Most recently, Second Avenue has received attention for being lucky enough to be served by the eponymous Second Avenue Subway. The area of this street that does not receive the services of this subway line is located in the East Village and is the home to numerous small businesses. B&H Dairy Restaurant has resided onSS the southern end of Second Avenue for the past 80 years and never fails to remind the Lower East Side of its history.

The inside of B&H Dairy Restaurant



I'm Polish, he's Egyptian, and he's Mexican- we're all mixed here. Ola, the owner

Co-owners Ola and Fawzy wearing the “Challah! Por Favor” shirts. Photo courtesy of B&H Dairy Restaurant Calendar provided by Ola

Even though the space that B&H occupies is really tight, countless customers managed to squeeze themselves into a seat and eat during what seemed to be rush hour. Ola, the owner kept herself busy during the entire interview- she managed the cash register, made sandwiches, and took orders- and only stopped occasionally to show pictures and videos that showed her pride for the restaurant. Working alongside Ola were Mike and Leo, who did more cooking than talking but were still friendly, nevertheless. The three of them together was definitely a sight to see in this Jewish Kosher restaurant because of how different they are from one another: Ola is Polish, Leo is Mexican, and Mike is Egyptian and they each sport a shirt that boasts “Challah! Por favor”. (Challah, according to Ola, is a special, Jewish loaf of bread). Also, Ola managed to speak several different languages when talking to her coworkers (and some customers). The three of them together, wearing those shirts, effectively communicated the diversity that this restaurant embraces. Even though Ola is Catholic and her ex-husband, who co-owns the restaurant with her, is Muslim, they still work to maintain the kosher environment that this restaurant is known for. When asked why she and her ex-husband still honor this Jewish tradition, she responded, “[the original owners] started this restaurant kosher, so now we stay kosher”. In addition to creating a welcoming environment, B&H has created an intimate environment with its regular customers. When asked about his relationship with the customers, Mike responded, “I know who’s coming during the weekday, who’s coming on the weekend, and what they’re going to eat- seriously”.

1980 Jewish Population around B&H Dairy Restaurant

A variety of customers of different age groups, cultures, and social statuses walked through the door as the interview was taking place. Ola explained that her restaurant attracts students from NYU, which is not too far away; older customers, who have been loyal to this restaurant for years; as well as a large Jewish population, which is to be expected. According to census data, the older and younger populations of the East Village were about the same in the year 1940, around the time that the restaurant opened. However, when NYU opened its Washington Square Campus around 1980, the younger population grew dramatically while the numbers of the older population began to dwindle. So, it is true that NYU has populated the area surrounding B&H with a significant younger population, which has, in turn, increased the restaurant’s business. However, this new population of younger people has left almost no room for the few senior citizens who still reside in the area.



Photo courtesy of B&H Dairy Restaurant Calendar provided by Ola

Because B&H is a kosher restaurant started by a Jewish family, it’s often assumed that the Lower East Side/ East Village has always been a Jewish enclave. In reality, this area of the city has seen its fair share of immigrant groups since the 1850s. Before the 18th century, this space was farm land that was owned mainly by the Dutch (smaller farms were given to free blacks, who served as buffers between the Europeans and the Native Americans). The creation of the Manhattan street grid around the early 19th century led to this area becoming the home to the city’s wealthiest citizens. In fact, the Lower East Side/ East Village became known as “one of New York’s most prestigious residential neighborhoods” because of the “speculatively-built row houses” that populated the area. The residential houses/ mansions on Second Avenue could cost between $30,000 to $40,000 (which was considered to be expensive during this time period) and gave this neighborhood the elegance and grace that was often celebrated by its inhabitants and newspapers. Eventually, these wealthy residents moved northward and most of these houses were demolished by the late 19th century, which also marked the arrival of the first immigrant groups- the Irish and the Germans.

One of the few remaining revered residences owned by wealthy New Yorkers at 110 Second Avenue. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

The Irish and German immigrants that moved to the Lower East Side/ East Village increased the population from 500,000 (1850) to 800,000 (1860) and to just under a million by 1870. The first groups of migrants who came to this area originally lived comfortably in the residences that were forgotten by their previous wealthy owners. However, as the population increased swiftly, the coziness felt by these immigrants began to decrease because these homes began to be shared. Buildings that resembled 110 Second Ave- between two and four stories- would have about two families per floor, which could lead to as many as eight families in one house.

The number of buildings increased drastically between 1850 and 1900 in order to accommodate the growing number of immigrants living in the area. Many of these new buildings were tenements that were built in clusters on different streets. Most of these tenements were built before the Tenement House Act of 1879, which sought to make tenements safer for living. These tenements also had spaces for commercial use towards the front and these spaces are still used for the majority of the businesses that operate out of the Lower East Side/ East Village. B&H, for example, operates out of the commercial space of a tenement.


Second Avenue in 1934

B&H Dairy Restaurant was opened by Abie Bergson and Jack Heller during the year 1938, a time when Yiddish Broadway on Second Avenue was at its prime. Between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the Germans who had previously populated the area began to move out and the new residents, who were Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe, took their place. The Lower East Side/ East Village became a cultural center for the Jewish population, who used the tenements as spaces to express their faith.

Even though Polish Roman Catholics occupied the area with the Yiddish Jews, the Lower East Side/ East Village became known as a Jewish enclave and Second Avenue developed into “a bustling commercial thoroughfare [that] coincided with its rise as the most important entertainment district for the city’s Jewish immigrant community- leading many to call the area the ‘Yiddish Rialto'”. Many residences were transformed into theaters or motion picture houses; in fact, about 6 movie theaters existed along Lower Second Avenue between the 1910s and 1920s.

