It is impossible to say when the first kosher restaurant appeared in the United States. Jews were among the earliest settlers and it’s likely they established restaurants at the same rate as other ethnic groups, so there may have been inns and taverns following Jewish dietary laws as early as the 17th century. (Of course not all Jewish-run restaurants kept kosher.) By the 1860s, nearly a million Jews lived in Brooklyn and New York City. At least 50 restaurants catered to them particularly, though patronage included non-Jews as well. Among the restaurants chartered to operate at the Centennial in Philadelphia in 1876 was The Hebrew Restaurant run by a Charles Collman of Philadelphia.
Although New York’s lower East Side Jewish population included Austrians, Russians, Poles and Lithuanians in the 1880s, Rumanians kept many of the restaurants there. By 1901, the American Jewish Year Book estimated that there were at least “one hundred and fifty restaurants, two hundred wine-cellars, with lunch rooms attached, and about thirty coffee-houses kept by Rumanian Jews.” Late into the night their patrons would engage in passionate discussions of politics and the arts and the names Marx, Tolstoy, and Ibsen were sure to be heard.
New York was the largest center of Jewish life, but not the only one. All cities had their Jewish enclaves and cafés. In 1901 in Pittsburgh, the Hotel Sablodowsky ran a kosher delicatessen where they served “Everything Fresh, Imported and Clean. Smoked Tongue, Cured Beef, Summer Sausage, Servelot, Imported Cheeses of all kinds. Holland Herrings, Pickles, Olives, Etc.” In McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Max Schwartz’s Café Liberty provided “Strictly Kosher Meals.” Restaurants in Chicago’s Jewish neighborhoods around 1908 reportedly served a dish known as “Jewish chop suey” containing various vegetables, spices, and sour cream.
Notable and well-known historic Jewish restaurants are too numerous to list, but a few striking examples include the NY kosher restaurant on West 35th kept by Hyman Trotzky, brother of Leon*; Reuben’s, grown into a celebrity haunt from, in Arnold Reuben’s own words, a “shtoonky delicatessen store;” Chicago’s Gold’s; and Al Levy’s in Los Angeles.
* Was Hyman really Leon’s brother? My source said yes, but a reader’s research casts this in doubt.
© Jan Whitaker, 2008