Did You Eat?

by Alan P. Sandler
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citycenter.jpg I’m in Center City Philadelphia, back in my hometown for a medical meeting, waiting to cross Market Street, and I hear this exchange between two people who have approached from behind:

“Hey, jeet?” “No, jew?”

Since I keep the Anti-defamation League on my cell phone speed dial for times like this, I’m about to call, when I realize where I am and what the natives are saying:

“Hey, did you eat?” “No, did you?”

Indeed, those two are not casting any aspersions on my ethnic identity, but merely seeking to hook-up for lunch using the area’s “ancient” short-circuiting vernacular.

“I’m “headin” over to the Reading Terminal. You “wanna” go?

“Sure, I was just “gonna” pick up “somethin” for the office, but the Reading Terminal sounds good.”

The light changes, the two diners wander off, and now I’m hungry, and the imagined affront to my heritage has put me in the mood for a little Jewish comfort food. I know I could walk over to “Mama’s Vegeterian” on 20th Street or drive out to the “Country Club Restaurant” in the Northeast, but what I really want, I can no longer have.

What I want is the food my father brought home every Friday evening from the restaurant where he worked throughout my early life and most of his, until he died with his apron on.

blintz.jpgMy father smelled of starched white shirts, cigars, smoked whitefish, potato knishes, and cheese blintzes. He worked as the counterman at the Ambassador Dairy Restaurant, an institution in North Philadelphia from the 1940’s into the early 1960’s. It stood on the southwest corner of 7th Street and Girard Avenue, and was open all night, in part to accommodate clientele who fell in at 3 AM after the clubs closed to “grab a bite” and await the expected arrival of bagels fresh from the bakery.

My father worked the lunch and dinner shift. When we lived around the corner on 8th Street, he would walk home and I would have a few minutes with him before I went to bed. When we moved to Northeast Philadelphia, since he didn’t drive, he would take the 59B trackless trolley on Castor Avenue to the El and the Girard Avenue trolley to the restaurant. I would be asleep well before he arrived home and off to school in the morning before he awakened to return to work. He worked six days a week with Saturdays off.

bagel_lox.jpg Many mornings a box of fresh cinnamon-raisin sticky buns would greet me at the kitchen table. My father would stop at the bakery beneath the El station on his way home.

It was the dairy delicacies, however, that arrived home Friday afternoons that I most remember: Fresh sliced lox and sturgeon, baked salmon, smoked cod and chubs, rice and potato knishes, cheese and fruit filled blintzes, fresh bagels and onion rolls, and, a personal favorite, potato varenikyas, that my mother would fry with onions or steam and serve with apple sauce and sour cream.

At holiday time, the restaurant’s gefilte fish, a particular delicacy, for which people would “run for miles” according to my father, was, however, not welcome at our house. “They can keep it,” my mother would reply defending her culinary turf with hand chopper held high.

buns.jpg In the fifties, the neighborhood around the restaurant began to change. Working class Jews, like my family moved out to settle new neighborhoods in the Northeast. The Ambassador withstood the change for many years with more limited hours and a short-lived branch in the “new territories,” but, eventually, both sites had to close.

So, as I contemplate my dining choices, standing in the shadow of City Hall, bereft of my “soul food” sources, I guess I could opt for that other Philadelphia comfort food: the cheese steak. Pat’s of South Philadelphia fame has a branch at the Reading Terminal and the Amish bakery there has the most delicious cinnamon-raisin sticky buns in the city.

