On a recent Friday afternoon, a steady stream of customers came up to the counter at Moss Café, ordering Stumptown coffee drinks, freshly baked honey butter biscuits and salads filled with locally sourced, seasonal vegetables. The hip ambiance of the café immediately transports you, offering a place of refuge from buzzing city life. The farm-to-table concept is new to the Riverdale neighborhood.
Along with usual café chatter, greetings of “Shabbat Shalom” could be heard being passed from customer to customer.
Moss Café, the brainchild of 28-year-old Wisconsin transplant Emily Weisberg, opened over a year ago on a commercial strip in Riverdale — wedged between a salon and dry cleaners. In keeping with kosher dietary laws, the menu is dairy-only, since dairy and meat dishes cannot be served in the same restaurant. Most ingredients are sourced locally, and a wide range of coffee options—including pour-overs, cold brews and cortados—are available to guests, who can sit at one of about a dozen tables or take their purchases to go.
At first, the plan was to focus on Weisberg’s passion: coffee. “I’d been traveling into Manhattan to get the coffee I liked,” she says. But in order to keep up with customer demand, and stay financially viable, a more extensive food menu was added, which includes lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch (for religious reasons the restaurant is closed Friday afternoons and all day Saturday).
A bright mural painted with colorful vegetables on a wall outside the restaurant pays homage to the farm-to-table concept inside. They have a wine and beer license and serve craft beers. The wine list is small but impressive. “Our sous chef, Brian Engel, worked in the wine industry for a long time, and he refused to put a wine on the menu that isn’t as good as non-kosher wine,” says Weisberg. (She estimates that about half of her customers keep kosher.)
Since Moss Café opened its doors last June, Weisberg has hired a full-time chef, Abigael Birrell (formerly of Candle 79) and a pastry chef, Liza Miller-Price, formerly of Marlow & Sons.
Miller-Price grew up in the neighborhood, and Birrell recently relocated from Nebraska to nearby Spuyten-Duyvil. “We’ve needed something like this for a long time,” says Miller-Price. “To get this kind of food, people had to travel to Manhattan or Westchester.”
But it wasn’t necessarily an easy sell in this traditional neighborhood. “People came in asking for babkas, sandwiches and rolls. They were used to places like Liebmann’s Deli and Mother’s Bake Shop” (which has closed). But despite its uniqueness—or, more likely, because of it—Moss Café has managed to create a following, with its fair share of regulars and devotees.
“People have literally sent me ‘thank you’ notes,” says Weisberg. The popularity of the restaurant even led to a partnership with nearby Wave Hill, a 28-acre public garden and cultural center located in the Hudson Hill section of Riverdale, this summer to provide pre-packaged meals to their visitors.
As part of its mission, Moss Café sources almost all of its ingredients from local purveyors and relies heavily on seasonal ingredients. “We will not use something that’s dramatically out of season, and anything we can get locally we will,” says Weisberg.
For Weisberg, the restaurant has been a culmination of a life-long dream for both herself and her husband, who once worked on a farm. It was also the continuation of a family tradition: Her parents had both worked in restaurants, and her mother’s family had been farmers. “Everyone’s in food on some level,” she says.
In Israel, where she and her husband were living before moving back to New York, she had opened up a pop-up café. At the time she was a stay-at-home mom who wasn’t feeling entirely fulfilled. “I read a book about the symbolism of different plants and flowers, and it stuck out to me that moss symbolized motherhood and eternal love. I had this epiphany that I was going to fulfill my lifelong dream and open a restaurant. I was going to call it Moss Café… and I was going to be a better mother for it,” she says. Weisberg’s 4½-year-old daughter and 1½ -year-old son often stop by the restaurant.
For the near future, Weisberg has no plans to expand to other locations (though people in mostly Orthodox neighborhoods throughout the tri-state area have tried to convince her to, she says). She wants to see this place continue to grow and thrive. “I’ve always felt strongly that it’s a community space,” she says.
“I’ve said from the beginning that if we can start a movement to bring better establishments to the neighborhood, I would love it. I’d love a yoga studio, a pottery studio. There are tons of people here, but they go to the city to do those things.”
Weisberg says the fact that the neighborhood isn’t super accessible by public transportation means they need to focus on locals.
“It’s wonderful to be able to give this to people up here,” says Chef Birrell, “plus, we’re so close to all these fantastic farmers upstate.”
In her free time, Birrell is looking to start a community garden in her neighborhood. She wants to find “the right balance of accessible-but-interesting farm fare,” while tapping into what feels right for this community. “It’s about finding a balance between not being pretentious, but being really delicious,” she says.
Thanks to her arrival, the menu has recently expanded. It includes dishes like “hippie tacos,” with proteins and vegetables that change with the seasons, and a topping of fermented vegetable slaw (made in-house). Ricotta and jam toasts are made with housemade ricotta and seasonal homemade jam.
So far the biggest learning curve, she says, is getting a handle on the kosher laws, which include strict instructions on how produce has to be washed, and prohibits some foods altogether. But she’s up for it all, she says.
“Every restaurant has its own particular set of limitations, whether it’s the size of the kitchen or the equipment that you’re given. You just need to find a way to make it work. It challenges you in a good way.”
3260 Johnson Ave Riverdale, New York