Five Types of Jewish Restaurant in Mid-20th Century Montreal
I was examining wartime-era Manhattan menus in the New York Public Library’s menu archive at nypl.org to get a sense of how European wines were treated. For example, was Champagne still sold, other French wine, even German wine, etc.? In the course of this perusal I came across a menu of Gluckstern’s Roumanian Restaurant.
It was pertinent to my interest but largely resonated for different reasons, as detailed below. (Please note all menu extracts herein are courtesy the New York Public Library at the web address mentioned).
Gluckstern’s was a kosher Jewish eatery on the Lower East Side, founded in the first years of the 20th century and expiring in the 1960s. Two restaurants with a somewhat similar menu were established Midtown in the 1950s by one of the founders’ sons. These satellites, so to speak, carried the flag for the Gluckstern style for some years after the first restaurant closed but no restaurant with the Gluckstern name, certainly, survives in New York today.
In Montreal when I grew up in the 1950s and 60s there was the “Roumanian steakhouse” – similar to Gluckstern’s for the steak side of its menu. One was Schneider’s, on Decarie Boulevard. When I examined at the 1943 Gluckstern menu, it recalled for me many items on the Schneider’s menu.
The broiled meats were similar including Romanian karnatzlach. This was a skinless beef sausage in which garlic played, shall we say, a defining role. I liked also the mixed grill, a selection of charcoal-broiled meats. There was a lamb chop, karnatzlach, crusty sweetbreads, and a rib-eye, the heart of the rib steak. The latter is cut from the rib roast but in Montreal is charcoal-broiled, and still a specialty there.
In the mixed grill a slice of liver sometimes substituted for the sweetbreads.
These platters came with french fries or a baked potato. On the table were cole slaw and pickles, plus rolls and the Jewish bread, chala. In Montreal pickled tomatoes were part of the pickles selection at some restaurants, I think at Schneider’s, too.
There were Jewish steakhouses that didn’t advertise as “Roumanian” but the menus were broadly the same. Moishes is the last one in Montreal and still popular. In fact, I’m sure it attracts more Gentiles than Jews today.
Schwartz’, the famous smoked meat (pastrami-style) delicatessen, always served a rib steak char-broiled. It came on a grainy wood plate until city health authorities banned the trencher on grounds of alleged health risk from lurking bacteria.
Schneider’s, being a suburban, middle-class restaurant but also at its core a steakhouse, did not carry as many general food offerings as Gluckstern’s. Schneider’s did not carry roast veal, roast chicken or duck, or stuffed derma, for example. These were available in Montreal then, but in a different kind of Jewish restaurant.
So now I should say, I recall five types of Jewish restaurant: first, but almost least important, the delicatessen with its corned beef, chopped liver, cole slaw, and chips. Second, the steakhouse, with a possible sub-division for the Roumanian iteration. Third, the non-steakhouse family-style cuisine where roasts, boiled meats, soups, certain fish, carrot and noodle puddings, strudels, and other dishes of Jewish Mitteleuropa were available: home cooking to eat out, in a word.
Last, there was the dairy restaurant, or milchig. This was for cheese and potato blintzes, kasha and bow ties (buckwheat groats with pasta), knishes, smoked salmon, herrings in various styles, carp, whitefish, soups (especially borsht), sour cream, cottage and cream cheese, salads, eggs, bagels, rye bread. Later, one saw hummus and similar Middle East specialties but not when I grew up, that came in later under influence of incoming Sephards from Morocco or Egypt, say.
There was some crossover in these restaurants as chopped liver, say, could feature at any of them except for milchig eating and even even a “mock” version, or vegetarian, might be available. Some of these were quite good but vegans will forgive me for borrowing the old saw from the Prohibition era in America: he who dubbed non-alcohol beer “near beer” was a poor judge of distance (Will Rogers, I think).
Of these restaurant types only the delicatessen still has a real footprint. The full-scale dairy restaurant barely exists in Montreal or Toronto, there are one or two perhaps unless I’ve been unlucky in finding more. The ubiquitous bagel shop is a kind of watered-down version, but we must be satisfied with it unless a young entrepreneur thinks of setting up a dairy restaurant in the old style instead of a tapas place or whatever is currently fashionable in New York or London.
The family-style eateries are all gone, unless perhaps the Orthodox community runs one, I should look into this. The Roumanian-denominated steakhouses are gone in Canada. A few un-hyphenated Jewish steakhouses continue here and there, Moishes is the most authentic in Montreal.
