History

A Dearth of Delis: In Remembrance of Philly’s Jewish Eateries

September 13, 2022 | by Stacia Friedman

At one time, there was no shortage of Jewish restaurants in Philadelphia. Legendary Kosher steakhouses, dairy restaurants, and delis did brisk business, serving up Eastern European staples that connected American Jews with their culinary heritage. You could live in Wynnewood, work in Center City, and have lunch in Minsk. But by the 1970s, these bastions of ethnic comfort food began to vanish. Where did they go and why?

The Americanization of Kosher Cuisine

The staff of the Ambassador, once a popular Jewish vegetarian and dairy restaurant, at 7th Street and Girard Avenue. Date unknown. | Photo courtesy of Allen Katz via The Jewish Community Around North Broad Street by Allen Meyers

In the late 19th century, successive waves of impoverished, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews poured into Philadelphia. These new arrivals brought with them a determination to assimilate, while, in other ways, they held tightly to their ancestral roots. Jewish immigrants were desperate to escape the poverty and persecution of the Russian Empire, but they continued to cherish the Kosher cuisine of their origins, be it Ukrainian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, or Polish.

Because keeping Kosher meant separating dairy meals from meat meals, the first Jewish restaurants were steakhouses or dairy restaurants serving vegetarian foods and fish. In the early 1900s, there were three dairy restaurants on the 400 block of South 5th Street and three steak houses on the 500 block. This was the heart of the Jewish Quarter. Patrons dined on planked steaks, heavily seasoned with garlic, at Uhr’s Original Romanian Restaurant, 509 South 5th Street. Everything was homemade. Everything was fresh. Yiddish actors from the Arch Street Theater flocked there, as well as wedding parties.

A wedding party at Uhr’s Original Romanian Restaurant circa 1940. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Two other Kosher dairy restaurants–the Blintza at Broad and Spruce Streets, now the site of ArtHaus residential tower, and the Ambassador at 7th Street and Girard Avenue–were highly regarded for their Jewish specialties, including cold beet borscht, smoked fish, baked flounder, and surly waiters who could cut wise in Yiddish. The quintessential dairy restaurant item was blintzes, a crepe-filled with sweet cheese, topped with sour cream, and served with warmed, pitted sour cherries. In these establishments you didn’t tell the waiter what you wanted to eat, the waiter told you.

Heartburn on Rye

Fourth Street Deli at 4th and Bainbridge Streets in 1933. | Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Meanwhile, by the 1950s Jewish delis were as omnipresent as Starbucks coffee shops are today. Popular delis in Center City included Bain’s, the Corned Beef Academy, Robert’s, the R&W, and Day’s. While delis did big lunch business, only Day’s was a swinging night spot with beer on tap.

How did we get from this plethora of Jewish delis to just four–Famous Fourth Street, Schlesinger’s, Bain’s, and Hershel’s–and not a single Kosher steakhouse or dairy restaurant? Blame it on the 1960s. When Philadelphia’s Jewish population began to migrate out of the city for the western suburbs, Cherry Hill, and the far Northeast, they didn’t want the next generation to slice pastrami. They wanted them to go to law school.

Now “Famous,” Fourth Street Deli in South Philly attracts locals, politicians, and tourists seven days a week. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Another reason: In the 1960s, the former Jewish Quarter, now known as Queen Village, was plagued with urban blight. Jewish eateries moved to the city limits and beyond. Uhr’s Steakhouse relocated to Wynnefield, turning a decrepit movie theater, The Wynne, into an upscale catering hall. At the time, Wynnefield was a lively Jewish community with several synagogues, Jewish bakeries, and a popular deli, Murray’s.

When Jews eventually vacated Wynnefield, Murray’s crossed City Avenue to relocate in Bala Cynwyd. Ben and Irv’s, which had been on Ogontz Ave in West Oak Lane since 1954, held out as long as possible before following their clientele to Huntington Valley in 1984.

When Jewish Delis Became Shrines

A corned beef sandwich at Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen in South Philadelphia now costs $21.75. However, patrons happily pay for it. Why? Because authentic Jewish delis are so rare they have almost turned into interactive museums–the only place where you can taste, smell and touch a world that no longer exists, along with all of the pretense of being Kosher. You want a BLT at Famous Fourth Street? No problem.

Schlesinger’s Deli on Locust Street opened in 2010, replacing the Kibbitz Room which moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Schlesinger’s Deli is the last remaining Jewish deli in Center City if you don’t count the food court franchises in Liberty Place and the Bellevue. “I always loved a good sandwich,” said Schlesinger co-owner, former City Councilperson, and real estate mogul Alan Domb. “I came to Philly in the 1970s, and my first venture was the Kibbitz Room on Locust Street. Eventually, my partner decided to relocate the restaurant to Cherry Hill.” Rather than walk away from the deli biz, Domb opened Schlesinger’s in the same location in 2010.

