There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the American deli was in dire straits. The last quality holdouts, like the iconic Katz’s Deli in New York and Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles, were still going strong, but the deli landscape overall was rather desolate. Even in New York — dotted with as many as 3,000 to 4,000 delis only a few generations ago — just a handful of vibrant eateries remained.
For three years, writer David Sax visited delis in America and abroad to bear witness to an institution that was holding on for dear life. In his 2009 book, “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” he describes feeling alternately hopeful and despairing. Delis faced “tremendous odds,” he wrote.
Today, there is a deli renaissance afoot. A small number of next-generation Jewish delis have sprouted up across the country in the last few years. These delis have looked into the culinary past to dig up almost extinct ways of cooking and mixed in modern food sensibilities. Known for their excellent pastrami, they cater to Jews and non-Jews alike.
These delis have changed the conversation about the most classic Jewish American dining experience and given it new life. But have they “saved the deli?” The answer isn’t simple.
In the family tree of delis, “Katz’s is the grandpa, Saul’s is a teenager and Mile End is the next generation,” said Peter Levitt, owner of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, Calif. Levitt, who worked with Alice Waters, the mother of the organic and local food movements in America, was a trailblazer when he took over his deli from its former proprietor 17 years ago. Right away, he insisted that his meat be humanely sourced, even though it meant cutting salami from the menu.
More than a decade later, others followed: Kenny and Zuke’s in Portland, Ore.; Caplansky’s in Toronto; Mile End in New York and, most recently, Wise Sons in San Francisco. These delis, along with a few others scattered across the country, launched a conversation: Could the deli survive in the modern era? Could it be updated, and what would that mean for the food and atmosphere? “Peter was the first one to ask the questions,” Noah Bernamoff of Mile End said. And “Ken was the first one to say ‘I’m going to make my own pastrami because I think what’s available is crap,’” he added, referring to Ken Gordon, the owner of Kenny and Zuke’s.