Ellen Switkes and her husband, Don Shirley. Photo courtesy of Ellen Switkes.

Love at first bite at Langer’s


Last year, my husband asked me where I wanted to go for my birthday. Since he keeps current by reading restaurant reviews, I deferred to him.

“Yesterday, you mentioned a new wine bar that just opened in Silver Lake. Let’s go there,” I said.

This wine bar was quite the scene. Very hip. Very trendy. Lots of glass and concrete. The waiters were all skinny, dressed in black, aggressively gender-neutral. I ordered a glass of wine — a delicious Syrah. But it wasn’t truly a glass of wine; it was more like a splash. After three sips, the wine was gone. It cost $15. I felt cheated — and on my birthday, no less.

This year, as my big day approached, I didn’t mess around. I said to my husband, “We’ve lived in Los Angeles for 35 years. It’s about time we went to Langer’s Deli!”

“Langer’s Deli?” My husband was in shock. “They haven’t been reviewed in years.”

An iconic landmark by MacArthur Park, Langer’s has been a fixture in Los Angeles for decades. In fact, this year marks Langer’s 70th anniversary. According to many foodies, Langer’s serves the greatest sandwiches in America. Its pastrami is world famous, but after all these years, I still hadn’t experienced it for myself.

That’s even more surprising, given that my love for pastrami on rye goes back to when I was a child. At that time — during the ’60s — there was an advertising campaign for Levy’s rye bread with the slogan: “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” It served as the caption to a series of photos that included the likes of a Native American and an Asian boy, each with a sandwich close at hand. This ad campaign was groundbreaking. It said so much about Jewish pride: We Jews love our food, and if gentiles also love it, then surely the Messiah will be here any minute.

So when this year’s birthday rolled around, my husband and I walk into Langer’s, and immediately, it feels like reuniting with an old flame. The décor is vintage 1962, back when Formica reigned supreme. The joint is hopping with people representing all corners of the globe. I see dashikis, saris, turbans. There are Asians and Latinos, and even a couple of Nordic blondes in a corner booth. The multilingual hum is just like the Levy’s ad promised: proof that everyone is loving their food.

A waiter comes to our table. I order a cream soda and pastrami on rye with all the trimmings.

The waiter turns to my husband and asks for his order. This could go in so many directions, because my husband is a food extremist. At home, he’s a disciplined dieter and will avoid salt, sugar, fat, butter, citrus, starchy vegetables, red meat, smoked red meat, smoked fish, nuts, chocolate and booze. But in a restaurant, he sometimes throws caution to the wind. I’ve seen him order wine, margaritas, lamb roast, garlic potatoes, tiramisu, chocolate mousse, gelato.

When he’s finally ready to order, I take a deep breath. He wants cream cheese and coleslaw on a Kaiser roll.

He eats his stupid sandwich and pretends to like it. Meanwhile, I’ve fallen in love with my pastrami masterpiece. It turns out that my soul mate is a pastrami on rye!

While clearing the table, the waiter asks, “Are you folks here for a special occasion?”

This question delights me and I answer, “Yes! As a matter of fact, it is my birthday.”

“If it’s your birthday, you get dessert!”

“Oh, no! I couldn’t. After that sandwich, I’m stuffed.”

“Oh, c’mon! It’s on the house. Our gift to you!”

“A gift? To me?”

“Yes. What’s your name?”

“Ellen.”

“Ellen, try some dessert — you’ll love it!”

The waiter — and this guy is a pro, not some 20-something aspiring actor-director-writer biding his time — is a waiter’s waiter. He returns to our table with a delicious sweet, singing: “Happy birthday, dear Ellen!”

I look out over the restaurant and all these faces from around the world are singing happy birthday to me. It looks like a greeting card from the United Nations. I throw kisses to one and all.

The dessert is delicious. My husband takes a bite and deems it worthy. We leave Langer’s. I’m floating on air. It takes so little to make me happy. And my husband’s happy that I’m happy. And I’m happy that he’s happy. So we’re happy, happy, happy, happy.

As we walk to our car, it gets me thinking: I just saw people of every race and creed coming together in peace and harmony over a deli sandwich. The golden age is within our grasp! All we need are heaping portions of pastrami on rye, plenty of dessert and gallons of cream soda.

And don’t forget the pickles.


Ellen Switkes writes for the page and the stage. She’s with Ladies Who Lunch, a storytelling duo.

Do you have a story about dating, marriage, singlehood or any important relationship in your life? Email us at meant2be@jewishjournal.com.