Category Archives: kosher

Romanian restaurants

Historically, the Romanian* restaurants that received the greatest attention from the press have been those in New York City. In 1901 the population of Romanians in New York City as a whole was estimated to be 24,000, with about 15,000 of those in the Romanian quarter on the Lower East Side. There were said to be 150 restaurants, 200 wine cellars, and 30 coffee houses kept by Romanian Jews. Favorite foods included broiled meats, goose pastrami, cabbage rolls, polenta, and spicy skinless sausage. Seltzer and red wine figured largely as drinks.

Not all Jewish-operated Romanian restaurants followed kosher law, but they were unlikely to have pork on the menu, the principal meat of Romanian cuisine and used in cabbage rolls (sarmale).

Immigration to this country began in the 1880s. It’s likely that the earliest Romanian restaurant in New York was one that began as a wine cellar in 1884 on Hester Street, and soon evolved into an eating place. Romanian immigrants were disproportionately male, working during the day and renting crowded floor space to sleep at night. Restaurants and coffee houses were not only places for meals and refreshment, but also community centers for these men, who were essentially homeless.

In his memoir An American in the Making (1917), Marcus Ravage explained that when he arrived in New York City in 1901, as soon as he made a few cents peddling on the streets he headed for a Romanian restaurant on Allen Street, where he ordered a ten-cent dinner of “chopped eggplant with olive-oil, and a bit of pot-roast with mashed potato and gravy.” Ravage expressed the difficulty he had in accepting American food and eating habits. When he went to college in Missouri in 1905, he reported that everything tasted “flat” to him, and that he “missed the pickles and the fragrant soups and the highly seasoned fried things and the rich pastries made with sweet cheese” he grew up with.

A Romanian dish from an East Side restaurant described in 1905 was a “hot and very piquant” round steak with peppers. The steak was cut into 3-inch-wide strips, slashed with a knife and marinaded in lemon juice and oil before being pan fried. Small red peppers were fried with it. Each diner took a pepper, opened it, and sprinkled the seeds on the meat.

According to author Konrad Bercovici in Around the World in New York (1924), many of New York City’s Romanian restaurants were run by Jews, but often the proprietors were Greeks, Hungarians, or Germans, as was the case in Romania’s capital, Bucharest. Over time, it seems as though the fare served in these restaurants merged with what was becoming known as Jewish cuisine rather than remaining strictly Romanian. (Of course Romanian cuisine itself strongly reflected a blend of traditions.)

Some of New York’s Romanian restaurants developed into night clubs, with a grab-bag of acts bordering on vaudeville. Joseph Moskowitz was a world-famous cymbalom player, who began his restaurant career in 1913 with a wine cellar on Rivington street. Later he had restaurants with music and dancing on Houston, and then on 2nd Avenue in 1938 at Moskowitz & Lupowitz where dinners began at 85 cents. He sold his share in that restaurant a short time later and moved to Akron OH, where he often played at Gruhler’s Romany Restaurant.

Other popular East coast night spots included Old Roumanian on Allen Street in New York and Shumsky’s Roumanian Restaurant and Bar in Atlantic City, established 1925, which advertised “New Kishka (sausage) Room” and “Dinner ‘Muscat’ Music” in 1952. At Sammy’s, on NY’s Chrystie street, which opened in 1975 and closed quite recently, entertainment was mainly in the form of extras placed on the table. They included a pitcher of chicken fat, fizz-your-own-seltzer, and for dessert a bottle of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, milk and two glasses for making an egg cream.

A bohemian version of a Romanian Restaurant was operated by Romany Marie in Greenwich Village. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi characterized it as “a sort of a transfer of the Paris café life to New York.” It’s likely this was true to some degree of many Romanian eating places which tended to exude a sense of good cheer and camaraderie all their own. [above: 1924 advertisement]

Many Romanian restaurants had prices in the reasonable range, with full dinners running from $1.00 to $1.25, but that was far from the case for the elegant restaurant in the Romanian House at the 1939 NY World’s Fair [shown above]. There the menu was in French, fresh caviar was $2.50, and a dinner was priced at $3.50, minus wine.

Outside of New York – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before many Romanians dispersed into the larger population – there were Romanian colonies in other cities, both in the East and in the upper Midwest. Some were composed of Romanian Jews, but others, perhaps most, were communities whose members belonged to Catholic and Orthodox religions. Immigration to the U.S., almost nil from 1920 until the 1940s, resumed after World War II when the Soviets took over and continued through the 20th century and into the present.

