Remembering The Baba of Rego Park
Stepping into The Baba Catering & Nite Club at 91-33 63rd Drive felt like a journey to a faraway land.
Opened in 1968, the Rego Park cornerstone was the go-to spot for anniversaries, showers, and weddings. It was the only Israeli cafe in America affiliated with a sister spot in Tel Aviv.
“This is where my grandparents Sonya and Khayka celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in a beautiful atmosphere,” said Arthur Ilizarov, who also had his Bar Mitzvah there.
The spot’s slogan was “Have fun Middle East-style.” Patrons could enjoy hummus and tahini, gefilte fish, and kafta. On Thursday night, singles were encouraged to mingle and dance.
In the 1970s, Steve Goodman was a college student who worked one summer as an audio engineer at WEVD.
“It was known as ‘the station that speaks your language,’” he recalled. “I had such fun working with Art Raymond, longtime beloved host of the Sunday Simcha Jewish, Yiddish, and Israeli music show sponsored by Cafe Baba. I can still hear his voice as he enticed listeners to plan a visit to Rego Park.
“At a time when New York was rapidly changing, it was The Baba’s sponsorship that kept Jewish music alive on the radio,” Goodman added.
“A Night In Israel” was coordinated by the Parents Council of the Salanta-Akiba-Riverdale Academy in 1971, which entertained attendees with Israeli and modern music. Art Raymond, nicknamed “The Yiddish Tummeler,” performed a comedy routine.
“I’ll always remember my parents Simon and Elise Salz’s 40th anniversary party in 1986,” said Roz Salz. “They loved listening to Israeli music, and we all sang along with the melodies in a very romantic ambiance.”
Robert Rosner was raised nearby and has since relocated to Florida, but The Baba remains close to his heart.
“I had my Bar Mitzvah reception in May 1970,” he said. “I remember how Art Raymond was there that night. He was the life of the party.”
Musician Ari Silverstein recalled many birthday celebrations at The Baba.
“I remember the belly dancer and the band performing in English, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish,” he said. “There was also a disco ball.”
It also elicits fond memories for Michael Gluck going back 50 years ago.
“I would visit with my parents on various occasions and had my Bar Mitzvah there,” he said. “Most of the contemporary Jewish entertainers of the 1960s and 1970s performed here. My favorite show featured a comedian named Johnny Yune, who was Korean American and recited Jewish jokes. He was a guest on ‘The Tonight Show’ and was always very funny.”
In 1993, The Baba came under new management and continued as a kosher restaurant and night club.
“The only kosher Russian restaurant around” was headed by Terry Ellis, a native of Soviet Georgia. It was a family effort with the assistance of her husband Alex, daughters Yvette and Nina, ad son Max, as well as business partner Alex Gutgarts.
At the time, The Baba featured ornate chandeliers, lamps, and mirrored walls. Some of the unique dishes were red caviar with blintzes and stuffed fish and chicken in walnut sauce, a popular Georgian food.
Patrons felt as if they were in Russia as they ate blintzes with meat, Loulya Kabob, and Hinkali dumplings. On Sunday afternoons, a violinist and a gypsy dancer would entertain the crowd.
“In the late 1990s, I used to perform there every weekend,” said dancer Sira Melikian. “It seemed like an exotic castle with its diamond-like mirror mosaics adorning the outside. I was very sad to see the façade and its name change, as it was a Rego Park staple. The very special design set it apart from anything else in the neighborhood.”