Waiting at the new Second Avenue Deli, 23 blocks north and one and a quarter avenues west of its original location at Second Avenue and 10th Street, just down the block from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, is not easy. Visible through the glass separating the vestibule from the restaurant is the takeout counter, and those sides of meat—pastrami, corned beef, tongue—are so tantalizing that when cash-and-carry customers emerge triumphantly (are they smirking?), sandwich in hand, it’s hard not to think: If I grabbed the bag and ran, they probably wouldn’t catch me because they are at least 75 years old.
Customers waiting for tables at 6:30 on a recent Wednesday evening: daughter—huge Louis Vuitton bag, highlighted hair—and father, portly, refuse seats at counter. Mother-daughter team, eyes roll when told it would be a few minutes. A man—fiftyish, tall, black leather jacket—turns right around and declares, “I don’t wait!”
And why, in fact, get takeout? After all, the real joy of eating food from the Second Avenue Deli is, finally, being given the signal to head on back to the restaurant—past the register with its T-shirts for sale and tzedaka boxes ready to accept loose change for Israel—where tables are crammed into every possible square inch of floor space (parties of two are often asked to share a four-top with another couple), and on the walls are black-and-white photographs of early 20th-century Yiddish theater stars.
At the surrounding tables, men in yarmulkes scarf down sandwiches, and a couple argues, in Hebrew, what to order. When the next table asks for butter, the waiter tells them, eyebrow raised, “We only have margarine.” (Second Avenue Deli is kosher, though it doesn’t close on the Sabbath, thereby making it off-limits to some observant Jews.) As soon as we sit down, the waiter brings pickles (half-sour and full-sour) and a bowl of cole slaw. But we don’t get the free serving of gribenes, fried chicken fat, that seems to have appeared at every other table. Maybe we’re not “too Jewish” enough.
I GUESS IF I had really wanted four-star treatment, I would have resurrected my great-grandfather from the grave so he could have one last tongue sandwich on rye, though his eyes probably would have bulged out of their sockets when he saw the price: $20.95! (Same price for center or tip, which is extra-lean). My grandfather, who is still living, probably would have ordered a corned-beef sandwich ($13.75), although he has, as of late, shown a strangely stubborn predilection for tuna salad (at $10.50, one of the cheapest sandwiches on the menu). It seemed over the top, even for such an assignment, to fly him up from Florida, and besides, what does he know. His other favorite dish is shrimp in lobster sauce, preferably from one of those suburban Chinese restaurants that has specialized in Moo Goo Gai Pan and Sweet and Sour Chicken for 40 years.
Alas, I had brought only my brother and my boyfriend. Still, both of them can eat—and I mean really eat, like I have no doubt both of them could have finished one of the triple-deckers (order by number, please), though it also would have meant my boyfriend would have been asked, kindly, to sleep on the couch if he had even considered ordering the roast beef, which comes weighed down by Bermuda onions, chicken fat, lettuce and tomato. Or the Royal Second Avenue—everything but the kitchen sink! Burp. Or, you know, the other end.
Still, we managed to do all right. To begin: three bowls of matzo ball soup, which seemed to be the starter of choice for most of the tables surrounding us. It is necessary to get it with carrots and noodles, except at Passover, when there are no noodles, but that’s kind of a moot point anyway because the Second Avenue Deli is closed during Passover. Can you even imagine trying to clean that entire place of every last crumb? No, better to close and let everyone celebrate with their families at the Fontainebleau.
Then, since we felt that the only way to dine at the Second Avenue Deli was to overeat, we had the chopped liver: not too pungent for the wimps at the table (me) but flavorful enough for the aficionados (them), served with a few slices of bread. I took a tentative shmeer and decided that my chopped liver experiences, heretofore, had been inferior and I had unfairly dismissed that entire liver food group. Also: blintzes, made with parve (that is, neither dairy nor meat) cheese, served with applesauce, and a huge potato pancake, also served with applesauce. By this point any normal person would have packed up and gone home, sated with more food than is humanly necessary, but we had been charged with eating the food of our parents and our parents’ parents and our parents’ parents’ parents, and so my brother and I got hot pastrami sandwiches and my boyfriend got corned beef and salami. Oh, and Dr. Brown’s cream soda, which of course is the only drink allowed at a deli, really.
I ate half my sandwich, got the rest to go, and by the time we left, the little vestibule was packed. Maybe those waiting customers detected a hint of a smirk on my face. I wouldn’t be surprised.