It would be difficult for me to pick the best or ten best restaurants I’ve ever eaten at. I love food and have had a lot of memorable meals out at a wide array of restaurants, from hole-in-the-wall roadfood joints to fine-dining establishments.
But when it comes to picking the funnest restaurant I’ve ever been to, there is no need for lengthy deliberation. Famous Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, formerly of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is in a class by itself when it comes to evoking wild and funny memories that often have nothing to do with what I ate there.
I say “formerly,” because Sammy’s was unfortunately a COVID business casualty. They closed within the past year. The owner insisted he would eventually re-open in another spot, possibly somewhere in the suburbs. But it’s hard to imagine anywhere else capturing the magic that took place every night at the Lower East Side spot Sammy’s occupied for 47 years.
While I ate there perhaps a half-dozen times, my last meal at Sammy’s was at least 15 years ago. But I still have vivid memories of what it felt like to step inside the restaurant, especially for the first time. You had to walk down a small flight of steps to enter Sammy’s, which was below ground level. As you stepped inside and scanned the room, the initial impression was of having entered another dimension or traveled back in time to the 1950s and what must be a budget bar mitzvah or wedding reception in someone’s basement..
Every inch of wall space was occupied by photos of past customers, including celebrities, or framed copies of newspaper and magazine articles written about the restaurant. There were streamers hanging from the ceiling. Each table had the type of spray seltzer bottles I used to see my grandfather use all the time when I was a kid; and there was a pancake-syrup-type of pouring container on each table that was filled with a bright, orangish liquid. My first thought was that it must be orange juice. Nope. It was schmaltz, the rendered chicken fat Jewish women used to use in the days before it was a thing to buy cooking oil at a supermarket (I would eventually find out what the schmaltz was for). And in the back corner, there was a guy singing and playing the kind of kitschy songs that probably used to be performed at 1950s bar mitzvahs on an organ. In short, it felt like entering a party rather than a restaurant.
The menu was also a bit of an eye-opener. Both chopped liver and mashed potatoes were offered with or without schmaltz and gribenes – caramelized onions that are cooked in schmaltz – which were mixed in by your server table-side. I knew gribenes and schmaltz were a big thing in my family when my mother was still a child, but I had never seen them up close and personal before that first visit to Sammy’s. There was karnatzlach, a garlicky beef sausage, fried or boiled kreplach, kishka, and cold bottles of vodka that were delivered in big blocks of ice with or without cranberry juice for mixing. Sammy’s trademark entree was a Roumanian Tenderloin steak that came in three sizes. Even the small one was so big that it hung off the plate. After my first couple visits I learned to share a small or medium Tenderloin with one or two other people. When you ordered a Roumanian Tenderloin, your server always asked if you wanted it with fresh garlic on top. I can’t ever recall refusing that offer.
No; this is not food suited to everyone’s taste, although I liked most of what I ate there and was glad to have certain dishes prepared the way they were before my time, when my great-grandmother would make her famous Sunday brunches for the extended family.. And you certainly didn’t go to Sammy’s because they were reasonably priced. They weren’t. You went there because you knew you’d laugh and take home wonderful memories.
The frivolity was kicked up to an even higher level when the place was packed and there was a large party celebrating a birthday or some other occasion. Inevitably, that meant spontaneous line-dancing at some point in the evening with everyone from every table invited to join in at their leisure.
Dessert was also an experience. While my party always enjoyed a plate of rugelach that may have been the only sweet on the menu, each table was presented with a carton of whole milk and a jar of Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup, which New Yorkers will know are two of the ingredients for making egg-creams. The third ingredient is seltzer, which is why those spray bottles came in handy. If you were lucky, and I usually was, owner David Zimmerman would prepare your egg creams table-side. He sometimes made a show of it by standing on a chair and pouring or spraying the ingredients into your glass.
Following a 2001 visit to Sammy’s, I wrote the following article for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was a real thrill when I returned to the restaurant a few months later and saw several framed copies of the article hanging on Sammy’s walls.