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

23 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.

  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.

  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

  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!

  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!

  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!

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