 old neighborhood phillythe old neighborhood - philly

Comments   

#16 Billie Elias 2017-02-18 05:21
So, my Philly-loving book is in print now. Pearl's Party...and you're invited. Pearl took me and my kosher friends to the Ambassador when we were kids. She did that....and so much more!
#15 Bruce 2017-02-14 15:13
I don't recall vegetarian "hamburgers," per se. They had "vegetable cutlets" and they had "eggplant steak," which I loved! And their french fries, fried in peanut oil, were delicious. ...Also great lox & onion omelettes.
#14 Allan Altman 2017-02-14 14:21
The vegetarian hamburgers were the BEST!!!
+1 #13 Bruce 2017-02-13 09:08
One correction to the above article. As I recall, The Ambassador survived into the early '70s, not the early '60s. I was eating there, with my parents (a"h) well throughout the 1960s.
+1 #12 Bruce 2017-02-13 09:05
My late father had the optometry practice immediately next door to The Ambassador [702 W. Girard]. (The photo shows the name, Dr. John J. Schneider. My father worked with Dr. Schneider and took over the practice when Dr. Schneider retired, in 1960.) Consequently, we ate at the Ambassador several times a week. It was great! I certainly remember Sam & Rose Bahr, "Reds", the waiters, particularly Willie Hahn [great sense of humor], the gentleman who bussed, etc. Sylvia Zellinger made the blintzes, knishes, etc. I miss that place terribly. I can still fairly well remember what was on the menu. I bet a similar restaurant would do well now! [FYI-after the Ambassador was sold it became a greasy-spoon diner kind of place called "Town and Country." It was destroyed by a fire which is why it's still charred and boarded.]
-1 #11 Billie 2015-06-22 09:30
If you grew up in Philly, you're gonna love my book (soon to be published). In it I tell of my native Philadelphian mother who had to take my childhood orthodox friends to the Ambassador for my birthday before we headed into town to the movie palaces to see a film. She was a divorcee who led a wild life owning businesses that some of you may have frequented. In the meantime, check out my blog where lots of articles are tagged "Philadelphia" and reserve a copy.
#10 Howard 2015-06-06 16:53
My grandfather, Sam Bahr(your opinions will be what they'll bel), worked his way up from waiter to owner,but I only have a hazy memory of one trip there after he sold The Ambassador. I went to the N.E. place and got the vegetable cutlets twice. I miss them and wish I tried the vegetarian chopped liver. Where are the recipes? With diet sensibilities closing down delis, you'd think vegetarian/dair y's time has come again. Whenever I brought home a veggie burger of some kind, my folks, may they rest in peace, would remind me my grandfather's restaurant served them years before. Is there a constituency for a (fairly) healthy Jewish restaurant here?
+1 #9 Jill Max 2015-01-05 05:18
My father, Morris Yuter, was atheatrical press agent for all of the Philadelphia theaters for over 40 years. We often went to Frankie Bradley's for cast parties after opening night of many shows.
Throughout the years I met many famous personalities such as, Catherine Hepburn, Lena Horne, Richard Burton, Andy Gibb,Zero Mostel, and Andrea McArdle.
In the very early 80s a restaurant named Heshies opened by Harry J Katz that was like the old Romanian steak houses. Unfortunately, it didn't last too long. Prior to that and for several decades we had a restaurant called Dave Shores on the tiny Quince Street alongside of the Forest Theater which served fabulous Jewish style European foods. It was there that you could have a family Seder or book your Bar mitzvah reception in the upstairs dining hall. It was there that you could get the most delicious chopped liver, garlic steak, prokas (stuffed cabbage), chicken soup, and... are you hungry yet?
+1 #8 Atarah 2015-01-03 17:29
Rebecca, My grandmother used to make what she called "pastrami fish" from carp, and the Ambassador was the only place I ever found it outside of home. I loved it, too, as well as the kishka. So many memories. Thanks everyone for sharing. Much nostalgia here.
#7 stu 2014-05-02 06:09
Alan, I remember the Ambassador. First, I remember the bread. The waiters would bring over pumpernickel in a basket. It was the best bread I ever ate. The eggs and fried matzo were the stuff of legend. The food was always fresh. I ate there in the early 1970s. My father would drive us to Girard street from Northeast Philly on Sunday mornings. There were not too many people in the place back then, but it had a classic look. It's the gold standard by which all food should be measured.

Stu

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