2. Dubrow’s Cafeteria, Midwood

Women eating at Dubrow's Cafeteria
Photo by Marcia Bricker Halperin

Like automats, cafeterias were waiter-less establishments. Customers would first receive a ticket with the menu items and prices. They would then approach the food counter and make selections as the server on the other side hole-punched the ticket. Taking their tray full of food, patrons then searched for a table, which was usually shared.

Cafeterias started on Wall Street in the late 19th century as a way for busy brokers to grab a quick lunch. They soon spread throughout the city and beyond. In 1929, Belarusian immigrant Benjamin Dubrow opened Dubrow’s Pure Food, a full-service restaurant in Crown Heights at the intersection of Eastern Parkway and Utica Avenue. When the Great Depression hit, however, he needed to try a new business model. Dismissing all of his waitstaff in 1931, he converted the restaurant into a cafeteria “with refinement.” In 1939, he opened another cafeteria at 1521 Kings Highway and another in Manahttan’s Garment District in 1952. Dubrow’s Cafeteria served a wide variety of dishes including Jewish staples like blintzes with applesauce and sour cream, kugels, and gefilte fish.

The self-service cafeterias of New York City offered a unique “third place,” a place outside of work and home, where New Yorkers could comfortably socialize with their neighbors, all “for the price of a cup of coffee.” In Halperin’s book, Kibbitz and Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow’s Cafeteria, Deborah Dash Moore writes about how while the cafeterias attracted a diverse clientele, “New York Jews particularly embraced cafeterias, less as a fast-food option than as a place to sit and schmooze.” Halperin reminisces about the people she met and photographed at Dubrow’s, writing, “I met amazing people at Dubrow’s. Most were people I ordinarily would never have had a conversation with over a cup of coffee—ex-vaudeville performers, taxi drivers, Holocaust survivors, ex-prizefighters, and bookies. Women named Gertrude, Rose, and Lillian all had sad love stories to tell and big hearts.”

The Kings Highway location of Dubrow’s Cafeteria hosted a few historic moments. John F. Kennedy held a large campaign rally outside the restaurant in 1960. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter also made appearances at the cafeteria during their own presidential campaigns. It was also where Sandy Koufax announced his decision to join the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Eastern Parkway location closed in the early 1960s while the Kings Highway cafeteria stayed open until 1978. The Manhattan location shut down in 1985.