“Schlesinger is my mother’s maiden name,” said Domb. “Her parents had a deli in West New York, New Jersey starting in the 1930s.” Schlesinger’s menu is like leafing through a family album filled with photos and original recipes, including his grandmother’s chicken-in-a-pot. “Our goal at Schlesinger’s is about having fun,” said Domb. “I eat turkey for my physical health and pastrami for my mental health.”

Domb is pragmatic about the demise of Jewish restaurants in the city. “Look at Zahav and Abe Fisher. They are bringing a new dimension to the Jewish restaurant scene,” he said. When I checked Abe Fisher’s menu, I was heartened. Sure enough, it features Romanian flat iron steak.



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About the Author

Stacia Friedman is a Philadelphia freelance writer and visual artist who tried New York and Los Angeles on for size and came home to roost. Her articles have appeared in WHYY’s Newsworks, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, Broad Street Review, and Chestnut Hill Local. She loves the city’s architecture, history, and vibrant arts scene.

56 Comments:

  1. Andrew Kleeman says:

    Good short article. Makes my mouth water for a corned beef special. Thank you !

  2. Lynn says:

    I remember going to a Jewish restaurant with my family probably in the ‘50’s. It was called Schorers(sp?). It was in what is now SocietyHill. It wasn’t a deli but maybe one of the steakhouses. All of the waiters were older black men who never wrote down your order but never got anything wrong. We were usually a table of five ordering a la cart yet the delivery was always perfect. My favorite thing was the creamed spinach.

    1. mike zeff says:

      It was Shoyers at 4th and Arch. Site of the Holiday Inn now. Know for their Prime Rib. And yes it had all Afro-American waiters. Not a Jewish restaurant but a Jewish favorite.

    2. Brian Bernstein says:

      What about Hymies in Bala Cynwd

  3. Todd Kimmell says:

    I’m determined to transform Famous’ porch into The Cantor Room at the Famous.
    Why?
    I didn’t collect all this effervescent Eddie Cantor memorabilia to keep half of it in boxes. Sans blackface, he needs to be on the walls, bigly.
    -That Damnable Todd

  4. Fabulous article… I am in my 80’s and everything was very familiar. I appreciated Alan Domb’s humor, honoring his mother’s maiden name and moving with current time, Zahav & Fisher’s!

    Atlantic City is another area
    of Jewish eateries changing!

  5. Chris Bartlett says:

    Interesting thing I learned: the Ambassador (7th and Girard) had Black waiters who spoke Yiddish to the customers.

  6. Barry cohen says:

    What ever happened to a Jewish dish called “split -fish.

    1. Ron Avery says:

      I miss split fish a lot. Also the Ambassador made fried herring – another lost dish I loved.

  7. Thank you for another wonderful contribution to Philadelphia’s rich Jewish history. A few thoughts- there is a bar called The Ambassador Tap Room on the NE corner of 7th and Girard- clearly an homage to the original Ambassador from the SW corner! And the Philadelphia tradition of cold, thinly sliced meat, or a special with Cole slaw and Russian dressing on rye, as opposed to the hand carved meat on a steam table like in New York delis.

  8. Eileen Massi says:

    love it– warmed the cockells of my heart!!!

  9. I remember the Jewish delis on 60th St. as a child. My father worked at Hymie’s and my uncle also had a deli there also. They were great places for friends and family to congregate. Nice memories.

    1. Merle says:

      Murray’s was established on 60th Street as eat in and retail.. and there was a Dairy store(Saylors?) also on 60th.

  10. Barbara says:

    Where is Bain’s located? I used to go to the one on Broad St. in the 70s.

    You forgot to mention all the Barson’s locations.

    1. There is a Bain’s in the food court of the Bellevue Hyatt Hotel and in the food court of Liberty Place. Sorry about not mentioning Barson’s. The only one I remember was in Overbrook and has a reputation for over-sized ice cream sundaes and volcanic milkshakes.

      1. Edward Meeker says:

        Yesteryear , Overbrook Barson’s Of Ellis berg , Cherry Hill

      2. Jonathan says:

        Bain’s is a chain food court stand now. Nothing at all like a Jewish deli. Makes a decent sandwich, but not Jewish deli. Schlessinger is pretty good. Still as someone who grew up in NYC and has lived here for 35 years, there really isn’t Jewish deli here in the sense of the entree-food such as potted meat balls, flanken, Roumainian steak, etc. The dishes your grandmother made for you if you were Jewish and now are in your 60s.

