September 17, 2019

Move Over, New York

This text is excerpted from the just-released book, “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” by David Sax, copyright (c) 2009. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Brace yourselves, New York, because what I am about to write is definitely going to piss a lot of you off, but it needs to be said: Los Angeles has become America’s premier deli city.

Wait … Stop … Put the gun down. It’s true.

Across the city’s sprawling acres, there are more delicatessens of a higher quality, on average, than anywhere else in America. Every time I visited one deli, I heard about three more. Despite their healthy image, far more Angelenos than native New Yorkers eat at Jewish delicatessens on a regular basis. Though the occasional tourist swings by, Jewish delicatessens in L.A. are thriving in the present, not trading on fabled pasts.

There has been no grand decline in the Los Angeles deli scene. Most are packed, sometimes around the clock, and not just with older Brooklynites like Larry King (who eats breakfast at Nate’n Al daily). The delis out there are bigger, are more comfortable, and ultimately serve better food than any other city in America, including the best pastrami sandwich on Earth. Los Angeles is both the exception to the rule of deli’s inevitable decline and the example for the rest of the nation of how deli can ultimately stay relevant. If we are to save the deli elsewhere, we can learn a lot from L.A.

When California was incorporated into the Union in 1850, there were just eight Jews in Los Angeles. Because of its distance from Europe, Los Angeles never experienced the massive influx of Ashkenazi immigrants that descended upon the East Coast in the late nineteenth century. The great sea change for L.A. came in 1913, when burgeoning film director Cecil B. DeMille teamed with partners Samuel Goldwyn (who would form MGM) and Jesse Lasky (who helped create Paramount) to make a movie, “The Squaw,” in a suburb called Hollywood, ushering in the golden era of filmmaking.

Many in the upper echelons of the early studio system were Jewish, forever implanting Hollywood with a disproportionate Semitic flavor that prevails to this day. As the film business grew in the postwar era, a migration west of Jewish entertainment talent swelled, lured by easy money, swimming pools, and golden-haired shiksas. And while delicatessens back east may have occasionally served the president of a Wall Street bank, out in L.A. the studio bosses and A-list movie stars ate at the deli almost daily. The Universal studio commissary featured matzo ball soup, and the Academy Awards after-parties were catered by Nate’n Al.

Today, L.A.’s Jewish delicatessens are largely inseparable from the business of Hollywood, which is one of the key reasons the deli thrives in L.A. Art’s, in Studio City, built its business delivering meals to the cast and crew of shows like “St. Elsewhere,” “Get Smart,” and “Gilligan’s Island.” Owner Art Ginsburg credits 50 percent of his business to the studios. He even caters the Miramax and Dreamworks private jets. When the writers’ strike hit the industry at the end of 2007, L.A.’s Jewish delis really felt the pinch.

The link between delis and Hollywood goes deeper still. At Factor’s Deli, on Pico Boulevard, owner Suzee Markowitz calls 1 p.m. “agent hour,” when dozens of agents’ black Mercedes line up at the valet and their owners head inside for an intense hour of horse-trading. Nate’n Al is the gathering spot for the upper echelons of Hollywood money and studio heads, who are rewarded with some of the finest chicken soup known to man — a wide bowl of silky broth dominated by a single, almost meaty, matzo ball — and corned beef, brisket, and short ribs made from certified Angus beef. Every year, billions of dollars of the world’s entertainment is created, negotiated, and financed at delicatessens throughout Los Angeles. It’s like the Cannes, Toronto, and Sundance film festivals all rolled into one.

“I’ve almost never had anyone object to a meeting in a deli,” Sandy Climan told me, as we sat down to breakfast directly behind Larry King’s entourage at Nate’n Al one morning. Climan is president of Entertainment Media Ventures, a media and investment company; was previously president of Lion’s Gate Studios; and was a member of the senior management team at powerhouse agency CAA. Bronx-born and -raised, Climan explained to me the logic as to why delicatessens became Hollywood’s watering holes.

“I see several reasons,” he said, breaking up a chunk of smoked whitefish, which he placed on a bagel. “The creative industry is an ad hoc business. Projects are put together by people in small groups, and consequently everyone and their brother needs a conference room. The only one many people have is a deli table. In the entertainment industry, creativity is not necessarily enhanced by formality. [A deli emits] an accepted chaos in an industry where creativity comes out of organized chaos. Because genius isn’t orderly…. The people sitting around here are trying to figure out whether the boy falls in love with the girl or not. Delis are about real life. Entertainment is about real life.”

L.A.’s vast sprawl allows its delis the freedom to grow into hangouts suited for Hollywood’s taste. Most delicatessens in L.A. own their properties. They have parking lots and valets, and have been built to feel like a cross between diners and country clubs. Few delis exist where tables are crammed together cheek by jowl. In L.A., the banquette is king. In L.A. you can find privacy in a deli. You can even find class.

