Sunday, June 11, 2006
Is the era of the great East Side delis - kosher and non-kosher - over?
The famous places on Houston Street, Katz's and Henry's are no longer part of the current folklore. Katz's at 205 Houston used to be a huge emporium, with waiters who shuffled and had to catch their breathbreated hard and could'nt hear your order - the legendary types. Their sandwiches were legendary too, with corn beef piled so high tay you could never get t in your mouth without subdividing. This was the store that advertised "Send a salami to your boy in the Army" during WWII. There was a great rukus about whether Katz was actually kosher. How that was decided is unknown to me, but for years thereafter Henry's, its next door neighbor would have signs on its door a nd windows, advertising "This is the only kosher deli on the block." Now Henry's is gone, and Katz's is shrunk to a fraction of its size.
Zooky's, at 3rd Avenue and 17th Street, had some of the best bagels, in recorded history. By the way some of the best bagels are baked by Asiatic bagel bakers. Names such as Bagel Nosh may conceal a non, Landers such names Anyway, Zooky's ended ingloriously, with the owner running up a huge rent, bills and payroll backlog, then moving out the ovens in the middle of the night, and disappearing forever. Not uncommon, unfortunately - its neighbor, Willy's Bodega, on 17th between 3rd and Irving, did likewise. Ah, America! I have astory hfor you, of a contractor who built a small summer house in Upstate New york, and ran away, family and all, without paying his subcontractors, laborers and suppliers. What's more, he blamed the owner of the house for slow pay, giving him a bad name. Fortunately, the architect had signed off at each phase of the work, and the owner had cancelled checks to show that the vcontractor was paid up to date. Nevertheless, a lumber yard put a mechanic's lien on the property, figuring that the bank would force the owner to pay him off. Fortunately, the owhwer had mortgaged his primry residence in the city, since primary residence rates are better. So the lien expired a year later. Had the property been in a less rational state (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the West?), the owner would have had to pay the contractors all over again.
But I digress. The point is, delis don't proper, despite lox selling at $24 a pound. Not everyone is a Zabar's, or, more in our environment, a Second Avenue Deli.
Abe Lebewohl's place at 156 2nd Avenue - don't try to find it in the phone book, it is listed as 2nd Avnue Kosher Deli, and thereby hangs another tale - is a fine eating place. Where else would you sit down to a jar full of pickles and a relish appetizer even before you order your meal? And you can eat in the Molly Picon Room, illustrated with old programs and pictures (sort of like the old Luchow's on 14th Street, which had a Lillian Russell Room, with the same paraphernalia). Where else can you find a sidewalk with the names of the greats of the Yiddish theatre (a la Graumont's theatre in Hollywood).Abe, who serves seven days a week, runs a strictly kosher menu, and has been in trouble with the m since Day 1. Understandably, Sabbath is Sabbath. Unfortunately, people have to eat, and so Abe balances the needs of the people with the laws of the Torah, and finds in favor of the people. Abe is also in trouble with the laws of the city - a street fair interrupted his loading of the delivery truck, and an overzealous cop arrested him for obstruction of whatever. Trial to follow. But Abe takes it in his stride.
Abe probably invented the the 25 th or whatever anniversary celebration of a restaurant by putting the prices back to the date of founding. People on the East Side still occasionally nention the 5c farnks he served in 1954. The restaurant is now mature, but it refuses to grow old gracefully. Abe still tries opening a Chinese branch, and a Russian counterpart - in Moscow, where else?
The Moscow attempt failed because of too many cooks... or was it crooks...? But New York is plenty for everyone, with trucks delivering everywhere, with parking tickets by the dozen every day.
B & H Dairy Restaurant at 127 2nd Avenue is also a deli, serving only dairy products, as is the much shrunk-down Ratner's Dairy Restaurant at 128 Delancey Street.
The shrinkage in NY'S delis is due as much to the population shifts as it is to economics.
A postscript: Abe Lebewohl was killed by a robber March 4, 1996. The killer was never caight. The triangle park across the Ave was named for him. Jack lebewohl took over, closed the restaurant in a rent dispute, and reopened two years later,in 2007, in the East 30's.
Zabars lebowitz B&H Ratner's