This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.
Not many restaurants keep a pitcher of chicken fat on every table as a condiment. If fact, none do, as far as I know, but Sammy's Roumanian Steak House, the singularly odd Lower East Side holdout of Jewish cuisine that nightly enlivens lower Chrystie Street with schmaltz of both the entertainment and culinary varieties.
The fat doesn't sit idle. It's repeatedly poured in ample amounts into a bowl containing minced meat, raw and carmelized onions, radish and cracklings (chicken skin) to make the joint's signature chopped liver, which is prepared tableside ("It's the Jewish Caesar salad" said my waiter. It is also absolutely delicious.). It is ordered by just about everybody. The dish—as well as the egg creams, also made at the table—adds a bit of additional theatre to a basement space that doesn't lack for it. The owners make up for a low-ceilinged room not much different (or cleaner) than the average 1970s suburban rec room by papering the walls and ceilings with photographs (there's Anthony Bourdoin!), business cards, neckties, paper streamers and "Happy Birthday" and "Happy Hanukkah" signs.
The birthday signs are always in season. Sammy's ties a balloon to every table just in case, and half the time they're right. On the night I went, one table was celebrating one birthday, and another—pictures a-flashing—was commemorating three! Also on every table: a working, old-fashioned bottle of seltzer and a souvenir guide to Yiddish that you can take with you.
Two waiters claimed to have been in service since 1975. That would be the year Sammy Friedman took over the space, which was previously the home of two other Roumanian-Jewish restaurants. Friedman has a claim to the place only in name, however; he flopped out of the gate, so the landlord, retaining the name, leased the space to Stan Zimmerman. (Son Dave now runs things.) Weirdly enough, to look at the place, Sammy's was once the darling of the New York Times. Mimi Sheraton reviewed it on three occasions and loved its skirt steaks, which snake up and over the edges of the plates, every time.
"I've seen four generations of the same family come here," the waiter told me. No doubt. But, surely, many of those families have long ago moved to Jersey and the Island; despite the stray hipster slumming it, and an occasional celebrity, the Sammy's crowd of tourists and bridge-and-tunnel revelers is decidedly unfabulous (in a nice way). Every group seems to be competing to be crowned most raucous table at the bar mitzvah. They're more than happy to noisily soak in the raffish atmosphere, the Square One vodka frozen in a block of ice, and the often-on-break keyboardist's renditions of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and "Oh, What a Night." Their credit cards, meanwhile, soak up the sky-high prices. (Vodka shots are priced, with peculiar specificity, at $9.95.)
Such casual license to enjoy oneself leads to Sammy's being frequently packed on the weekend. Even so, it's a miracle the place has survived the Lower East Side transformation into an agora of chic nightlife, particularly since the proprietors don't own the building. A waiter would only credit a "long and very friendly relationship with the landlord."
— Brooks of Sheffield