At Bacall, Dani Luv leads the Yom Kippur fast – the forward

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Dani Luv gets a new job. After 22 years spent in the basement of Sammy’s Roumanian, singing songs like “Strangers With My Wife”, the Israeli keyboardist and insult comedian puts on a show in Times Square. Starting September 16, he’ll perform his Yiddish-themed debauchery number four nights a week at Bacall’s Family Steakhouse, a sleek new Jewish restaurant. It’s quite a change from Luv’s last room, which he affectionately called “a shit hole”.

Sammy was a cult favorite. Down a staircase, with hanging ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights, it looked like a dirty suburban office covered in faded snapshots of drunken Jewish revelers. The setup might have given the uninitiated some doubts, but with Luv on the keyboard, schmaltz syrup dispensers on the table, and vodka bottles locked in ice, by the end of the night everyone would drop all the tunes, hold hands and dance the hora.

Jewish New York let out a collective groan when in January, after 47 years, Sammy’s closed its doors. Its owner David Zimmerman has promised to reopen, but for now, Bacall’s could mean a high-end renaissance. Their description on job site Harri is straightforward: “Taking inspiration from Sammy’s now closed on the Lower East Side, we will present a more elegant version of the steakhouse.

Some may cry foul for stealing Sammy’s schtick, but New York Times food columnist Mimi Sheraton called the first Sammy Friedman in 1978 for adopting the menu from her former employer, The Parkway. And most certainly, decades earlier, The Parkway had lifted its Yiddish vaudeville recipes and entertainment to the many early 20th-century restaurants around Delancey Street that varied their spelling – Romanian, Romanian, Romanian – but otherwise offered the same alcohol and artery – clog parties.

Historian Hasia Diner, in her immigrant food book “Hungering for America,” writes that these “tony restaurants served as magnets for Jews in the newly created” upper quarters “who preferred old world tastes and the company of another inhabitant of the “Newberg Lobster” of hip jazz clubs. At its peak in the 1950s, there were a dozen such establishments around New York City. “All Romanian steakhouses had roughly the same menu,” says culinary writer Arthur Schwartz, in his book “Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking”.

Sammy’s was the last link in this story. Prior to its opening at 157 Chrystie Street, there had been a Romanian steakhouse at the address since the 1930s. Over the decades, a patina of latke grease has formed, imparting an aura of authenticity. Its letter “B” health rating told you this place is not trying too hard. It’s an organic vibe that Bacall’s can’t create with “classic shots of Times Square and Hollywood actors,” especially in a gigantic three-story venue that, until 2017, was the American Bar. & Kitchen decidedly goyish by Guy Fieri.

“It can’t have the same vibe as Sammy’s,” Luv says of Bacall’s, “but it’s great, very old-fashioned and has a lot of character.” He has confidence in his new boss, restaurateur Ken Sturm. “He’s a Jew,” the keyboardist assures me, adding in his Israeli accent, “he’s a creative genius.”

Bacall’s is a renovation of the 44th Street location of The Ribbon steakhouse, which Sturm opened in 2019 with brothers Eric and Bruce Bromberg of the Blue Ribbon Restaurant Group. The Ribbon’s ‘keto’ menu section is replaced with ‘Dani Luv’s After 8 Special Cuts’, Romanian steakhouse classics with high cholesterol. The restaurant is 1940s-themed, which I guess means the heady post-war era, not the years of rationing books and worrying about Romanian Jews stuck in Nazi-occupied Bucharest. The new name matches the glamorous retro Jewish style, which claims inspiration from Lauren Bacall, who restaurateurs describe as “a shy Romanian Jewish girl.” The starlet was actually born in the Bronx. His mother, Natalie Weinstein-Bacal was originally from Romania, but quite close.

If Luv is right and Bacall’s is legitimate, it will mark the return of something interesting and genuinely New Yorker to Times Square. An antidote to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Planet Hollywood. But given the location, a large portion of the clientele will be tourists, or as Bacall’s management euphemistically calls them the “theater crowd.” How will visiting Midwesterners react when a rude Israeli does his rendition of the “Casablanca” theme, humming “a break is a break is a break”?

Maybe Bacall’s will be like Sturm’s neighboring jazz club Iridium, which doesn’t cater to many locals but has some serious talent. The worst-case scenario is a Jewish version of Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Sturm’s other venue in Times Square, a kitsch 1950s-style restaurant with singing waiters. If Bacall’s is just another made-up New York experience, it’ll be like the reopening of the CBGB at Newark Airport – a punch in old-school New York City. But there is hope. As the owner of classic bar PJ Clarke’s, he franchised a New York institution without killing its soul.

