Zucky’s Counter Culture
There was weeping and gnashing of teeth when Zucky’s Deli in Santa Monica, mecca of pastrami sandwich and borscht lovers far and wide, abruptly closed its doors on Feb. 16, 1993.
“We were like family,” one tearful waitress recalled in an old Los Angeles Times story. “We had elderly customers, who left their homes only to come to Zucky’s.”
Now the venerable eatery, boarded up for 12 years, is in the news again.
A new building owner, John Watkins, is about to remodel and reopen the place at Wilshire Boulevard and Fifth Street as a retail store, and some nostalgic citizens are battling to retain the ex-deli’s distinctive architectural features.
Heading the effort is Adriene Biondo, chair of the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy, who hopes that Zucky’s might be designated as an historical landmark.
“Zucky’s was designed by Weldon Fulton as a prime example of the Googie or California Coffee Shop Modern architectural genre,” Biondo said. “In any remodeling, we want to preserve the main Zucky’s signboard, exterior ceramic tiles and stonework, the diagonal treatment along Fifth Street, and the brick wall and window sills.”
Biondo has talked with Watkins, the new owner, and said that he has been very forthcoming to her requests. The city of Santa Monica architectural review board is now considering the case.
The original Zucky’s was opened in 1946, facing the former pier at Pacific Ocean Park, by the late Harry “Hy” Altman. He named the deli in honor of his wife, born Wolfine Zuckerman, but always addressed as “Zucky.”
In 1954, the deli moved to its Wilshire location after a difficult search.
“The city fathers didn’t want Jewish merchants. Santa Monica had one Jewish merchant, a dress shop, and they said one was enough,” Zucky Altman, 86, reminisced in a recent interview with Marcello Vavala, a volunteer member of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica conservancies.
Once established, the deli soon attracted a faithful clientele of movie stars, UCLA football players, stockbrokers and dentists.
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau were regulars, Altman said. So was everyone from Gold’s Gym, including a body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We were also friendly with the nearby churches,” Altman recalled. “Preachers would say, ‘No one here leaves until I finish my sermon. Then we’ll all go over to Zucky’s.'”
“The girls [waitresses] didn’t have to ask customers what they wanted, they just knew,” Altman continued.
After their retirement in 1977, Hy and Zucky Altman endeared themselves to the needy and elderly of the Jewish community by launching SOVA, the free kosher food pantry.
The end of Zucky’s Deli came suddenly, after Health Department inspectors demanded extensive renovations costing more than $500,000. The then-owners decided to shut the place down on a few hours notice to customers and employees.
In an “obituary,” The Times noted mournfully, “It was not easy to find another deli with the same mélange of counter camaraderie, lean corned beef and devoted waitresses.”