I’ve recently changed jobs and on the last week of work my office had a social outing to wish me well. I had never been to Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse and asked to go there.
Yes, it is shameful that I had lived this long and not gone to Sammy’s, being a New Yorker through and through. Sammy’s is a quintessential New York institution and a landmark for Jewish New York culture.
Our office took cabs to arrive on Christie Street while it was still light out. It looked like we were the first to arrive for the evening dinner rush (sadly Sammy’s is only open for dinner). The place is below street and adheres to its famous basement aesthetic except that finished basements usually have carpeting; Sammy’s looks dingier than your average suburban basement. There are photos and business cards stuck everywhere and the place is eerie when it’s a bit empty. That changed quickly though.
There is schmaltz (a viscous spread) in small maple syrup style pitchers on the tables rather than butter as Sammy’s is a kosher-style restaurant; the food is classic Jewish-American cuisine. I made sure to taste the schmaltz—it tasted like chicken fat, which is essentially what it is. A giant bowl of chopped chicken liver with onions was irresistible and I had as much of that as I could.
The place is also famous for its vodka. The first thing our table ordered was a bottle of vodka that is served inside a frozen block of ice (appearing to have been frozen in a milk container).
I knew that there was an entertainer who sang and played music at Sammy’s. I did not know the extent that Dani Luv was a dominant force who could turn a weekday work night into an evening of ribald fun. He really dominates the room and infuses it with an energy that defines the atmosphere and turns up the charm on the minimalist décor. He stands or sits on a stool behind a modest keyboard in the corner, a large tip jar and small disco ball nearby. A New York Times profile from 2013 notes that his name is Dani Lubnitzki and he is Israeli. The impact he has on the evening can’t be understated. If Joan Rivers had been in a three-way with Don Rickles and “Weird” Al Yankovic, she would have given birth to Dani Luv.
By the time Dani got started, another larger group occupied a nearby table and he asked both groups how many Jews there were among us. Invariably several people at each table raised their hands. “How about you, the ISIS guy,” he said, referring to a dark-skinned man who looked Middle Eastern and had a beard, “you’re not Jewish, are you?” The guy laughed and shook his head, ‘no.’ “Of course not…”
“Why are you guys here?” he asked our table.
“This guy is leaving the company,” our boss answered, pointing at me.
“That guy’s leaving the company because he doesn’t want to work with Jews anymore!” Dani joked. Our table had another good laugh.
The food is big. We had the family style meal and there was so much food that three of us took a lot home. I had the schmaltz on the rye bread, and the chicken liver, and the latkes, and something they called “Jewish ravioli” that was very dense and delicious, and chicken and even some salad. I couldn’t say no to the large steaks either. If you go to a place that is famous as a steak house, it feels somewhat like a crime to not have the steak. There was also stuffed cabbage and pickles and pickled peppers (not an entire peck of pickled peppers but enough for everyone).
The evening wound down quickly as people had long commutes home from Manhattan. Dani Luv begged a few to stay- at least our female coworkers anyway, but before the night got too late it was me and my boss.
My boss finished off the vodka and bought me a Sammy’s t-shirt. I gave Dani Luv a generous tip and took my photo with him. Soon after we headed home.
Sammy’s is a great New York tradition and I vow to make visiting there a tradition of my own. I was very fortunate to work with a great bunch of people and it was difficult to leave. Saying goodbye at such a fun place put a more cheerful lining on a sad event.