March 8, 2001
Deli Stories, No Schmaltz
It takes more than cold cuts and a dollop of hot mustard to survive in this town -- a look at L.A.'s venerable delicatessens.
Let's face it, all deli menus are the same. Devotees of one deli or another will battle over which spot has the leaner, meaner pastrami or who makes the fluffiest matzah brei. Yet there's no point in reviewing deli food to a highly opinionated Jewish audience. After all, going tit for tat over Los Angeles delis, some wiseguy (usually me) will inevitably dredge up comparisons to New York, and then it gets really ugly, really fast.
But when it comes to our local counter culture, L.A. has its respectable delicatessens. And in this dog-eat-dog, let's-do-lunch kind of town, we salute L.A.'s venerable deli institutions, more than a few of which have already celebrated their half-century mark. -- Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer
Art's Delicatessen in Studio City attracts its fair share of actors, directors and writers, but the eponymous owner Art Ginsburg prefers to treat every customer like a celebrity.
"When you go out to eat, no matter who you are, whether you're a CEO, a secretary or the loading-dock guy, you like to be noticed," says the 66-year-old restaurateur, who delights in schmoozing with customers. "It's like when an actor does a good performance and he's appreciated by the audience. It's the same feeling that we all get when the customers are happy."
Ginsburg and wife Sandy have been serving customers at the very same Ventura Boulevard location since June 22, 1957. But things have changed since the Ginsburgs first opened a modest 10-foot-wide, 28-seat deli. Now 75 feet wide with 170 seats, Art's also caters for corporate airplanes and nearby studios. The deli recently prepared 4,000 box lunches for tour groups attending the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl.
Another part of Art's appeal is that it is a family-run business. Two of the Ginsburgs' three children, Harold and Roberta, work the floor and develop new menu items.
"I couldn't do it without my wife and kids," Ginsburg says, adding that many regulars have been coming for the entire 43 years: "We have anywhere from second-, third- and fourth-generation families coming here."
After more than four decades, Ginsburg says retiring occasionally crosses his mind, but he'd rather continue greeting customers for another 20 years.
"This is like a baby," he says. "It's hard to leave."
Art's Delicatessen, 12224 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. (818) 762-1221. -- Adam Wills, Associate Editor
The homemade cakes are a mile high; the 4-inch matzo balls float on air; the brisket melts between molars and tongue. If you want to experience the best deli food in the universe, drive to Brent's Delicatessen in Northridge.
"Northridge?" you say.
Okay, so perhaps best food "in the universe" is a bit of an exaggeration, but "in Southern California" is not. Zagat has been raving about Brent's for years.
The secret of Brent's success is the man himself. Not Brent, but rather Ron Peskin, 59, the self-effacing, self-taught restaurateur. Peskin purchased the restaurant when his father died the day before Thanksgiving, 31 years ago. Peskin had grown up "a serious student" of the deli business, having worked in his uncle's deli since age 14, as well as for Mort's in Tarzana and Art's in Studio City. Peskin hired Loncho, his chef of 27 years, to develop the recipes that have built Brent's reputation.
Okay, so you've found your way to the strip mall along Parthenia Street and are now settling into one of Brent's booths during a crowded lunch hour. You see tantalizing soups (cabbage, matzo ball, barley), kasha varnishkes (straight from the old country), bursting-at-the-seams pastrami Reubens, time-perfected knishes ... you realize it's hard to decide what to choose.
If you're confused, just ask Peskin himself. Talking to customers is one of Peskin's favorite things -- that and playing golf. But don't expect Peskin to retire anytime soon; it's not in the cards for this deli king.
When Peskin bought the restaurant from Arlene Wakefield in 1969, it was a quarter of its present size, with only nine employees. Sundays were dead, and on a good week he'd sell a single whitefish. Today, Brent's sells thousands of whitefish each week, and 108 employees fill the back kitchens and service areas. Long lines of customers snake out the door on weekends. And the kosher-style food appeals well beyond Northridge's large Jewish population.
