Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gem Spa: A Sweet Sip of a Long-Lost City

The egg cream is above the awning. The owner prefers no indoor photography.
By Mitch Broder

The awning at Gem Spa says “New York’s Best Egg Cream,” so let’s just take a moment here to get a few things straight.

New York’s Best Egg Cream was made by my grandmother.

New York’s Second Best Egg Cream is made by my mother.

New York’s Third Best Egg Cream is made by me.

I assume that Gem Spa had no room on its awning for “Fourth.”

Then again, my grandmother’s gone, my mother’s quit the kitchen, and I’m too shiftless to make anything, so the place could have a point.

If New York City had an official drink, it would probably be the coconut-water melon-smoothie latte. But last century, it would have been the egg cream. The egg cream is vintage New York not only because it made its name here, but also because its name consists of two things that aren’t in it.

My old seltzer bottles with old seltzer. Do not drink.
An egg cream is created by mixing Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup, whole milk, and pressurized seltzer. The operative word is “mixing.” The correct ingredients are critical, but so is the correct hand. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might as well guzzle a Yoo-hoo.

That’s why it is near futile to anoint a place for its egg cream. It’s not a place that makes it, it’s a person, and persons vary. And a person’s work may vary with intangible factors, like time of day, mood, and temperament. Unless the person was my grandmother.

The best egg cream I remember getting on the Lower East Side was at an egg cream booth at the corner of Orchard and Grand. It was called Dave’s. It was run by Dave. The egg creams were made by Dave. Egg creams were a living for Dave. And he probably learned from my grandmother.

There are no more egg cream booths, and if there were they wouldn’t give you a free pretzel rod like Dave. That’s what makes Gem Spa precious: It’s the closest thing we have left. It may look like the Burma Bazaar, but it embraces the lore of the egg cream, and it mixes you one from a little fountain in the middle of the checkout counter.

Gem Spa is like an egg cream in that no one seems to know how it started. Sources suggest that it was born as a candy store in the twenties. Reportedly, two men bought it in 1957 and named it Gems Spa. “Gems” was from family initials. “Spa” was a word they liked.

My old Fox's U-bet, from the refrigerator. Do not eat.
Since the seventies, it has changed hands and looks several times (and dropped that S), but apparently the egg cream technique has been handed down. The current owner is Ray, who doesn’t like to publish even his first name because, he says, he wants people to think of “Gem Spa,” and not of “Ray.”

“This is known to the whole country,” he says. “People come to drink our egg cream from Texas, California, Europe, everywhere. It’s in the visitors guides. People read about it and they come. And once they have the egg cream, they have to come back and have it again.”

Once there, they can also have other traditional Lower East Side confections, like Joyva Marshmallow Twists, Jell Rings, and Halvah. And they can stock up on newspapers, magazines, cigarette lighters, birthday candles, dominoes, Chiclets, mood rings, safety pins, bobby pins, scarves, sunglasses, and hats.

The egg creams come in four flavors, though an egg cream should be chocolate. They come in a paper cup, though an egg cream is best in a glass. They can come with a pretzel rod, though that will cost you extra. They can be close to perfect, though they can sometimes be  less close.

As to the origin of the egg cream and its name, we will never know. Theories and claims abound, but there is no way to prove them.

Some say one Louis Auster  invented it. Ray says Gem Spa invented it.

I say my grandmother invented it.

There’s no way to prove she didn’t...

Mix it up at Gem Spa, 131 Second Avenue, at St. Mark’s Place, in Manhattan.


  1. I have to confer with my father before I comment on this. THE egg cream expert.

  2. Oh egg creams! How great are they? You're right ~ the consistency is completely dependent on the maker. Good mood, good egg cream. Not so good mood, not so good egg cream. How can one drink them from a paper cup? I thought Styrofoam was pretty bad but paper would be worse I think. Thanks Mitch!

  3. We had chocolate phosphates --carbonated (seltzer) water and chocolate syrup -- Fox's U-Bet of course.
    From Da:

    There are two or more ways to make the drink.
    1. Seltzer and Fox's U-bet. Put in the seltzer then add Fox's to the sweetness desired. Or add fox's first and then add seltzer. If not sweet enough, add more fox's or vice a versa. Or add Fox's then add a little seltzer and mix to get the choc syrup into the seltzer, then add more seltzer to fill the glass to the sweetness desired.

    The candy stores put the choc syrup in first, then a little seltzer, mix, then fill with seltzer to top. After the mixture is made, put in a scoop of van or choc ice cream.

    2. An Egg Cream. Same as above except, that after making he choc drink, you add milk to desired taste. This usually foams up the top of the glass a lot more. That is why it is called "an egg cream".

    3. However, it came to be that we, Arnie (Da's brother) and I used to add sweet cream not milk. It was a smoother drink.

    4. Not many people in the olden days could afford sweet cream. We were lucky.

    5. Eggs are never used.

    6. In the Southern parts of US, they called the soda's "phosphate" or "soda pop" , or "sodee pop with an accent".

  4. I remember going to Gem Spa after every Filmore concert. Now that really dates me!