In late November we were contacted by a reader, Michael Eisenberg, who was particularly interested in our May 21 blog post about Ratner’s, a Jewish kosher dairy restaurant featured in Season 5 of Mad Men (“Christmas Waltz,” Episode 4). Eisenberg’s wife Melanie is the great-granddaughter of Jacob Harmatz who opened Ratner’s with partner Alex Ratner in 1905. (A coin flip determined the restaurant’s name.) With Eisenberg’s help we interviewed Melanie and her father, Robert, Jacob Harmatz’s grandson and the third generation owner of Ratner’s, about the iconic New York eatery on the Lower East Side. Among other things we were surprised to learn that the Harmatz family had no idea Ratner’s had a cameo in Mad Men until they read our blog.
We’re happy to share our interview, with images of Ratner’s courtesy of the Harmatz family, and Ratner’s signature Vegetable Cutlets with Gravy recipe. We’re also giving away two copies of The World Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook courtesy of Ratner’s.
Can you tell us a little bit of the history of Ratner’s?
Ratner’s 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. Until the 1970s, blue laws prohibited stores from opening on Sundays. However, certain streets on the Lower East Side were exempt from the law so that the Jewish Community, which observed the Sabbath on Saturdays, could shop on the weekend. As a result, the Lower East Side became the place for Sunday bargain shopping followed by a meal at Ratner’s. It was a tradition. Lines stretched down the block on Delancey Street and on a typical Sunday we would serve up to 1,200 people.
How did Ratner’s become a Vegetarian Kosher Dairy restaurant? Were there others in the area in the 1960s?
Obeying Jewish Kosher laws, meat and dairy cannot be served together. In the early 1900s, Ratner’s was strictly dairy and became the restaurant for kosher patrons looking for a dairy meal. There were many strictly dairy restaurants at the time, but by the 1960s tastes began to change and Ratner’s began serving fish as well.
Can you describe the atmosphere at Ratner’s in the 1960s? Who worked there?
In the 1960s, many of the customers had moved to the suburbs and would come back to their roots on Sundays to shop on the Lower East Side and eat at Ratner’s. The waiters and cooks were mostly Jewish immigrants of Eastern European descent and had worked there full time for many years. Many were holocaust survivors. They had a sense of humor and no-nonsense attitude. They acted like they were the boss and their shtick became a well-known part of the experience. One particular waiter kept boxes of shoes in his basement locker and would try to sell them to the customers while waiting the tables.
What were some of the best-selling menu items of the era? What were some of your favorite dishes?
The best selling and popular dishes at the time were the potato soup, vegetarian chop liver, vegetarian cutlet, blintzes, perogen, cheese cakes and danishes. Also, customers enjoyed the free onion rolls waiting for them at the table.
Did recipes change over the years, or did the restaurant always use the original recipes?
Most of the recipes were the original recipes. They stood the test of time and it was this nostalgia that kept many of the customers coming back.
Who were some of the famous clientele at Ratner’s in the Mad Men era?
In the 1920s, Ratner’s was known as being the hang out for some of the old gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. By the 1960s, it was a place to be recognized in the community. The Sunday before every election the politicians would stop by for a good luck blintz and a way to reach the Jewish vote. Many of the customers in the 1960s included politicians such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Jacob Javits, Senator Kenneth Keating, and Senator Robert Kennedy. Governor Rockefeller thought the blintzes were good luck and would serve them at his election-eve dinners. Stars would stop in as well. Jackie Mason’s brother, who kept kosher, was a regular customer and would bring Jackie. Other stars included Groucho Marx, Phil Silvers, Elia Kazan, and Walter Matthau. Ratner’s was used in several movies including a scene in The French Connection.
We’ve included the Ratner’s Vegetable Cutlets with Gravy Recipe seen in this blog post because the Mad Men scene in a re-created Ratner’s shows a sign on the wall promoting them. What can you tell us about this recipe?
The Veggie Cutlet was an old time favorite. When eating a strictly dairy meal, it was the best substitute for eating a meat dish.
Do you still produce foods for sale?
The frozen food business, including the blintzes, soups, and potato cakes, started in 1978. Initially, the products were sold to a couple of small stores in the suburbs. Eventually, the business grew more popular. A custom blintz making machine was purchased from California to handle the volume and Ratner’s frozen foods began being sold in supermarkets. When the restaurant closed in 2002, the rights were sold to King Kold who may have sold them to someone else. You can still find Ratner’s frozen foods in supermarkets.
Why did the restaurant close?