The restaurant has always been a family affair -- son Brent is the buyer; daughter Carie helps Peskin; wife Patricia is the bookkeeper; future son-in-law, Mark, store manager. Family business is what's fortified Brent's success. According to Los Angeles Business Journal, Brent's serves 10,000 meals per week, with a volume of $7 million sales per year. Recently, the publication ranked Brent's sixth in restaurant sales in Los Angeles County.
Word of mouth has also helped this deli king's empire. Who needs to place ads when you've got customers such as Rabbi Steven Tucker of Temple Ramat Zion?
"Whenever I go to Brent's, I run into a lot of my congregants," says the rabbi of Northridge's Conservative shul, who notes that many North Valley Jews who moved further west after the 1994 Northridge quake have returned.
Peskin says, "Someone asked me many years ago, 'Ron, did you think you would have the best deli in the city?' and I said, 'I knew that I would, I just didn't know if anyone else would.'"
Well, they do think so. In droves.
Brent's, 19565 Parthenia St., Northridge. (818) 349-9850. -- Charlotte Hildebrand Harjo, Staff Writer
There are restaurants disguised as delis, and then there are delis. Canter's is a true deli.
Stepping into Canter's is entering a history of Jewish Los Angeles; a 14,000-square-foot embodiment of the seven-panel mural outside on the building's southern wall. Founded in 1931 in Boyle Heights, the original Canter Brothers followed the post-World War II Jewish community to the Fairfax area in 1948. The Fairfax location, previously the old Esquire Theater, has since expanded to include a second large dining room, a parking lot and the trendy Kibbitz Room cocktail lounge (which served as incubator for Jakob Dylan's band The Wallflowers).
Open 24 hours a day (except on the High Holy Days), Canter's serves a diverse clientele, from retirement-home residents to late-night hipsters. Serving these huddled masses yearning for corned beef are 130 employees, many of whom spend their entire careers at Canter's, which offers medical and dental benefits.
Alan Canter, son of a founding brother, still arrives at 5 a.m. every morning to pick out fruit for the breakfast plate, and nine third-generation cousins share managerial duties. Together, they serve up more than 6,000 gallons of chicken soup each month, along with 6.5 tons of corned beef, pickled on the premises. Canter's full-service bakery produces the goods twice daily, donating the excess to the local homeless.
When Jacqueline Canter started the Fairfax Business Association, which has fixed up the area's streets and sidewalks, she did it to "bring the street back to the way I remember it as a girl."
She adds, "This is something that's going to be here a long time."
Canter's, 419 N. Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles. (323) 651-2030. -- Mike Levy, Contributing Writer
Factor's Famous Deli
Suzee Markowitz gets emotional talking about her late father Herman, who passed away before his time.
"He was a total family man -- warm, charming, compassionate. He loved the people, but being in his 40's and leaving behind five young children, the deli made his suffering a little easier," she says, her voice wavering. "He always said, 'If you take care of it, it will always take care of you.'"
Markowitz's widow and children -- siblings Suzee, Debbie, Libby, Edie and Marvin -- have been taking care of Factor's Famous Deli ever since their father passed away in the 1970s. And true to Herman's words, Factor's has taken care of them (and, by extension, an ancillary family of loyal customers).
Established in 1948, Factor's has been owned and operated by the Markowitz family for 33 years. It was Herman who took over the business from Esther Factor, adding the "Famous" to its name, after moving out here from Cleveland, where Herman was an experienced restaurateur. Before buying Factor's, he worked briefly at Nate 'n Al's.
Suzee's parents were Holocaust survivors -- her mother from Romania, her father from Czechoslovakia.
Factor's has expanded dramatically in recent years, having incorporated what used to be a bakery and a dry cleaners into its space. In this world where things just come to go, the pleasure in this place is that you know that it's secure and stable.
For many years, Factor's has seen a high traffic of executives from studios, such as 20th Century Fox down Pico Boulevard. The studios keeps Factor's walls fresh with posters of recent motion picture releases. And with last year's addition of a front patio area, there's no excuse for anyone to not let's-do-lunch there.
Markowitz believes that Factor's energy and atmosphere -- in addition to its menu -- makes the deli a special place.
