RIP Sammy’s Roumanian, Where Every Night Was a Bar Mitzvah
Remembering the vodka- and schmaltz-fueled parties at New York’s legendary Jewish steakhouse.
There is a series of photos that precludes me from running for public office. In them, I am in what appears to be a Long Island basement circa 1972, wearing my grandmother's fur coat and costume jewelry. I'm holding a syrup container of schmaltz in one hand and a bottle of vodka encased in a block of ice in the other. A disembodied arm is waving a stack of $20 bills in my face, which I admire with drunken glee.
I vaguely recall these photos being taken, though many other details of that night escape me. Scenes like this played nightly for 47 years at Sammy's Roumanian, a Jewish steakhouse in New York's Lower East Side, which confirmed its closure last week. Although owner David Zimmerman hopes to reopen in another location, the loss of the original space leaves a dank, greasy hole in the city's dining landscape.
Sammy's occupied a basement space on Chrystie Street that almost certainly wouldn't pass a health inspection today. Descending its stairs delivered you to a fluorescent lit, low-ceilinged den that reeked of chicken fat and garlic. The walls were painted an unflattering shade of brown and lined with yellowing photographs of mildly famous Jews. For over 20 years years, a surly Israeli keyboardist named Dani Luv performed crude covers of Broadway classics and insulted diners to their faces, before demanding that everyone join hands and dance the Hora. The food was wildly overpriced and not very good (except for the excellent chopped liver and garlicky karnatzlach sausages), and the staff always upsold the vodka.
Me, I loved the schtick. There was a period in which I hosted a Lonely Heart's Club dinner at Sammy's every Valentine's Day, which resulted in at least one successful matchmaking situation. I also had a birthday party there which resulted in the most debilitating hangover of my life. Choosing to host events there was fantasy fulfillment for an image I had of myself as hedonic ringleader of ridiculous New York nights. No one ended up at Sammy's by accident, and I reveled in orchestrating the chaos.
To appreciate Sammy's, I think, you had to commit to the bit. You had to accept that you were about to spend a lot of money in the service of lowbrow entertainment. You didn't go to teetotal or heed the advice of your cardiologist or engage in intimate conversations with your companions. You went in the pursuit of unbridled excess, and you freed yourself from the constraints of polite society once safely ensconced in the dingy basement confines.
"It's true that a certain nihilistic abandon takes over there, not the least because you're in for so much money," said writer Sadie Stein, a longtime Sammy's fan. She acknowledged the darker edges to such pleasures, but said that's all part of the appeal. "I don't know whether to use the word festive—it's more the trappings of festivity, through an almost [David] Lynchian lens," she recalled.
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It's also possible to appreciate Sammy's as a throwback to an era of dinner-and-a show-style nightlife that many contemporaries have never experienced firsthand. "It wasn't the Stork Club, or the Copa, or El Morocco," said veteran Sammy's diner Tom Kretchmar, a lawyer. "It was far more haimish and Borscht Belt than any of that. There was music while you ate and music to dance to, and, between the tableside chopped liver at the beginning, the tableside egg creams at the end, and rolling blocks of vodka all the way through, there were opportunities for flourish all night long."
And there were moments of unexpected sweetness, too: strangers joining together to hoist a birthday boy in his chair, bar mitzvah-style; tourists mingling with crotchety downtown fixtures. Kretchmar recalled a night in which a trained opera singer convinced Dani Luv to let her take the mic and serenade her friend with "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. "Dani backed her up on his keyboard, and not only did he play the whole thing respectfully and straight—no gags, no zingers—but he also joined in at each chorus in perfect harmony. It was beautiful, and to be honest, genuinely moving," he said.
As for the future, much remains to be seen. Although Zimmerman has vowed to return, details about where and when are unclear. "Right now our biggest concern is for our employees and customers to stay safe. It's been a tough year, but we are staying optimistic that we can reopen and we can celebrate again," he said. Dani Luv reportedly learned of the closure at the same time as everyone else, but plans to come back when the time comes. "The first two, three weeks were great. It was a little vacation," Luv told New York magazine. "After a month, I start to miss Sammy's very much. I love that shithole."
In a year that's seen so many restaurants close permanently, perhaps it's misguided to mourn the loss of one that may not be dead forever. I sincerely hope that Sammy's is born anew. But I will miss that disgusting basement and all that it represented, for both New York and a past version of myself. I, too, love that shithole, even if I can barely remember my nights there.