Jewish tradition may be facing its final days

Sunday, July 21, 2002

NEW YORK -- For years, Jews living on Manhattan's Lower East Side made a regular pilgrimage to Ratner's for its home-style pirogen, blintzes, gefilte fish, matzoh brei, baskets of freshly baked onion rolls and notoriously surly wait service.

But the flickering neon sign in front of Ratner's -- a New York institution offering some of the finest kosher dairy dining anywhere -- is losing its luster. At the same time, Lansky Lounge & Grill, a trendy steak house and martini bar carved out of the back half of Ratner's in 1997, is burning brighter than ever.

And that could mean the end of Ratner's, a landmark that has been in place for 84 years.

"Unfortunately Ratner's is fading away and Lansky's is coming up in the world," mused co-owner Fred Harmatz. "The way this neighborhood has changed, people who come into Lansky's now, if you asked them what a bowl of borscht was they'd think you were speaking a foreign language."

Changing focus

Last year, faced with a dwindling clientele and construction on the nearby Williamsburg Bridge spanning the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, Harmatz and his younger brother, Robert, decided to open Ratner's on Sundays only, while operating Lansky's seven nights a week.

"The neighborhood changed, but we've tried to keep this going as long as we can," Robert said. "When the lounge started five years ago, we began rethinking what we were doing here."

In recent years, the once heavily Jewish neighborhood of turn-of-the century tenements and discount storefronts has attracted arts galleries, boutiques -- and eateries like Lansky's.

But during its heyday from World War II until the early 1970s, Ratner's was run by the Harmatzes' father, Harold, 24 hours a day.

"You'd never know if it was 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon here, it was always so busy," Fred Harmatz said.

Despite a reputation for its dour waiters, Ratner's was popular with Nelson Rockefeller, John F. Kennedy and other politicians, who simultaneously came shopping for the Jewish vote and its famous breads, cakes and desserts -- all baked fresh on the premises.

It also became popular with Jewish mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, for whom Lansky Lounge is named.

"Meyer came in here all the time and he always sat in the back," Fred Harmatz said. "Well, he once said to my father, 'I might be your best customer. You should name a table after me.' My father did him one better and named the whole back room after him."

The brothers kept the name when the back room was turned into a retro-style lounge. And in keeping with the mobster theme, the front door -- tucked away in an alley -- is outfitted with a speakeasy-style sliding eye-panel.

Flipping a coin

Jacob Harmatz, the Harmatzes' grandfather, opened Ratner's with his brother-in-law, Alex Ratner, in 1905, deciding on the name after flipping a coin. After Ratner sold his share, Jacob moved the restaurant in 1918 from Pitt Street to its current location at 138 Delancey St., where its vegetarian dairy menu became wildly successful with the area's overwhelming Jewish population.

"In a way their emphasis on healthy, vegetarian food was very much ahead of its time," said Jenna Weissman Joselit, a professor at Princeton University and author of several books detailing modern urban Jewish history.

But eventually the neighborhood changed, the Jews moved out or grew old, and the menu became too much of an anachronism for the new generation.

Fred Harmatz said the change really started in the 1960s, when Hispanics and other groups began moving into the neighborhood and Jews started leaving for the suburbs.

In the early 1980s, the migration of new people to the area began to snowball.

"Suddenly all these businesses that had been around for 70 or 80 years started going out of business right and left," said Robin Marcato, community liaison for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

But Ratner's hung on -- barely.

Massive influx

At that time, with the city experiencing a massive increase in the number of Orthodox Jews, the Harmatzes decided to make the restaurant strictly kosher. In fact, when Lansky Lounge first opened as just a bar, it remained closed on Friday nights out of respect for the Sabbath.

Then, in 1999, the Harmatzes turned the lounge into a restaurant offering a non-kosher menu, and that spelled non-kosher for Ratner's as well since the two shared the kitchen.

"It was nothing against religion," Fred said. "It was a business decision."

A decision that drove away the Orthodox crowd, and ultimately may see Ratner's demise.

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