"It's run by young people," she says. "We're passionate about it. We're here seven days a week. Here, it's like people coming into our home."
Chew on that next time you bite into one of their egg mit bagels.
Factor's Famous Deli, 9420 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 278-9175. -- M.A.
Founded in 1979, Fromin's Deli in Santa Monica has its roots in 1950s Cleveland, Ohio. Restaurateur Dennis Fromin founded the deli but sold it in 1990 to current owner Maurice Solomon in order to focus on his Encino location. The two Fromin's owners grew up together on the delicatessen circuit in Cleveland's University Heights neighborhood and remain close.
Solomon, who previously had run Marjan's in Brentwood, survived Nazi-occupied Brussels and by the age of 13 was working as a dishwasher in his uncle's deli, Solomon's in University Heights. He learned his deli counter skills at that city's Lefton's Deli and continued to work in the deli business, often alongside Fromin, through college and now into his 60's. Solomon describes himself this way: "I'm a deli man."
His long experience in the deli world serves him well at ever-busy Fromin's, where Solomon oversees 65 employees and personally prepares hundreds of platters each week for the restaurant's thriving catering business (about one-third of his business). With an ever-expanding menu that now includes tacos, Solomon knows what keeps people coming back: "I train my servers well. Service is as important as food." Fromin's, 1832 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 829-5443. -- M.L.
Before he passed away in 1989, legendary TV animation pioneer Jay Ward ("Bullwinkle & Rocky") used to make his daily lunchtime pilgrimage down Sunset Boulevard, from his Dudley Do-Right Emporium to Greenblatt's Delicatessen.
Located next door to the Laugh Factory, Greenblatt's still warrants such devotion. While most places are content to serve deli fare, Greenblatt's also boasts a selection of quality caviar and fine wines. Where else can you enjoy some made-from-scratch soup upstairs and then, on your way out, select a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape downstairs?
Contrary to deli conventions, Greenblatt's feels more like some kind of lodge: the decor is decidedly brown and old-fashioned -- lots of wood paneling, a framed case of vintage corkscrews, an antiquated etching of people getting loaded.
Today, I'm meeting an old friend for lunch: ICM agent Larry Hummel. After a few quick words, we bypass the more populated downstairs booths for the less occupied upstairs area. Over our bowls of soup (mine: matzah ball, teeming with chicken shrapnel and cooked celery; his: the chicken noodle), Larry blames his delay on the L.A. Marathon. I share a similar story of another year's Marathon frustration, and we both agree that there are two things this city is not built for: a subway system and a marathon.
"What they should do," I suggest, "is combine the two and hold the marathon in the subway. Nobody really uses the subway system anyway."
Larry cracks up: "If someone runs for mayor on that platform, they'll sweep."
"Hummel for Mayor," I cry.
Admittedly, we're pretty well fed by the time our entrees arrive. Larry travels light with a bagel and cream cheese. I wind up packing up half of my pastrami/corned beef/rare roast beef triple decker for tomorrow's lunch.
Larry remembers the last time he was at Greenblatt's: "On Yom Kippur. I came here to break the fast after attending services at the Directors Guild."
Stepping out of Greenblatt's, Larry and I go our separate ways and, across the street, I run into former Journal contributor/longtime Greenblatt's loyalist David Evanier, who appreciates the deli's cozy quarters. "It's really haimish, very low key," he says.
With this kind of word of mouth, not for long.
Greenblatt's Deli, 8017 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (213) 656-0606. -- M.A.
Tibet's Dalai Lama may be Hollywood's favorite cause celebre, but Santa Monica's Israel "Izzy" Freeman -- the self-proclaimed Deli Lama -- is the nosh celebre. Izzy's Deli calls itself the "Deli to the Stars," and the menu and the walls bear that out. The brick and green restaurant on Wilshire at 15th Street since 1973 supports a Wall of Fame featuring former and current customers, such as the late Walter Matthau and Hal Linden (of the eponymous hamburger menu). "Brady Bunch" mom Florence Henderson lends her name to the dinner menu; if you want a steak sandwich, just ask for the Rod Steiger.
