Good-bye to Sammy’s Roumanian and Its Glorious Schmaltz

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Sammy’s subterranean dining room. Photo: Melissa Hom

Years ago, a friend of a friend reached out to say he was visiting New York. He wanted to do “New York” things — see a Broadway show, eat “real, New York–style pizza” — but he wanted something more adventurous than the typical tourist fare.

I suggested that he go to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and then never heard from him again. Eventually, I asked our mutual friend whatever happened to the adventure-seeking tourist. “That restaurant you sent him to frightened him off,” he admitted.

Good riddance, I say.

Sammy’s also went by Famous Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, Famous Sammy’s, and Sammy’s Roumanian. It had “steakhouse” in its name, officially, but it wasn’t that at all. It was a cramped basement on Chrystie Street, and it was, somehow, one of the most comfortable spaces in the city.

This was the beautiful thing about Sammy’s: Rules never really seemed to apply.

Now, though, its fate is up in the air. News started to leak out over the weekend that the basement-level storefront had been cleaned up, that the photos were gone, and the sign was down. Owner David Zimmerman has promised that somehow, someday, “we will be back stronger, louder, and tastier than ever before,” but you hear that kind of thing a lot in New York, that a place is renovating or relocating. And then, bupkes.

If anyplace could find a way back, it would be Sammy’s, which always felt less like a restaurant and more like a test of endurance. In the most Borscht Belt comedian voice I can muster, I can say that Sammy’s helped put more than a few cardiologists’ kids through college. It has “house” in the name, but it was really a den of schmaltz-covered, Ashkenazi fun. A dark and dingy place that was nevertheless bursting with life. A night at Sammy’s felt like a Lynchian bar mitzvah, all scored by Dani Luv, standing behind his keyboard, making sure every song he did from the Great American Songbook was Jewish, whether or not it was actually written by a Gershwin. One evening at Sammy’s was frankly a rite of passage, and it could make everyone appreciate the Lenny Bruce line, “It doesn’t matter even if you’re Catholic; if you live in New York, you’re Jewish.”

For atmosphere, nothing could beat it. You drank, you ate, you danced, you learned a few new Yiddish phrases. People would tell you that the food didn’t really matter, that Sammy’s was about the experience. And, to a certain extent, that was true. But the menu could still make a heart flutter: While it didn’t have some of the cow brain or tongue dishes I was terrified I’d encounter as a grandchild of Romanian Jews, it did feature a cornucopia of meaty delights: calf-liver steak with onions that were cooked too long, lamb chops, stuffed cabbage, and karnatzlach, those perfect, vampire-murdering sausages advertised on the menu “For garlic eaters only!” They had kreplach and latkes, and sold whole bottles of vodka famously encased in ice. The baskets of pickles ensured it would always be seen as a true “Jewish restaurant,” and syrup jars filled with schmaltz — poured tableside over the chopped liver — eliminated any lingering doubt.

It was perfect. You went to Sammy’s with people who loved to eat. You ordered too much, you drank too much, you danced, and you shared the experience with friends and strangers. It is hardly surprising that they couldn’t make things work in the era of to-go cocktails and outdoor-only dinner service.

If Sammy’s does find a way to reopen somewhere on the other end of all this, it will be the first place I go, and I want to see everyone there with me. The whole reason a place like Sammy’s exists, the reason to shout “l’chaim” in a crowded, dark basement while doing the hora with a family from Terre Haute that you only just met, is to celebrate life, this moment, right now. If you can’t enjoy that, I — and New York — probably don’t have much time for you.

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