Q&A: Jeremy Lebewohl on the New 2nd Avenue Deli

New York has its fair share of iconic Jewish delicatessens — there’s Katz’s, Carnegie, and even the new, hipper Mile End in Brooklyn — but there’s only one kosher deli that stands up to the others: The 2nd Avenue Deli.

The deli — which was on Second Avenue and 10th Street from 1954 to 2006 and reopened in 2007 in Murray Hill — is known for its decadently delicious food — like towering pastrami sandwiches, the Instant Heart Attack (where deli meat is sandwiched by two potato pancakes), and fried chicken skins (a.k.a. gribenes). It’s also famous for its colorful waitstaff, who do their fair share of kibbitzing.

This week, the deli opens a second location on the Upper East Side. We spoke to owner Jeremy Lebewohl, 29, about his “new baby,” his family business and his brother’s surprising appearance in Penthouse magazine.

Lucy Cohen Blatter: At the Upper East Side location, can we expect the same type of colorful characters we’ve gotten to know downtown?

Jeremy Lebewohl: Definitely a few. We’re training people now, and I try to explain to staff that it’s a very unique type of service that we offer. There’s fine dining and fast food. We don’t fall into either category. It’s not a slow-paced meal, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get top service — it just has to be appropriate for the deli. Of course, kibbitzing and jokes are allowed. It can be difficult to find the right personalities to match what we need.

Are there any menu items that will be unique to the UES location?

First off, there’s nothing we offer on 33rd Street that won’t be offered here. We have a few dishes that we’re thinking about introducing. One thing that’s new at both locations is a pastrami skirt steak. Also, I’m working on getting a gizzard stew on the menu. I love gizzards.

Do you ultimately hope to open more locations?

Right now, our immediate goal is to open this location and show New York that the 2nd Avenue Deli on 75th Street can provide the same quality food, and feeling as 33rd Street. Once we can do that, who knows what the future might hold? What makes us unique is the ambiance and the food. You can tell it’s a family business. It’s not a generic chain — it’s not McDonalds.

What do you think about all the new string of delis opening around the U.S.? Seems like deli is becoming kind of cool.

I don’t know, I always thought delis were pretty cool. The trends are now are less about calorie count, and more about the quality of the food. People are not so scared to eat something that’s high in fat as long as it’s good quality. They want to eat food with just a handful of ingredients, and that’s deli. You know what you’re eating, and a scientist didn’t manufacture it. That’s something that’s becoming more appealing to people.

Have the proliferation of new, “trendy” delis caused you to change anything about your deli?

You know, I’ve read about a lot of places that, on Hanukkah, don’t just do potato latkes, but also do spinach latkes, or other fun, trendy things. I think that’s cool and I’m not against these things, but they’re trends. The 2nd Avenue Deli has been around for a half a century and, god willing, it will be around for another half century. This is the standard of what a Jewish delicatessen is. People have come up to me and recommended going more gourmet on certain things. But it’s not what a Jewish delicatessen is. I might get excited by a certain idea, but what we really are is an original, authentic NY delicatessen. We’re setting the standards.

A lot of the new delis are focused on locavorism. Is that something that’s important to the 2nd Avenue Deli?

When it comes to our fresh produce, everything comes from local farms. The only thing that separates us, is that because we’re kosher, when it comes to our poultry and beef products, we can’t go to the same local butchers that other restaurants can. We’re more limited.

While the deli is kosher, many observant Jews won’t eat there because it’s not closed on Shabbat. Did you ever plan on keeping the new location closed on Shabbat?

No. Everything’s kosher, there’s no dairy on the premises. I personally never work on Saturday. But I want people to have an option to go on a Friday night or Saturday lunch and have a Shabbos meal. That’s a service. We have plenty of people who ask to pay in advance.

But the majority of your customers aren’t observant — or even Jewish — right?

Right. That makes it even more difficult sometimes. I’m serving food to people who can eat anywhere. For example, filet mignon is my favorite cut of meat, but you can’t get kosher filet mignon in New York. Kosher restaurants serve something else and they claim it’s filet mignon. I can’t do that because my customers know what non-kosher filet mignon tastes like.

Growing up in a deli family, you must have started eating pastrami as a baby.

Absolutely. One of the things you see when you walk into the new place is a photo that my uncle took of my brother as a baby cradling a salami that’s bigger than him. That photo was in a bunch of publications, including Penthouse.

So what you’re saying is your brother is a Penthouse centerfold.

[Laughs] Yes, he was.

What are your all-time favorite deli foods?

It’s especially hard for me to choose, cause I’m in the restaurant every day, and I’m eating this stuff every day. But I’m a classic person, and I always go back to the basics. Nothing is better than a pastrami sandwich on rye bread with mustard. If I’m in a rush, I’ll grab a well-done hot dog with mustard, and cole slaw on the side. And I can’t eat anyone’s gefilte fish but ours.

Has the menu changed much since 1954?

Over the years things have gone on and off the menu. But you have to remember that when my uncle opened the place it was a small space, and he gradually expanded it over the years. I know that my uncle had a partner who he fell out with, and he didn’t want to offer complimentary health salad and pickles when customers sat down, the way my uncle did and the way we still do.

What are some of your fondest customer memories since taking over the restaurant?

There are two. The first was one night was when I was walking by the register and I saw man standing there, holding his bill, looking ready to shout. He started screaming at me and said “How can you do this? How can you charge this?” I was getting ready to explain the high costs of running a restaurant, when he said, “I don’t understand it. My wife goes to the supermarket and it costs her more money to make the food than it does to come here and something already prepared.” I felt pretty relieved.

Another time, a guy around my age told me that he had come to the deli with friends and loved it because it reminded him so much of the food his late grandmother used to make. He said it was dead-on just like the food he remembered. When he told his dad, his father started to laugh, and said “Don’t you remember, she used to order everything from the 2nd Avenue Deli?” Here, he thought he was being nostalgic for his grandmother’s cooking but it was the deli’s food all along.

The new 2nd Avenue Deli location will be at 1442 First Ave. (on the corner of 75th Street and 1st Ave)

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