It becomes harder to track Romanian restaurants in the later 20th century since they became less inclined to use Romanian as part of their names. But they certainly existed in Trenton, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Los Angeles, and many other cities. One reason they might not have been clearly identified as Romanian was expressed in 1990 by Felicia Zanescu, proprietor of Mignon European Restaurant in Los Angeles. When asked why she called it European rather than Romanian, she replied, “Who ever heard of Romania?” Nonetheless the menu was convincingly Romanian with its carp roe dip, eggplant paté, dill-accented white bean broth, fried cheese, sausages, cabbage rolls, etc.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

* Before 1975 Romania was usually spelled Roumania or Rumania.

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Chinese for Christmas

Readers may be familiar with the custom among many Jews of going to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. Hard as I tried I could not determine when this custom began, although based on advertisements I did get the sense that the tradition of going to the movies on Christmas Day may have begun in the 1920s.

That is the same decade for which I found the earliest advertisements by Chinese restaurants in Jewish newspapers. [Wong Yie, American Israelite, 1922, Cincinnati] I didn’t find any Chinese restaurant ads that invited readers to visit on Christmas Day, though I saw some that reminded them to make reservations for New Year’s Eve. Some also mentioned that they were near movie theaters. In the 1930s some wished readers of Jewish papers happy new year at Rosh Hashanah.

So, even though I don’t know when Jews began going to Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day, I suspect that the affinity between Jews and Chinese restaurants became notable in the 1920s.

While the 1920s may have marked the blossoming of Jewish patronage of Chinese restaurants, I did find one earlier example of a Chinese restaurant said to be patronized by Jewish businessmen. According to a New York Tribune story of 1907, Chinese Delmonico’s on Pell Street near the wholesale center was kosher. At “Kosher Delmonico’s,” as it was called in the story, a French chef prepared mushroom delicacies, lotus lily seed soups, and other dishes for lunch using no dairy products or “game of the kind that is shot.”

Bernstein-on-Essex, a deli that opened in the 1920s on New York’s lower East Side, is often credited with being the first restaurant serving kosher Chinese food – a 1959 addition to the menu [above menu fragment from a later date]. But it may not have actually been the first: Aside from Chinese Delmonico’s, there was said to be a kosher Chinese restaurant on Temple Street in the Jewish section of Los Angeles in 1929.

What Bernstein’s might have been an early example of, though, was a Jewish restaurant that served kosher Chinese food – in contrast to a Chinese restaurant that was kosher, which was rarer. Although Chinese restaurants generally did not feature dairy dishes, typically they would serve pork, as well as shellfish, meat that wasn’t from kosher butchers, and noodles cooked in lard.

For the most part Jews had to be willing to make whatever adjustments they found necessary in order to enjoy Chinese restaurants. This could mean not ordering pork, shrimp, or lobster dishes, or, as many writers have pointed out, accepting dishes with pork that had been minced and “hidden” in wontons. Nonetheless, not everyone was so careful. According to Haiming Leu, author of A History of Chinese Food in the United States, one of the most popular dishes with American Jews was moo shu pork. Such behavior brought an angry comment from a rabbi writing in Newark’s Jewish Chronicle in 1929: “The writer has seen families leaving an orthodox synagogue on Sabbath noon and taking the new Bar Mitzvah, who has just pledged his allegiances to Jewish tradition, into a Chinese restaurant for a salt-pork chop suey meal.”

While the topic of Jews and Chinese restaurants has been a popular one with scholars and journalists, it’s worth noting that historically Jews were not the only non-Chinese cultural group that heavily patronized Chinese restaurants. Even though in the early 1930s Jews were estimated to make up 60% of the white clientele of Chinese restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, the estimate was that white customers totaled a minority of patrons. The rest of non-Chinese customers were Black.

After WWII Jews began moving from the inner cities and into the suburbs. Meanwhile, most African-Americans stayed behind. Many Chinese proprietors courted their Jewish customers, often opening suburban restaurants with pleasant interiors. In Black neighborhoods often the facilities tended to be poorer, many for carry-out only, and some even outfitted with protective bars and orders taken and delivered through small hatches.

Another change in the postwar years was the increase in the number of kosher Chinese restaurants, some, such as Sabra and the popular Moshe Peking, with Jewish owners. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise of kosher Chinese restaurants adhering to what appeared to be a stricter standard in how food was obtained and prepared and also in hours of operation, being closed on the Jewish Sabbath as well as holidays. Additionally, they had a rabbi on hand to inspect food preparation.

Happy Holidays to readers, whatever you may be eating on December 25!

© Jan Whitaker, 2019

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Eating kosher

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

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