Alex Ratner and Jacob Harmatz would have trouble recognizing the Lower East Side neighborhood where they ladled out borscht and matzo ball soup nearly a century ago.
Now, the languages spoken outside their Ratner's Restaurant are mostly Chinese and Spanish, not Yiddish and Russian. And Muslim vendors sell incense on the bustling street that once was a center of Jewish immigrant life.The restaurant has evolved along with the neighborhood, opening a bar and shifting its focus from local diners to tourists and take-out.
But some things never change - especially at Passover.
This time of year, the smell wafting from Ratner's bins of horseradish is as pungent as ever, and the kosher-for-Passover jelly rolls still taste as sticky sweet.
The rush is on here at the epicenter of Jewish eating. With the eight-day holiday starting tonight, trays of traditional gefilte fish, Passover cakes and cookies and boxes of blintzes roll out of the kitchen.
"The phone doesn't stop ringing for orders," said Jacob Harmatz's grandson, Robert, who now owns Ratner's with his brother, Fred. "Passover is a traditional holiday, where even if you're not religious, the family gets together."
On Wednesday, Passover shoppers came to Ratner's bakery in a steady stream, snapping up macaroons, almond horns and flourless cookies.
In the upstairs kitchen, a steaming vat of deep pink borscht - the traditional Russian beet soup - cools in one corner, and hundreds of potato pancakes sizzle in industrial-size fryers.
Thousands of the grease-laden pancakes will be boxed and shipped to area supermarkets, along with special Passover blintzes. With the Lower East Side's Jewish population a tiny fraction of what it was when the restaurant opened 93 years ago, the family has had to seek business beyond its street.
A brunch crowd still gathers in Ratner's old-style dining room for lox-and-onion omelets on Sundays, but catering, take-out and frozen food account for a growing slice of the venerable restaurant's business.
When Ratner's host Donny Weinstein, 58, was a teenager in the neighborhood, "You'd come in here on a Friday or Saturday night, the place would be packed," he recalled. "People with their mink coats, their mink stoles, coming here after the theaters, coming from the nightclubs."
The restaurant now relies more on tourists and suburbanites revisiting their roots than on hungry locals.
"We come here to eat flounder, because we can't get it on the West Coast," said Lee Butler, 78, of Laguna Hills, Calif.
Zelda Feller, however, was more interested in ordering fish than talking about it.
"Let them yack and yenta. I'm eating," she said with a laugh.