Citizens! Few things tempt the palate of the Old-School Oligarch – YOUR TFD! – more than a recipe from the delis of old, and few are as beloved as these humble onion rolls from Ratner’s, the legendary NYC deli that never served meat! Why, you may rightly ask? Ah, there is a story about Jewish dietary laws and a deli that served up delicious cuisine with a heaping side of attitude and sass!
Allow me to educate you, my beloved members of TFD Nation on the siren song of Ratner’s and their superlative cuisine! I was fortunate to have eaten there several times during my childhood, and the tastes I remember are the cornerstones of my love for deli to this very day!
Ratner’s was a famous Jewish kosher dairy (milchik) restaurant on the Lower East Side of New York City. Since it did not serve meat in deference to the kosher rule about not mixing milk and meat products, it was often regarded as a complement to Katz’s Deli with their legendary pastrami and other cured meats.
Ratner’s was founded in 1905 by Jacob Harmatz and his brother-in-law Alex Ratner, who supposedly flipped a coin to decide whose name would be on the sign. Ratner sold his share in the restaurant to Harmatz in 1918, and it remained in the Harmatz family from then on. Jacob’s son, Harold Harmatz, took over the business in the mid-1950s, dying a year after the restaurant ceased operation in 2002.
Brunch was the main meal at the dairy restaurant, and up to 1,200 people were served daily at the peak of its popularity. Noted menu items included cheese blintzes, potato pancakes (latkes), hot onion rolls, and split-pea soup.
Other key items were gefilte fish, poached salmon-in-aspic, kasha varnishkes, and vegetable borsht – many recipes mercifully survive in print. According to “The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook”, the winner and undisputed champion at Ratner’s was its famous onion roll which were featured on every table with every meal. More than fifteen hundred onion rolls were baked daily, three thousand on Sundays.
The original location was on Pitt Street in Manhattan, but the restaurant moved in 1918 to its better-known location at 138 Delancey Street, where it remained until its closing. There was also a location at 111 Second Avenue, operated by other members of the family. Until 1975, it was open 24 hours a day and therefore part of the late-night city scene popular with Jewish performers, actors, musicians, and gangsters.
Entertainers Bill Graham, Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Marty Allen, Eydie Gormé, Walter Matthau, Elia Kazan, Max Gordon, Groucho Marx, and Alan King were all regular customers, while gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky of Murder, Inc. (aka the Jewish Mafia) frequented the Delancey Street location. Prior to the closing of the Delancey Street location, a back room at Ratner’s was opened as a bar called “Lansky’s Lounge,” named after the deceased gangster who, according to Robert Harmatz, told the owners he was there so often that he deserved to have his own room. The lounge has since closed as well, though another bar continues to exist in the space.
There was also a Ratner’s soup cart that operated on only on weekdays and served a selection of dairy soups. The cart was located at the corner of 6th Avenue and 46th Street and operated until sometime in the late 1990s.
The Ratner’s located at 111 Second Avenue, run by Abraham Harmatz, surpassed the Delancey Street restaurant in popularity for many years, especially during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the part of the Lower East Side that is above Houston Street gradually became known as the East Village — a hip and creative Mecca. Sam Jaffee, the longtime night manager of the Second Avenue Ratner’s, worked with Fillmore East impresario Bill Graham in stocking the Fillmore’s mezzanine food concession with Ratner’s baked goods.
As noted in a great article in the New York Jewish Week:
At Ratner’s, character was the top item on the menu — from the rude waiters who’d stick their thumbs in your split pea soup (apparently it was a cure for arthritis) to the little old ladies who’d steal the onion rolls off the table. Waiters as old as Methuselah limped around with side towels stashed in their armpits and a snide remark on their lips. Their hearing aids didn’t work, so if you ordered potato pancakes, there was a high likelihood you’d get served gefilte fish. And you’d better like it. This might sound morbid, but since Ratner’s waiters never retired, I got my first station when a waiter kicked the bucket.
To work there, being a character was a prerequisite. You had Diego with his false teeth and hair mayo from the 99-cent store, and Alex, the Ratner’s Romeo, who livened up the workday with tales of his sexual exploits. You had the headwaiter, Hy Kirsch, who loved to gab with his customers as if he were hanging out at a country club, and another waiter with a side business selling shoes out of his locker. You had Walter, a wannabe actor who recited poetry to strangers on the corner of East 88th Street.
And then there was the customers’ favorite, my father, Ezra, a 5-foot-2 Israeli immigrant whose “study customers” (as he referred to his steady customers in heavily accented English) would line up out the door to sit with him.
As to the world-famous onion rolls:
Onion rolls are popular in the Jewish world and are a small roll, originating in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe several hundred years ago. The rolls contain flour, water, eggs, oil, salt, yeast, sugar, dried onions, and often poppy seeds. Today they are most typically used for sandwiches by those in the Jewish community, although they are also used as a dinner roll and can be commonly found at Jewish delis and bakeries across North America and Israel.
Onions rolls originated in the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Eastern Europe several hundred years ago, and were likely brought to America by Jewish refugees fleeing Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century (late 1800s). These refugees brought their traditional Jewish foods with them to their new homes in America, especially in New York City, which became a center of Jewish culture and was where the onion roll became most notable.
Onion rolls could be found at Jewish bakeries, restaurants, delicatessens, and markets around the United States and other places with a significant Jewish population. However most notably, the kosher dairy restaurant Ratner’s opened in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood in 1908, and began serving its famous onion rolls soon after. These onion rolls became famous both within the Jewish community and among other New Yorkers as well.
Today onion rolls are most commonly found in supermarkets across the Northeastern United States, as well as the Los Angeles and Miami areas, due to their large Jewish populations. Onion rolls are sold by a variety of brands including Kasanoff’s, Miami Onion Roll Company, Ratner’s, Zomick’s, and others in stores across the country. Onion rolls are also still found in Jewish bakeries and dairy restaurants in the United States, as well as Israel.
Citizens, this mouthwatering roll deserves a comeback and is not at all difficult to make – mercifully, the recipe from Ratner’s survives and I am honored to share it with you in the hopes you enjoy them as much as I do! Old-school Jewish delis are nearing extinction and their savory delights must be preserved at all costs! SO SPEAKS TFD!!!
Try these with another delicious and nearly-lost classic milchik deli recipe – chopped eggs and onions! You can also order the Ratner’s Deli cookbook from here, if you are so inclined (and I hope you are!).
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