With real estate prices sky high in New York City, moderately priced restaurants are struggling, and legendary delis like Carnegie and the Stage Door have closed. Here in Virginia, however, tradition lives on at a fabled restaurant in Richmond and a new eatery in Charlottesville.
This year, Bon Appetite magazine named Richmond “America’s next great restaurant-obsessed town,” with hundreds of eateries offering cuisine from around the world, so it comes as some surprise that on a Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m., Perly’s is packed. Named for the deli’s original owner – Mr. Perlstein -- this old-fashioned Jewish diner is now owned by a young couple, Kevin and Rachelle Roberts, who wanted to assure that Richmond had a place for traditional Jewish fare.
“We would actually make little day trips to eat at delis either in Northern Virginia or the D.C. area, wherever we could find them,” Kevin recalls.
The two had worked in restaurants – loved the lifestyle – so when Perly’s came up for sale, they jumped at the chance to buy it. They offer the staples – corned beef and pastrami, potato pancakes known as latkes and matzo ball soup, but they’ve also been creative. There’s no pork on this menu, but there’s the Roberts’ take on eggs benedict, known as the Benny Goodman -- poached eggs served over two potato latkes topped with smoked salmon, dill hollandaise and salmon roe.
The menu is filled with Yiddish – a challenge to pronounce but a pleasure to eat. Take chazerai, for example – a word that means a mess.
“Our chazerai hotdog is a hotdog with a fried pickle and egg salad and lettuce and hot sauce. It’s really good,” Rachelle says. “People love it.”
Then there’s a dish called shlubby fries.
“It’s meat and thousand island and pickled peppers and garlic fries,” says guest Andrea Wilkins, who sometimes makes a meal of the appetizer.
And for cost-conscious consumers there’s the shnorer – Perly’s breakfast special – eggs, meat, potato latkes, a bagel and coffee for just 12 bucks.
“Schnorer is kind of like a cheapskate,” Rachelle explains, “someone looking for a deal.”
Price is not the selling point at Charlottesville’s Jewish deli – a new place known as Modern Nosh. Opened by Norfolk native Stephanie Levin, who grew up in her parents’ diner, she charges $16.50 for a Reuben but promises good quality, plentiful portions and a generous payoff for the community.
“After all the bills are paid, the money’s going to local non-profits,” she says.
Her motto – you dine, we donate – and so far, Charlottesville is buying it – paying $5.50 for soup made from her grandmother’s recipe. In one week, the restaurant served 277 bowls of matzo ball soup.
The walls are covered with pictures of her family – and food, while the napkin dispensers share Yiddish words and their definitions – like the verb to nosh.
“To eat food whole-heartedly, greedily, enthusiastically,” Levin explains.
She hopes Charlottesville will be as excited about Modern Nosh as Richmond is about Perly’s– a gathering place for people of all backgrounds. Plumbers Trevor and Kevin, for example, are on their lunch break. They were eating roast beef subs, which they proclaimed “delicious. I come here fairly frequently,” Kevin says. “I’ve never had anything I didn’t like.”
Tourists David and Teresa Getson are in from Maine -- visiting their son.
“I had kippered salmon and bagel with fries,” David says, noting these are not things you can get easily in Maine.
Local Bill Dixon is lunching with his friend – Father Oliver Small – who’s come all the way from Belize.
“Today I had a kosher beef tongue sandwich with mustard on rye bread – a huge sandwich,” Dixon proclaims. “We could only eat half of it. We’ll take the other half with us.”
He’s not Jewish, but says he’s worked with Jews all his life.
“When I first started working at age 14 I went to work for a Jewish couple in a shoe store as a shoe salesman. They turned me on to the food.”
Rachelle and Keith Roberts were honored when this year Food and Wine magazine named theirs one of the best delis in America, but what has really moved them is the response from some of their Jewish customers.
“There was a woman who came this past weekend,” Kevin recalls. She said she was 65-years-old and had come all the way from Fairfax to eat at Perly’s.
“I haven’t had blintzes like yours since my grandmother died!” she told him.
Rachelle remembered a gentleman who teared up after eating one of the restaurant’s signature dishes. “I kid you not,” she says. “He said it tasted so much like his mom’s.”
They’re also happy that their oldest daughter shows interest in the place.
“She’s six and a half,” Rachelle says. “She likes to go and get her own cookies and make her own drinks, and she goes back on the line to talk to her dad, and she likes to help me downstairs to count the money – all that good stuff.”
Her little sister, 2 and a half, isn’t there yet, but she does love matzo ball soup.
*** Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Katz's Deli was closed. It is still in business in New York City.