Yesterday and Today: Jewish Culinary Landmarks of the Lower East Side

By Sophie Kaufman

If there is one thing that we at the Museum at Eldridge Street share it is an overwhelming love for food, especially when considering the numerous culinary options available in our Lower East Side home. As die-hard foodies, we’d like to share our favorite eateries and vendors from yesterday and today. We think they have made their mark and reflect the diversity of our ever-evolving neighborhood, from Jewish eateries that have vanished to the still-standing kosher restaurants that serve Chinese delicacies. These restaurants have functioned as watering holes for locals and have impacted the social, economic and political climate of this bustling neighborhood.

Eldridge Street's food map of the Lower East Side. Created by former intern Laili! Email Sara at slowenburg@eldridgestreet.org for a copy of the “Lower East Side Food Map."

Eldridge Street’s food map of the Lower East Side. Created by former intern Laili! Email Sara at slowenburg@eldridgestreet.org for a copy of the “Lower East Side Food Map.”

Take the Garden Cafeteria, for instance. The Garden Cafeteria, once located just a few blocks from the Eldridge Street Synagogue, not only fed locals but was also a gathering place for socialists, communists and other activists in the mid 20th-century. Patrons, including writers and editors for the Jewish Daily Forward and staffers for The Workmen’s Circle, both located just a few doors down, would sit drinking a glasele tea Nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer was a costumer in the Cafeteria’s later years. The Garden Cafeteria closed in 1983 and is now home to Wing Shoon Seafood Restaurant on East Broadway.

Photograph by Bruce Davidson, 1972.

Photograph by Bruce Davidson, 1972.

Ratners, famous for its delicious onion rolls, started in 1905 on Pitt Street in the Lower East Side and later moved to 138 Delancey Street in 1918, where it remained until closing in 2002. During its heyday, on a typical Sunday, Ratner’s would serve up to 1,200 people.

Schmulka Bernsteins was another Lower East Side staple, serving kosher Chinese food before this was common. Deputy Director Amy Stein-Milford remembers her family’s monthly trek to the Lower East Side which would end, to her great delight, with spare ribs at Bernstein’s. Originally established as a kosher delicatessen, Schmulka Bernsteins opened with the slogan “where kashrut is king and quality reigns.” In 1959 Bernstein began offering Cantonese-style favorites alongside the more traditional fare and found that the blending of the two cuisines was a hit. Schmulka Bernstein’s flourished for over three decades before closing its doors in the early 1990’s.

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The Garden Cafeteria sign after the restaurant’s closing in 1983.

Although we miss the culinary institutions that are no longer with us, we are lucky to still have some of the best and most diverse culinary options in the city. From the still standing kosher restaurants, like Buddha Boddai and Shalom Chai, to the classic institutions like Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery, Kossar’s Bialys, Russ and Daughters, Streits Matzo, Katz’s Deli and Sammy’s First Roumanian.

Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery located on 137 E Houston St between 2nd Ave & Chrystie St.

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery located on 137 E Houston St between 2nd Ave & Chrystie St.

My personal favorite? The Pickle Guys, of course! Where there were once over 80 Lower East Side pickle vendors, today just the Pickle Guys remain. Visit the Pickle Guys on 49 Essex St between Grand & Hester Streets to taste their old-time sour pickle recipe and also try their new pickling endeavors such as pickled mango and pickle pineapple! The Pickle Guys have taken the art of pickling to a whole new level.

The amazing selected at Pickle Guys!

The amazing selection at Pickle Guys!

We polled our Facebook friends about their favorite Lower East Side Jewish eateries of yesterday and today and here is what they had to say:

“The chocolate almond flavored kosher-for-Passover macaroons from Gertels. Hands down. I used to have my mom buy extra boxes to freeze them, and enjoy all year.” – Mattie Ettenheim

“I actually cannot resist walking into the Sweet Life when I’m on Hester Street. Chocolate covered EVERYTHING.” – Mara Bernstein

“I have found memories of the Garden Cafeteria. Great food.” – Michael Shor

“Definitely shmulke bernsteins…spare ribs and fried rice. If it reopened I’d be first on line!” – Ellice Schwab

“After shmulke’s it’s gotta be Ratners. The onion rolls were to die for.” – Lilly Weitzner Icikson

“Mediterranean Matzah from Streit’s. Yummmm” – Courtney Byrne-Mitchell

Did we miss one of your favorite Lower East Side Jewish eateries? Share it with us here or on our Facebook page. 

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