If you ask a New Yorker where to get a good egg cream most likely they will respond in one of two ways: with a warm smile and thoughtful answer, or with a creased brow and blank stare. If this question had been asked in the early-to-mid twentieth century, however, anyone asked would probably have replied quickly with their favorite soda fountain. Made from a unique combination of seltzer, milk, and flavored syrup, egg creams have a long history in New York City from Brooklyn to the Bronx.
It is generally agreed that the egg cream was introduced to the New York City community by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, likely in the Lower East Side where immigrant Louis Auster opened a candy shop in 1890. The story goes that amongst the immigrant community where money was typically tight, Auster created a cheap drink that would begin an entire movement. By combining milk with carbonated soda fountain seltzer, Auster created a unique drink with an enticing foamy head. He then concocted a secret chocolate syrup recipe, making batches in a sealed room with blackened windows to prevent competitors from finding out his recipe. When he added it to the milk and seltzer mixture, he struck gold. Auster had created a drink that the lower-class population could feel lavish drinking, without having to pay the steep prices of upper-class soda fountain favorites like floats and lime rickeys.
By the early 20th century all soda fountains in the greater area were hurrying to copy Auster’s creation, making egg creams an NYC household name. Egg creams could be found in any neighborhood spot and people came from all over to try them. One of the most iconic sellers of the egg cream and even known to many as serving the “best egg creams in NYC” was the East Village haunt Gem Spa. Gem Spa had sold its original legendary egg creams since the mid-1900s until its unfortunate closing in 2020.
These foamy drinks are woven into the fabric of retro New York City life of the twentieth century, representing “a simpler time” when you could grab an ice-cold egg cream for a couple of cents across the street from your apartment building. They were a staple of any hot city summer’s day and the highlight of going to the soda fountain with your dad. They were also the center of much debate, as Brooklynites proudly declared that all authentic egg creams must be made with chocolate syrup when they noticed vanilla egg creams gaining popularity in Manhattan, or that an egg cream wasn’t a true egg cream unless it was made using soda fountain seltzer instead of seltzer from a bottle. There was even a claim that egg creams had to be made using only a specific chocolate syrup (Fox’s U-Bet, made in Brooklyn, of course).
While the name of the drink would suggest otherwise, egg creams do not actually contain eggs or cream. There is a longstanding debate surrounding how the drink got its name, but it is likely the result of translation and pronunciation errors made throughout the early decades of the drink’s popularity. One theory that aligns with the Jewish immigrant origin of the egg cream suggests that the name stemmed from a mispronunciation of the Yiddish word “echt keem,” which means “pure sweetness”. Naturally, “echt” could be misheard as “egg” and “keem” as “cream.” Another theory poses the story that when famous Ukrainian singer and actor Boris Thomashefsky (who found fame in New York’s Yiddish theater scene) returned from a trip to France, he asked a soda jerk for the Parisian drink “chocolat et creme” which then became “chocolate egg cream.” Some even believe the simple solution that the earliest versions of an egg cream actually did contain egg, though there is no real evidence to support this, and most fountain drinks with egg were an entirely separate entity. In the end, there is no definitive answer to the drink’s puzzling name, but it never stopped New Yorkers from loving the drink.
The egg cream has seen many phases over the past century, skyrocketing in popularity to dip off at the slow extinction of soda fountains. But regardless of its modern-day rareness, the egg cream is still a blast from the past that can be found in diners and old haunts all over the city today.
In Brooklyn, where egg creams have always been a staple, Brooklyn Farmacy in Carroll Gardens is a completely remodeled 1920s neighborhood apothecary that has been transformed into an old-fashioned soda fountain. Egg creams are one of their revived specialties that honor the building’s history. Customers can step back in time and feel what it may have been like to indulge in the treat as if it was the 1950s.
Another iconic egg cream shop is Ray’s Candy Store in East Village, which has been serving its well-known egg creams since 1974. 90-year-old owner Ray Alvarez has been making egg creams with a smile on his face for nearly 50 years. Ray’s is open 24 hours and offers a multitude of egg cream flavors in addition to the traditional chocolate and vanilla, such as strawberry, root beer, and even lemon-lime.
Not too far from Ray’s is yet another Manhattan spot that has been known for dabbling in the nostalgic drink. For over a century, the Jewish deli Russ & Daughters on East Houston Street has stood proudly as an immigrant-owned business. In keeping with the egg cream’s connection to the Jewish immigrant community, Russ & Daughters offers egg creams on East Houston and at its two never locations on Orchard Street and Flushing Ave in Brooklyn.
For those looking for an egg cream fix on Staten Island, Egger’s Ice Cream has been selling sweets since 1932. As Egger’s has persisted through the decades adding four locations along the way, it has also continued its tradition of serving its fifties-style egg creams and is a great place to try the classic drink out if you find yourself on the island.