Volume 17 • Issue 30 | Dec. 17 - 23, 2004

Ratner’s reopens for last fling at age 100

By Hemmy So

Downtown Express photo by Lorenzo Ciniglio

Evelina Abes, left, and Lillie Genee danced at Ratner’s final celebration Tuesday, 100 years after the Lower East Side restaurant first opened. The owners, Fred and Robert Harmatz, closed it two years ago to make room for Lansky’s Lounge, named for the gangster who was a Ratner’s regular. Lansky’s will remain on Delancey St. though the kitchen where the blintzes were made may be demolished to build condos on the higher floors.

Ratner’s Restaurant opened its doors Tuesday for the first time in two years to celebrate its 100th anniversary and finally say goodbye to the Lower East Side. Proclaimed “Ratner’s Day” by Mayor Bloomberg, Dec. 14 officially marked the end of famous kosher restaurant. Complete with a small buffet selection of blintzes and latkes from the restaurant’s frozen food line and cycles of Klemzer music played by the Matt Darriau’s Blintz Band, the party’s atmosphere overflowed with nostalgia.

Adam Weinstein, a West Village resident and 3rd generation Ratner’s customer, reminisced about the notoriously cantankerous wait staff. “The waiters in the ’50s and ’60s were these little Jewish men who were famous for being crotchety,” he said. “As the neighborhood changed, the restaurant got Chinese waiters who adopted the same tricks. It became almost a shtick.”

In one of the elevated booths, photographer Clayton Patterson snapped pictures of the event while discussing old times with two friends.

“It’s the end of an era, so it’s a sad occasion to see the end of a long history,” Patterson said. A Lower East Side resident for 25 years, Patterson bemoaned Ratner’s final ending for another reason: the demise of the vibrant Jewish community in that neighborhood.

“Now we just have bars and restaurants. We have the end of a culture,” he said unhappily. “The Lower East Side has lost its authenticity.”

Amy Krakow, a gregarious woman sporting a chic pair of large plastic eyeglasses, lamented the decline of kosher delis in the city. Sentimentally remembering places like Ratner’s and Garden Cafeteria as Jewish meeting places and kosher food havens, Krakow began theorizing about decreased interest in the classic Jewish foods that made Ratner’s famous.

The popular low-carb diets are partly to blame, she said. “The problem with eating kosher — it’s all carbs, it’s heavy stuff.”

“It was nice light food to eat when you’re stoned,” her friend dryly replied. The trio soon began recounting their stories of visiting Ratner’s after nights out on the town. Indeed, the restaurant has seen its fair share of partiers, including entertainers like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Like many other partygoers, the circle of friends wondered what the future held for the old Ratner’s space. A press release announcing the party informed the public that the Delancey St. building would be demolished, but owners Fred and Robert Harmatz said it was mistaken.

The current space, which partially houses popular nightspot Lansky Lounge (named after famous gangster Meyer Lansky, a Ratner’s regular), will stay put, Fred Harmatz said. The upper floors, which include a vacant three-story apartment structure whose windows sit above the glowing red neon Ratner’s sign, will be demolished and replaced with a 12- to 14-story condominium apartment building, Harmatz said.

Robert Harmatz also noted that the old kitchen space will also be torn down to make room for the new apartment building, which will face Norfolk St.

The Harmatzes are only in the “talking stage” of their condominium plan, so they have not yet taken any substantial steps towards its construction, such as applying for the requisite building permits.

“It’ll be a year or two before we even get a shovel in the ground,” Fred Harmatz said.

When told about the restaurant’s future, partygoer Wendy Lee didn’t seem surprised. “Just like the rest of this area,” she remarked, noting the proliferation of hip bars, trendy restaurants and modern new apartment buildings on the Lower East Side.

Carefully cut into small pieces and spread in a neat pattern around a paper plate, chocolate and cheese blintzes tantalized Lee and her friend Betsy Lee, whose New York City visit from North Carolina included a stop at the party. King Kold L.L.C., which bought the Ratner’s brand about three years ago, introduced the new chocolate blintzes to commemorate Ratner’s 100th anniversary.

“It’s very unique. No one really makes it in the U.S., so it’s a celebratory thing, like chocolate cake,” said Michael Hahn, C.E.O. of Ratner’s.

The party offered the kosher treats at 1905 prices, with proceeds going to the Jewish Conservancy, whose colorful banners and video at the party clearly made its presence known.

As people continued to consume their fair share of blintzes, Fred Harmatz smiled at old friends and tried to catch the attention of his toddler grandson, the fifth and last generation to walk through Ratner’s Restaurant.

Harmatz took a sentimental look at Bugsy Siegel’s old table. “We’ve had our time here, and now it’s time to move on.”

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