“There’s an art to making a sandwich,” restaurateur Art Ginsburg informs me. “The thickness, layering, the presentation. We’ve been doing it this way since the beginning. But I can’t tell you exactly how.” What Ginsburg can tell me, however, is that Art’s Deli goes through 1,000 pounds of corned beef and 400 dozen bagels every week. In one year, the kitchen serves 25,000 pounds of turkey. Though portions have grown over the years (along with prices — a turkey sandwich once was 75 cents), the lox is still hand-sliced, and the corned beef is slow-cooked in-house. My grandfather, who visits L.A. twice yearly, swears by the pastrami. “I’ve been eating there for 17 years,” he tells me over the phone, with a trace of hunger in his voice. “It’s the best meat you’ll find anywhere — better than in New York.”
As we settle into “the executive booth” — so-called because of the hidden phone behind a locked wall cabinet — Ginsburg reminisces. “A lot of deals were signed here over the years,” he says. But though this Studio City delicatessen is frequented by celebrities and located just minutes from CBS, Universal and Warner Bros., a quick look around reveals who the real stars are. Poster-size photos of triple-decker combo sandwiches line the back wall. Ginsburg cracks open his menu to show me that each is named for a close friend or relative. “Sammy’s Special,” after his grandson, combines layers of turkey, ham and Swiss cheese; “Beckie’s Special,” named for an aunt, consists of turkey salad, tuna salad, lettuce and tomato on pumpernickel bread. “Art’s is a family place,” Ginsburg explains. “Celebrities do come here, but we give them anonymity, let them be with their families.”
Ginsburg opened the restaurant’s doors in 1957 with his (now) wife, Sandy, and it quickly became an integral part of the Ventura Boulevard community, which, even at that time, was a bustle of upscale activity. “Back then [before the freeway], Ventura Boulevard was the 101. This was the main drag. There was a Ferris wheel directly across the street.” Though the deli had just three and a half booths and 12 counter stools, Art’s was where Hollywood old-timers like Billy Wilder retreated to when they weren’t filming. After the ’94 earthquake, when the restaurant burned down, patrons showed their loyalty. “Customers brought us in breakfast and lunch. They said, ‘You’ve fed us for years, now we’re going to feed you.’” Today, two of Ginsburg’s three children run the business with him, and many of the wait staff have been around 25 years.
Over the decades, Art’s has been enlarged four times, and its repertoire of food has, inevitably, evolved. The cooks no longer use MSG, are perfecting a vegetarian broth for the chicken soup, and now offer an array of salads where, in ’57, it was just the chef’s or the farmer’s chopped. “Each generation has different wants, and you change with the times,” Ginsburg says. But the classics — lox, eggs and onions, matzo-ball soup, bagel with lox and creamed cheese, stuffed cabbage — have a permanent home on the menu. As I finish off my second steaming cup of coffee, Ginsburg relays the strict rules of deli décor to me. “Whereas in the ’50s, it used to be bright yellows and greens, now it’s earth tones.” There are certain aesthetic constants, he says, that distinguish a deli from a restaurant: “There’s a subtlety — keep it plain and simple: vinyl-tile floors, an open space with low vinyl booths, plain tabletops. Clean, but not ornate.” Ginsburg reclines in his chair, smoothes his hand over the menu that features his cherubic face and proudly surveys the floor, which meets all these specifications. “It’s about how comfortable you feel when you walk in.” 12224 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; (818) 762-1221.