An online promotional video gives clues to Sturm’s vision. In it, a crowd not particularly Jewish in appearance graciously swallow shots of vodka, dine on thick tomahawk steaks, and dance the hora. Dani Luv, 64, bald on top with long curly hair, points a finger and winks at the camera. However, he sings “New York, New York”, not his signature “Sing us a song you’re a Schmatta man”.

The promo targets the general public, not a niche Yiddishkeit crowd, and the opening night coincides with the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast, not a big night for Jewish carnivores.

But I was comforted by Luv’s Instagram. “I’ll bring the schmaltz,” commented one follower of the video, to which Luv replied, “Forget the schmaltz, bring your mother.” Grub Street described the showman as someone who “built a career telling strangers things that could make anyone else cancel.” That Sturm puts him front and center in his “family steakhouse” proves he’s willing to take risks.

The menu looks solid and refined, with high Jewish classics like grilled Romanian meats, fried kreplach, and kugel. But shtetl staples like kishkes and calf brains have been replaced with kale and yellow beet salads. While Sammy’s was kosher at best, Bacall’s is full treyf with lobster and Berkshire pork chops. No matter the kasha varnish and the Hebrew typeface, I can imagine my mother asking in disbelief, “Is this a Jewish restaurant?” Before stopping and exclaiming, “And the prices.”

But Sammy’s wasn’t cheap either, and at one point he also lost his stomach for traditional dishes like baked unborn eggs and jellied calf’s feet. When it comes to entertainment, however, they never watered down the schmaltz. Before Luv, there was Ruby Levine, a violinist, actress and magician who perfected her craft in the Catskills. By all accounts Levine’s fedora-wearing jokes were fake and his music fake, but he was character enough to warrant a 1983 New Yorker profile and a lengthy New York Times obituary when he died at 81 years in 1998. It was then that Luv, born Dani Lubnitzki, moved to New York.

Luv grew up speaking Yiddish with his grandfather in Israel and was obsessed with Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. That, combined with his Don Rickles and Jackie Mason-inspired sense of humor, made him a perfect fit for Sammy. “It was bashert, “ the Jewish troubadour tells the story of the first time he entered the basement of rue Chrystie. Since then he has kept standards like “Hey Jew” while adding his own parody songs.

Over time, he saw the crowd change. “During my first 10 years, it was still 90 percent Jewish and everyone was 40 or 50 and over,” he recalls. “Then the young people started to arrive, and they became 50% Jewish. “

In his book, Diner quotes a 1926 Forward poll of the Jewish nightclub scene: “Eat and drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you are in the upscale neighborhoods again. Here, a man can speak Yiddish… and not attract glances or sneers. In 2014, New York Times food critic Pete Wells said Sammy’s was a place “where Gentiles can act like Jews and Jews can act like themselves.” Non-Jews, invited by upscale Jews (and later, suburban Jews), were as much into the joke as they were in the ass – as Luv’s “I ♥ Shiksas” t-shirts put it.

Thanks to these changes, Luv never sifted his Borscht Belt number or cut out Israeli folk songs or Yiddish classics. “You see 50 Chinese dancing the hora. It’s amazing, he said, this is New York. It is a crucible. Everyone knows everything. For him, this is proof that Midtown is ready for its act. Times Square isn’t just Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville and the Naked Cowboy with his Jesus tattoo.

“Jews love Broadway,” the Israeli artist reminds me, and for the past few decades the Theater District had a few Romanian steakhouses. Luv is convinced that he will attract a Jewish audience, but he can handle Gentiles as well.

I asked him about the Sturm promotional video. “He got together like 30 young people – all goyim and shiksas, young people, not even 30. I was shaking,” he recalls. “The Greeks and Italians in New York, they understand me. But they were blondes! So, he relieved the wasp crowd with “Sweet Caroline” and Sinatra. “At the end of the night, they danced the hora like crazy. They had a great time, ”he said triumphantly, saying:“ It was a very Jewish night!

Bacall’s Family Steakhouse (220 West 44th Street) opens September 16.

Andrew Silverstein writes about New York City and is co-founder of Streetwise New York Tours..

How schmaltz, schtick and schteak bring old Jewish New York to life

How schmaltz, schtick and schteak bring old Jewish New York to life

How schmaltz, schtick and schteak bring old Jewish New York to life

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