There are some New York institutions for which traditional criticism is irrelevant. You accept them for what they are—or you don’t. Prime among these: Sammy’s Roumanian, the iconic Jewish steakhouse on the Lower East Side.
This is the third Roumanian-Jewish restaurant at the same address. It was once called Parkway, before that establishment moved first to Allen Street and later to Restaurant Row. One of its waiters, Sammy Friedman, re-opened with the identical menu, and promptly failed. The landlord then leased the space and the name to Stan Zimmerman, a Romanian Jew from the Bronx, and in this form the restaurant has thrived ever since.
In a September 1976 two-star review—the first of three she wrote—Mimi Sheraton of the Times reported that Sammy’s attracted “a cross section of serious eaters, including Gucci- and Vuitton- trimmed uptowners, devotees from Queens and New Jersey who pull up in white Cadillacs and black Continentals, blue-jeaned artists and bearded bohemian types, union officials, politicians, judges, out-of-town buyers with showroom models and theater personalities.”
By March 1978 (still two stars), Sheraton would report that Sammy’s was a “huge success, lively, Bohemian, with a mixture of customers that include judges and politicians, union officials and artists in blue jeans, uptowners dressed to the teeth in Gucci trademarks and a double-parked row of white Lincolns and black Cadillacs that can be seen almost any night of the week.”
Wanting a piece of this success, the original Sammy opened up a competing place in midtown, which he called the Original Sammy’s Emporium. Zimmerman went to court, and obtained an injunction preventing Sammy from using that name.
Counting Parkway, there were thus at least three restaurants in Manhattan following more-or-less the identical format, which was probably two more than New York needed. Those others are long gone, leaving Sammy’s Roumanian as the city’s lone entry in the genre.
The restaurant is on two levels. On the Sunday night that we visited, the lower level was rented for a private party; we were seated on the upper level, which was doing a surprisingly brisk business, but was not full.
The “rec room” décor is so kitschy that it demands multiple photographs. The walls are plastered with snapshots of past visitors. Many of them left their business cards in the interstices of the ceiling panels. The cards are mostly faded, and have probably been there for decades. The balloons and streamers seem like the remnants of an old Bar Mitzvah party. Even when it was new, Mimi Sheraton said that it “could hardly be called attractive.”
A Jewish entertainer plays the synthesizer and sings a mixture of Jewish and pop standards. Some couples get up to dance, as if this were a cruise ship. One particularly loving couple must have been up five or six times while we were there. With his navy blue double-breasted suit, pink tie and matching breast pocket square, he looked like he had walked in from another era.
I would tell you that Sammy’s is only for Jews, but for the curious fact that many of the patrons appeared to be gentiles. The menu consists of a couple of mimeographed sheets stapled to manilla file folders. Except to raise prices, that menu surely has not changed for many years—if, indeed, it ever did. Then again, why should it? What Sammy’s does, it does very well indeed.
The home-made chopped liver before mixing … and then afterwards.
Chopped liver ($9.95), finished tableside, came with warm bread and was positively addictive. I would quite happily have finished the entire bowl, had it not been that I knew a huge steak was coming.
The signature dish, Roumanian tenderloin (really a skirt steak), comes in three sizes. You’re looking at the small portion ($33.95, if I recall correctly), which is larger than the photo suggests, as several inches of steak are folded back on itself at the left edge of the photo. It is easily double the portion that many steakhouses would serve, although no steakhouse I know serves a steak this way.
My mom and my son placed the identical order to share. Their steak was chewy and had too much gristle, but mine was just about perfect. However, both steaks were expertly broiled to the requested temperature and slathered with garlic butter.
Silver dollar home-fried potatoes ($5.95) were delightful, but far more than we could finish, given the bounty of food on the table.
There were multiple food runners, but as far as we could tell, just one waitress for the full room. However, she was witty, cheerful, and remarkably efficient. When we told her that one of our steaks was a dud, she promptly comped us an order of Rugelach (dessert pastries), which were wonderful.
Prices at Sammy’s are reasonable by New York standards, but extras can run up the bill in a hurry. There’s a $3.95 per person cover charge, and if two people want to share an entree, it’ll set you back another $8.95.
Vodka, the house drink, is served out of a bottle of Ketel One frozen in ice. (I didn’t think quickly enough to snap a photo when our waitress served us.) One shot will set you back $9.95. They’ll also sell you the whole bottle for $99.95.
Wines are limited to Roumanian labels. My mom smelled a rat, and asked for a taste of the pinot noir, which she found hideous, but the pinot grigio was acceptable. Don’t ask for cappuccino or espresso. When I asked the waitress about coffees, she said, “Coffee? Schmoffee? We have coffee.”
Mimi Sheraton of the Times loved Sammy’s. In her final review, published in May 1982, she would report that “the Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces are still double parked along the otherwise dark and deserted street,” with “the line of waiting customers spilling onto Chrystie Street.” Finding the food “fresh, savory and greaseless,” with staff “cool, efficient and graciously goodhumored,” she awarded three stars. That assessment remains pretty much true today.
No Times critic since Sheraton has re-reviewed Sammy’s, so it remains technically a three-star restaurant. How do you rate a restaurant for which there is no comparison? A star system, if it is helpful at all, is meaningful only when comparing similar establishments. For one-of-a-kind restaurants like Sammy’s, the rating is beside the point. Either you want the unique experience that Sammy’s has to offer, or you don’t.
Sammy’s Roumanian (157 Chrystie Street near Delancey Street, Lower East Side)