Tag Archives: Romanian cuisine

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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Filed under atmosphere, ethnic restaurants, food, kosher, menus, night clubs

Anatomy of a restaurateur: Romany Marie

Marie Marchand, whose business name was Romany Marie, was taken aback in the 1950s when a Greenwich Village restaurateur declined to host a dinner for Marie’s artist friends on the grounds they would occupy the tables too long. In a 1960 interview recorded in Romany Marie, Queen of Greenwich Village by Robert Schulman, Marie reflected, “It was a little shock to me. Poor dear, she felt she had to have turnover, she was in the restaurant business, not in the venture of maintaining a center for lingering tempo.”

For someone such as Marie who had herself been in the restaurant business for over 30 years, this would seem to be an odd reaction. But hers were odd restaurants – she preferred to call them centers – where patrons were encouraged to linger. If they lacked money for a meal, and they fit her criteria as creative spirits, she let them eat for free. Luckily, she had a brother who helped her out financially because hers was not a lucrative business. On the other hand, she encouraged and helped sustain dozens of artists and creators such as Buckminster Fuller, Burl Ives, Stuart Davis, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Sloan (one of the many artists who painted her portrait – pictured above).

Marie, who as a teenager came to the US from Romania in 1901, said she patterned her taverns (so-called though she served no alcoholic drinks) after the inn her mother ran for gypsies in the old country. To honor her mother, Marie dressed as a gypsy and usually decorated in rococo style with peasant scarves, batiks, pottery, and her patrons’ paintings. Several of the 11 locations she occupied over the years featured fireplaces, which to the horror of health inspectors she used for broiling steaks.

After working initially in the garment industry Marie brought her mother and sisters to New York. The family lived on the lower East Side near the Ferrer School which offered workers free adult education. She became involved with the school where she met artists and thinkers who later became her patrons and, sometimes, volunteer waiters. In 1914 she opened her first place in the Village’s Sheridan Square. Amenities were sorely lacking, with both stairway and toilet facilities located outdoors. For years she had no electricity, candles furnishing the only lighting.

AtmosphereRomanyMarieSummer1921In 1915 she moved to 20 Christopher Street and it was at this location, the one she occupied the longest, that her name became well known. Another location of renown was 15 Minetta Street, with an interior designed by Buckminster Fuller in the late 1920s. In the 1960 interview Marie quoted Fuller as saying, “I’m going to fix up this place in a Dymaxion way.” He outfitted the restaurant with canvas sling chairs, “aeroplane tables,” and aluminum cone lights. Instead of the darkness her patrons were accustomed to, Fuller lit the place up by painting the walls silver. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi assisted (“Bucky got me to help him with painting the place up solar.”). Everyone disliked the brightness, the tables wobbled when food was placed on them, and the chairs collapsed when sat on. The experiment failed but Marie promised Fuller one free meal a day for the rest of his life, a benefit that carried him through the Depression.

In addition to Romanian dishes such as meat pies and cabbage rolls, Marie specialized in strong coffee which she advertised as Café Noir à la Turque. Her signature dish was ciorbă, a soup of vegetables, meatballs, eggs, lemon juice, and sour cream. Marie’s husband Arnold, a difficult man who was known to deliberately break dishes and otherwise sabotage her efforts, rendered this dish on his phonetic menu as “Tchorbah, peasant soop.” A menu by him also listed “Boylt Beeph wit been’s & hors radish,” and “Lone Guy Land Greens.”

Marie continued in the restaurant business until 1946 when she retired to care for Arnold. Each time Marie moved her restaurant she announced it with a sign which said “The caravan has moved.” Its last move was to 49 Grove Street.

© Jan Whitaker, 2010

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Filed under Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, women