As Carnegie Deli Closes, Local Delis Thrive on Regulars


In Philadelphia, local delis have stayed in business just as long as Carnegie Deli — or longer — by doing it their way. 

Last call for pastrami: Carnegie Deli is closing for good.

The famous New York institution, which has been on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan since 1937, announced in September that it will close its doors at the end of this year.

The restaurant reopened in February after a 10-month hiatus due to an illegal gas connection, but owner Marian Harper Levine has decided to close the famous delicatessen after all, saying the grueling hours to operate the business have become too much for her.

The staple eatery that became known as a tourist destination will live on through its licensed branches in Las Vegas and the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem.

But in Philadelphia, local delis have stayed in business just as long — or longer — by doing it their way. 

Russ Cowan, owner of Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, worked at the Stage Deli — the Carnegie’s main competitor then, half a block away — back in the 1970s.

“In the early ’70s, the Stage was the place that was busier, and the Carnegie was like the stepchild,” he recalled. But after the Carnegie was sold in the late ’70s, it really took off and gained its respected reputation.

“In its day, the Stage and the Carnegie were major players. As time went on, the food became a little deteriorated and [they] became tourist places. It’s pretty amazing when you probably figure that 90 percent of the people that come through your door you may never see again.

“The real estate’s probably worth more than the whole thing,” he said of the Carnegie. “And that’s probably one of the reasons they’ve been able to survive for so many years because they owned their building, and the Stage did not.” (Stage Deli closed in 2012.)

Famous 4th Street has been a landmark on the block since 1923, and Cowan is only the second owner. He bought the deli 12 years ago and performed a major makeover to both the building and the menu.

He prefers to keep things traditional and simple: They pickle their own corned beef, smoke their own pastrami, bake all their goods.

“We do things a little different than some of the other places around,” said Cowan of Famous 4th Street, which is not kosher. “A lot of the other places around try to be everything to everybody — I kind of call them more ‘diner delis.’ They have a very large menu and if you’re in the deli business, you shouldn’t have chicken parm on your menu. I leave that up to the Italian restaurants.”

Cowan said they have a lot of regular customers, Jewish and otherwise. He thinks it’s because a lot of people grew up with the deli for generations. 

“A lot of restaurants have become known nationally as a place you have to go, and when you’re in a city like New York with so many visitors, that’s what happens,” he said. “I have a lot of regulars — I literally have people that might eat here two or three times a day. We have a very strong local base and we also get a lot of visitors. It’s nice to have the visitors and it’s nice they come from other cities and try it, but in a city like Philadelphia if you don’t have your regulars, you’re probably not going to be in business.”

Especially when it comes to the product itself: “You see a million places open up around the city, a million corner bars with the same Americana menu,” Cowan said. “We are a niche product, and I’m glad I’m able to keep it going.”

Steve Stein, owner of Steve Stein’s Famous Deli, said when it comes to the deli business, it all goes back to the customers. Stein’s has been around for 51 years — Steve Stein himself has been with the business for 48. 

All the deli’s kosher-style products are homemade, which “makes us a little different than most,” Stein said.

“[There’s] not many of us left anymore,” he said. “There’s deli restaurants, but not so much delis. And we’re more of a deli than a deli restaurant.”

But what keeps his deli going is the community around it.

“It seemed like the communication between us and the customer, that old-fashioned type thing, doesn’t exist anymore, relationships that we’ve had over the years. And not many places do that anymore,” he said. “You know people by their first names, you know everybody. When I’m on the floor, there’s so many people; everybody says hello to me and I say hello to them. They became my friends after all these years.

“It’s not just a customer. It’s somebody that cares about me and I care about them.”

That family atmosphere was one Lenny Bromberg took quite literally as the owner of Ben and Irv’s in Huntingdon Valley.

The restaurant opened in 1950 in West Oak Lane, and Bromberg took it over from his father-in-law (the Ben in Ben and Irv’s) and brought it to the suburbs in the ’80s.

They’re well known for their matzo ball soup, cabbage borscht soup, homemade corned beef and brisket, and stuffed cabbage, all made kosher-style.

Bromberg said it’s all about being consistent and “serving the best quality food and having the best cooks,” some of whom have been at Ben and Irv’s for 40 years.

“People come from all over for our soups,” he added. “They wait in line for our soups because no one has soup like us, and they’re all homemade from scratch.”

Along with 150 seats in the restaurant, Ben and Irv’s also has a full-service deli counter and a catering business.

“We have regulars who eat here five times a week — some of them eat breakfast, lunch and dinner here.

“We’re unique because we have a certain niche that most diners and other restaurants don’t have: that Jewish style of foods that we serve,” Bromberg said. “Carnegie had it, we have it, a few others have it. We’re a dying breed; there’s not too many of us left anymore.” 

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