Two years ago, New York City's Second Avenue Deli closed down, with little advance notice. Customers showed up as usual, only to find padlocked doors where they had once enjoyed glorious mounds of pastrami.
"We didn't know what we'd do," says regular customer Marilyn Freeman. "We ate a lot of Italian and Chinese food."
Now the Second Avenue Deli is back, albeit on Third Avenue. The owner of the new place, 25-year-old Jeremy Lebewohl, practically grew up in the old one. His uncle Abe opened the original deli in 1954 and oversaw its ascension into the New York City deli pantheon. Abe Lebewohl was murdered in 1996 in a crime that remains unsolved. Abe's brother Jack (Jeremy's father) ran the place until a dispute over the lease shut it down in 2006.
The Second Avenue Deli has always been frank about its food. In the 1990s, Abe attended a food conference and got up to speak right after another New York restaurateur finished extolling the health benefits of fish. "What am I gonna tell you?" he said. "My food will kill you."
More than 10 years later, Abe's nephew Jeremy is keeping the tradition alive.
"I'm eating a frankfurter and waiting for my heart attack," announces a content customer named Vivian, a lady of a certain age. So what makes for a good frankfurter? "If it's a kosher frankfurter or one of the ones from Coney Island. Otherwise, they suck."
Vivian would use no such language to describe the food at the new Second Avenue Deli, nor would other customers alongside her. Whether it's hot pastrami, matzoh ball soup, chopped liver or gribenes (deep-fried chicken skin), everyone has a favorite.
Jeremy Lebewohl argues that the Second Avenue Deli's allure goes beyond food.
"It's an idea of what symbolized New York and what symbolized Jewish delis," he says. "It's not one dish, it's not one recipe that's been handed down, or even the people. It's the whole package."