2nd Avenue Deli is as New York as New York gets.
I started going there decades ago, picking up orders from time to time. But it was about 20 years ago when 2nd Avenue Deli truly cemented a special place in my life.
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One night, my then-girlfriend and I went out to see a movie: “High Fidelity.” Now, she was — and still is — a filmmaker, so whenever we would watch a film, we would always discuss it afterwards. Now, to me, the message of “High Fidelity” was that men will always chase around for bigger, for better, because they’re never going to be satisfied with what they have. But watching the film, it gave me the exact opposite revelation. I was struck by how much it clarified my own life and this great, singular relationship I had. I started thinking: What am I waiting for? This is someone I love. She is brilliant, she is gorgeous. Nothing better is coming.
So after the film, we’re walking down the street and talking about it, but my mind is just racing. We had previously decided to pick up pastrami sandwiches from 2nd Avenue Deli, and as we’re walking across the street to the restaurant, all I’m thinking is that … I have to ask her to marry me.
She’s still talking, and I’m just in my own head with these questions and revelations. Is this it? Is this it? This is it. So, as we’re waiting in line for the sandwiches, and I just hugged her and suddenly asked her.
Will you marry me?
She was shocked, and basically said something like, “Didn’t you see that film?!” But she said yes.
At the time, I think some people from the deli caught wind of what was going on, but later on when we got married, we were the lead story on the New York Times wedding page, so I told the story there, and that’s when they really learned about the proposal. When my second and third children were born, the deli sent sandwiches to the house. The rest was history.
At its core, 2nd Avenue Deli is one of those classics that is always there, even if you sometimes overlook or forget about it. It has a deep-rooted story that is classic New York. It is old New York.
It reminds you that immigrants created the fabric of all of our cities, especially New York, whether it’s Jewish immigrants escaping Eastern European authoritarianism, escaping persecution, or southern Italian immigrants coming here after an earthquake devastated their region, or the many immigrants who have come in recent years — from Mexico, from China, from Jamaica, from everywhere — to open restaurants in New York. People brought food and culture with them, and they still do. Yet you see today with the pushback from politicians about immigration — no, that’s not the way this industry and this country were built. For me, the longevity of 2nd Avenue Deli is a prime example, to borrow a phrase from Lin-Manuel Miranda, of immigrants getting the job done.
The late Abe Lebewohl opened it in 1954, and it’s still going strong. There’s no formula for that kind of run, and it reminds you that cuisine doesn’t have to be reinvented every two years. There may be different tweaks here and there, but it’s a classic for a reason. A pastrami sandwich with a sour pickle. A side of coleslaw. Rugelach.
That’s something that can serve as a lesson for up-and-coming generations of chefs — you don’t have to reinvent all the time. If you can create classic dish, that’s great. If you can create a classic restaurant, now that’s an achievement.
2nd Avenue Deli: 1442 First Ave. and 162 East 33rd St., New York, 2ndavedeli.com
Tom Colicchio is the chef and owner of Crafted Hospitality, which currently includes New York’s Craft, Riverpark, Temple Court, & Long Island’s Small Batch; Los Angeles’ Craft Los Angeles; and Las Vegas’ Heritage Steak and Craftsteak.