Throughout her childhood, filmmaker Bex Schwartz heard stories about Bernstein on Essex, a kosher Chinese eatery on the Lower East Side.
“The way my family talked about it, I thought that whatever the ‘Bernstein on Essex Street’ is — [it] was just this glowing utopia in the distance,” she told The New York Jewish Week. “Kind of like Disneyland.”
And it some ways — among a certain segment of Jewish New Yorkers, at least — Bernstein was a sort of Disneyland: It was the only kosher Chinese restaurant in town.
These days, options for kosher dining are practically endless; diners can choose among Italian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian and more. But back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Bernstein on Essex — also known as Schmulka Bernstein’s — was one of the few places an adventurous kosher diner could go for something besides Old World favorites. It was the kind of establishment where Jewish patrons lined up for dinners on Christmas Eve and snacks after a late night of dancing. It hosted family gatherings and business lunches. The menu was wide-ranging, serving both traditional delicatessen food as well as Chinese fare like egg rolls and lo mein.
The once-popular restaurant closed in the 1990s, part of a wave of redevelopment and reinvention of restaurants and businesses — including Ratner’s (closed in 2004) and the Garden Cafeteria (closed in 1983) — in the once very Jewish Lower East Side. Still there’s something about Bernstein on Essex, with its yellow and red neon sign, that remains a source of nostalgia for New York Jews of a certain age.
And thanks to an old commercial made about the place, Schwartz had a chance not only to celebrate the place, but remember the cousins — yes, the fabled Bernsteins turned out to be her cousins — that her family was so proud of.
The ad was filmed sometime in the 1970s, and has repeatedly made the rounds on social and mainstream media since it was first posted on YouTube in 2018 by Kinolibrary, an independent British archive. They also posted a four-minute clip of footage taken inside the restaurant that has lost its sound.
“A kosher Chinese meal,” the narrator says, as the ad shows a typical day at the restaurant: hot dogs on the grill, men taking deli orders behind the counter, women looking at the menu and chatting while eating their meals. “A curious, unlikely mixture, yes,” the narrator says. “Maybe that’s the secret of New York.”
Schwartz, who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Manhattan, discovered the footage while doing research on the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas — and immediately recognized the Bernstein name. They were the cousins her family was always talking about. She knew their restaurant was a big deal for the New York Jewish community, but still, the film surprised and delighted her.
On Monday, Schwartz posted the clip on Twitter. “For a project I’m working on, I found 35mm footage of my family’s (on my dad’s mom’s side) kosher chinese restaurant, the Bernstein’s on Essex Street,” she wrote.
Others shared in the excitement in replies to her post. Writer Jason Diamond wrote, “My aunt used to talk about it like it was the height of all food.”
“I was obsessed with this place as a kid! We affectionately called it Schmulka Bernstein’s and I always got the spare ribs,” wrote another user.
“Went there in the late 60s/early 70s when shopping downtown with my grandparents. My grandfather would order a hot dog to have as an appetizer while he waited for his corned beef sandwich. This is where I learned to love Cel-Ray!” said a third.
Opened in 1957 at 135 Essex St., Bernstein on Essex was operated by Solomon Bernstein, who named the restaurant after his father, Schmulka, who owned a kosher butcher shop on Ludlow Street. In 1959, Schmulka Bernstein’s began to offer Chinese food, using veal, beef and chicken liver in lieu of pork in certain recipes.
The Bernsteins were the cousins of Schwartz’s grandmother, who spoke of the restaurant owners as if they were celebrities.
“For the Bernsteins to come to my brother’s bris was like the biggest possible deal,” she said. “It became a song I played in my head when I was a kid: ‘The Bernsteins are coming! The Bernsteins are coming!’”
“To me it was just this thing my grandmother was obsessed with because they were family,” she added, “so it’s so nice to see how important the restaurant was to them, too.”
Over the years, the memory of Bernstein on Essex has been kept alive in various forms, from a piece in Bowery Boogie last year, to a feature in the research project “Mapping Yiddish New York” out of Columbia University, to an explainer on the empty storefront in The New York Times. Columbia journalism professor Ari Goldman write a nostalgic essay in The Jewish Week in 2012.
Michele Clark, a niece of Sol Bernstein, has also written a blog about her childhood on the Lower East Side, in which Bernstein on Essex is heavily featured.
These days, 135 Essex looks to be occupied by Sons of Essex, a New American bar and restaurant. Before that it was a Chinese meat wholesaler. On the same block is a hookah bar, a taco joint, a dentist’s office and a luxury condo building.
In other words: a curious, unlikely mixture. But maybe that’s the secret to New York.