Brunch at Brent’s
“Hungry People Eat at Brent’s,” the sign that greets us proclaims, and we are among the hungry when we arrive. Outside, it is damply gray and occasionally rainy, and the deli’s bustling interior seems all the cozier for it. Just inside, would-be patrons stand in quiet groups, mostly families, mostly with very young children. More than one set of sons sport matching sweaters; their parents are outfitted in sweats and running shoes, a mild concession to the impropriety of actually wearing your PJs in public. We wait for 10, maybe 12 minutes before being whisked off to a midroom booth; our orders are taken quickly and dispatched with efficiency. Sunday brunch at Brent’s is one-half family affair and one-half well-oiled machine, an experience that is brisk without ever seeming brusque. Owner Ron Peskin prowls the room in a bright yellow short-sleeve button-down shirt, seating customers and chatting with regulars. His name, along with those of his wife and children, are printed at the bottom of each receipt, thanking you for your business.
Brent’s is larger than it seems from its front, tucked into the back of a Northridge strip mall. It is marked by a stained-glass sign that reads, simply, “Welcome to Brent’s.” A green-and-white umbrella that serves as a valet stand when needed bears Brent’s signature color, repeated along with familiar deli brown in the booths and on the walls inside. Accolades and glowing reviews hang, framed, throughout the restaurant.
It has had plenty of time to acquire them: Peskin, 69, purchased a failing deli in 1969 and has been steadily transforming it ever since into one of the best loved and most respected restaurants in the city, a Los Angeles institution. The name is the sole survivor of that first incarnation, kept on because Peskin’s son happened to be a Brent as well.
“I would be sweeping in the kitchen, and people would come in and say, ‘I want to see Brent,’ ” Peskin says, reminiscing about the early days, “so I’d take them to my 4-year-old and say, ‘Here he is!’ And they’d say, ‘Well I want to speak to the owner.’ So I’d tell them, ‘I’m the owner, and now I’m busy! Go away.’ ”
If this seems cantankerous, well, perhaps he’s earned the privilege in years since. When Peskin first took over the deli, he says, there was no Jewish community to speak of in the Valley. He’d sell a whitefish a week — if he was lucky. However, Peskin was as savvy then as he is now: He’d insist on purchasing three of the fish, knowing two would be a loss, because a single one looked too sad to display in a case by itself.
That confidence has served him well in the intervening years, turning him into one of the top names in L.A.’s well-stocked deli scene. And though has opened up a second location in Westlake Village, run by his daughter and son-in-law, he claims never to visit other delis.
“I’m not that curious,” he announces wryly.
He does, however, keep a close eye on the whole of his operation: Upstairs, in the back, is a small office where a computer displays feeds from nearly 20 security cameras, offering glimpses into both locations. It’s a little after noon on a Sunday, and on the monitors we see the Westlake location, where the bar is half full of customers enjoying a beer and watching the Masters golf tournament. A different kind of relaxation than the brunch crowd here in Northridge, sure, but Peskin views it as an equal source of pride. We walk downstairs, through the kitchen, which is itself deceptively huge and surprisingly quiet and clean, especially given the volume of the crowd outside. It has grown since my 11 a.m. arrival; Peskin says it will stay this busy until around 2:30.
By this point I have gone from hungry to starving, and Brent’s does not disappoint. A bagel and lox comes with an ice-cream-size scoop of cream cheese and generous helpings of onions, tomatoes and — obviously — lox over a bed of lettuce. The toppings are so generous, in fact, that the bagel is presented on its own plate. Blintzes are burrito-sized and delicious, soft dough plumped by sweet filling that is neither soggy nor cloying. I had planned on bringing home one of the black-and-white cookies from the display cases up front, but I’m too stuffed to even consider it as I head up to pay the check. Hungry people arrive at Brent’s, sure, but no one ever leaves that way, and if Peskin has his way, no one ever will.
He stops by the table toward the end of the meal to chat briefly and laughs off the idea of retirement: “It’ll never happen,” he says, looking around his cozy kingdom of friends and regulars, before taking off to guide another group to their table. They, too, are hungry, and it is time to get them fed.