An old-school treat is rising back to the top.
The egg cream — a fountain drink made with chocolate syrup, dairy and seltzer — has remained a sweet, sudsy city staple since it was hatched in New York City in the 1890s.
Mainstream popularity suffered in the 1960s and ’70s, but Manhattan purveyors say egg creams have been on a steady comeback in recent decades.
“It’s like a fix. You need a fix of this every so often. I’m serious,” Lexington Candy Shop co-owner John Philis said. “People pull up in their cars and jump out, they risk getting tickets at the fire hydrant and the bus stop just to get an egg cream here.”
The Upper East Side shop has not moved since opening in 1925 and currently sells 500 to 600 egg creams a week.
“We sell hundreds a week, and one of our biggest draws is that it’s still just $2 even,” said Jodi Freedman-Viera, manager of egg cream powerhouse Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop in Flatiron.
Though just three ingredients, there are many ways to make an egg cream.
“Brooklyn and the Bronx put their own takes on it, so they were known for adding different elements and doing it a little differently,” said Nicholas Hirshon, a media historian and assistant professor of communication at William Paterson University of New Jersey.
The Brooklyn way was syrup and milk first — then seltzer “to get the foam on top,” Hirshon said.
The Bronx way, however, was to mix the syrup and the seltzer first — then add milk, which “gives it a brownish look on the top,” Hirshon said. “Of course, this all depends on the place you stop into and who’s behind the counter.”
The connoisseur jury is still out regarding dairy preferences. Some prefer whole milk, some heavy cream, while Philis and others say half-and-half is the way to go.
The type of seltzer also varies from counter to counter. Dichter Pharmacy in Inwood deploys the traditional seltzer bottle with a CO2 cartridge, while G’s Coffee Shop on 207th street — one block away — won’t use anything but a single-serve can.
Eisenberg’s, which opened in 1929, swears by the pull-down style handles, also known as “the spit.”
And of course there’s the chocolate syrup. For more than 50 years, most soda jerks have used Brooklyn-born Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup — which recently has undergone changes of its own. Westminster Foods purchased the company in 2016, moving its production out to Hempstead, Long Island. Although Westminster did make a small tweak to the formula, President and CEO Bob Abramowitz assured New Yorkers it’s as good as ever.
“We use the same chocolate, and the only change was that we took out the high fructose corn syrup and substituted cane sugar in its place,” Abramowitz said in an email.
Lexington Candy Shop bucks tradition by making its own chocolate syrup.
“U-bet is the most popular thing, but we make our own syrup — always have, always will,” Philis said.
The one thing an egg cream doesn’t have in it? Egg. The most probable creator of the New York egg cream was Lower East Side candy store owner Louis Auster, according to Hirshon. Auster’s grandson Stanley told The New Yorker in 1989 that the original drink never included egg, but, like every element of the drink’s history, there is lively debate.
“It used to have an egg,” Philis said. “When the Greeks started taking over the restaurant business they decided to make it cheaper and they realized they could make the foam without the egg in it. And I’m saying that because I’m Greek.”
But, Freedman-Viera countered, “I don’t know that it’s ever been made with eggs.”
Philis and Freedman-Viera say orders have never slowed, but the egg cream’s popularity at large waned in the 1960s and ’70s, Hirshon said.
Many immigrants who embraced the chocolate confection, particularly Eastern European Jews, began moving to the outer boroughs and farther, Hirshon said. At the same time, the drink became viewed as an “ethnic food that people of other backgrounds weren’t as interested in.”
“Then around the ’90s, the Baby Boom generation remembered it from their childhoods and remembered their parents talking about it, so it got that nostalgia,” Hirshon said.
Lexington Candy Shop has definitely noticed the renewed interest — particularly in recent years.
“Kids are getting into it now, there are more and more teenagers getting into it,” Philis said. “Once they try it they get hooked.”
Dichter Pharmacy recently got back in the egg cream game. The pharmacy first opened in 1917, later joining forces with the Masi Brothers’ Soda Shop. At some point in the 1960s, the pharmacy put the kibosh on the soda offerings, co-owner Manuel Ramirez said, but the idea resurfaced during renovations following a devastating fire. In 2015, Dichter revived the soda counter, offering egg creams again for the first time in decades.
The pharmacy currently sells about five egg creams a week, and Ramirez said he overhears curious comments every day.
“I think it’s catching on again, becoming more trendy,” Ramirez said. “Just that word-of-mouth.”
Freedman-Viera at Eisenberg’s is confident the drink’s popularity will continue to surge.
“It could be zero degrees out and [customers] will still order them . . . and my clientele is all ages — I’ve got little kids coming in and ordering them,” Freedman-Viera said. “It’s just a staple. It’s been around forever.”