Dining

Classic Table: Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse

The party (and the schmaltz) never stops at this Lower East Side institution
Photos: Dave Katz/Tasting Table 
Dinner at Sammy's Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side

No one leaves Sammy's Roumanian without dancing the hora.

This is a fact, regardless of your personal preference toward dancing the hora or your knowledge of how to perform it properly (some background right here). You may think you can escape unscathed by dining early on a weeknight, but, like a hermetically sealed Vegas casino, time is irrelevant at Sammy's—every night is a party, and every party needs a hora.

So after your inhibitions have been thoroughly obliterated by a bottle or three of ice-encased vodka, you'll get up when the keyboardist tells you to, grab hands with your neighbors and dance around in a big, sloppy circle. If it's someone's birthday (which it almost always is at Sammy's), you'll hoist that poor soul up in their chair toward the ceiling, which, fortunately, is only about nine feet from the floor.

Tableside smaltz and liver service, vodka in ice 

If you're having flashbacks to the pastel-suited bar mitzvahs of yore, well, that's kind of the point. Sammy's, which opened nearly 40 years ago, is dated and tacky and loud. The lighting makes everyone and everything look sallow, and the decor could be described as hoarder chic at best. The grease-splattered menus are printed on eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch white paper and stapled to manila folders.

And the food? Well, the food isn't winning any Michelin stars. It's Jewish—not the nouveau Jewish deli food of late, just old-school, stick-to-your ribs Jewish grandma food (the original owner was, in fact, a Romanian Jew). Get the chopped liver ($14) with all the fixings (white radish, fried onions, fried chicken skin and a healthy glug of schmaltz [rendered chicken fat] stored in pitchers that live on each table), which the staff mixes tableside as though it were guacamole.

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Get some other appetizers if you must, like a passable stuffed cabbage ($10) and the kebab-like veal and beef karnatzlack sausage ($13), one the few remaining Romanian items, which comes with the warning, "For garlic eaters only!" But the main draw, and the restaurant's namesake, is steak, specifically, the "Romanian tenderloin" (aka skirt steak, $37 to $45), seasoned with kosher salt and garlic and grilled. There's everything from shell steak to veal chops to calves liver on the menu, but why bother? You're getting the tenderloin.

With all of that said, you might be wondering why anyone in their right mind would willingly spend the night at Sammy's, especially given that its prices, unlike its decor, are not stuck in a time warp. And the answer is because Sammy's is so much more than a dingy restaurant with a hokey keyboardist and mediocre food. Sammy's is a state of mind. Sammy's is a relic, a throwback, a cultural touchstone for Jews both religious and non; it's a place to get drunk and loud and smelly on a weeknight not only without shame, but with joy.

Now that's something to celebrate.

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