How do you describe a restaurant like Christina’s (853 Manhattan Ave.)? The word “successful” isn’t quite strong enough to encapsulate the 30 years of history that have taken place within the restaurant’s walls.
Multiple publications, and even television stations, have covered Christina’s. New York Magazine included the iconic restaurant in a list of the city’s best latkes, alongside places like Sarge’s Deli and Essex in Manhattan.
Celebrities have been regulars. Most notably, Mariusz Kwiecień, a Polish opera singer who is recognized as one of the world’s leading baritones, introduced Christina’s to his circle of friends from the Metropolitan Opera, arguably putting the neighborhood restaurant on the map.
But after three decades and countless stories, Krystyna Dura is selling her (slightly altered) namesake. The owner will be sad, but said, “One day you have to say enough and take a break.”
Greenpointers sat down with Dura and her life partner Jerzy Switkowski at Christina’s. The charismatic pair have been together for 17 years, after meeting on a blind date. Dura and Switkowski reminisced about the restaurant’s beginnings, their most cherished memories, and their hopes for the future of Christina’s.
Greenpointers: Like all great stories, you had to start somewhere. So, tell us how you ended up owning one of New York’s most beloved Polish restaurants.
Krystyna Dura: When I came to the United States, my first job was as waitress. I worked in Manhattan on Second Avenue at a Polish restaurant that used to be called Bruno’s.
The owner of Bruno’s was in the same position I am now, selling his business. He asked me many times to buy the business. Bruno saw that I could run a restaurant. But at that time, I was not ready. It was only my second year in the United States. But the seed had been planted in my head. I thought about it for the future. And years later, I took over this restaurant in Greenpoint.
Jerzy Switkowski: Greenpoint was a very Polish neighborhood at that time. There were thousands of Polish people here, eating at Polish restaurants.
Dura: That was one thing, but another is that from the beginning, I had Polish and English menus. The waitresses spoke both Polish and English. It was all bilingual. That was probably a key to my success.
Greenpointers: I’ve noticed that some of the walls of the restaurant are filled with photos of famous people. Do celebrities often eat at Christina’s?
Dura: A famous Polish opera singer, named Mariusz Kwiecień, was one of our first famous customers. He came here a lot because he lived in Greenpoint on Java Street. From the beginning, Mariusz and I had a connection. This was his place, and he felt at home here. After that, his friends started coming. If you came into Christina’s during the opera season in New York, you’d see several opera singers eating here. But everything started when Mariusz came in.
Switkowski: Krystyna was like family to him. We even go on vacation together now.
Other stars have come in too, even Polish presidents. Lots of people come in when they film shows in the area, like Blue Bloods. Even Woody Allen came in. And he said one thing: Krystyna, your place was highly recommended. He ordered stuffed cabbage, which has been our big hit for years.
Greenpointers: What is your favorite memory of the restaurant?
Switkowski: Speaking of stuffed cabbage, about ten years ago, Krystyna had live coverage of it on Good Morning America. The crew was here in the kitchen.
Dura: We were presenting “How to Prepare Stuffed Cabbage” live.
Switkowski: The kitchen staff was very nervous. Krystyna was translating everything. The grand finale was the tasting in the studio. A lot of people saw it. My American friends called me and asked if it was me.
Dura: It was amazing. Out of all the Polish restaurants, they chose ours. That was really something.
Greenpointers: Aside from the stuffed cabbage, what menu items should customers try before Christina’s closes?
Switkowski: For summer, we have a special borscht. I call it Polish gazpacho. It’s a cold soup made with beets and buttermilk. It’s a hot pink color with green on top. We also have blueberry pierogi. They are sweet with sour cream.
Also, there is Christina’s famous cheesecake. It’s available year-round. We’re actually out of it right now because it’s so popular. It’s made by Krystyna herself. No one else knows the recipe.
It’s delicate and fluffy because it’s made with cream cheese, not farmer’s cheese.
Greenpointers: You have decided to retire and are selling the restaurant. What do you hope for the future of Christina’s?
Dura: I wish I could find somebody who is Polish to take over the restaurant. I hope they will continue to run the same type of restaurant. I know many restaurants have closed forever. I know some new places have opened, but I haven’t seen any new Polish places.
Switkowski: The new owner could benefit from Christina’s history. They could have our old customers. We are not focused on only Polish people. If someone comes with a good offer…