This week, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reviewed Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse on the city’s Lower East Side and awarded it one star. Opened in 1975 and originally reviewed by the paper in 1982, the menu has changed some, but the culture of the restaurant remains the same and affords nostalgic diners a trip back in time. Not only can a meal at Sammy’s transport you to the 1970s with its décor and live entertainment, but can conjure a time even before that, to when the now-hip neighborhood’s culture was dominated by Jewish immigrants.
Wells first references just how iconic the restaurant is by asking the reader a series of leading questions: “To know where we are, do you need to see the smeared pitchers of schmaltz on every table? Smell the chopped garlic on every steak? Hear the yip of the small child whose head hits the ceiling as he is hoisted on a chair by adults drunk on ‘Hava Nagila’ and Stolichnaya?” It’s here, at the opening of his review, that he introduces his main point: that old-world Jewish culture and old-world New York culture are intricately intertwined, and that both of these cultures are slowly being erased. His last question in his opening series nods to this as it juxtaposes Sammy’s with one of the city’s newest culinary stars, “Did you think the person commanding the imaginary visitors from North Korea to get up and dance the hora was the maître d’hôtel of Per Se? No…What happens at Sammy’s doesn’t happen at other restaurants, and vice versa.”
He does get around to the food, and although it’s a far cry from the fare he usually critiques, he treats Sammy’s with kid gloves by making light of the less-than-refined dishes, such as the restaurant’s namesake dish (“Other steakhouses can drive themselves crazy over internal temperatures. At Sammy’s…if you want it medium or black and blue, then write your request on a sheet of paper, tear it into small pieces and throw them into the air when the piano player sings ‘Happy Birthday’”), and the traditional Romanian Jewish delicacies (“As always at Sammy’s, I walked out feeling as if I had eaten a football stuffed with chicken fat and beef. The kitchen, so unpredictable when it comes to meat temperatures, is absolutely consistent in its ability to produce starch that detonates inside the stomach.”)
Wells’ review, just like the restaurant, is not really about the menu, however; it’s more about the community atmosphere within, as “Sammy’s is still loudly, raucously, endlessly, embracingly [sic] Jewish, a permanent underground bar mitzvah where Gentiles can act like Jews and Jews can act like themselves.” Although “almost everything at Sammy’s needed salt” and “The menu is less distinctively Romanian than it once was” the draw is an experience that reminds one that “This is how people had fun in the Old World, by which I don’t mean just the parts of Europe where the Lower East Side’s Jews came from, but also the world before amplifiers and apps and first-person-shooter video games and all the forms of entertainment that drive us into ourselves.”