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During the golden era of deli, which, according to Merwin, took place between the two world wars, “deli becomes the equivalent of the Irish pub or black barber shop or Italian social clubs — a place for each ethnic group to create bonds of community.” The deli doubled as the local hangout as second generation American Jews started to assimilate into the broader society.
When you enter some (though not all) of these new delis, that atmosphere is closer to a sandwich shop than old-school eatery. Mile End’s second location, in downtown Manhattan, originally opened as a standing-room-only establishment, designed to move diners in and out. Stools were ultimately added, but the space is an extreme example of the changing atmosphere of the deli. Many of these next-generation delis are too small to play the role of a central Jewish space as did delis of yore. What’s more, the Jewish community is no longer the same.
But the sentiment of community — even if it isn’t Jewish — is still there. Bloom and Beckerman of Wise Sons live only a couple of blocks from their deli in the Mission district. “We’re trying first and foremost to create a space that we enjoy as neighbors,” Bloom told me. And in smaller cities like Portland, Kenny and Zuke’s doubles as a communal Jewish space and a popular restaurant, said Merwin.
What is often overlooked in this deli renaissance is the importance of places like Katz’s and Langer’s. Theirs are the shoulders that the new delis stand on. They are “pivotal to the survival of the deli,” said Sax.
Whether diners believe the deli has been saved by these new restaurants is a difficult question to answer. For some, no matter the quality of that thickly sliced pastrami, a deli without the old timey schtick will never satisfy them. But for many others these businesses have a lot to offer. At the very least, they are teaching a new generation to love deli fare. And that love, hopefully, will save the deli.
Devra Ferst is the food editor of the Forward.