What's the most eagerly anticipated new restaurant opening of the year in New York? A deli. Who would have thunk it? Perhaps the most beloved New York Jewish-style deli of all time, the Second Avenue Deli, is set to reopen in the coming weeks. But when it does, which Second Avenue Deli will it be: the deli that served the best all-around deli food, which is what it was when the late, beloved Abe Lebewohl was around, or the very good but not great deli it became after Abe was senselessly gunned down while making a bank deposit and his lawyer brother, Jack, took over?
I am rooting for the Second Avenue Deli to come back better than ever, or at least as good as it was when Abe was alive. Alex Witchel in yesterday's New York Times Magazine shows that she is rooting for that as well. In heart-wrenching fashion, she describes how the deli's closing a year and a half ago reopened so many old wounds caused by Abe's death:
The one thing Jack can’t bring himself to talk about is the emotional fallout from Abe’s murder. No matter how many times I asked him, he could not answer. He spoke instead about religion or business or the New York City Police Department, whose efforts he still defends wholeheartedly. And he cried. When I asked Jeremy, who was 13 when his uncle was murdered, about the effect the deli’s closing had on his family, he told me, “It was almost like a person, a close family member, dying.” In the days I spent with both father and son, it became clear that reopening the deli is about much more than business. It’s about Abe.
For me, it's all about the return of a beloved New York food institution that at one point set impossibly high standards for deli food.
What Witchel and everyone else writing this story (which is a wonderful story to write, of course) hasn't mentioned is the reason the Second Avenue Deli was so great when Abe was alive was that Abe was not only one of New York's most generously spirited mensches, he was a food guy, a very good cook who knew what good and delicious were. Abe knew that dried porcini mushrooms were the key to the Second Avenue Deli's incomparable mushroom-barley soup. It was Abe who came up with the terrific cure that made the Second Avenue Deli's superb corned beef. It was Abe who refused to compromise the quality of his french fries when places like Katz's started serving mediocre frozen ones.
Delis need people who know what delicious is—just like any other food business. Look at Katz's. Its two current owners, who are reportedly feuding, started serving the same mediocre cole slaw served at corner delis and bodegas all over the city, as well as frozen french fries that are no better than your average Greek diner's. I wrote about the Second Avenue Deli's very good pastrami sandwich in a New York Times story. I even have a video Abe starred in, The Art of New York Deli Cooking, in which Abe gives us many useful deli food cooking tips.
After Abe was killed, Jack came in and tried to run it as best he could. But Jack is a real estate lawyer, not a food guy. As a result, the food suffered a little on his watch. It was still good when it closed, but it was certainly not what it was under Abe.
Now it's up to Jeremy Lebewohl to pick up Abe's mantle. He comes to it after a stint in the Israeli army and a couple of years in the bagel shop business. I hope he takes after his uncle, and the high quality of his bagels is a good sign. I have no reason to believe he won't. But it's the food that Abe served and the spirit he imbued the Second Avenue Deli with that made it the city's best deli when Abe was alive. That's what we need the Second Avenue Deli to be, a beacon of great food and a symbol of hope that reflects Abe Lebewohl's indomitable spirit.
Jeremy Lebewohl is clearly on a mission to both bring back the Second Avenue Deli to its former glory AND to bring some closure to his dad.
"There's something missing from my family," he said. "Forgetting about me, going to the generation before me, there are no memories without the deli. My father has no memories without the store." His smile was easy. "It'll be nice to have it back."
It will be more than nice to have it back when it reopens sometime next month. The city has been a lesser place without the Second Avenue Deli. I for one can't wait to have a bowl of that incomparable mushroom-barley soup. a corned beef sandwich, and an order of french fries. Welcome back, Second Avenue Deli.
If you have a memory of the Second Avenue Deli please share it with us.
Related: The Future of the Jewish Deli
Second Avenue Deli
Address: 162 East 33rd Street, New York NY 10016 (b/n Lexington and Third)
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