Appropriately for a restaurant whose owner and original landlord hashed out a deal at a City of Hope board meeting, one of the Deli Lama's most popular items is named for another kind of spiritual leader. Kehillat Israel's Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben has the honor of, what else, the Rabbi Reuben's reuben.
Izzy's Deli, 1433 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 394-1131. -- M.L.
Marvin Saul, a former Colorado uranium miner, flipped a coin. Heads Los Angeles, tails Dallas. Heads it was. Saul moved out here in 1959, without a shred of restauranting experience, to reinvent himself. Saul opened Little Junior's on Pico Boulevard (a short walk from the present location, where Maria's Cucina now stands) and proceeded to bleed money until 1964, when the May Company opened across the street and saved his entrepreneurial tush.
By 1990, Junior's was grossing $6.5 million -- enough to warrant the Wall Street Journal to do a feature story on Saul, and for Restaurant and Institutions Magazine to deem the deli one of the 100 biggest-grossing independent restaurants in the country.
True story: Contrary to popular belief, "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien and former sidekick Andy Richter were not longtime buddies. They actually met at Junior's. David Letterman's NBC successor was still living in L.A. at the time and was on a tear, interviewing for a sidekick. When O'Brien arrived at the deli (the designated rendezvous spot) on that fateful, sweltering July day, he found Richter sipping a bowl of hot borscht. Richter proceeded to crack up O'Brien by quipping to the waitress that the knish they had ordered resembled a breast. O'Brien, majorly impressed with Richter's major matzah balls, closed the deal.
Junior's, 2379 Westwood Blvd., Rancho Park. (310) 475-5771. -- M.A.
Despite the fact that it's 2 p.m. on President's Day and pouring rain, Langer's Deli is bustling.
Catty-corner from MacArthur Park on Alvarado, at Langer's you'll find Koreans, Latinos, and elderly Jews seated in brown '70s-era booths wrapping their mouths around sky-high sandwiches.
"The big push that kept us going is the opening of the Red Line," said owner Norm Langer, 56, who has been running the business since he took it over from his father in 1963.
Founded June 17, 1947 by Al and Jean Langer, the deli has never moved, just expanded. Langer says that business had been fine up until the late '80s, with hours that stretched to 3 a.m. on the weekends. But as the neighborhood changed, business began falling off.
Langer says that the establishment of a nearby police substation and the Metro station one block north of the deli has reinvigorated interest in his restaurant.
"If it wasn't for the Red Line opening," Langer says, "I would have closed the place years ago."
Now attorneys and medical professionals frequent the joint, and Langer attributes his deli's longevity to the fact that "you get the same product today you'd get in 1947. Same quality, same quantity. I have never skimped on anything my dad created." Langer's Deli, 704 S. Alvarado St., Los Angeles. -- A.W.
Mort's Palisades Deli
In the 1970s, Mort Farberow opened a butcher shop on Sunset Boulevard in the Pacific Palisades. Business was okay, but he was still unsatisfied.
So Farberow and wife Bobbie moved around the corner to Swarthmore Avenue, where they opened Mort's Palisades Deli in 1972. Mort's could not have come along at a better time -- the Palisades, largely Methodist, was beginning to see an explosion of affluent Jewish migration.
In 1978, Mort's moved into a larger location on the opposite side of Swarthmore, where it remains today. "We make 99 percent of our food from scratch," says Farberow, including all the soups.
Mort's boasts a long list of famous patrons -- on one occasion Marlon Brando came in and Farberow was the only person in the place who recognized him.
Farberow says that generations of Palisadians have grown up patronizing his establishment, only to return with their kids. He adds that much of his staff has been here for 15-20 years.
The secret of Farberow's success lies not only in what he puts in his food. "Being there seven days a week, getting to know the people," he says, has made Mort's the institution it is today.
Mort's Palisades Deli, 1035 Swarthmore Ave. (at Sunset Boulevard), Pacific Palisades. (310) 454-5511. -- Ari Morguelan, Contributing Writer
Nate 'n Al's
One by one, they trickle in, as they have countless times before. Call them FOLK (Friends of Larry King).