The Jewish steakhouse has tended to merge with the steakhouse of the general community, but at one time was separate due to kosher service and offering perhaps ethnic dishes apart from the steak selection. As well, most steakhouses today offer seafood but the old Jewish steakhouse, never.
Why did we patronize the Roumanian steakhouse? Part of my ancestry is from Romania, they were artisans in tailoring who lived outside of Bucharest. I grew up with some of the typical foods, mamaliga, say: cornmeal mush and eaten hot or cold. And certain eggplant dishes.
Mamaliga was served, always warm as I recall, in the dairy restaurant with a chalky cottage cheese or with sour cream.
I don’t remember it with meat but know some people used it that way.
Of course, much of the Jewish food I knew was common to the Diaspora, or close enough. At least for European Jews that was so, we did not know the Sephardic side when I grew up, even after the Middle East influx was well underway.
First, the communities were rather separate initially. The Sephards spoke great French and we, in the main, not so much. And the rites were somewhat different, too. I don’t recall much intermarriage, so to speak, but that changed by the later 1970s.
The other part of my family was from Grodno or other towns in what is now western Russia. In Grodno, half the population in 1905 was Jewish but they wanted to get out due to the onerous military draft and recurring pogroms. My people got out before WW I and came to Montreal. The Romanian side came around 1905.
I used to ask my grandmother what she remembered in Grodno, she said the parks, she loved the parks as a toddler.
You can see pictures of the green spaces and trees in online views of Grodno, they’re still there. One day I’ll visit, Bucharest too.
I did visit other eastern European countries once and despite the dolorous history of the Jews there, I felt rather at home; something seemed oddly familiar. It wasn’t just the food and drink (instant rapport!) but … everything. Something lingers in the folk memory, especially with us, famously with us.
So all this came to mind when I read the Gluckstern menu of 1943. That was a very bad year for the Jews except in blessed America, blessed Canada, and blessed Britain. And a few other places Jews could live without a dagger over their hearts, Palestine too although it was much harder there than here or in Britain, and still can be.
Where was I … the wines of the war era.
Numerous wines on the Gluckstern menu were American, e.g., Cresta Blanca, with some offerings identified simply by varietal or place name: Tokay, Sauterne, Burgundy. No Riesling though.
There were a few selections from Palestine, and tucked away in that section, wines apparently Italian and French such as Chianti, or B&G which must have been Barton & Guestier, the famous French shipper. These must have been pre-war stock and it was probably considered acceptable in New York to sell them off.
In this vein a few Cognacs were offered. Although, if Gluckstern’s knew what the French police did to Jews at Drancy in 1941-1942 I’d guess they’d have tossed them and the B&Gs in the trash.
But anyway, wine is an afterthought in restaurants like this, beer too although I’m glad to note they had Guinness, the only beer identified by brand name. That would have been Foreign Extra Stout, all-malt, long-matured, and non-pasteurized. They had good taste at Gluckstern, as if the appetizing menu left any doubt on that, and it extended to beer.
Hard spirits was more in tune with the steakhouse ethos, especially vodka, or slivovitz, the plum brandy. Whisky too, and there are some good ones on the menu from the main whisky countries.
And of course a lot of families drank tea or soda pop. Drink is not for everyone, nor should it be.
Net-net, Schneider’s mixed grill and Gluckstern’s selections were an apotheosis for the carnivorous genre.
Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse in New York is the last of its type probably in North America. I went there once, it was fun. It’s a bit hammy (sorry) when the dancing in the centre gets going and the vodka bottle encased in ice blocks is kind of corny, but we enjoyed it.
I really want to go back to Schneider’s though, or Gluckstern’s.
N.B. This article deals with restaurant eating as the food we ate at home was largely North American except for no pork. Even the bagel was only an occasional treat. We ate sliced Weston bread for toast and sandwiches, and I still like a good commercial brand. We had chala too of course, usually Friday. Chala ranks up there among the breads, and the Jewish rye too, but it’s rare to get them with the richness I remember. Also of course we had the holiday foods such as unleavened bread or matzah, and latkes (potato pancakes). Still, I’d estimate 90% of the meals throughout the year were typically North American: burgers, spaghetti, stews, chicken, Swanson dinners, chops, roasts, omelettes, tinned vegetables, sweet corn in summer, salads. I am speaking here of my own experience, of course.
Note re images: the menu images above were sourced from the original menu linked in the text from the New York Public Library. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.