At Greenblatt’s on Sunset Boulevard, the dark wood panels and stained-glass windows lend the place the feeling of a refined steakhouse. The deli counter shares space with Greenblatt’s high-end wine boutique, and if you want, owner Jeff Kavin will pair your brisket with a glass of Napa zinfandel or do a vertical tasting of forshpeis (appetizers) and sauvignon blancs.

In this setting, where bare bones casual meets West Coast comfort, the magic of Hollywood happens. If there is one subset of the entertainment community that benefits the most from the creative energy of Jewish delicatessens, it is comedy writers. I wanted to find out what it was that made delis such incubators of comedic creativity, but I needed a comedian, ideally a Jewish one, with some experience. I’d dropped names around town to various deli owners, but they freely admitted that asking celebrities to be interviewed would be impossible. Then, sitting in my car, I got a call on my phone.

“Hello, is this David?” said the raspy and highly familiar voice on the line. “This is Mel Brooks, where the heck did you get the meshugah idea for a deli book?”

Brooks had grown up as Melvin Kaminsky in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during the 1930s, and his comedic career can be traced through delis. First, Brooks split his allegiances between two long gone Williamsburg delis: Feingold’s and Greenwald’s. “Every Saturday night was deli night with my gang, starting at nine years old. My mother would set us free … the routine was deli first and then two movies. For fifteen cents I’d get a heavily laden pastrami sandwich, although if I had an extra nickel I’d order a corned beef sandwich, with potato salad…. Laden with deli mustard and a dill pickle, with a Dr. Brown’s cream soda, it was incredible.”

Later in life, when Brooks wrote for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” he and the other writers sustained themselves on food from the Stage or Carnegie delicatessens. “I got a little more sophisticated,” Brooks recalled. “Sometimes I would have roast beef and Russian dressing from the Stage, and from the Carnegie (their pastrami was always so great), I’d have pastrami with coleslaw.”

When Brooks finally moved to Los Angeles in 1972, he was based at 20th Century Fox and regularly ate at Factor’s. He’d work the room, stealing an urn from the server’s station, pouring coffee for all the customers. “I was cadging business. ‘Don’t forget to see Young Frankenstein opening next week!’ I’d say. I must have cost them hundreds of dollars in free coffee over the years.”

Brooks viewed delicatessens differently than other restaurants when it came to fostering creativity, especially in comedy. “There’s nothing like a deli meeting,” Brooks said. “Deli food keeps the brain cooking. It speaks to me of being nurtured and having some of that Brooklyn love…. Delis are magnets for Jews, and Jews, in order to survive emotionally, have developed tremendous humor. They don’t have to be professionals. Every Jew is a good storyteller, and delis are bound in Jewish humor. Also, delis seem to be happy places. I’ve never seen anybody weeping at a table in a deli. I’ve seen them in cafés and smart restaurants dabbing their eyes, but I’ve never seen anyone crying in a deli. Never in a deli! No one ever has a bottle of Dom Perignon with their lover and says, ‘This isn’t working out.’ Cel-Ray tonic doesn’t cut it.”

These days, Brooks is a regular at Junior’s Deli, [on the westside] where he’s a particular fan of owner Marvin Saul’s rugelach, individual apple pies, roast turkey sandwiches, and chicken in the pot (it was Saul who put Brooks in touch with me). Junior’s complimentary mini-latkes, which are small fried croquettes that come with each sandwich, are another story. “I don’t know what they are,” Brooks said, kibitzing, “but they’re deep-fried and you got twenty minutes to live after you eat one. You might as well give it a name. You might as well call it Murray, because it’ll be with you for days after you eat it. David, you must remember this: I as a Jew do not chew!”

In many ways, L.A.’s deli culture thrived on the patronage of deli lovers like Mel Brooks and Larry King, who had grown up around kosher delis in New York, and reconnected to their roots via soup and a sandwich. In one of the largest, least traditional communities in the American Diaspora, where Jews actually compete among themselves for the lavishness of their Christmas decorations, the delicatessen for many is the full extent of their Jewish identity. “In many parts of L.A., the deli was established before the community center or shul [synagogue],” said Stephen Sass, the president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. “For some, having a corned beef sandwich is their only link to the ancient temple in Jerusalem.”

Delis can provide an essential dose of reality for budding stars and fragile egos in L.A. This is precisely why young actors David Hirsh and Jonas Chernick formed a group called Pea Soup Wednesdays. Each and every Wednesday they meet for lunch in a Jewish deli. “In a city that exists in a state of fakery, where everyone wears their masks, I really look forward to it,” said Chernick as we sat in a large booth at Canter’s with Hirsh. Delis were an antidote to the soul-sucking Hollywood lifestyle. “I’ve got friends here who after two years will reference their psychics in passing,” Chernick recalled. “There’s a transformation that occurs if you’re not grounded. This,” Chernick said, holding up the fat chopped liver sandwich in his hands, “is the perfect antidote to Scientology.”

Read Rob Eshman’s interview with David Sax here.

To join author David Sax for a pastrami at Langer’s and hear him read his book Wed., Oct. 28 at 2:30 pm, click here.

Find out why L.A.‘s Langer’s Deli has the best pastrami sandwich in the world.