Let's Eat

The classic Jewish deli is dead? Get stuffed!

Carnegie, the famed New York diner has closed its doors.What's next?


New York Jewish delis are becoming an endangered species, thundered the headline on a hipster news site after Manhattans famed Carnegie Deli served its last overstuffed sandwich last month.

For a New Yorker who is Jewish and loves deli, the epitaph is a call to arms — not because the Carnegie’s demise means the end of a beloved institution, but because the headline gets it wrong in so many ways.

First, the Carnegie stopped being a “New York Jewish deli” around 25 years ago. “The clientele, for a long time, has been almost exclusively tourists,” says Ted Merwin, author of 2016’s Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. “I was there a couple weeks before they closed. They were piping Christmas music into the place. There wasn’t a single Jewish face. Not to say it wasn’t a deli, but the Carnegie hasn’t been a hangout for Jewish community for a long time.”

Second, while a particular kind of deli has long been on the decline in a constantly changing, exorbitantly expensive Big Apple, the New York Jewish deli actually has an exciting future — mostly but not exclusively outside of New York.

From Los Angeles to London, and everywhere in between, there’s been a flourishing of what I call nouveau delis run by a new generation of food-obsessed Jews longing to connect with traditions. They’re remixing, rebranding, and re-contextualising the food of their forefathers. They’re mashing up a sense of nostalgia, of food trends and marketing, and a fierce dedication to heritage even as they reinvent it.

Monty’s Deli, newly arrived in Hoxton, is a case in point. But so is Shorty Goldstein’s in San Francisco, the General Muir in Atlanta, Caplansky’s in Toronto, Mamaleh’s in Boston, Harry & Ida’s and Mile End Deli in New York, Wise Sons in San Francisco, Wexler’s in Los Angeles, and many more.

Then there’s Kenny & Ziggy’s, an archetypical New York Jewish deli that happens to operate in Houston, Texas. In the most unlikely of settings, co-owner Ziggy Gruber has created a classic deli that’s a bastion of beloved Ashkenazi cuisine as well as a gathering place for local Jews — the classic function of a deli, according to Ted Merwin’s book. Rather than atrophy à la Carnegie, Kenny & Ziggy’s just opened a second location in an upscale quarter of Houston.

Economics, Gruber contends, are a primary reason New York delis are flourishing in cities like his rather than the Big Apple.

“The Carnegie should have never have went under,” says Gruber, the subject of 2015’s acclaimed documentary Deli Man. “But the reality is that with 60 seats and Manhattan costs, you cannot make enough to survive.

“I don’t care if you have lines around the block like they did. It’s just about overhead.”

The uniqueness of a restaurant like his in a setting like Houston also helps Kenny & Ziggy’s thrive; it’s about authenticity, not nostalgia. “Jews like to talk about food,” says Gruber, a third-generation deli man from New York who landed in Houston after a stint in Los Angeles. “So they’ll say, ‘You know what goulash and chicken fricassee used to taste like? You know what cheesecake used to taste like? There’s a place in Houston that makes it that way.”

There’s also a place in New York that still makes it that way. It’s Ben’s Best in Rego Park, Queens, and it’s more authentically New York than Carnegie had been for many, many years. Ben’s Best is also kosher, which makes it an endangered species — while Gotham’s kosher delis numbered 1,500 in the 1930s, the number has dwindled to 12.

But owner Jay Parker is sanguine about the future of deli — for his own old-school spot and the new-generation nosheries.

“Deli was from your grandmother’s kitchen. Every owner made up his own stuff. You didn’t study it at school,” says Parker, whose deli earned a spot on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives last year. “Fast-forward to now. What we’re seeing is a professionalisation. They’re taking a concept and plugging in the fare that we offer. Deli is not on the decline at all — just the contrary. It’s a niche market, and there will always be a place for it.”

Still, Parker can’t help but wax nostalgic when he remembers what real classic deli used to mean in New York City.

“The kosher deli was the place you took the family out to, but it was more like being in your own kitchen,” he says. “Waiters were gnarly and snarly. My father would kick people out and say, ‘Get the hell out of my restaurant!’. They’d leave, then come back next week, with their wife and kids. That was the sociology of the time. You were dealing with people who understood what you meant. That kind of culture is from a different generation.”


‘Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli’ by Ted Merwin is published by NYU Press

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