If there’s a story that best illustrates the Borscht Belt party zeitgeist that is Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House, it’s probably the famous one from 1975, when Stan Zimmerman won Sammy’s (the restaurant) off Sammy (the man) in a poker game. Zimmerman, no fool was he, quickly closed his Newark coffee shop—it was called Professor Zooky’s—and focused on his newly won subterranean Roumanian kitchen on Chrystie Street just north of Delancey.
While the real Sammy went to work at Katz’s Delicatessen around the corner (he eventually tried to open a second Sammy’s uptown but was shut down by the courts, since he’d gambled away even his own name), Stan Zimmerman set to work fine-tuning Sammy’s Roumanian into the awesomely kitschy—a pianist makes bad puns to the tune of “Hava Nagila,” whole vodka bottles come to table encased in a square of ice formed with old orange juice boxes—Lower East Side bachelor party, blow-off-some-steam destination it remains.
Not that Stan undertook a total overhaul of the space, which officially became Sammy’s in 1929. (Before that it was the Parkway: Customers sat upstairs, where the private dining room is today.) Like a Jewish grandma’s rec room, which it resembles, Sammy’s is not a restaurant that gets renovated, says Stan’s 36-year-old son, David, who now runs the operation with his wife, Rona.
“We would never remodel,” he says in mock horror, waggling his hands at the sagging ceiling tiles, the walls literally covered with clippings and drawings and postcards (“funnest restaurant ever!”) and layers upon yellowing layers of photos of sports stars, actors, chefs, comedians, tourists, Tony Bourdain and anyone else who cares to send in a pic. (Some even provide instructions as to where they’d like it placed.) “There’s Derek Jeter,” says David, pointing to a crumpled photo in the middle of a sea of celebrities, “covering up my ex-girlfriend.”
It may be 2009 outside, but at 157 Chrystie Street it’s somewhere around 1939. The tables are still plainly but perfectly decorated with white tablecloths, bottles of pure, bright-yellow rendered chicken fat—”schmaltz it up at Sammy’s!” say the Tshirts— pastel balloons tied to empty seltzer bottles, and a tiny, silly, take-away dictionary of made-up Yiddish definitions. “Bris,” it tells you, means “getting tipped off.”
Waiters, who take orders by hand, double as comedians: “Mustard for the goyim!” barks one as he sends a request back to the kitchen. Menus are photocopies (of photocopies) stapled to a plain manila folder; the cover bears an introduction to Sammy’s created by Stan, copied so many times the tiny cartoons and typewriter type are barely legible. “I’ve never even read it,” admits David. Maybe the only thing that’s changed since he was five, when he started out as a busboy, is the addition of broccoli.
“Old-timers,” says Meredith Mandel, a dancer who has been waiting tables at Sammy’s for 11 years, “are really upset about the broccoli.”
If you squint at that sheet you can make out the gist of Stan’s vision, which, David admits, was to make Sammy’s less Roumanian and more a place where you could relive your Jewish grandpa’s jokes and your Jewish grandma’s cooking—no matter your heritage. “We’re Jews from Jersey,” shrugs David, who got a degree in restaurant management from the University of Delaware but likes to joke that he’s “a doctor of schmaltzology.”
And while Sammy’s had always been a place to have a good time—the original had musicians playing piano, brass and squeezebox— Stan’s plan was to transform it from a hangout for the neighborhood’s last Eastern European–born Jews into a place that would draw celebrities, tourists and families alike for late-night latkes, a squirt of seltzer and a beer—something akin to a T.G.I. Friday’s with a Jewish soul, a crack waitstaff and a killer chopped liver.
Stan was a joker, but a smart one when it came to his business, and he changed the Eastern European steak house menu to onethat would tap the emotional schmaltz: “I would like to invite you to turn the clock back,” he typed on that now barely legible page, “ to when your mom served up an appetizer of grated horseradish and chopped onions laced withchicken fat…to when the mashed potatoes were flavored with greeven to when the chicken soup came with kreplach, noodles and little cooked unborn chicken eggs. Remember?”
You can do that every night except Yom Kippur and the Super Bowl, when Sammy’s is closed. (“Our two favorite holidays,” says David.) And it’s all made from scratch in a kitchen that still looks, yes, like a Jewish grandma’s, albeit one where Grandma hired Hector and Paco to work the two Pitco Frialators, form the meatballs and the wobbly dumplings known as kreplach, chop the hard-boiled eggs and onions and wrap a laundry basket-size bowl of her cabbage rolls.
