My dad was a rye-bread kind of guy, which I noticed during a half-dozen childhood summers spent tagging along to his business meetings at Jewish delis throughout L.A. Most of the time I would sit silently, eating my half of a pastrami on rye (or reuben on rye or corned beef on rye or turkey on rye) as he had adult conversations with C-level Hollywood players, trying to cut D-level movie deals.
It never occurred to me that these Jewish delis — like Izzy's in Santa Monica, Canter's on Fairfax and Art’s in Studio City — were products of the entrenched cultural power of the very people having meetings in them. Or that the eating habits of my Hungarian-Jewish grandfather, who moved to L.A. from the East Coast in the 1940s to be an entertainment lawyer but never took his children to a synagogue, gave rise to the neighborhood eateries serving piled-high sandwiches and matzo ball soup.
My father never questioned his love of rye. Nor did he seem to notice that sometime in the last 15 years he started ordering less of it. He moved his wheeling and dealing to Starbucks and the Coffee Bean to accommodate the faster-paced lifestyles of the gentile power people now far younger than he. And it hasn’t yet registered with him that those Jewish delis (where early talks for movies such as Watermelon Man, Tulips and Chuck Norris’ Forced Vengeance took place) are now closing in droves, the result of the city’s changing tastes and a recession that damaged the genre.
Earlier this month, two classic neighborhood delis closed in the same week, the most concentrated loss L.A. has seen since the restaurant-industry slump began in 2007. Billy’s in Glendale — which former L.A. Weekly critic Jonathan Gold once called “the real thing: a deli and sandwich shop of the old school” — had its last day on June 4 after 67 years in business. And Solley’s, a piece of the shrinking Jerry’s Famous Deli empire, closed its 50-year-old Sherman Oaks location on June 6. Both closures come a little over a month after Victor’s Square Restaurant in Hollywood shuttered after 32 years.
Jerry's Famous Deli already has closed six of its locations, including one in Florida, and every year L.A. loses more apostrophe-wielding delis, erasing sacred grounds such as Junior's in West L.A. and Steve's in Pacific Palisades — places where, even before your visit, you knew the proprietor's first name.
These closures are happening in cities across the country (New York, the Jewish deli’s birthplace, has not been immune). And we can only expect to see more of them, with Jewish food often replaced by the street foods of more recently transplanted immigrant communities. L.A.’s health-consciousness, as well as rising meat and fish prices, also are diminishing the potential of a new customer base.
That's not to say that L.A.’s surviving delis have failed to embrace the city's shifting food philosophy. Canter's now offers huevos rancheros and paninis, along with more than 15 salad options and gluten-free matzo. And the four remaining Jerry’s Famous Delis all offer gluten-free options, a selection of Mexican items and bowls filled with everything from Korean bibimbap to Hawaiian-style loco moco.
Wexler's Deli, a rare newcomer to L.A.'s Jewish sandwich scene, ditched the diner concept altogether, opting for lower overhead (and quicker service) at a stall in Grand Central Market. Wexler's offers the killer pastrami and smoked fish of its predecessors but has an artisanal touch that parallels a new movement in Jewish cuisine already happening in New York City.
Perhaps a similar approach to Jewish food will take hold in L.A. soon. Until then, Wexler's is a testament to the deli as a community gathering place. Grand Central Market, with its nearly 30 food hawkers serving everything from pupusas to falafel, is a new center of life for multicultural L.A.
My dad has never been to Wexler’s, nor does he care to (he'd rather check out the latest Indian or Mexican restaurant these days). His business discussions are happening more often over email than at a coffee shop. He still occasionally eats rye bread, but it’s purchased from a Vons supermarket in Ventura, where he's enjoying semi-retirement.
In the mornings, he’ll toast a few slices, butter them up and eat them with a side of fruit or a bowl of cereal, occasionally recalling the days when they were filled with the smokey, salty, peppery goodness of long-gone pastrami.