I grew up in Kingsbridge, in the northwest Bronx, a neighborhood that was about equally divided between Italian, Irish, and Jewish residents. Recently I read a book entitled Pastrami On Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. As it happens, there was such a delicatessen a block from my house, Loeser's.
I'm not Jewish but I was nevertheless a regular patron of this quintessential institution from the day it opened in 1960. Through my teen years and long after, I would go there for their marvelous hot dogs at least once (sometimes twice) a week. Whenever I returned to the city I made it a regular stop, for decades after I moved out.
Loeser's is now closed, having been shut down in 2019 on technical "code violations" by the New York City bureaucracy. It was the last kosher deli in the Bronx, and its loss was a terrible blow to the neighborhood. The story of the end of Loeser's is worth telling as an example of the inflexibility and arbitrariness of the NY City government: its ending is beyond ironic.
Freddy Loeser (at left) started his restaurant nearly 60 years ago using his Bar Mitzvah money, in partnership with his father Ernie. It was located in a hole-in-the-wall storefront. Freddy was a classic example of the self-made man, who by his own efforts, and by the quality and consistency of his food, became a remarkable success.
Loeser's was an unpretentious place, a classic neighborhood deli with all of the foods for which such places are renowned. In addition to the hot dogs, Freddy made and sold knishes, gefilte fish, matzoh balls (and matzoh ball soup) sandwiches "overstuffed" with corned beef and—as the sign at right shows—the "Best Pastrami in New York City," which of course automatically means "The Best Pastrami In The World" to those who know about pastrami. In all the years since I left New York I've never found another place, kosher or not, that has pastrami to equal Freddy's.
Ted Merwin's book describes the sort of humble kosher deli that is so strongly associated with New York City: a small storefront, a counter with food offerings, a small "dining area" with Formica tables, a few chairs, and "hot dogs grilled in the window." Loeser's fit that description exactly. Especially the last item. Freddy spent his days turning Hebrew National hot dogs on the grill in plain view of the street, perhaps the best advertising he could have, not that advertising was needed. Everyone in Kingsbridge and adjoining Riverdale knew about Freddy and Loeser's deli.
Running a deli, even a small one, is a backbreaking 18-hour-a-day business. Freddy earned not only the approbation of nearly everyone in Kingsbridge, but also from the City Fathers, who voted to name the stretch of 231st Street in his honor, as "Loeser's Deli Place." A plaudit well deserved after nearly 60 years. By then Freddy was in a wheelchair, a hot-dog warrior beloved by all.
By all, that is, except the NY City code enforcement people. Their obstinate refusal to make any allowances led to the end of a revered institution.
One month after re-naming that stretch of 231st Street after Loeser's Deli—one month—the code enforcement section of the Department of Buildings was inspecting not Loeser's, but "Bunny's Cold Cut City," another deli half a block away. There they found evidence of "illegally installed" gas lines. So they shut down the gas supplies to the whole block between Broadway and Godwin Terrace. Because Loeser's technically shared the same building code as Cold Cut City, their gas was shut off, too.
No gas meant no hot water at Loeser's. In swooped the NY City Department of Health: "No gas? We're shutting you down for not having hot water!"
Loeser's was in full compliance with City code on gas lines when it opened but it seems that NY City was unwilling to "grandfather" them in, insisting that the place be brought "up to code" with the installation of new gas lines and other renovations. That would have cost northwards of $100,000, which Freddy's family simply didn't have and couldn't get. So this venerable neighborhood eating place closed its doors forever.
Here is where the irony comes in. Last December (2023) a fire broke out in...the kitchen of "Cold Cut City." According to the fire marshall it was due to an electrical problem. It quickly raged out of control, becoming a 5-alarm blaze that not only destroyed Cold Cut City, but another half-dozen businesses on that side of the street, including the one that replaced Loeser's deli. The entity that had been the cause of the shutdown was now spectacularly shut down itself, regrettably taking the livelihood of many others with it.
New York City has issued a "vacate" order for the entire block of stores, pending a fire department investigation of structural stability. That has been completed and the demoltion of those burned out businesses has been carried out. In some ways perhaps Loeser's shutdown was fortuitous. As painful for Freddy and his family as it was, they were at least spared seeing their lifetime of work literally go up in smoke. So this is my tribute to a man, a place, and an ethos from my past, a lost icon of my youth. Freddy Loeser and Loeser's Deli, ave atque vale.
In Yiddish: שלום און געזעגענונג