This Thanksgiving New York Has Yet Another Reason to Be Grateful to the Indians: Silverbird

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Two cone-shaped baskets hang next to the papier-mâché cactus just inside the entrance of Silverbird, a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "They are Apache burden baskets," says owner Reuben Silverbird, 50. "It's an Indian custom that you don't bring your burdens into the home. You leave them in the baskets."

This may account for the happy mood of patrons who have discovered the only native American restaurant in New York. Since it opened last June, representatives of the U.N., UNICEF and the U.S. Culinary Olympic Committee have pulled up a chair there. So have such folk as Paul Newman, Goldie Hawn and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Cheyenne who is the newly elected congressman from Colorado. They come to dine on blue corn soup, grilled quail and Navajo fry bread. Continuing a tradition that dates back 365 years, latter-day Pilgrims will sit down with native Americans at Silver-bird this Thursday for a full Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkey and Pueblo bread stuffing with piñon nuts. "We serve only native American dishes, no hot dogs or hamburgers," says Silverbird, "but we do have buffalo burgers."

Comanches, Navajos and Blackfeet make up nearly half the staff, and Silverbird says there have been evenings when 40 different Indian tribes have been represented among the clientele. "I have letters from nine Indian nations thanking me," says Silverbird, "and those are just as important to me as the one from Mayor Koch."

Silverbird's menu is comprised of dishes the owner remembers and adapted from his childhood. Reuben's mother was a Navajo from a family known for its pottery, and his father an Apache who traveled the Southwest as a clown. The oldest of six, Reuben was born on the Sandia Reservation in New Mexico. His father, determined that his children would "move into the white world, the bread and butter country," took the family to Albuquerque when Reuben was 5. After high school he formed a singing group with a brother and sister. As the Corona-dos, they worked the nightclub circuit for 10 years. After they disbanded in the early '70s Reuben went on his own. For the past eight years he has been singing in an Italian restaurant in New York.

In July 1985 Silverbird decided to open his own restaurant. "It took, in one word, courage," he admits, after would-be backers circled their wallets. "Buffalo? People are going to eat buffalo when they're used to steak? This place goes completely against the grain." Then Inge, Reuben's German-born wife of three years (a first marriage ended in divorce 15 years ago), offered to be his partner. Together they pooled $300,000 to get started. His sons pitched in to paint and plaster.

Reuben's sons still help with the restaurant, playing native American music most nights. Comanche twins chant in Lakota Sioux. Diners are encouraged to join Silverbird in a round of Yah-tah-hey, which means hello in Navajo. One evening the spiritual leader of the Hopis warbled Home on the Range to a tom-tom beat.

Silverbird admits there is a showbiz orientation to his restaurant, but "the emphasis is the food, and the food should be as good as possible." Ingredients are not easy to come by. Corn comes from the New Mexican Pueblo reservations, and green chili is shipped frozen from Albuquerque. Buffalo meat is flown in from South Dakota, and the Crow nation in Montana supplies herbal teas and rattlesnake meat. Going native doesn't necessarily mean going cheap; the average meal for two, before tax and tip, costs $50.

By cooking native American ingredients in traditional dishes, Silverbird hopes to send a signal to some of his fellow Indians who, he feels, lack a sense of pride. "This is the beginning. We're on an upswing now," he says. If a discouraging word is seldom heard at Silverbird, that's because the proprietor and his family keep problems to themselves, and they expect diners to do the same. When you leave Silverbird, you're supposed to relieve the baskets of your burdens and shoulder them yourself.

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