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VICTOR WISHNA » Blog Archive » Letter From New York: Second Avenue Delight

Letter From New York: Second Avenue Delight

What exactly is the difference between corned beef and pastrami?

This is just one of the Jewish conundrums I may have never considered were it not for the Second Avenue Deli. I remember when, sitting at one of its tiny tables, a friend looked across at me and called into question my very identity - after all, I preferred corned beef ever since I first tried it there, though pastrami (she claimed) was more Jewish. I had already admitted to disliking pickles and any version of chopped liver, even the one made by my Aunt Rosie, so my case was pretty weak. But, I argued, at least I was there.

I would hardly call myself a regular - at best, I “frequented” the famous East Village restaurant on a semi-occasional basis over the last several years. But just as with Central Park, whose comforting green disrupts Manhattan’s gray grid, simply knowing Second Avenue Deli was there made living in New York seem more manageable.

So I nonetheless claimed a fair sense of loss when, amidst news of far graver uncertainty emanating from halfway around the Jewish world, reports filtered in that owner Jack Lebewohl had “temporarily” closed the eatery his brother founded 51 years ago due to a rent dispute with new landlords. By the time the distinctive faux-Hebrew signage started coming down this week, it was obvious the deli as we knew it - or at least, where we knew it - was gone.

Only last year, the restaurant was celebrating it’s 50th anniversary with one day of 50-year-old prices: sandwiches for 50 cents, potato knishes a dime each, and a bowl of matzo ball soup at just 40 cents. But apparently, even a dining room packed with patrons paying $12.50 or more for a sandwich wasn’t enough to keep up with real estate inflation, and a reported $9,000 a month rent hike. (Here’s a “fun” bit of how-the-times-have-changed math: It would take 82,500 bowls of 1954 matzo ball soup to cover just one month of 2006 rent!)

Second Avenue Deli rose to prominence for its quality, but reached institutional status in part because it typified Jewish deli clichés of generations before, with tender corned beef and tough waiters. On my very first visit with a group of friends, it quickly became obvious that I was the only one reducing my matzo ball into a bowlful of small pieces before eating, a process both compulsive and practical (more surface area equals better soup absorption). One of my friends asked a passing waitress whether she’d seen anyone else cut up their matzo ball before eating. Without even slowing down, she answered: “Only the very young and the very old.” This was not a place you went if you were self-conscious or diet-conscious. (Whenever a customer ordered corned beef extra lean, founder Abe Lebewohl would famously slip some fatty pieces in the middle to preserve the taste, and his reputation).

And for as long as I’ve known it, the restaurant had the mythical quality of a survivor, a living tribute. March 4 will mark a decade since Abe Lebewohl was shot dead in broad daylight while making a bank deposit a few blocks away. Yet his was still the first face diners would see, his smiling image captured on the reward poster attached to the front door. Lebewohl’s killers have never been found.

“I went there regularly for years, my goal being to go often enough that I didn’t feel compelled to order the corned beef every time,” my friend Michael Green, now a screenwriter in Los Angeles, remembers via e-mail. “There was a gorgeous hostess there, a dark-skinned Israeli girl of the type I am genetically programmed to stare at and dream about later. She was always nice and after a while began recognizing me for being a late-night regular. Then I could swear she began smiling back at me when she caught me staring.

“So finally, one day, I worked up the nerve and, while she was rolling down the iron security grates, I asked her out. She made a feeble excuse, said no, and went
back to the noisy grates. A few weeks later, I became a vegetarian and never ate there again. Five years later, they are closing. Coincidence?”

Hope is not completely lost. Jack Lebewohl told the New York Times that he has already received several offers to relocate, though not necessarily on the same street (why doesn’t First Avenue Deli sound right?). And a spokesman for the new landlords claims there is already interest in the space - including from a few kosher deli operators.

On the way home a few nights later, I stop in at the Edison Café, the famous theatre district deli/diner and my matzo-ball back-up (in part because its prices haven’t risen nearly as much since 1954). I order soup and - after wavering for a moment - a pastrami on rye. “Wow!” exclaims the waitress before I get the last syllable out. “That’s all I’ve sold today, matzo ball soup and pastrami!”

As she heads back to the kitchen - “Al, you’re not going to believe this; I need one more matzo and a pastrami!” - I wonder if maybe others are indeed benefiting from the new dearth in the deli market. And, minutes later, I realize once and for all that despite only subtle differences, I do like corned beef better, at least at Second Avenue Deli.

Of course, I’ve never had it anywhere else.

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