Outside the new Second Avenue Deli, a gold plaque dedicates the restaurant to the memory of Abe Lebewohl, whose death in 1996 was the beginning of the end for the storied eatery’s East Village location, which closed its doors 10 years later after more than a half-century doling out kosher, if artery-clogging delicacies.
A reward poster on the front door reminds visitors that his murder during a robbery remains unsolved.
But the biggest tribute to Lebewohl, a Holocaust survivor who came here from Ukraine in the 1950s, is at the tables inside, where once again diners are noshing on overstuffed corned beef sandwiches, slurping chicken soup and lapping up latkes under the distinctive Hebrew-style Second Avenue logo.
“I think my uncle would be very proud of what we built here,” said Jeremy Lebewohl, proprietor of the new deli, who grew up in his uncle’s eatery and now carries its mantle with his brother, Joshua.
“I was his best customer,” also helping out when needed, says Jeremy, 26, whose bar mitzvah was catered by his uncle shortly before his death.
Jeremy’s father Jack, 17 years Abe’s junior, tried valiantly to keep the East Village restaurant open after Abe’s death but a dispute with its landlord in January 2006 made it impossible to sell enough pastrami and blintzes to pay the rent.
The new deli keeps its name, even though it is now uptown on East 33rd Street near the corner of Third Avenue, in Murray Hill.
With about 65 seats, the place is less spacious than before, and the clang of cash registers has been replaced by the glow of silent computer screens. Learning from their past experience, the Lebewohls own the restaurant building, so rent won’t be an issue, and they hope catering and expanded bar service will compensate for the fewer tables.
In another first, the new deli will be open 24/7 (except for Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Passover) for those who get a hankering for pastrami at 4 a.m. on a Saturday.
“Hopefully the only thing that’s changed is the location,” said Steve Cohen, who managed the old deli for 24 years and returned to work for the Lebewohls after a brief career in the bagel business. “It’s the same food and the same feeling of home.”
Seasoned Second Avenue diners will notice one change at the table: A sampling of gribenes, a fried concoction of chicken skins and onions, served gratis upon seating, along with pickles and other complimentary appetizers.
“I wanted to give them something they wouldn’t necessarily order on their own,” said Jeremy Lebewohl, speaking to reporters Monday morning as waiters and waitresses squeezed past him. “It makes them more courageous to try order other items on the menu they wouldn’t order without having had that experience.”
The Second Avenue menu virtually thumbs its nose at contemporary concerns about trans fats and fried foods. In addition to the three-decker sandwiches, selections include the $21.75 Instant Heart Attack, two large potato latkes sandwiching your choice of corned beef, pastrami, turkey or salami.
New on the menu, however, is a larger selection of fish, including broiled salmon or sole a la Second Avenue for $26.95 each.
The Lebewohl family officially opened the restaurant Monday morning with the cutting of a chain of “nickel shtickels,” miniature salamis about the size of a pickle. Customers were already feasting inside or waiting for takeout orders.
“I came all the way from Scarsdale for this,” said Ken Polin, as he picked up a few deli platters for his mortgage company’s holiday party. “I work with a lot of people who appreciate good food. We agreed this would be the holiday theme.” Polin was a Second Avenue regular when he lived in Greenwich Village.
Rhonda, who was not as enthused about giving her last name as she was about her matzah ball and noodle soup to go, said she treated herself to some takeout to celebrate her 52nd birthday. “I’ve been waiting two years for this,” said the Chelsea resident. “It better taste the same. I really missed this place.”
As before, the deli is certified kosher by an Orthodox rabbi, Israel Steinberg. But Jeremy Lebewohl said he does not expect strictly kosher clients, including most students at nearby Stern College, because it is open Saturdays.
He added that many of the restaurant staff came out of retirement or quit other jobs for the chance to return.
Cohen, the restaurant manager, recalled Abe Lebewohl as “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and a “good neshama” (soul) who was always willing to help others with favors or advice.
“I miss him like crazy,” said Cohen.