February 24, 2020

Serving up a taste of New York whenever you need it

Izzy Freeman has run his namesake deli in Santa Monica for 42 years, but one of his career highlights is pure Hollywood: getting the business immortalized on camera in three episodes of Larry David’s HBO show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” 

So how did this happen for Izzy’s Deli, which carries the motto, “Deli to the Stars”? 

Simple enough: “[A] location scout was looking for a New York deli and he liked what he saw!” Freeman explained. 

The restaurant’s “Curbed” experience has been particularly special for Freeman — and not just because a scene shot there marked the first time David and Jerry Seinfeld actually appeared together on screen after years of being close collaborators. 

The production agreed to all of Freeman’s conditions, including a chance for the owner himself to appear in the background of two of the episodes shot there. The role called for someone whose “job it is to walk up and down as the manager, talking to the people,” Freeman said. 

“Typecasting,” his wife, Marilyn, said with a laugh.

One of the episodes included a scene in which David arranges a lunch meeting at Izzy’s and pretends to be a Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jew in hopes of courting favor with an Orthodox kidney doctor who can help his friend, Richard Lewis, move to the top of the transplant queue. (In reality, Izzy’s Deli is not kosher.) 

“When they filmed here, he was so nice,” Freeman said of David. “Between scenes he was sitting here doing crossword puzzles. It was fun.”

Freeman’s life and work reflect the American Jewish east-to-west diaspora on both national and local scales. The Santa Monica deli owner was born and raised until the age of 12 in New York City, a fact his still-strong Brooklyn accent immediately reveals. His father, who had been in the produce business in New York, opened a concession at Grand Central Market in downtown when the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1953. 

“I cried like a baby when I left New York, because [of] my Dodgers,” Freeman recalled. (The team would follow him west in 1958, and he was present at Dodger Stadium the night Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game in 1965.) 

“All Jews moved to Boyle Heights when they moved here,” Freeman, a graduate of Roosevelt High School, explained over dinner one night in the deli’s dining room, filled with images of New York, the L.A. requisite actor headshot gallery, roomy Naugahyde banquettes and other elements of unfussy, practical restaurant decor. 

Initially, through a friend of his father’s, he wound up getting into the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) franchise business, first in Whittier in 1960 when he was all of 20 years old. (“I wasn’t old enough to sign a contract at the time!”) He then left Southern California and acquired two of the chain’s restaurants in Sacramento. 

But when Freeman had a chance to swap his underperforming northern California locations for the former IHOP at Olympic Boulevard and LaPeer Drive in Beverly Hills — “a plum place,” Freeman said — he jumped at the chance to move back to L.A. 

Through his involvement with City of Hope, Freeman met a property owner who asked if he wanted to put a deli in Santa Monica. “And I said yes,” Freeman recalled. “I don’t have the word ‘no’ in my dictionary.” 

So in 1973 — far from Boyle Heights in keeping with Jewish demographic movements, and a mere 10 blocks away from Zucky’s Delicatessen, which shuttered in 1993 — Freeman opened his namesake operation at Wilshire Boulevard and 15th Street.

“We’re open 24 hours, we’ve never closed in 42 years, and that’s my history,” he said.

While recognizing that he’s not in the market of culinary innovation, Freeman said, “The food here is fabulous. Everyone loves the soups, the brisket.” 

Loyalty is a keystone of his operation, as evidenced by Izzy’s longtime employees. Many have been with him since the beginning, and have brought on their children and relatives to work at the deli. Known as “Boss,” Freeman takes pride in the fact that many of the cooks and waiters, most of whom are from Mexico, have sent kids to college and bought homes. (He will also unhesitatingly, yet respectfully, correct their English.)

Freeman, an avid, lively storyteller, also happens to be a major mensch. Community service is part of the family ethos, too. The Freemans remain involved with City of Hope, and Marilyn, who works in advertising and marketing, is active with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

“It makes you just feel good,” Marilyn said. “Sometimes it’s nice to do things just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Freeman and his wife, whom he’s inclined to call “my sweetheart,” are members of two congregations: Kehillat Israel in the Pacific Palisades, where they live, as well as Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica. They have one daughter, Marissa, who works for CBS Television Distribution and recently moved back to Los Angeles after living in Philadelphia and New York City. Freeman also has three children from a previous marriage, and eight grandchildren. 

Freeman welcomes late night diners who take advantage of the restaurant’s perpetually open doors, which might include people in search of comfort food after nearby bars close, as well as staff and patients from St. John’s Health Center (hospital personnel get a discount), and firefighters and police offers on their beats. 

As is often the case in any establishment that’s a home away from home of sorts, long-term relationships form, which Freeman does not take for granted. For instance, he recently arranged to have a whole carrot cake delivered for a customer’s 95th birthday. The deli only had a slice in stock, which Freeman deemed unacceptable — so he ensured an Uber driver picked up the dignified birthday treat and brought it to Izzy’s. 

“He deserved a cake,” Freeman said.