The answer is as layered as a Reuben. For some, it’s nostalgia. “We’re in a tumultuous time. As a culture, we’re craving slow, real, grounded food,” said Willa Zhen, a food anthropologist and a professor of liberal arts and food studies at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “Jewish food feels comforting, tasty and familiar.”
Memories drove Jerrod Rosen, 37, to open Rye Society, the compact deli he debuted in July in Denver’s buzzing River North Art District. “My mom had four sisters, and my dad had three. There were lots of Jewish holidays with lots of food,” said Rosen, the French Culinary Institute-educated scion of a family whose local roots stretch back a century. “I wanted to open a place with soul that would pick up those traditions. Denver didn’t have one.”
In a 750-square-foot space just seven blocks from where his great-grandfather, Morris Klausner, once owned Golden Rule Dry Goods, Rosen serves Denverites food his forebears would recognize: pastrami and pickles, blintzes and borscht. “We’re also taking family recipes and giving them a twist,” Rosen said. “But also I want to expand what deli can be and consider how people eat now.”
So beneath giant portraits of Larry David, Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman — “a Jewish hall of fame,” he said with a laugh — Rosen serves macrobiotic plates, kale salads and a “grown-up grilled cheese” called the Gentile alongside family-recipe matzoh ball soup and his Aunt Cindy’s rugelach.
For traditionalists, Rosen smokes fish in-house and brines classic pickles with a 120-year-old recipe he traces back to Celia Zeidenfeld, his great-great-grandmother. “That pickle smell is how you know a true Jewish deli,” he said. “It smells like home.”
Home is also what Jonah Freedman aimed for with Freedman’s, the year-old Los Angeles hot spot whose latke waffle and lox grace Bon Appétit’s September cover. (“A nostalgic head trip,” the magazine called Freedman’s, which it named one of America’s best new restaurants.) “My goal was an instant establishment, like [legendary L.A. hangouts] Dan Tana’s or Musso and Frank’s, but with Jewish comfort food,” said Freedman, 25, who ran restaurants in Chicago and London before settling in Los Angeles. “For people who know it, Jewish food feels like family and community.”
But comfortable doesn’t mean commonplace, as Freedman works hard to prove. A tightly edited menu recontextualizes staples such as half-sour pickles, here stars of an elegant salad with fennel, chervil, tarragon and avocado. For a rebooted Reuben, Freedman uses house-cured meat, fat-rendered sauerkraut and Russian dressing goosed with Oaxacan chili powder. “It’s old-school dishes with new-school techniques and considered ingredients,” Freedman said.
Even Freedman’s decor challenges Lower East Side caricatures. Floral wallpaper and umber-toned leather banquettes offset sleek Modernica chairs and groovy op-art wallpaper. “Why can’t you have Jewish comfort food in a contemporary space with great music and a crowd that’s not geriatric?” Freedman said.
For other chefs, deli is about more meaningful connections in the kitchen. “Cooks are saying: ‘This is my background and my heritage. I may be trained in French cuisine, but why not apply it to things I care about?’ ” said Steve Cook, 45, who opened Philadelphia’s Rooster in July with James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov, his business partner. “People are now bringing the same degree of rigor to ethnic foods like pastrami. And as the industry gets more competitive, something personal like Jewish deli is an advantage.”
The pair, whose Philly dining juggernaut includes modern-Israeli eateries Zahav, Dizengoff and Goldie, has taken a mostly straightforward approach at their new place. “The simplest things are the essence of Jewish deli, and they’re the hardest to get right,” Cook said. His favorite item from the Rooster’s compact menu: homemade corned beef on housemade rye (with “store-bought mustard,” the menu adds with a wink). But Solomonov’s intricately spiced Yemenite matzoh ball soup, a staple at Zahav, adds a sly Sephardic twist.
In Washington — and after months of delays — Andrew Dana is about to open Call Your Mother, a Park View eatery with “a casual take on deli that’s not super classic,” he said. The 32-year-old carb maven behind Petworth’s Timber Pizza has been selling wood-fired bagels at District farmers markets since April as a practice run.
Call Your Mother’s “Jew-ish” signatures will include bagel sandwiches such as apple, honey and bacon and an “obviously not kosher” crab and Old Bay cream cheese. “They’re a microcosm of our whole project, rooted in tradition, but with a twist,” he said. Likewise, the menu will feature fun-house-mirror staples such as pho-based matzoh ball soup and a Philly cheesesteak sandwich with hot pastrami.