On this morning -- Valentine's Day -- King is suspenderless. After all, this is where King comes to escape showbiz and order his favorite meal: a bowl of Cheerios and a slice of fruit. A casual Asher Dann (of real estate fame) rolls in, all smiles for Kaye Coleman, the deli's waitress of nearly four decades. Whenever the CNN host is in town, King holds court here.
"It's like being in Brooklyn," King tells The Journal. "Of course, Brooklyn doesn't have the opulence of Beverly Hills. But it feels like Brooklyn. Like home."
Indeed, it's a clubhouse in here, where zingers fly between the brash waitresses and the decades-loyal regulars. Long gone are the days when Lucy lived on Carmelita and when Hal Wallis and Tash set up the next Jerry Lewis vehicle at Paramount. But you can always depend on Nate 'n Al's. You've heard of comfort foods? This is a comfort restaurant.
The gravel-voiced waitress Arlene Malmberg, originally from Red Bank, N.J., says, "Working here is addictive!"
"It's really haimish," Coleman adds. "The customers become your family." As if staged, Coleman greets Harvey Silbert, arriving for his takeout.
"The food's so good" is why the prominent attorney's been returning here for more than 50 years.
Since Al Mendelson and Nate Reimer opened shop in 1945, the Beverly Drive deli has become second home to its celebrity neighbors. Former Crescent Drive resident Doris Day used to stop by in her bathrobe, and one star-struck columnist mooned over spotting David Crosby, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Lew Wasserman -- on the same morning!
Herman Leavitt, customer of 50 years, knew Al Mendelson.
"He never had anything bad to say about anyone," Leavitt says. "Someone said, 'Don't you hate the owner of Carnegie Deli? He's going to put you out of business.' He said, 'Listen, he's our neighbor.'" (Needless to say, Carnegie is gone.)
Three years ago, the Mendelson brothers -- Mark, 35, and David, 32 -- took over management (grandpa Al passed away a decade ago). They've done a formidable job maintaining the deli's boisterous Brooklynesque charm. Mark says that the ultimate compliment was King purchasing his Beverly Hills home "so that he could walk down to Nate 'n Al's every morning."
Nate 'n Al's, 414 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills. (310) 274-0101. -- M.A.
Pico Kosher Deli
A crowd quickly gathers in front of the meat- and salad-filled cases, not long after Pico Kosher Deli opens on this Friday morning. A smiling Jacob Hecht, 37, works alongside brother David, filling numerous to-go orders and preparing for the day ahead. Their father, Max, sits in a corner booth with an egg breakfast and the newspaper, while mother Marianne helps the boys set up. Jacob greets people walking through the door, seemingly on a first-name basis with most of them.
"If you treat people fairly and with respect, I like to believe that people appreciate that," says Jacob, who once drove to LAX to return the lost credit card of a customer about to leave L.A.
One of the first kosher delis in Los Angeles, Pico Kosher Deli was founded in 1968 by David Kohn. The Hecht family purchased the Rabbinical Council of California-certified deli in October 1989, and has catered food for Emek Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva Gedola of Los Angeles, and Yavneh Hebrew Academy.
"Kids that comes back from a year in Israel, a lot of them make this their first stop off the plane," says Jacob. "They know they have a family here that runs a business that won't compromise their values for a dollar."
And for a kosher deli, their prices are surprisingly on par with the "kosher-style" delis around town.
"There's no reason I couldn't get $8 or $8.75, but I'd rather see someone on a more regular basis than turn them from a twice-a-week customer to a once-a-month," says Jacob, who attributes Pico Deli's success to one word: Hashem.
"People are successful in what they do because Hashem wants it to be for them," says Jacob. "People are given clear signs sometimes as to what they should or shouldn't do. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not is a different story."
Pico Kosher Deli, 8826 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 273-9381. -- A.W.
And as long as you're hankering for some hot pastrami or kreplach soup, also visit Label's Table, Broadway Deli, Jerry's Deli, Stage Deli or Mort's in Tarzana. After all, patronizing these delis today will make them tomorrow's venerable institutions.