Jeremy Lebewohl loves old-school delis. But he is biased.
“I think they’re amazing,” says the co-owner of 2nd Ave Deli, which has two locations in Manhattan. “The food traditional delicatessens put out is some of the best there is, everything is made from scratch and the menu is a bible.”
But Lebewohl knows that not everyone shares that sentiment, especially as the institutions that were once synonymous with dining out face ever-increasing competition.
“It used to be the only restaurant people would go to,” he says. “If they wanted to go out, they’d do deli, there was nothing else.”
Now, trendy one-page menus and endless options ranging from casual sushi to fancy pizza, delivered at any time with services like Seamless and Caviar, has obscured the popularity of the timeless deli.
That’s especially the case for a certain generation (read: millennials) whose grandparents may fondly recall ordering stuffed cabbage and goulash at one of New York’s many now-shuttered delicatessens (notable victims of late include Carnegie Deli, which closed in late 2016 after nearly 80 years in midtown, and Ben’s Best, which closed in June after 73 years in Rego Park).
“People love delis, they love a pastrami sandwich, but can’t remember the last time they were in a deli,” says Lebewohl, 36, who, with his brother Josh, inherited their late uncle Abe Lebewohl’s storied deli — which relocated to midtown in 2007 after first opening in the East Village in 1954 — and added an Upper East Side location in 2011. “People don’t appreciate flanken, goulash and chicken fricassee [anymore].”
Raising the bar
Determined to develop a model that would support the original business, as well as reignite a passion for signature deli dishes, the Lebewohls opened an upstairs cocktail lounge at the Upper East Side location last year to cater to a late-night, neighborhood crowd.
Dubbed 2nd Floor, with its own separate neon-lit entrance, the bar features an extensive cocktail list (Mezcal! Mulled Manischewitz!) and a one-page menu of bites like stuffed gefilte croquettes, small plates like franks in a blanket with “sauerkraut baked bean essence” and a meat board featuring an artful arrangement of cured meats and pickled condiments.
“I wanted to show a new generation of customers who would never come into a deli to order anything, not even a sandwich, a deli,” Lebewohl says. “We’re using the same ingredients as downstairs, but with phenomenal dishes more appealing to a younger demographic. We’re making gefilte fish more appealing to someone who otherwise wouldn’t want to eat gefilte fish.”
Old-school meets new-school
Lebewohl thinks his late uncle would think he was “crazy” for adding a bar program to the classic deli. But since opening, he said the bar has been very well-received, especially by locals who would “never think to eat in a deli.”
The 2nd Ave Deli is just one of several Manhattan deli institutions that have revived themselves for the 21st century.
This fall, the 60-plus-year-old kosher deli Pastrami Queen is expanding to a boutique Times Square hotel, slated to start serving its pastrami sandwiches inside the Pearl Hotel by early November.
Carnegie Deli has found a new life online, now vending its Woody Allen sandwiches (and more goodies, like cheesecake and babka) on Goldbely, a website that ships regional culinary specialties across America, including trendy fare like Milk Bar’s naked layer cakes, Van Leeuwen’s vegan ice cream and DO’s edible cookie dough.
Katz’s Delicatessen, a Lower East Side stalwart since 1888, has also embraced e-commerce, now shipping monthly subscription boxes, Rosh Hashanah dinners and deli sandwich kits. It also notably expanded for the first time ever last year, with a new outpost in the shiny DeKalb Market Hall, a food hall below a glossy Downtown Brooklyn high-rise.
“Everything that I do is about maintaining the old,” third-generation owner Jake Dell, 31, says.
From the paper ticket system to the cooking to the old-school dining room at the original restaurant, Dell is all about preserving Katz’s legacy and making it more accessible to customers.
Many Katz’s customers drive, and a drastic lack of parking on the Lower East Side led Dell to open a Brooklyn outpost.
“[The Brooklyn Katz’s] doesn’t change the old traditions, but makes it more accessible to get the food that you love,” says Dell, adding that the extension has especially found an audience with commuters. “Customers come to us because they want the classic experience, and I want to find more ways to make it more accessible to more people.”