The same “Jew-ish” attitude powers other spots whose young owners treat tradition as a springboard. Home to a boundary-breaking food scene, Chicago is emerging as a nouveau-deli capital, with three Semitic spots in the past year. At Steingold’s in the North Center neighborhood, the Insta-favorite dish has been the Sister-In-Law, a Judeo-Korean hybrid that pairs homemade pastrami with spicy dill kimchi and anchovy mustard on a baguette from uber-bakery Publican.
The Chicago Tribune hailed Steingold’s as “the deli of the future” in a rave review; “that was my intention,” said 42-year-old Aaron Steingold, the former lawyer who opened Steingold’s in October. On its website, the deli bills itself as, ahem, “a restaurant serving contemporary Jewish deli cuisine.”
In the South Loop — home to 75-year-old Manny’s, one of Chicago’s few surviving old-school delis — Emily and Jesse Bloom opened Half-Sour in January. Half-Sour, billed as an “all-day cafe with deli-influenced food,” subtly reboots deli classics. Along with pastrami, fish and pickles cured in-house, the Blooms serve such witty updates as latkes with hot honey — a hat tip to classic fried chicken — and silky chopped liver with onion jam. “We’re as influenced by a corner cafe in Brooklyn or a bistro in Europe as deli,” said Emily Bloom, 38. Half-Sour’s room adds an aura of authenticity; for nearly 80 years, it housed Blackie’s, a bar whose reputed regulars included Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and Al Capone.
Across town, in northwest Portage Park, longtime chef Matt Saccaro, 41, salutes the beloved Jewish and Italian delis of his mixed-marriage childhood at Frunchroom, a tiny new eatery where matzoh balls and bagels share tables with pappardelle and meatballs. “There’s a shared history between Jews and Italians in this country,” he said. “The culinary traditions come from the same needs — preparing and preserving food for families in working-class communities and making it delicious.” Frunchroom has earned raves since opening in April.
Nouveau-deli has become so pervasive that it’s even taking root in places without a Jewish food history to pine for. In February, Evan Bloom (no relation to the Chicago couple behind Half-Sour) and his partners opened a Tokyo branch of Wise Sons, their beloved San Francisco chainlet. “It’s been wild,” Bloom said. “But Jewish deli is now a cuisine or a genre, like Chinese food or tacos.”
And Mile End, whose Brooklyn debut arguably sparked the nouveau-deli revival in 2010, planted a flag in Nashville in March. “A lot of people don’t identify deli as Jewish. They think of New York City,” said 36-year-old Joel Tietolman, a co-founder.
Mile End’s Music City outpost has been a hit, Tietolman said, though not without tweaks; the Big Jewcy, a beef patty beneath a quarter-pound of smoked meat, got re-christened the Big Juicy “because people didn’t get the New York humor,” Tietolman said. “They asked if it was anti-Semitic.”
In the midst of deli-mania, why did District eateries On Rye and DGS Delicatessen — the latter’s chopped liver wowed even The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema — belly-flop within months of each other last year?
Blame the cost of meat, said Nick Wiseman, the DGS co-founder who now runs D.C. hummus chain Little Sesame. “Operating a restaurant is challenging, period,” he said. “Layer labor-intensive food and super-high-quality ingredients on top, and it’s extremely difficult.” To offset costs of locally sourced provisions, Wiseman and his partners “tried to focus on drinks and make DGS a nighttime destination, but that didn’t work.”
For new delis like Rye Society, that means managing expectations. “Delis make 60 percent of their sales with meat but none of the profit,” owner Rosen said. “You have to balance that but not anger people who expect a Katz’s monster. We can’t lose money on every sandwich.” In Chicago, Steingold’s switched from Wagyu beef to USDA Prime just a few months after opening. “We have to work tirelessly to lower our costs,” owner Steingold said.
But those beefs aren’t stemming the deli tide. In Seattle’s hip Capitol Hill neighborhood, longtime caterer Vance Dingfelder earlier this month opened Dingfelder’s, an “Old World authentic” Jewish spot. (In an email, Dingfelder said he was “too slammed” to talk.)
Mile End will open in Birmingham, Ala., next month, part of an ambitious Southern expansion. And in the deli desert of Sacramento, business partners Jami Goldstene and Andrea Lepore will open a glitzy flagship location of their Davis spot Solomon’s — named for late Tower Records founder and deli aficionado Russ Solomon — in December. A French-trained chef of Persian origin will run the kitchen.
“We’ll be interpreting traditional Ashkenazi food for modern times,” said Goldstene, 60. “Deli’s a universal sort of food. It’s not just for New York Jews.”
Kaminer is a writer based in New York and Toronto.
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