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The D.C. deli boom: New York-ish eateries proliferate
Washington Jewish Week / March 16, 2011

By Larry Luxner

Potato knishes, stuffed cabbage, matzo-ball soup, hot pastrami on rye — when it comes to New York-style Jewish deli food, you can’t get more heimish than that.

But kosher it’s not, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother restauranteur Howard Wasserman at all.

“If this place were kosher, I’d have to adhere to all the Vaad’s strict regulations, and everything would be double the price,” said Wasserman, who opened his Uptown Deli in Bethesda four months ago. “I’d also have to hire a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at $18 an hour. Now I pay $1.25 a pound for raw chicken breasts. Sure, I can go to Brooklyn and bring back chicken breasts for $2.79 a pound, but who has time for that?”

Right around the corner from Uptown Deli is an even newer place — Bubby’s. Owner Jeff Manas, a self-proclaimed “loud New Yorker from the Bronx,” opened for business barely three weeks ago. His 85-seat restaurant is doing well and Manas expects to recoup his $150,000 investment within two months.

“Here in Bethesda, everyone is Jewish,” Manas says happily, as he shows off his “Bubby Wall” filled with graceful old photographs of his long-deceased grandmother. “They go out and eat, and they don’t worry if it’s Shabbos.”

Manas, an oldtimer who ran Long Island Louie’s in Rockville for eight years and has been in the restaurant business for three decades, says going the kosher route for his new eatery “would have cut out too much of the segment I want to serve.”

In fact, David Sax, author of the nostalgic book “Save the Deli,” said the vast majority of the world’s 400 to 500 Jewish delicatessens aren’t kosher at all; even in his native Toronto, only one of the half-dozen or so delis observes the laws of kashrut.

Yet Sax told WJW “there’s been a resurgence of interest in kosher-style traditional food in the past couple of years, because it’s faded away over time. As kosher restaurants moved to more international cuisine like sushi and Thai, there’s been a longing — partly nostalgic, partly gastronomic — because people in the D.C. area still want that food, and it’s a pretty long drive to Baltimore.”

Other Jewish eateries that fit the “kosher-style” profile yet aren’t kosher include Brooklyn’s Deli in Rockville, Star and Shamrock Tavern & Deli in the District, Celebrity Deli in Falls Church, Va., and Woodside Deli, Parkway Deli and the Bagelry & Deli, all in Silver Spring.

On the other hand, Pomegranate Bistro — which opened three years ago in Potomac’s Cabin John Shopping Center — is a strictly kosher upscale restaurant where entrées include grilled salmon with papaya-mango chutney and wild rice ($28), grilled London broil with marsala sauce and twice-baked potato ($31) and grilled sea bass with baby spinach, smoky white beans and glazed yam ($37).

Sax, whose book was originally a research paper for McGill University, estimates that running a kosher restaurant costs 30-40% more than running a trayf one due to the high cost of kosher meat and the loss of business incurred from remaining closed on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.

“All that has to be reflected in the price of the food, especially if it’s glatt kosher,” he said. “Prices would be so high that they’d exclude people who don’t keep kosher.”

Some of the most popular items on the Bubby’s menu: chopped liver sandwich ($8.25), hot corned-beef sandwiches ($10.95), pastrami reuben sandwich ($12.50) and the always-comforting “Jewish penicillin” known as chicken soup ($5.95 with one matzo ball, $7.95 with two).

Manas concedes his prices aren’t the cheapest, but says Bubby’s more than makes up for that with its huge portions and unusually friendly service. “We serve the best-quality food we can find. I talk to everybody. I know their names. We yell across the room. There are no formalities here.”

But the kosher-style business is not without its occasional annoyances. Shortly after opening, he said, Congregation Har Shalom — a Conservative shul in Potomac — refused to let Manas advertise his restaurant in the synagogue newsletter because Bubby’s didn’t meet the standards of kashrut.

“I don’t want any controversy,” he said, dismissing critics of the kosher-style trend. “All I want is to run a nice restaurant.”

Up in Rockville, Angie Greenberg — who with her husband Lee owns Izé’s Deli & Bagelry — says business is booming even without foot traffic from Orthodox Jews.

“Just being a bagel shop wasn’t enough, so we decided to focus more on the deli aspect,” said Greenberg, a St. Louis native who named her restaurant by using the first letters of the couple’s three children, Isabel, Zachary and Emily. It was originally Manhattan Bagel when the Greenbergs bought it in 2003. Angie’s parents work there, and her mother-in-law makes matzo ball soup for the High Holidays.

Long known for its daily trivia question (the winner gets two free bagels), Izé’s also caters kiddushim at area synagogues, though the Greenbergs don’t get any business from Orthodox shuls since, like Uptown Deli and Bubby’s, it stays opens on Saturdays.

“You lose a lot of business being strictly kosher,” she said. “To be kosher, we’d have to close on all the holidays, and Yom Kippur is our biggest day of the year. And the fact that we serve non-kosher products like ham and bacon rules us out.”

Local kashrut maven Binyamin Sanders doesn’t even want to discuss the issue.

“Kosher-style ain’t kosher,” said the Orthodox rabbi and director of field operations at the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington (also known as the Vaad). But he conceded that the proliferation of such Jewish delis in this area is “probably an interim stage that presages a return to actual kosher.”

Asked if Orthodox Jews are bothered by the trend, deli maven Sax laughed. “It doesn’t really matter,” he said, “because they can’t eat at those places anyway.”

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