      3. Rob Schimmel says:

        The Barson family bought Hymies in Merion. I remember going to Barson’s in Overbrook to break the Yom Kippur fast and ordering “The Kitchen Sink” ice cream sundae. It was the treat of my year. Also, on Haverford Ave, about a block from the old Barsons is the City Line Deli. And a few blocks east on the corner of Sherwood Rd and Haverford Ave was a third deli, now closed, and I cannot remember the name. My dad went there every Sunday morning. Also, not a deli, but I think Liss’ Bagels was around there

      4. Peter R Davis says:

        Barson’s 60th and Cedar in West Phila. All time great hangout.

  11. Hannah says:

    Wonderful article! I feel slightly gypped having been born in an age where these establishments are so few and far between. I’m not sure I saw west Philly’s, Koch’s Deli on the list of existing Jewish delis. That is a beloved spot for me!

    1. D Clow says:

      The magnificent Koch family kept Penn students fed, alive, and happy.

    2. Carolyn says:

      yes! then the old man passed and the family sold the deli and sold the name with it.

  12. Michael Penn says:

    There is a great documentary on the jewish deli titled “Deli Man”

  13. Andrew says:

    No love for Kleins Supermarket in Fairmount (with a fully functioning deli counter slinging smoked fish) which has been been around in its current location since 1979 and before that at 15th and Clearfield since the 1910s?

    1. I was focusing on deli restaurants, not supermarkets.

  14. Harveyy says:

    As a 67 year old I remember many of the restaurants mentioned. I lived in Wynnefield and went to many events atUhr’s.
    Do you you remember having Shabbat dinner every Friday (now pizza), deli on Saturday night, remember takeout at Chuckwagon? Then smoked fish Sunday morning and Chinese on Sunday night.
    Now you know why there were so many Jewish funeral homes.

    1. Yes, I remember the Chuckwagon!

      1. Matt says:

        Although the building is torn down, the old Chuckwagon stone fireplace is visible as the exterior wall of the adjacent building.

    2. Richard G says:

      Chuck wagon. And Chopsticks, below ground across from the Horn and Hardart😂😳

  15. Glenn Cantor says:

    Add Steve Stein’s Famous Deli to the list of Philly delis. I worked at Famous Deli on Bustleton Ave. in the late 70’s. The placed was always packed on Saturday.

  16. Alexis Bolin says:

    My husband had a lung transplant at UPenn almost 7 years ago. So when we come to Philadelphia for check ups, we always go to Schlesinger’s Deli. Love their pastrami sandwich and Matzo Ball soup. We live in Pensacola Florida and we don’t have a Jewish deli so Allan Domb if you want to expand we would love to have you open a Schlesinger’s here.

  17. Tony Farma says:

    My go to Jewish deli/restaurant into the early 70s was Kelem’s on South street! Our Sundays were not complete without a trip to Kelems for our weekly fix of potato and liver knishes! In addition their steam table included kasha and bowties along with stuffed cabbages and kosher salami with scrambled eggs.Phila Deli eventually took over the site and continued to be a Jewish deli staple for decades!

    1. Ellis Diamond says:

      Yes, Yes, Yes Kelems! Small with formica kitchen type tables which were always in need of wiping down from the previous patrons. The knishes, the stuffed kishka, the….

    2. Cirel Magen says:

      Jack Kramer’s was on 21st, just north of Locust, before moving to one of the Parkway high rise apartment buildings. The Latimer Deli on 15th, between Locust and Spruce had fine deli sandwiches.

    3. Jakki Hunter says:

      There was a deli on 60th Street near Spruce; we used to get delicious Pastrami sandwiches there when I was growing up. Do you know the name of it?

      1. Steve Shaffer says:

        Murray’s

  18. Cornelia Mueller says:

    Not a Deli, but, loved lunching at Lerner’s around 2nd and Market. A hot buffet that never ended..until they closed.

  19. George Felice says:

    I’ve been trying to think of the name of the delicatessen near the old Stetson Hat Factory. Any help?

  20. Robert Bush says:

    My family (6 brothers and brother-in-laws) owned and operated 4 R & W Delis. (F ST & Roosevelt Blvd; Stenton & Johnson Sts in Mt. Airy; 11th & Louden Streets in Logan; and 19th Street between Walnut & Sansom Sts). I worked my way through college working at the family delis. I was the best LOX CUTTER. We cooked our own corned beef. Great food!

    1. Brian Daly says:

      I had my first experience of lox and bagels at the 19th St. R&W in the early’70s. Great food and a life-altering experience!

  21. Robert Bush says:

    Family had 4 R&W Delis. I was not allowed to work there until I had “experience.” Morris Auspitz hired me at Bustleton Avenue’s Famous Deli for $0.90 per hour and geve me a $0.10 raise after the first 2 weeks. Later I went to R & W at 11th & Louden.

