Triple-Decker Pastrami and Turkey Sandwich. Photos by Lynn Pelkey
Taking a group of New Yorkers to a Los Angeles deli can be intimidating. Their points of comparison are the legends, like Carnegie, Katz’s and 2nd Avenue.
So it was with a sigh of relief that my triple-decker pastrami and turkey sandwich arrived at Art’s Delicatessen and Restaurant in Studio City with rye bread that was nice and crispy at the edges and pastrami that managed to be both lean and juicy. And the sandwich itself — almost a pound by the scale — was so enormous it would have required a flip-top head for someone to take a legitimate bite out of it.
“This is its answer to Carnegie,” proclaimed my father-in-law — Bronx-born, made in Manhattan — as he admired the sandwich’s size. His words would have made Art’s late founder and namesake, Art Ginsburg, another native New Yorker, who grew up on Staten Island, proud. Art’s goal was simple, according to his son, Harold, who now runs the place: “Just to give the best-quality service and best-quality food. And just do what he was taught — how to make a sandwich.”
Art died in July at age 78 after a 20-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but his legacy lives on, and not just in the deli’s dictum — “Every sandwich is a work of Art” — or the oversized photos of overstuffed sandwiches gracing the restaurant’s walls.
“The customers that he would sit and talk to, who were of his generation, really miss socializing with him,” Harold said. “The rest of the customers really feel his presence here.”
That memory comes through quite literally via the signs acknowledging the passing of the bearded, bespectacled man, but also, his son said, in the same style of customer service and menu of food items that have defined the restaurant for decades.
With its classic red booths, swirling ceiling fans and black-and-white tile floors, Art’s has been around since 1957. That’s when Art and his then-girlfriend — and future wife — Sandy bought an existing deli along Ventura Boulevard in the hopes of building it up and selling it. Sandy was 17, and Art, whose family had relocated to Los Angeles and who had worked in delis around town, was 20.
“The store itself was only 15 feet wide by 50 feet deep,” Harold said.
Today, that same 750-sqare-foot venture has expanded to 6,000 square feet, with a thin sidewalk patio under a blue awning that extends along a popular stretch of Ventura. Visitors are greeted at the entry by a deli counter that quickly answers the question of what a whole whitefish, among other things, looks like.
Art’s remains full of tradition. Like any good Jewish (albeit not kosher) deli, it features chicken soup with matzah balls that are light and fluffy, and the menu devotes a section to knishes and kasha. There’s also the requisite hand-sliced lox, noodle kugel, potato pancakes and cheese blintzes.
But that doesn’t mean the menu is frozen in time. For health-conscious customers, egg items — Art’s serves breakfast all day — are now available made with egg whites only, and a Lighter Portions Menu was added a couple of years ago. (Of course, it’s all relative: A regular sandwich weighs about 8 ounces; “lighter” ones tip the scales at about 3 ounces less.)
The Featured Special Items menu is Art’s solution to the problem of what to do with successful suggestions from staff and family without printing a whole new menu. It includes veggie sliders — slices of tomato and avocado sandwiched between potato pancakes. That brilliant idea comes off light and refreshing, and tastes best with a little spicy mustard added to the mix. The brisket melt comes with plenty of gooey muenster cheese and a pile of deliciously grilled onions.
A whole portion of this special menu is dedicated to “yummy fries,” including “The Works” fries plate. Can’t decide among french fries, sweet-potato fries and onion rings? Get them all, along with crispy, homemade potato chips that can be ordered in a smoky barbecue flavor.
While some know Art’s for what’s eaten there, others are more interested in who’s eating there. Sitting as it does near the former Republic Studios (now CBS Studio Center) and just a few miles away from Universal Studios, the restaurant has made plenty of friends in the Hollywood community over the years.
“As the different executives, actors and producers were living in the area, they would come in and eat,” Harold said. “They would request our food on set. That’s our industry that’s right here.”
Growing up, Harold — who started making sandwiches at Art’s at age 13 — said he knew studio senior executives by their first names. Mickey Rooney, who popped in recently, was one of the deli’s first customers; his manager would order food for the actor’s poker game, Harold said.
To this day, a group called the ROMEOs (Retired Old Men Eating Out) meets every Thursday at Art’s. Its senior member, Harold said, is in his mid-90s — Abby Singer, the former production manager and assistant director after whom the penultimate shot of the day is named.
In a world full of change, where newer is always better, Art’s encourages this kind of continuity. Perhaps that’s why Harold said the restaurant’s recipe for success going into the future will be simple.
“As crazy as it sounds in this business — keeping it the same,” Harold said. “And I think that’s what’s going to separate us from everyone else.”
Harold looks at the restaurants opening nearby — offering trendy items covered in “frou-frou goat cheese,” he joked — and foresees a nouveau uniformity.
“It’s delicious. I love that. But now we have three or four places in the area that are going to be serving the same thing,” he said.
Art’s, instead, is digging into the past for inspiration.
“My mom and I are talking about looking in more traditional Jewish cookbooks [for recipes] that we’re missing that would work here for our clientele,” Harold said. “It’s got to be on par with what delis should be, which is gourmet pastrami, matzah ball soup …”
And, for some sandwiches, flip-top heads.
Art’s Delicatessen and Restaurant
12224 Ventura Blvd., Studio City
(818) 762-1221 | artsdeli.com