Pastrami on rye still a New York City staple

2nd Avenue Deli opens new location despite new health trends.

Finkel 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Finkel 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Does the traditional Jewish deli with its fatty foods and oversized portions still have a place in the increasingly health-obsessed Big Apple? If the opening on Tuesday of a new 2nd Avenue Deli, on 1st Avenue and 75th Street in the Upper East Side, is any indication than the answer is yes.
The franchise famous for serving oldschool Jewish fare from knishes to kugel, pastrami on rye to half-sour pickles drew a large crowd of hungry diners on its first day, including former New York City mayor Ed Koch and star of Yiddish theater Fyvush Finkel.
“Our customers are like family,” said Jeremy Lebewohl, a third generation co-owner of the 2nd Avenue Deli. “So now, our regular lunch customers, many of whom work in midtown but live in the Upper East Side, can enjoy a 2nd Avenue Deli dinner with their families closer to home.”
The opening of a Jewish deli in New York is something of an anomaly nowadays.
The times have changed since Eastern European Jews first stepped off the boat in America around the turn of the 19th century, and so have tastes. Staples of Jewish-American cuisine like matza ball soup, pastrami on rye, chopped liver and gefilte fish, just to name a few, are competing on a much broader playing field with cheaper, healthier foods from all over the world. Slowly but surely the number of eateries around town serving iconic Jewish dishes has diminished.
“There are definitely fewer delis today than there were 50 or 100 years ago,” said Lebewohl.
For a while it seemed like the 2nd Avenue Deli, too, would fall victim to the negative trend. Abe Lebewohl, who founded the restaurant in its original East Village location, was shot dead in a robbery in 1996. The restaurant survived his death but eventually succumbed in 2006 to shifting demographics, which robbed the restaurant of many regulars, and the change in eating habits.
That could have been the end of it but the family’s younger generation took the lead in 2008 and reopened the restaurant at a new location in Midtown Manhattan.
“I’m delighted to see how the success of my sons has carried on the Lebewohl tradition, and I know Abe would be thrilled,” said Jack Lebewohl, who ran the restaurant after the death of his brother Abe.
“We hope our new location will broaden our customer base and establish a sense of family in a new neighborhood.”
Business at the Midtown location has been good enough for the Lebewohls to expand to the Upper East Side. Ironically, neither of the two existing 2nd Avenue Deli restaurants are on 2nd Avenue.
While some things change, others stay the same. Every bite of a thick pastrami sandwich with a healthy schmear of grainy mustard is stacked with as much nostalgia as it is with meat. The “heavy majority” of the clientele remains Jewish, said Lebewohl.
“A lot of our customers are not going to be turned off by schmaltz in the matzoh ball soup or fat in the pastrami,” he said.
“The food we have here is natural and it’s exactly what our grandmothers had in the kitchen.”
It might come as a surprise, however, to learn that at least one non-Jewish group of customers enjoys deli food just as much as the locals do if not more so.
“The Japanese love it more than anyone else,” said Lebewohl. “Why? I dunno. And their favorite? Tongue.”