Ratner’s closed in 2002. Food tastes changed and especially the Lower East Side changed. The original Eastern European Jews have all moved out of the Lower East Side. The neighborhood is a younger trendy crowd who don’t have the same taste for veggie cutlets.
Were you surprised to hear that Ratner’s was featured in Mad Men?
We found out that Ratner’s was featured in a scene in Mad Men from your blog. We are big fans of the show but didn’t catch the cameo while watching the episode the first time. It was very exciting to see the show pay tribute to the restaurant. Mad Men does a wonderful job in keeping the authenticity and capturing the period. We would love to know how the idea to include Ratner’s evolved and how they came up with the set.
Ratner’s is legendary. What do you miss about the restaurant?
Looking back, the best part and what will be missed the most, was the people. The memories of the different colorful characters and the personalities of both the staff and customers is what can be enjoyed now. During the 1960s, the restaurant felt like a big part of New York culture.
The Harmatz family has contributed two copies of the original The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook by Judith Gethers and Elizabeth Lefft (Bantam Books, 1991) to give away to our readers! Enter to win!
Ratner’s Vegetable Cutlets With Gravy
Harry Crane and the erstwhile Paul Kinsey, now a Hare Krishna, meet for two meals at
Ratner’s on the Lower East Side, in Mad Men‘s Season 5, Episode 10 (“Christmas Waltz”). It’s a logical choice for the now-vegetarian Paul because Ratner’s specialized in kosher dairy: there wasn’t a wasn’t a corned beef, brisket or pastrami sandwich to be had. One of Ratner’s specialties was its kosher baked vegetable cutlet with mushroom gravy and we see two signs on the walls suggesting it to customers.
Ratner’s recipe for baked vegetable cutlets comes from The World Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook by Judith Gethers, the owner’s daughter, and her niece, Elizabeth Lefft (Bantam Books, 1975). The baked vegetable cutlet was a patty made of potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, onions, green beans and peas combined with matzo meal and egg and topped with vegetarian mushroom gravy sauce. The cutlets called for canned vegetables, although we prefer them with fresh.
The recipe for Vegetable Cutlets with Gravy from Ratner's Deli as seen on Season 5 of Mad Men (Christmas Waltz). Recipe adapted from The World-Famous Ratner’s Meatless Cookbook by Judith Gethers and Elizabeth Lefft (Bantam Books, 1975)
- For the Cutlets
- 6 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes (about 2 pounds)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 medium onions, chopped (about 2/3 pound)
- 6 mushrooms, chopped
- 1 (16-ounce) can diced carrots, drained (see note)
- 1 (16-ounce) can cut green beans, drained (see note)
- 1 (16-ounce) can of peas, drained (see note)
- 3 eggs
- 2 cups matzoh meal (approximately)
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Vegetable Cutlet Gravy (see recipe)
- For the Gravy
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, diced
- 1 cup chopped celery
- 1 green pepper, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 1 (1-pound) can of tomatoes, undrained
- 3 cups Mushroom Water (see recipe below)
- 1 tablespoon mushroom powder (You can grind dried mushrooms ,such as Porcini, for the mushroom powder)
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- For the Mushroom Water
- 2 pounds mushrooms, chopped
- 1 quart water
- To make cutlets: Preheat oven to 350 °F.
- Cook potatoes in boiling salted water for 20 minutes, or until tender. Mash.
- Meanwhile, in a skillet, heat butter and sauté onions and mushrooms until tender.
- Pour mushroom mixture into a bowl with mashed potatoes. Stir in carrots, green beans, peas and 2 eggs. Blend thoroughly. Add enough matzoh meal so that mixture can be shaped into large patties. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Shape into 12 patties. Beat the remaining eggs well. Brush patties on both sides, coating thoroughly. Place on a well-greased cookie sheet.
- Bake for 45 minutes, or until lightly golden browned. Serve hot.
- To make the gravy: In a saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons butter and sauté onion, carrot, celery, green pepper and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, mushroom water and mushroom powder. Simmer for 20 minutes.
- Mix remaining 2 tablespoons butter and flour and enough water to make a paste. Stir into saucepan and cook until sauce bubbles and thickens. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Serve hot spooned over Ratner’s Vegetable Cutlets.
- To make the Mushroom Water: In a large saucepan, combine mushrooms and water. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until mushrooms are tender.
- Strain broth and chill until ready to use. (Remaining chopped mushrooms may be chilled until ready to use in any dish).
The original recipe calls for 16-ounce cans each of diced carrots, cut green beans and peas, but we prefer substituting an equal quantity of fresh vegetables, lightly steamed.
The authors suggest serving vegetable cutlets with noodles and butter and a sliced orange salad.