  22. Cirel Magen says:

    There was a super deli around 48th and Spruce, possibly Barson’s operated it as well as their 60th Street original deli, before skipping town…

  23. Cirel Magen says:

    My uncle owned a pharmacy at 7th and Snyder. I recall a couple of good Jewish delis near his store.

  24. My Irish uncle did not keep kosher but he kept an eye out for my aunt, a nice Jewish girl, whom he pursued and married; she worked at theAmbassador; this was in the mid- 1940’s. I was graduated from Penn in 1960 and I was trying to remember the name of a deli on 40th. St. where the Penn Dental has now expanded. We ran over for corned beef specials at night after studying…not Koch’s..anyone remember? Thanks Madeleine

  25. Allan Hirsh says:

    Don’t forget Leon’s near Broad and Wyoming. During lunch period, we used to sneak out of the high school lunchroom (CHS) and drive over. The owner was not Leon, but he could have been/

  26. Mary Jo Purcell says:

    I was pleased to see that Koch’s in West Philly is still around. We lived on St. Mark’s Place in the 90’s+ and we (a single mother with her 2 sons) often would walk to Koch’s and get the best subs!

  27. steve lacheen says:

    i As a kid growing up on Passyunk Avenu, I would beg my father to take me to Kellems on South Street because for the thinly sliced roast beef floating in gravy in the metal steam table, but I was actually scared by the guys in overcoats standing in front of stores, yelling as we walked by, trying to pull us inside to buy an overcoat, a suit, a coat, a gaberdine (in accented Engkish, of course). There was another Jewish restaurant close to Uhr’s called Himmelstein’s, arguably even better. steve

  28. Fred lavner says:

    Corned beef academy wasn’t a Jewish deli and it came along in the early 80s. Center city in 50s thru 70s had Si Green’s, Stanley Green’s, Lerner’s, Kellem’s, Kramer’s, Dave’s Deli, Davis’ Deli across from the Harvey House, Bain’s at 10th &Chestnut, the Colonnade and a few more.

  29. Steve Dougherty says:

    Growing up Catholic in Wynnewood PA my brothers and I would attend “Mass” every Sunday at Hymies in Bala Cynwyd. What a treat to hear the stories being told by the regulars as they grazed from table to table.

  30. Dianne Mann says:

    I loved reading this article! Memories of my Dad who worked for Harry [email protected] Suburban Gardens at 54th and City Line many years ago. Altho Irish roots, he loved all the Jewish dishes and Hymies and Murrays were both nearby. I worked at Lankenau and would often do a deli run for my coworkers and myself for delicious Pastrami and Swiss on seeded rye at Hymies
    They just don’t serve the thick cut Pastrami as I remember anymore!

  31. Iris Newman says:

    I loved the R&W deli 0n 19th. near Walnut. Unfortunately, it was bought by Koreans(?) many years ago. They kept the deli name, but not the food. Alas.

  32. Carolyn says:

    My first introduction to a liver knish was in the 1970’s. My mother would stop by Ben & Erv’s on Ogontz Ave on her way home from work. I tasted it and loved it every since. Still love them and eat then when I have the oportunity to do so. My co-worker would sometimes bring me one to work from one of the two Jewish Deli’s on the Main Line, Hymie’s or Murray’s. There were still some Jewish shops aroun in my North Phildelphia neighborhood in the 1960’s when my family moved there. It was once a Jewish community. you can still see the Star of David on many buildings that are now Baptist Churches. The good old days…miss it all.

  33. joe grinkewicz says:

    Always loved the R & W on the Blvd. At1am we would venture in and get smoked whitefish sandwiches, corned beef, etc to soak up the beer we drank. Wonderful.
    When I worked near the Cedarbrook Mall, Ben and Irv’s was always a fave. Forgot all about them until I read this article.

  34. Margo Glasser Kutner says:

    Stacie,
    Thank you for a fabulous article. I left Philadelphia in 1971 for California and never looked back. Since I now preside in southern California, I still have access to some deli’sof Jewish origin. The friend with whom I stay when I’m in LA celebrated her 75th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the Langer’s deli on the same day. I got us out of the long line by showing her driver’s license to the people controlling the line and we got right in. We had a great time and all around us sang her Happy Birthday when they presented her with a piece of cheese cake with a candle. Again, thank you so much for your nostalgic piece.

  35. Walter Bell says:

    Lou & Harry’s L&H @58th & Market…great pickels in that big barrell by the door !

  36. Bruce Grant says:

    I loved the Smedley Delicatessen at Pine & Smedley. Good food, haimish atmosphere…and I had a crush on the owners’ daughter.

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