Five Types of Jewish Restaurant in Mid-20th Century Montreal
I was examining Manhattan menus from 1942-1945 at the New York Public Library’s menu archive (see nypl.org) to get a sense of how European wines were treated. For example, was Champagne still sold, other French wine, even German wine? In the course of this review I came across a menu for Gluckstern’s Roumanian Restaurant.
Pertinent to my interest, it largely resonated for different reasons, as detailed below. (All menu extracts herein are sourced from 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 in Midtown in the 1950s by one of the founders’ sons.
These satellites, so to speak, carried the flag for the Gluckstern style for a number of years after the original restaurant closed. Today no restaurant with the Gluckstern name survives in New York, as far as we are aware.
In Montreal when I grew up in the 1950s and 60s we also had the “Roumanian steakhouse”. Their menus were similar to Gluckstern’s for the steak and chops side of it. One restaurant was Schneider’s on Decarie Boulevard. When I examined the 1943 Gluckstern menu, it recalled for me many items on Schneider’s menu.
The broiled meats were similar including Romanian karnatzlach. This is a skinless beef sausage in which garlic often plays a defining role. I liked also the mixed grill, a selection of charcoal-broiled meats. This comprised a lamb chop, karnatzlach, crusty sweetbreads, and a rib-eye, or heart of the rib steak. The rib steak 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 was 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.
Some Jewish-style steakhouses didn’t advertise as “Roumanian” but the menus were broadly the same. Moishes is the last in Montreal (AFAIK) 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 the grounds of health risk from lurking bacteria. Of course it never tasted the same after.
Schneider’s was at its core a steakhouse and did not carry as many general kitchen offerings as Gluckstern’s. Hence, Schneider’s did not offer roast veal, roast chicken or duck, or stuffed derma, for example. These were available in Jewish Montreal restaurants then, but a different kind of 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 restaurant where roasts, boiled meats, soups, fish, carrot and noodle puddings, strudels, and other dishes of Jewish Mitteleuropa were available. This was home cooking, to eat out.
Last, there was the dairy restaurant or milchig. This was cheese and potato blintzes, kasha-and-bow ties (buckwheat groats with pasta), knishes, smoked salmon, herrings in various styles, carp, whitefish, borsht and other soup, sour cream, cottage and cream cheeses, salads, eggs, bagels, rye bread.
Later, one saw hummus and other Middle East specialties too but not when I was growing up; that came in later under influence of incoming Sephards from Morocco or Egypt, often.
There was some crossover in the restaurants as chopped liver, say, could feature at any of them, except for milchig eating of course. Even even a “mock” version, vegetarian, that is, might be available. Some was quite good but vegans will forgive me for borrowing the old saw from the U.S. Prohibition era: he who dubbed non-alcohol beer “near beer” was a poor judge of distance.
Of these restaurants only the delicatessen has a real footprint today at least in Toronto. The full-scale dairy restaurant barely exists. There are one or two, perhaps, especially if Kosher, unless I’ve been unlucky in finding more. The ubiquitous bagel shop is a kind of watered-down dairy restaurant, but we must be satisfied with it unless a young entrepreneur thinks of setting up a real dairy restaurant of the old style (instead of a tapas place or whatever is currently fashionable in New York or London).
The family-style places are all gone, unless perhaps again 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, 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 kitchen dishes as well. Another factor: most steakhouses today offer seafood but the old Jewish steakhouse never did.
Why did we patronize the Roumanian steakhouse? Part of my ancestry is from Romania, they were artisans in tailoring who lived outside Bucharest. I grew up with some of the typical foods, mamaliga, say. This is cornmeal mush, eaten hot or cold. And there were certain eggplant dishes.
Mamaliga was served 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, I understand.
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 of it when I grew up.
First, the communities were rather separate, initially. The Sephards spoke great French and we, in the main, did not. And the synagogue styles and rites were somewhat different, too. I don’t recall much intermarriage either: that came later though.
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 Jews’ dolorous history 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 heads, 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 were probably pre-war stock and it was 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 they’d have tossed them and the B&Gs in the trash, surely.
But anyway, wine is an afterthought in restaurants of this type, beer too although I’m glad to note they had Guinness stout, the only beer identified by brand name. That would have been Foreign Extra Stout, all-malt then, 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, 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 of 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. The vodka bottle encased in ice blocks is kind of corny, too, 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 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 of course, usually just Friday though (Jewish Sabbath). 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 special foods of holidays: unleavened bread or matzah, latkes (potato pancakes), various sweet and sour dishes. Still, I’d estimate 90% of the home food throughout the year was 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, in a typical middle class family.
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.