B&H Dairy Restaurant in 1980

The building that B&H Dairy Restaurant occupies was originally a tenement built between 1898 and 1900 by Louis F. Heinecke. Heinecke was responsible for numerous tenements in the area that were built in response to the increasing immigrant population and built the tenements of 127 to 131 Second Avenue as one continuous structure, meaning that these buildings are connected. (B&H is located at 127  Second Avenue). The first owner of this tenement was Augustus Ruff, a German immigrant who must’ve moved out by the time the Jewish population took control of the Lower East Side/ East Village area. The original structure of this tenement has not been preserved since B&H moved in because the doors, windows, and storefront of this building are listed as replaced.

Besides the fact that Yiddish Broadway would have given B&H access to a large group of clientele, factors such as population size and income would have also influenced the opening of this restaurant.  The population size of the neighborhood, which was mostly Jewish and also larger than the population of Omaha, Nebraska, would’ve given good business to B&H because it provided a small Jewish space to this population.  Also, the majority of the population consisted of poor, tenant families who had little change to spare. Currently, B&H offers its meals at reasonable prices and there is a strong chance that this was also the case back in 1938. The prices of the meals back then must’ve been cheap in order to appeal to the poor Jewish population, who would’ve easily funded this business. Also, because most people lived in three or more family houses/ tenements, this restaurant would have been easily accessible to those who lived in the tenement that the business occupied as well as those who live in other tenements.

1942 Lower East Side Population Data



When [the customers] found out we were closed, they called to the Mayor's office, Con Edison, and they tried to help us. Ola, the owner

Community is an extremely important aspect of B&H; in fact, it is literally what keeps this business running. B&H has always maintained a strong relationship with its customers online and face to face. Numerous pictures that capture the employees’ interactions with their customers fill both B&H’s Facebook page and its store walls. During the interview, Ola presented pictures that captured babies wearing “Challah! Por favor” t-shirts, reunions with the relatives of Bergson (the original owner), and the store promoting the talents of its customers. One of the last photos that Ola swiped to showed a line standing outside the door of the restaurant: “that was the first day we opened the door [after the explosion]”. The people in that photo, as well as their friends, family, and those who support this business online, fought tirelessly for months to reopen B&H after several obstacles made that seem to be impossible.

The line outside of B&H Dairy Restaurant on the day of its reopening. Photo courtesy of the business’ Facebook page.

The explosion that Ola is referring to is the 2015 East Village Gas Explosion that occurred a mere two doors down from B&H and claimed the lives of two people. On March 26th, while Ola was in the basement of the restaurant attending to some business matters, three buildings to the right of B&H collapsed as a result of illegal tapping into a gas line. In the aftermath of the explosion, most of the businesses around that area of Second Avenue closed down, which was to be expected. However, most of those businesses were allowed to reopen after a couple of weeks- B&H, on the other hand, wouldn’t reopen for another 5 months. During the 5 months that B&H remained closed, the owners, employees, and their customers fought to meet the new building and safety requirements that the city demanded. Why did the city restrict only B&H from opening you may ask? Unfortunately, B&H was the only business that shared the same gas line with the buildings that were demolished in the explosion, which meant that they would have to change their gas line before they were allowed to serve customers again.

The Aftermath of the Second Avenue Explosion. Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Photo courtesy of B&H Dairy Restaurant Calendar provided by Ola

Ola and Fawzy somehow still had to pay for rent, utilities, wages, and other expenses while the restaurant remained closed. Once one of the restaurant’s loyal customers heard about this, he set up a donation page with a goal of $20,000; luckily, “that goal was met in less than three weeks”, according to Ola. The owners of B&H began to feel at ease and confident in the reopening of their restaurant until they were hit with another obstacle that required the installation of a new exhaust system as well as a new fire suppression system in the restaurant’s kitchen. These fees, as well as the need to change the gas line, made it almost certain that B&H would be closed for good. Defeated, the owners prepared to put the life they had at B&H behind; that is until the restaurant’s customers began to crowdfund again to support the business. Eventually, the restaurant received donations totaling up to almost $30,000 (in addition to the previous $20,000), which was just enough to keep B&H afloat. The money allowed for B&H to update its kitchen, and with the gas line changed, the restaurant was allowed to reopen in August of 2015.

In response to the rescue that the community provided, B&H held a reopening party that was open to the public and also offered discounts to anyone who donated while they were closed. The reopening of this beloved restaurant was covered by numerous news stations, newspapers, and blogs which promoted the business and brought in a wide range of customers. Ola made it clear that she would be forever grateful to everyone who fought to keep B&H in the East Village: “[the customers] paid for five months’ rent, because of them we stayed”.



(n.d.). 1943 Profile of the Lower East Side, Manhattan area. NY: New York Times, the News Syndicate Co., the Daily Mirror, and Hearst Consolidated Publications.

(2012). East Village/ Lower East Side Historic District . NY: NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission .

Smigielska, A. “. (2017, 03). B&H Dairy Restaurant Interview . (S. Lish, & A. L. Sealy, Interviewers)

Images Not Taken by Me: B&H Dairy Restaurant’s Facebook page, B&H Dairy Restaurant’s Calendar, Google Maps, New York Department of Records, New York Times, Social Explorer

Audio recorded inside B&H Dairy Restaurant during interview.

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