The family dinner was a cliché of American life in the 1950s. We saw it in television shows, and friends would say, “I’ve got to get home in time for dinner,” while hanging out. I remember getting into trouble for being late for supper, because we were supposed to eat our evening meal together.
Eating out was for special occasions; a birthday, anniversary, graduation, Mother’s Day.
That was to change in the ’60s, and the trend has only continued and grown. According to a report by CNBC, August 19,2019:
In 1955, 25 cents of every $1 spent on food went to restaurants. Today, it’s more than half.
Jews in America followed this behavior. As we’ve discussed in previous posts, most Orthodox Jews in the ’50s and early ’60s didn’t keep Kosher outside the home, perhaps only 60% kept strictly kosher at home. So, a dilemma emerged in the more observant atmosphere of the later 60’s: Shall we remain Kosher or follow the trend to eat out?
Enter the new world of Kosher eateries.
There had been Kosher restaurants in America, especially New York, for decades, and many (Lou G. Siegel’s, Yona Schimel’s, Ratner’s) were famous (including The Famous, dairy restaurant, on 72th St.) but they all had an Old-World flavor. These places were amazing if you wanted knishes, blintzes, chicken soup with fluffy matzo balls, etc.
In 1959, Sol Bernstein, oldest son of Shmulka, expanded the family’s deli and meat business into the revolutionary world of Kosher Chinese food. The new restaurant was called Bernstein-on-Essex, motto: Where Kashrut is king, and quality rules. But everyone called it Shmulka’s, after the deli, which had been on Rivington St.
Here’s how his niece, Michele Clark describes it:
Uncle Sol, in his turn, was the originator of kosher Chinese food. For years, Bernstein-on-Essex was the only restaurant of its kind anywhere. It attracted observant Jews from all over the globe. Like our grandfather Schmulka, our oldest uncle became a man of note, an innovator, in the small circle of Jewish observance and then, later, in the somewhat wider circle of those who look with longing toward the Lower East Side as the Plymouth Rock of American Jewish life. Despite the ups and downs of Lower East Side economics, the restaurant continued to prosper until my uncle died in 1992.
Then the restaurant was sold and soon closed.
Chinese cuisine, apparently, was relatively easy to transform into Kosher, because the Chinese don’t eat meat with milk. However, they do love pork. Bernstein’s solution? Veal!
By the late 70’s, Kosher Chinese restaurants were ubiquitous. It seemed natural that Jews ate Chinese. But was it? Jackie Mason thought it was weird because ‘you never hear of Asian people eating gefilte fish.’
In the 80’s, I visited my mother in Florida, and we got, for the first time, take-out Kosher Chinese food. As we sat around the table with those cardboard containers with aluminum handles, I told my kids that this felt like the most Goyishe thing I had done in 25 years. Soon, I got used to it.
Shmulka Bernstein was the beginning. By 1970 there were Kosher fast food restaurants like McDovid’s (which had to change the name because they lost a law suit to Ronald McDonald), Kosher King, Kosher Delight, and then many more.
But Shmulka’s was something special. Whether for a date on Saturday night or a midnight run on Thursday night after studying late in the Beit Medrash, it was a filling meal and an experience. There were a number of times early on a Friday morning that we stayed beyond closing, and drove our waiter home to Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge, in an already crowded car.
According to my memory, those were greatest spare ribs ever produced by mankind. The memory can play tricks.
In the 70’s, upscale restaurants became more common, first in New York and then elsewhere. Many of these featured foreign cuisines. Moshe Peking was the fancy version of Shmulka’s. There was also French dining, steak houses, but my favorite of this period was Papa Lou’s. This Italian eatery on the Upper East Side of Manhattan had this scrumptious Veal Parmesan. It was so good that you didn’t miss the cheese.
In a previous post, I discussed Pizza shops, which was a slightly different phenomenon for a younger audience. These restaurants in today’s post allowed American Jews to be fully observant and upwardly mobile. For many that was a dream come true.
Next: When Birnam Wood Comes to Dunsinane