Marvin Saul was a uranium miner who had gone bust when he flipped a coin in the late 1950s to decide where to strike out next from Utah. Heads meant Los Angeles; tails Dallas.
Heads, and generations of future deli-goers on the Westside, won out.
With 35 cents in his pocket, Saul arrived in Los Angeles, did odd jobs and by 1957 had cobbled together $300 to open a small sandwich shop. Two years later, he established Junior's, an eight-table delicatessen that grew "into a sort of IBM of the bagel and blintz world," the Wall Street Journal reported in 1990.
At the time, Saul explained the restaurant's success by saying, "I try to give people great food and a little schmaltz."
Saul, who had continued to work three days a week at the Westwood eatery, died of a heart attack Dec. 8 at his home in Encino, said his son David. He was 82.
"He was really an incredible host. It's a great big restaurant, but he'd treat it like his own dining room at home," said filmmaker Mel Brooks, who has frequented Junior's for decades. "He was so sweet and wonderful, albeit a little pushy on the soup. He'd always come to our table with a new soup, and we had to try it or we'd hurt his feelings."
"Junior" was Saul's childhood nickname, and he gave it to the restaurant he originally opened on Pico Boulevard. In 1967, he moved the deli several blocks to Westwood Boulevard near the 20th Century Fox studio, where it has long been considered a landmark — and a place to spot the occasional celebrity.
"Junior's, like the Westside it serves, is an assimilated, hard-working sort of place, proud to be Jewish but even prouder of its position in the scheme of things," food critic Jonathan Gold wrote in The Times in 1990. "People have always dressed for lunch at Junior's the way they do when they, say, shop at Neiman Marcus."
Often greeting them was Saul, who "stopped at every table to ask how the food was, how people were enjoying their lives," Brooks said. "He was fun to be with."
"I always thought Junior's was the best because Marvin really cared," Brooks said. "They probably hated him in the kitchen because he was on top of every dish. He tasted everything."
That included such advertised "all-time favorites" as potato pancakes, matzo ball soup and pastrami-dip sandwiches. His classic deli menu features more than 300 items, but Saul's favorite order was simple — hard-boiled eggs and black coffee.
Marvin Jack Saul was born June 28, 1929, in Atlantic City, N.J., one of several children of Ralph Saul, a restaurateur, and his wife, Lillian, who died when Marvin was about 10.
During the Korean War, he served in the Air Force and then headed west to hunt for uranium.
In Los Angeles, he worked as a valet at Lawry's restaurant and sold his sandwich shop for a profit after a year. He then spent what amounted to a four-month apprenticeship at Canter's, the fabled deli on Fairfax Avenue, before striking out on his own.
"You have to understand, I didn't know anything about that kind of food," Saul told The Times in 1979. "My family was Jewish, but they were Sephardic. My father was from Turkey, and we ate Middle Eastern-style food."
Junior's developed a reputation for using fresh ingredients and being responsive to customers. When he received complaints about smoking in the restaurant, he built a separate room for nonsmokers in 1977 — years before such moves were fashionable.
By 1990, Junior's was serving about 2,400 people a day and bringing in about $6 million a year through its restaurant, bakery, deli counter and catering service. That same year, Saul modernized the deli with a $500,000 makeover and turned the day-to-day operation over to his sons, David and John.
In addition to his sons, Saul is survived by his wife of almost 52 years, Bette; and four grandchildren.
While kibitzing with customers, Saul invariably employed a Yiddish phrase or two to convey warmth, regardless of the audience, said Brooks, who regularly lunches at Junior's with friends who are not Jewish.
"I kept yelling at Marvin, 'They can't understand a word you are saying,' " Brooks said. "He kept saying, 'But they will feel it, they will feel it.' "