Two Guitars: Immigrant Influences on the New York Restaurant Scene

The Menu I chose is from Two Guitars which resided in Lower Manhattan. This menu celebrated the cultural influences of Russian presider, Alexis Antonoff, while maintaining a level of assimilation to fit into New York City. What is most interesting about Two Guitars is the entertainment. Two Guitars was not just a restaurant, but a nightclub that provided a stage for acts of Russian heritage to perform. During this time period, immigrants were often ostracized and pushed to certain sectors of the city. This resulted in immigrants banding together, forming enclaves of their heritage and creating spaces for them.

Two Guitars

Two Guitars was a Russian establishment on 244 East 14th Street in New York City that provided entertainment in addition to the food on their menu. The proprietor was an Irish woman, but she was married to Alexis Antonoff, the Russian club’s maître’d.  ¹ The menu contains traditional Russian dishes such as Shashlik and Kissel but those items are juxtaposed with options of Shrimp Cocktail or Chicken Salad. Two Guitars was more than just a place for customers to come and be entertained while enjoying their meal, but it served as a space for New Yorkers to feel elements of Russian culture when they walked in and for entertainers who would not amount to household names to feel important. 

Melting Pot: Menu Items from All Over

As stated, within the ownership of Two Guitars there was both Russian and Irish influences.¹ Situated  in New York City in the mid twentieth century  resulted in  a melting pot of a menu, containing  bar specials of 45 cent Manhattans alongside  traditional items such as Zakuska or Chicken Kiev. An item influenced by the location of the restaurant and where groceries would be coming in from would be the Nova Scotia Salmon. Of course, all items can be washed down with a number of vodka cocktails found on the menu. 

New York: Cultural Makeup of the 1900s

A New York Times article dated for 1961 states that New Yorkers could find almost “any nation represented by a New York cabaret” if one looked hard enough. These institutions were set up to mimic their owner’s origins with the cuisine, entertainment, and atmosphere. One could have walked into any of these establishments and been transported to Rome, Vienna, Moscow, or Tel Aviv.¹

Many of the patrons of Two Guitars were Russian and Jewish immigrants who would visit the restaurant to reminisce and curb their feelings of being homesick.  Not only could they enjoy menu items similar to what would have been found on their dinner tables back home, restaurant goers could also experience their cultural entertainment with traditional songs and dances.²

Sasha Polinoff with female singer; cartoon of Robert Dana; Courtesy of “Tips on Tables”

Centuries of immigration have contributed to the culture of  New York City, as it has been a common endpoint of emmigration. As a receiving station for immigrants, Ellis Island was built in 1890, then reopened after a destructive fire in 1900. By 1907, 40% of New York’s population was not born in America.³  Immigrants aboard crowded ships would arrive in New York harbor having hope in their hearts while the Statue of Liberty welcomed them. In contrast, the typically immigrant experience of living in America was anything but a welcoming one.⁴

Often ostracized and othered by American natives, they were often pushed to certain areas of town which resulted in the creation of ethnic neighborhoods. For New York City, immigrants were found on the Lower East Side in crowded tenements.⁴ Some of those cultural neighborhoods still exist today, and others have switched the ethnicities they have housed one after the other. Two Guitars served as a place for Russian immigrants to feel like the majority when they walked in. For the duration of their stay at Two Guitars, they would be immersed in an experience where their way of being was the norm. 

Courtesy of PBS

Placement: Then and Now

Two Guitars sat on 244 E 14th Street in Lower Manhattan about a 16 minute walk today from the immigrant hub of the Lower East Side. This can be taken to mean that Alexis Antonoff and (wife’s name)  had enough means to get themselves directly out of the Lower East Side, but remained close enough to still have reach on the New York immigrant population.¹ What once was a symbol of cultural heritage and place for immigrants to feel at home, now is on the same block as a KFC.⁵ Research on how long Two Guitars was open is limited. What we do know is that the menu chosen is dated for 1949 and the New York Times article is dated for 1961.⁶ We do not know if those are the beginning or end dates, but an educated guess can assume Two Guitars had at minimum a 15 year run time.

Entertainment in New York

New York has always been a center of entertainment, as well as a beacon for musicians, actors, and entertainers to come to. At the beginning of the 1940s the United States was in World War II, and towards the end of the decade, the country was in post war recovery. In times of trouble, people take to art to escape the reality of everyday life and sometimes the best artistic products come out of troubled times. During the 1940s, musicals such as Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, and Carousel were making their debut on Broadway and musicians such as Theolonius Monk, Frank Sinatra, and the Andrews Sisters were household names.⁷ Two Guitars served that same outlet of escaping from everyday strife for those of Russian origin.


Two Guitars provided a space for Russian entertainers to perform and have their 15 minutes of fame that were not able to obtain in the city itself. As seen in the pictures taken at Two Guitars, the nightclub provided a feel of glamor and sense of celebrity status. Among the entertainment at Two Guitars was Ivan Nepa and Sonia, a pair of cultural Russian dancers, a Gypsy orchestra led by Kostya Poliansky, a “cheerfully inept knife thrower” – as described by Arthur Gelb in the New York Times-, and most famously the balalaika player, Sasha Polinoff.¹

Glamor shots of Olga Karpis; Courtesy of tips on tables

The balalaika is a Russian musical instrument composed of a triangular wooden, hollow body and a neck fretted with three strings.⁸ While Sasha Polinoff’s balalaika playing can still be found on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music today, his fame never amounted to the artists behind the records frequenting most New York homes. One patron of Two Guitars declared that if you were to walk into the Russian joint “on almost any evening you would find Sasha Polinoff entertaining the guests…Sasha sets the Slavic mood for the vodka, caviar, and the Kiev cutlets”.⁹

Courtesy of the Smithsonian

Notes:

  1. Gelb, Arthur. “Foreign Cafes Offer Grand Tour: Almost all Nations Represented by a Manhattan Club.” New York Times (1923-), Feb 15, 1961, http://ezproxy.loyno.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.loyno.edu/historical-newspapers/foreign-cafes-offer-grand-tour/docview/115352500/se-2?accountid=12168 
  2. “Two Guitars.” Tips on Tables. October 30, 2021. https://www.tipsontables.com/twoguitars.html 
  3. “Timeline: 1609 – 2001.” American Experience. PBS, October 30, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/new-york-timeline/
  4. Bial, Raymond. Tenement: Immigrant Life on the Lower East Side. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 
  5. Apple Maps. “Directions for Walking from 244 E 14th St to the Bowery Hotel.” Accessed October 30, 2021. 
  6. “Two Guitars: Menus.” What’s on the Menu. New York Public Library, October 1, 2021. http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/58386/explore 
  7.  “Student Resources.” New York Film Academy. January 15, 2016. October 30, 2021. https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-best-broadway-shows-from-the-1940s/
  8. “Russian Cabaret: The Bailaika of Sasha Polinoff.” Folkways. Smithsonian, https://folkways.si.edu/sasha-polinoff/russian-cabaret-the-balalaika-of/world/music/album/smithsonian 
  9. Peterson, Cecelia. “Come in from the Cold: Warming up with Monitor Records.” Smithsonian Collections Blog. Smithsonian Institution, January 20, 2012, https://si-siris.blogspot.com/2012/01/come-in-from-cold-warming-up-with.html 

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