In these modern times of high rises on New York City's Lower East Side, health fad diets, and increasingly hard-to-find high-quality ingredients (Where can you get a good rye bread these days? Does anyone dry-age pastrami anymore?), can the New York delicatessen survive?
These questions were tackled Tuesday night at the Museum of the City of New York at a panel discussion titled "Jewish Cuisine and the Evolution of the Jewish Deli." The talk was moderated by food writer Matthew Goodman (Jewish Food: The World at Table), and the panel included food historian Joel Denker (The World on a Plate: A Tour through History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine); former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton; Alan Dell, owner of Katz’s Delicatessen; Jack Lebewohl, owner of the now-shuttered 2nd Avenue Deli; and Mark Federman, third-generation owner of Russ & Daughters.
In the early days of delicatessens, each one was unique. Some were more Romanian in influence, some were more Russian. The dishes they served were based on family recipes passed down through generations and across oceans. Today, according to Dell and Lebewohl, the most popular deli sandwich meat isn’t pastrami or even corned beef. It’s turkey. And Federman laments the lack of orders for herring salad ("The Lower East Side isn’t 'whole herring' anymore, it’s 'Whole Foods'") and real, salt-cured loxas opposed to smoked salmon. Foods like tongue and rolled beef are practically extinct. Sheraton related a story in which a deli-owning friend of hers joked that the average age of his customers was "deceased."
Delis are struggling today for several reasons. First and most important, the landscape of Manhattan is changing, and real estate prices are skyrocketing. Second, people are more concerned with their health, and a diet rich in deli and dairy is viewed as a threat to waistlines and arteries. Third, Jewish food isn’t in vogue. It’s not stylish or trendy in New York the way, say, barbecue is right now, so the appeal doesn’t exist for younger generations.
In 1936, the WPA Survey estimated that there were 5,000 delis and 36 appetizing stores in New York City. Today, there are only a handful of each left. The audience at the discussion sighed collectively over the mentions of days-gone-by "Knish Alley" institutions like the Garden Cafeteria and Ratner’s, but the mood was lifted considerably when Lebewohl revealed that the 2nd Avenue Deli would reopen soon on 33rd Street between Lexington and Third avenuesand when Federman announced that Russ & Daughters would be providing refreshments after the discussion concluded.
So what can we do to preserve these cultural and culinary institutions? Continue to patronize the ones that are left. In addition to Katz’s, 2nd Avenue Deli, and Russ & Daughters, there's the café in Times Square's Edison Hotel (known as the Polish Tea Room in the theater community), the Mill Basin Deli on Avenue T, Adelman's on King's Highway, and B & H Dairy Lunch on Second Avenue.
When you go, keep in mind what Richard Shepard, late correspondent for the New York Times, said about Jewish food: “When you eat it, 72 hours later you’re hungry again."
Artie's Delicatessen: 2290 Broadway (83rd Street); arties.com
Carnegie Deli: 854 Seventh Avenue (at 55th Street); carnegiedeli.com
Katz's: 205 East Houston Street (at Ludlow Street); katzdeli.com
PJ Bernstein Deli & Restaurant: 1215 Third Avenue (70th/71st streets); 212-879-0914
Sarge's: 548 Third Avenue (36th/37th streets); sargesdeli.com
Stage Deli: 834 Seventh Avenue (53rd/54th streets); stagedeli.com
Ben's Best: 96-40 Queens Boulevard (Rego Park, near 63rd Drive); bensbest.com
Queen's Deli: 12209 Liberty Avenue (Jamaica, at 122nd Street); 718-845-2626
Leibman's: 235th Street (Riverdale, between Johnson/Oxford streets); 718-548-4534
Adelman's Kosher Deli & Restaurant: 1906 Kings Highway (at East 19th Street); 718-336-4915
Mill Basin Kosher Delicatessen: 5823 Avenue T (Mill Basin, at East 58th Street); mssk6.bizland.com
Remaining Appetizing Stores
Barney Greengrass: 541 Amsterdam Avenue (at 86th Street); barneygreengrass.com
Murray's Bagels: Sixth Avenue (12th/13th streets); murraysbagels.com
Russ & Daughters: 179 East Houston Street (Allen/Orchard streets); russanddaughters.com