By 9 p.m. that underground kitchen is hot; appropriately for a steak house, the broiler is the heart of the action, searing wedges of garlicky, slightly sweet Jewish kishka (the way-better-than-it-sounds combo of beef intestine stuffed with matzo, schmaltz and spices) and the fat, garlicky, hand-formed Roumanian links of beef and veal sausage called karnatzlach, which, other than the steaks, says David, is one of the few true Roumanian dishes Stan left on the menu. Roasting alongside are sweetbreads and chicken livers, paired on the plate with a handful of tiny unlaid eggs (plucked from within a slaughtered hen’s innards); the slab-like Roumanian tenderloins; the aged, 1¾-pound prime rib steaks; and the massive bone-in lamb chops, all swiped, once done, with a generous schmear of pureed garlic.
The kitchen at Sammy’s, in other words, is an exercise in the scent of meat and salt and allium exploding into the air like umami on steroids. “It’s more of an issue at Sammy’s if you don’t eat garlic,” admits Mandel, “than if you’re a vegetarian.” (Not that meat doesn’t makeup the bulk of the communal-style meals: Once when she hit dance rehearsal straight after work, she recalls, somebody shouted, “Something smells like steak!”)
But carbs get a nightly workout too, often in the fryer: Massive veal cutlets are breaded and dumped directly into the oil,then moved aside for an order of kreplach or the fat, fabulously lumpy potato latkes deep-fried for a second time until their pale blond turns amber brown. (They sit warm and fragrant in a plastic pickle bucket covered with crumpled foil until they’re ordered.) Idaho potatoes are hand-sliced into thin, rustic chips, quickly fried a ruddy brown, poured into a bowl and sprinkled with sea salt, while fried onions get refreshed with a greasy dunk every couple of hours. Meanwhile, over on the stove, mushroom-barley gravy bubbles, red sauce for cabbage rolls simmers and chicken skins relinquish schmaltz in an old, beat-up pot the size of a washtub. “My Dad makes a joke,” says David. “We’re the largest maker of chicken fat in the country. The only person we’re up against is somebody’s Bubby.”
All the while, the waitstaff stops in to pick up steaks (small, $32.95) and kreplach ($7.95), cabbage rolls ($15.95) and karnatzlach ($9.95), plucking chilled vodka glasses from the old two-door fridge by the door, just across the corridor from plastic tubs of house-pickled green tomatoes, broiled sweet peppers and half and whole sours, delivered to your table just after you order with a basket of chopped-liver-ready rye.
Like the egg creams (squirted noisily from old-school seltzer bottles still labeled with 1930s Brooklyn brands), that chopped liver is made tableside, one of Stan’s special touches that, along with the wisecracking piano man, make the Sammy’s experience what it is today: a show.
“So now I make it official by saying hi,” the keyboardist sings as he pounds out a klezmer-like tune early one evening, “you could have gone to the Olive Garden, you could have gone to Ground Round, but you didn’t, you came to Sammy’s Roumanian.”
By 9:30 on a recent weeknight, a table of 30 lawyers and their interns are starting their 11th bottle of frozen vodka (not particularly impressive, says David, for a party that size) and their third plate of kreplach, their blue Oxfords rolled up and wrinkled, their eyes beginning to glaze. (“Oh, so that’s how it starts,” says one attorney to his colleague, slipping into falsetto as she takes a pull from his glass: “I’ll just have a sip.”) Across the room a party celebrating a 24th birthday is doing the hora on the dance floor as the pianist heckles their moves, and at least one order of chopped liver in a big stainless steel bowl is getting plunked down in the middle of a table.
“We call it the Jewish Caesar salad,” jokes David of Sammy’s most famous dish. (If you, like most patrons, also get latkes and a bottle of Grey Goose, servers call it a “latke vodka,” says David, “and later we call it ‘girls gone wild.'”) Order your liver “Sammy’s way”—really, you should—and your server will add in a handful of grated white radish,plus the sweet mix of caramelized fried onions and the crispy chicken skins called greeven or gribene, all kept, Bubby-style, in battered, foil-covered dish tubs by the kitchen door. It’s mixed by fork tableside, bound with a thick drizzle or two of salty, buttery schmaltz, and good enough to make even the most devout churchgoer consider converting to Judaism, if only for the jokes and the food.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell