Just What Is a Delicatessen Supposed to Look Like, Anyway?

Last Oct. 21, Marvin Saul called a meeting of his employees, all 189 of them, in the parking lot of his Junior’s restaurant. The agenda: the reopening of Junior’s, which at that moment was undergoing the final stages of a major remodel job. But as the staff sat in their rented chairs, expecting a litany of procedural information, Marvin Saul dropped a bombshell. After 30 years in the business, he was handing the business over to his sons. “It’s the beginning of a new era,” Saul told his employees.

Two days after Saul’s announcement, Junior’s reopened its doors to the public as a completely new version of its old self. Not only was Junior’s in the hands of a younger generation, it had a younger, contemporary look. Junior’s now seemed almost trendy.

When Marvin Davis decided to open a Carnegie Deli in Beverly Hills, he hired a big-name architect, Pat Kuleto, whose projects include Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco. Kuleto’s design has been controversial--some have complained that the new Carnegie is too upscale.

The new Carnegie and the remodeled Junior’s have left deli mavens in Los Angeles struggling to adjust. Mostly, they worry, delis don’t look like delis anymore.


“Exactly,” Marvin Saul says, not without pride. “The new look at Junior’s is the antithesis of a typical deli, really upscale. Some people ask, ‘Why didn’t you leave it alone?’ I say half of life is change. You have to give people what they want for the ‘90s.”

“People hate changes--they’re afraid ,” says Abe Lebewohl, owner of New York’s Second Avenue deli . “When I expanded in ’73, oh my God! Over and over, I’d hear, ‘I liked the old place.’ But believe me, the old place was a horror. And of course people got used to the new place. It’s still a deli.”

When it comes to defining exactly what a deli is supposed to look like, even the experts have trouble coming up with a simple answer.

“A deli,” says Art Ginsburg, owner of Art’s Deli in Studio City (slogan: Where every sandwich is a work of art), “is what a coffee shop is: very plain, very simple, well-lit, vinyl floor, no carpeting. The booths are not high-backed booths; but lower, you know, open to the hubbub. “

“What’s a deli supposed to look like?” says Al Mendelson, owner of Nate n’ Al’s in Beverly Hills (a carpeted deli). “Well, in Jewish, they say it’s haimisch . You need old-timers like myself with know-how--you know I’m 85 years young--to make people feel comfortable. But everything’s changing. I think delis are getting to be a thing of the past.”

“Go no further,” says Fred Austin, co-owner (with his brother-in-law, Alan Dell) of Katz Deli on New York’s Houston St. “We’re the archetypal deli. We’re the pattern and the criteria by which all others are judged. We’ve been here 103 years. Did you see ‘When Harry Met Sally . . . '? Do you remember the orgasm scene? That’s the consummate deli experience. If you don’t leave Katz’s breathing heavy, then we’re not doing our job right.”

“What you have to really realize,” says Carnegie architect Pat Kuleto, “is that until recently, there was no such thing as deli design. They were always started on a budget, so you’d simply buy the cheapest restaurant equipment. Then you’d put a few sandwich signs up on the wall, a few pictures of the owner, a couple of notices from the government and a few posters supplied maybe by the RC Cola Company or something. You’d turn the lights up real bright, hang a bunch of sausages around and show the food, you know, cause that was kind of the program--to just show off the food. And that was it--they called it a deli.”

Or as Second Avenue’s Abe Lebewohl puts it: “Jewish-type delis started out as what they used to call dry kishka stores--nothing fancy--I mean it’s not Le Cirque.

“Of course as people’s tastes changed and so on, delis went into other things,” Lebewohl continues. “Delis started taking over; they started becoming restaurants. When I started in the business in 1950, prices were higher, expenses were more, you needed to expand and hire good cooks.”

For Pat Kuleto, the 1950s marked the end of the great deli era. His design of the Carnegie in Beverly Hills snubs all post-1950 design elements. “The fantasy, or trick,” he says, “was to try and create a space that had enough of the classic old feelings of the way delis should have been done--prior to the advent of the ‘50s when everything in remodeling was ruined by Formica and plastic and all the crud of mechanization.”

“Everybody decorates different,” Art Ginsburg says. “It’s like people’s homes. You know, some people decorate with an Oriental theme, some do Italian or Spanish--right now it’s that Southwest look. Same with delis. See, times change. In each decade, the remodeling’s been different. In the ‘50s they used certain color combinations: yellow and green. We started in ’57 and have tried to maintain the same look--I still have my original neon sign with the blinking arrow and I’ve never wanted to take it down. The last time we remodeled was about four years ago--we changed the fabric color of the booths a little bit, but we still kept it in earth tones. I stopped by Junior’s recently and I think it came out very good. It’s still got its counter--and after all, that’s the difference between a restaurant and a deli. A deli is a counter.”

“A deli is the smell, it’s the aroma, it’s the noise,” Katz’s Fred Austin says. “A deli is striped down to its bare essentials--Formica tables, chairs, the only concession we make is we pad our chairs. In 1948 the store was extended, and that’s the last time anything was touched. When bulbs burn out we change them. And we change the calendars as need dictates . . . and obviously when there’s a movie, like ‘When Harry Met Sally. . . ' filmed here--did I tell you it was filmed here?--we put up some signs in the windows as display.”

Marvin Saul used to think a lot like the people at Katz.

“I absolutely resisted change at first,” Saul says. “You know the saying ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’? Well, I felt a deli is a deli is a deli. But my sons taught me that to stay even you’ve got to make changes. Otherwise you fall behind.”

Still, this latest remodel wasn’t as easy for Saul as he likes people to believe.

“The first night,” Jonathan Saul remembers, “when we went to destroy the place and started breaking down tables I said, ‘Dad, break something, I know you’ve always wanted to.’ So he took a sledgehammer and started to swing at a table, but then he stopped, put the hammer down and said, ‘I’ve got to go home.’ He left with a tear in his eye.”