The Jewish Deli Reincarnated
“ The reports of my death have been exaggerated.” - Mark Twain
Throughout its early 20th century heyday, the Jewish deli was a meeting place for showbiz kings and kingmakers, new immigrants and second-generation Americans, with kosher venues for the observant and New York-style for everyone else. But times and tastes change and less than a century later the Jewish deli seemed in danger of disappearing forever.
One after another, legendary names closed their doors: Rascal House, The Bagel, even Carnegie Deli. But for those who still cherish a pastrami sandwich the size of your head or a bagel and a shmear, all is not lost. A Chicago icon and a James Beard semifinalist in Atlanta are among hundreds across the country preserving the Jewish deli for a new generation.
For long-time patrons at Chicago’s Manny’s Deli, the recent remodel is stunning: brighter, airier, with a gleaming new deli to display its famed meats. It’s all part of the plan, says Ken Raskin, who’s proudly entrusted son Danny with the ambitious goal of taking Manny’s to the “next level.”
A fourth generation Raskin, Danny is uniquely equipped to succeed, filtering a lifelong appreciation of a cherished cuisine through a keen millennial perspective. His philosophy—“We’re giving customers what they want rather than what we want to give them”—has already inspired change.
Better optics for the Instagram generation? See the opened-up cafeteria line and the new deli. Looking for a lighter meal? A “half sandwich and soup” is now on the menu. Want to connect with Manny’s on social media? There’s an engaged crew on Twitter and Instagram. Prefer weekend dining? Sunday hours have been added for the first time in Manny’s over 75-year history.
The biggest challenge: educating a new generation as to why the nine-ounce, highest-quality corned beef sandwich is worth every penny of its double-digit price. For customers accustomed to a $7 Subway special, it can be an uphill battle, admit the Raskins, even if Manny’s sandwich reliably provides enough for several additional meals.
“The customer who leaves here smiling gets it,” says Ken Raskin.
In Atlanta, the almost mystical appeal of the Jewish deli from his childhood pulled chef Todd Ginsberg off the fine-dining track to follow a completely different path by opening The General Muir in 2013.
“Before my son was born, my father suggested opening a deli,” says Ginsberg. “My grandparents had owned a deli about 75 years ago in New Jersey and his suggestion stuck with me. I knew what I wanted to do: a modern American restaurant that is a loving tribute to the New York deli.”
His deep respect for the cuisine and endless creativity have earned him numerous honors, including two nods as a James Beard semifinalist and a fanatically loyal following. From the start, breads and meats were made in-house. Ginsberg smartly tapped into Atlanta’s bustling brunch scene by offering reinvented classics like pastrami poutine, attracting large groups of diners not familiar with deli cuisine.
Most important, he says, is the opportunity to share the powerful role of food in Jewish culture.