Sitting in a tiled restaurant in Dupont Circle with a glass bowl of pickles and rhubarb, it’s daunting to imagine the future of the Jewish deli. One moment, the neighborhood gathering spot with a stagnant, heavy menu and vinyl booths occupied by regulars seems secure, and the next moment it’s forgotten. But this deli strips away the comfort of a predictable menu and ditches the vinyl booths and Formica furniture for open space in a bustling, central area where “lunch break” is peak business—this is a new-school deli, DGS Delicatessen, where the Reuben Eggroll has maintained steady real-estate on the menu.
How does one create innovative Jewish cooking in a fluctuating food world? Nick Wiseman of DGS, a self-described “next generation delicatessen,” says: “Cuisine only will evolve if you do it authentic to you. It’s rote if we’re just re-creating recipes of other people, and that was a reflection of us and our team that we brought together.”
Out of nowhere appears the babka bread pudding from DGS. Restaurants like this are open on both coasts: On Rye in Washington, DC, Wise Sons in San Francisco, Mile End in New York, Wexler’s in Los Angeles, and the list goes on. It seems like the first question a person seeking a deli ought to ask is whether they prefer a new, risk-taking style or an old, comfortable one.
When I sat down with Wiseman, he told me that there was no frequented deli in his youth. His Jewish food experience was formed by bagels and lox on Sundays with his family, including his cousin and DGS co-owner David Wiseman. His family went out for deli food occasionally, but the basis of his understanding came from the bagels. Wiseman does not regard old-school deli with much excitement; rather, his passion for food is “driven by people” and their experiences. There’s no specific deli that inspired his creations; rather, it’s the story behind the food.
There’s something to be celebrated about the new delis, especially DGS: It’s adapting in a way that’s funky and fresh. Wiseman and his chefs like to focus on new ingredients and varieties of food. It’s inspired, and its character, Wiseman says, is “that spirit of scrappiness and making everything ourselves, going back through our roots and learning. Even the way he describes smoking salmon evokes a relationship: “We had never cooked this food. It’s not easy for us to cook because making smoked salmon is like a two- or three-day process. We decided to make it. We bought a whole fish, we’d butcher them down, cure ’em, they’d have to air dry for a night, cold smoke ’em and then we hand-slice ’em. It’s like ten steps for smoked salmon, and it was a lot of learning that happened in that process.”
Wiseman seems to think that most delis will die, aside from the famed Katz’s. “Beef is getting too expensive and young Americans don’t want to eat beef like that. That was such a thing of the moment—a status thing—eating a big sandwich. That’s not how most people want to eat anymore.”
I asked journalist David Sax, author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, whether new generations will preserve the deli. He said it’s all on an “individual basis. What’s never going to happen is that it will never be what the old Jewish deli was like.” Trendier delis, he thinks, “would continue at a pretty healthy rate. There was a point a couple years ago where deli was the hot thing, and chefs were putting pastrami sandwiches on their menus.” Sax says that there’s a market for both.
Of the vibe of these delis, Sax says that “it’s a good thing these new places aren’t trying to force that. You can’t force it. It occurs in its own way.” Of the experimentation, he says that “there’s definitely a trap,” where new-school places were doing what was good for press, making Instagram-worthy eats that got a lot of attention—but not much was building. But emulating the classic deli, it seems, doesn’t do much for Sax. “Those places are still doing good business, and they’re still stable. It’s less trendy to become something like the classic delis.”
Not all are excited about the experimentation: The late unrelenting food writer Josh Ozersky, who stars alongside Sax in a 2013 Forward video titled “Debating the Deli,” was quick to call young deli-owners “young, passionate and somewhat sanctimonious.” He was disappointed by the very thing that Wiseman of DGS called rote. Perhaps the deli doesn’t stagnate, but preserves its dense cultural weight. Ozersky dubbed Katz’s the “reference point” for these restaurateurs: “It’s the fountain of their tradition, it’s in the context of everything they do.” Sax counters that these new delis are “not only vital in preserving the Jewish deli, but giving it a forward momentum.”
If there’s anybody who understands the importance of deli-preservation, it’s Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami On Rye: Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, which examines the social context and heyday of the Jewish deli. He’s collected thousands of dollars worth of deli memorabilia from eBay and former deli operators. At Parkway Deli in Silver Spring, an old-school deli in operation since 1963, he sits wearing a black suit. He orders a brisket and kasha varnishkes on the side. He chuckles over the scene in Annie Hall where Alvie takes Annie to a deli, where she orders a pastrami on white bread with mayonnaise—the biggest faux-pas deli scene in a movie.
I ask him what he thinks of the new trends: “I think it’s interesting. I’m not going to say anything bad about it, but the more that you play with tradition, the more that you experiment it, the more that you go off in different directions that are not recognizable and nostalgia-based.” The appeal, he says, is “to a person who doesn’t want to be stuck eating a food the way that it’s always been made.” His argument is that the younger Jewish chefs “are trying to refresh Jewish food and not lose that traditional taste and emphasis but also make it cooperative, more creatively multicultural, fresh and colorful and interesting.”
An understanding of the old deli is key to the process—as Ozersky put it, “the fountain of their tradition.” Reference points, research and food knowledge play a role in it all. After talking to Wiseman, it seems the new-school deli questions itself and seeks that reference point. DGS has consulted food experts, food writer Joan Nathan among them, to lock down the basics (along with the significance) of Ashkenazi cooking in order to make room for experimentation.
Wiseman indicated that they sought inspiration, rather than just the tried and true: “We went to a lot of people who’d eaten this food for experience and their perspective on things. We looked at a lot of old recipes. It was more about looking at the technique and the framework than the recipes themselves. So, it wasn’t just like, ‘We’re gonna cook our moms’ and our grandmas’ brisket recipe.’ It was more like, ‘What are the techniques laid into that? And why?’”
It’s a daring generational spin on a reliably nostalgic menu. But Wiseman and his crew know how to respond to criticism of a cuisine that carries cultural weight: “We accept it, we listen,” he says. “And the restaurant has changed a lot over the years because we’ve tried to listen to what people want. Make the sandwich bigger, make the sandwich smaller, add a pickle, take a pickle away.” And the social context isn’t forced upon the eater. The scene is minimal and the food is colorful, and it doesn’t teem with nostalgia and kitsch. It appeals to a younger crowd.
Merwin hit on what he called the “big draw” for the new deli, nationally and globally: the curing and smoking of their own meats. And that’s the way of DGS—the relationship with the food, the careful addition of rhubarb to a bowl of pickles—an almost romantic focus on ingredients. It’s a creative process involving both revamping and appreciating.
Taking a pickle away, making a sandwich bigger—it’s a healthy market, and the experimentation is bringing fresh ingredients and excitement to the table. The in-house curing, smoking and brining will continue, the experimentation will go on—but the reference points like Katz’s will continue going strong.