ll upgrade outdated equipment and possibly switch out some furniture, saying none of them will be big. One thing he definitely won’t be touching, save for possibly fixing a few cracks: the 25-foot stone countertop, which is the original counter, dating back to the ’20s.
Employees will also remain. They’re part of Eisenberg’s history, Chiu says: “It’s like a warm, tight family here, and the team spirit is very good.” Many of the cooks have worked there for nearly two decades — even predating Konecky’s ownership.
In the first few weeks of owning the restaurant, Chiu notes that many local customers were anxious about the new ownership, worried that Eisenberg’s wouldn’t be the same, he says. “You can see the customer loyalty is immense at this place. They feel very emotionally connected to it. I’m the new owner officially, but I feel like the customers here are the real owners. I think any changes I have in mind for the future, I’ll have to consult them; I’ll have to ask for permission.”