My Last Meal at The 2nd Ave. Deli

I know I’m late to the game, but for those who may have missed it: The 2nd Ave. Deli is no more. This is very sad for several reasons: (1) the place had character; (2) the place was old, a landmark, a living relic; and (3) it had the city’s best chicken soup, coleslaw and challah bread.

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That’s a picture I took on an early visit there in October, 2004. I’d since returned several times, semi-religiously, as a way to fend off an oncoming cold. Some people believe in Coldeez, I believed in the 2nd Ave. Deli. Now I share Michael Stipe’s pain when he sings about losing his religion.

That’s me in the corner. That’s me at the 2nd Ave. Deli the last time I visited, just a few weeks before I learned of its demise. As a way of preserving the past, I’m going to try to recreate for you–using the 2nd person (oooh!)–the experience of eating there, with some James Frey flourishes for dramatic effect.

You walk to the silver doors underneath the blue archway.

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You immediately notice the sign announcing a reward to find the killer of the deli’s original owner, Abe Lebewhol.

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You go inside and in the vestibule there’s a section of the Automat mounted, museum-style, on the wall. You go through another door and there’s the host stand, angled to the left, and sometimes a crowd of people, certainly a crowd of people to your right lining up to buy overpriced slices of meat. (Once I went and an old Jewish woman accosted me outside: “X.99 a pound for turkey? That’s outrageous! Why do I keep coming back?”)

The host or hostess (usually a smily Jewish woman with black curly hair) asks you how many and you say one. You’re offered the table–my personal favorite–right near the door, with a large window behind you. You sit and study the menu, which overwhelms you at first with the options and the prices.

Then a grizzled old man with tufts of white hair shuffles over to your table. He calls you Sonny. “Sonny,” he says, “What are you having?”

You tell him you want: soup and half a sandwich. Matzoh ball soup and half a pastrami sandwich. “On rye?” he asks. “Of course,” you say.

“Anything to drink?” he asks looking up, eyebrow arched. “Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry,” you answer with flair as it’s the soda of choice for Jewish deli-dwellers since the first pogroms in the early part of the 20th century.

“Thank you, Sonny.” He shuffles away.

A busboy comes with a glass of water, a plate of challah, coleslaw and pickles:

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The 2nd Ave. Deli was mighty generous with its pre-soup offerings. And the coleslaw, as stated earlier, was the best in New York. Why? Bad coleslaw is saturated with mayonnaise; great coleslaw is spiked with vinegar, tart and peppery, and–most importantly–crisp to the tooth. The 2nd Ave. Deli’s coleslaw was all these things: I’d never eaten a brighter coleslaw. The Mayor of Coleslawland should keep the flag permanently at half mast now that the 2nd Ave. Deli is gone.

Your waiter returns with a large white bowl studded with noodle bits (not long strandy noodles, but chopped up bits of noodle), carrots and a matzoh ball. He then pours the chicken broth on from a silver server, which swishes the city’s best chicken soup to life.

What made it so great? The soup had honesty, the soup had integrity. It wasn’t the hypersaturated cosmic yellow of the Carnegie Deli’s, or the watery, muted yellow tastehole of Katz’s. [Haha, I just coined that term: tastehole.] The 2nd Ave. Deli’s chicken soup was brimming with life, with the melted spirits of happy Jewish chickens enlivening the broth that felt so good on your cold winter lips. Soup, in its basest form, is flavored water. But the soup at The 2nd Ave. Deli transcended this, it was its own thing–its own substance–pure as mother’s milk and served with far less guilt.

I mourn the loss of this chicken soup, though I reckon I can recreate it with the 2nd Ave. Deli cookbook. It won’t be the same. I need that shuffling waiter, the throngs at the counter, the waxy waitress with her hair in a painted brown-red bun. I need people who look like Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron, talking loudly and haggling with their waiter. “You charged me for an extra soda.” I need paper placemats and lemon in my water. I need the 2nd Ave. Deli but it’s no longer there.

It will be missed.

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16 comments

  1. How sad that this great deli is closing. I went out of my way to visit this landmark last time I was in New York and can honestly say that it served the best chicken soup, bar my mothers of course! It also had a great atmosphere. Its definately a sad loss, oh well there is always Katz’s which I also rated

  2. Great post. You perfectly described the Kosher deli experience, down to the details of Dr. Brown’s and rye bread. It brought back fond memories of a favorite kosher deli of mine that also closed down. And as always, this post made me hungry.

  3. I had more noodles in my last bowl of soup there. So there!

    Nice post – captured it well – a shame that when I reviewed it I didn’t know it was the last day or so the place was to be open!

    I would have bought one of their cookbooks…

  4. Oy! I’ve got such pain that this is gone, you shouldn’t know from it!

    I’m a huge fan of knishes, especially sweet potato and peppery kasha knishes. Where is the best place to find a good knish?

  5. I grew up in NYC and I now live North of Boston in Salem, MA.

    As a Brooklyn Jewish girl, 2nd Ave. Deli is (was!) my favorite place on earth.

    I am 8 months pregnant and all I have wanted for the last 6 months is a bowl of this masterpiece where they pour the broth over the noodles and matzoh ball and a half a pastrami sandwich (on rye, of course!). Give me the pickles and cole slaw too.. the works.

    This is the saddest restaurant closing I’ve ever had to endure!

  6. Second person narrative. Very impressive. I agree with all your sentiments. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who adored their cole slaw, pickles and chicken soup! I was also a big fan of their pastrami on rye! Sigh, I will miss the 2nd Ave. Deli.

  7. I just moved to LA and I have yet to find a good jewish deli here. *sigh* I have to disagree with you tho, the quintessential beverage at any jewish deli is a Chocolate Phosphate. No question.

  8. Darn! I missed it. I’m going to be in New York in April and had planned to go there for lunch. When we (the family)were there last time, in March 2004, we took the sub from midtown down and walked a few blocks further. There was a long line out the door and around the corner and they had policemen directing traffic. We walked up and said “What’s going on?” and it was some anniversary celebration – invitation only. We were really disappointed. But I’m glad I read your blog – because that’s exactly what I order in an authentic Jewish deli – Matzo Ball soup and Pastrami on Rye. Had it at Katz’, had it at Zaftig’s in Boston. I missed out at 2nd Ave Deli.

  9. Damn, but I miss the 2nd Ave Deli! I’m in Seattle now, which has mostly bupkis for Jewish delis (but at least some good bagels and challahs). Goldberg’s Deli on the Eastside is reputed to OK, but a Jewish deli in a suburban mall? It’s meshuggah.

    That’s what I always had there: chicken soup, pastrami on rye and a Dr. Brown’s black cherry. Sometimes, I’d have a potato knish too (oh man, I need a potato knish right now!).

  10. I AM PROBABLY THE HAPPIEST PERSON ALIVE RIGHT NOW READING THAT 2nd AVE DELI IS REOPENING, HOORAY. THE MOUTH WATERING TWIN DOUBLES OF PASTRAMI AND CORNED BEEF ON CHALLAH ROLLS HAS ME DREAMING ALWAYS OF NYC ON ANY GIVEN DAY OR NIGHT I WILL BE THEIR IN LINE BRIGHT EYED AND BUSHY TAILED AS SOON AS THEY OPEN AND PRAY TO THE ALMIGHTY ITS HALF AS GOOD AS IT USE TO BE .I WILL KNOW RIGHT AWAY BECAUSE I WAS A STEADY THERE FOR DECADES I LOVE THE GUYS BEHIND THE TAKEOUT COUNTER AS WELL I HOPE THEY ALL COME BACK .