It’s been a wild ride of a pandemic for Elyssa Heller.
On February 26, 2020, Heller officially incorporated her dream business, an entity that at that time only existed in her head, called Edith’s Eatery and Grocery. Named after her great-aunt Edith, who owned a Jewish deli in Brooklyn in the early 1950s (“it was called Tony’s,” Heller tells Brooklyn Magazine, “because she got it from a guy named Tony and she didn’t want to change the name”). The idea was to “bring a global lens to Jewish food” by combining a deli and appetizing counter, a sit-down restaurant, and a grocery store all under one roof.
“I love going to the grocery store,” says Heller. “If I’m stressed I go to the grocery store and walk around like a crazy person. And when I first moved here 10 years ago from Chicago I would venture up to Zabar’s and wander around amazed at all the different things you could find there. It was just so overwhelming. Such an amazing experience. And I thought that there was an opportunity to bring more of the global Jewish food story to light, like they do in Zabar’s. I always say ‘more is more,’ and I wanted to capture that wonderful spirit and give people my version of it with Edith’s”
Covid roared into town three weeks later, of course, and though Heller had to change direction, she never slowed down. In its first iteration, launched toward the end of that first pandemic summer as a popup running out of Paulie Gee’s pizzeria, Edith’s had people lining up on Greenpoint Avenue every weekend for killer bagel sandwiches. The natural next step, Edith’s Sandwich Shop, opened last March in a tiny takeout-only storefront on Lorimer Street, and continues to draw crowds despite its lack of customer comforts.
As of this week, though, Heller’s initial dream has finally come to fruition with the brand new, full-fledged Edith’s Eatery and Grocery, located on the corner of Leonard and Conselyea in Williamsburg and offering a menu of plated dishes (not a sandwich in sight!), seating for about 20 at well-distanced tables, a whole coffee shop/cafe, and floor-to-ceiling shelves laden with Heller’s personally-curated selection of groceries reflecting, and celebrating, the Jewish diaspora.
The building’s been around since the late 1800s (the previous tenant in the retail space was DeStefano’s Steakhouse, but over the decades it’s also housed an ice cream parlor, a pool hall, and a social club), and the overall vibe is sort of general-store-meets-vintage-Jewish- deli. The flooring is all wooden and tiles, and an oddly-angled counter greets you as you walk into the large front room, from which you can order all sorts of smoked fish, salads, deli meats, and cheeses.
You can get to the coffee shop part of the operation through a long hallway to the back, or use the separate entrance on Conselyea Street. There are more goodies back here as well, including pastries, bulk pistachios, Turkish delights, and frozen treats like tahini chess pie from Petee’s. Heller’s old family photos, sometimes starring Edith of course, are everywhere. There’s even an Edith’s zine, called Kibbitz, with submissions culled via Instagram DMs, tucked into the condiment basket at every table. It’s an exceptionally charming space.
Best of all, Heller has retained her kitchen crew from popup to Sandwich Shop to the new Eatery, led by chefs Christina Jackson and Benjamin Leung. Both come with impressive fine dining resumes, and Heller, whose background is in supply chain logistics, is grateful that the pandemic era afforded her “an amazing pool of talented people who otherwise would probably not be available to somebody like me.”
The menu features familiar favorites like a clear chicken consommé bobbing with matzo balls, and a superb chicken schnitzel, which is plated in dramatic architectural fashion, roofed over a pair of schmaltzy cornbread crossbeams. Harrisa honey and sweet relish add to the fun here.
There are also less common dishes, such as the fluffy syrniki pancakes, loaded with farmer’s cheese and blanketed with a tart currant kissel, and the malawach, a buttery Yemenite flatbread that you rip apart and dip into a lively green zhug, or grated tomato in bayleaf oil.
The showstopper at Edith’s is the house fish plate, adorned with some good slippery smoked salmon, a tangle of arctic char, and slices of an extraordinary pickled mackerel that’s been lightly torched right before serving. This makes for a lovely feast for two. A Middle Eastern breakfast with eggs and funky merguez, a big chopped salad, and a labneh yogurt parfait studded with fruits and chickpea granola round out the offerings.
Heller’s attachment to her native Chicago is clear—the menu from the Jewish deli of her youth, Evanston’s Barnum and Bagel, is prominently displayed—but she has definitely made Brooklyn her home. “I’m a Brooklynite,” she says. “I love Brooklyn. I refuse to identify as a full New Yorker even though I’ve lived here for 10 years—I’ll always keep my Illinois driver’s license—but I do identify as part Brooklynite. So this is a big one for me.”