Many years ago, one of the very first places we ate in Chicago… and knew we weren’t in Kansas any more… was the Belden Deli, the old one at the corner of Clark and Belden. Deli, even more than deep dish pizza or Italian beef, told us we had made it to the big city. The Belden Deli was eventually torn down for the building that would, for a while, hold Tower Records, other delis occupied the space below the record store over the years, and most recently an attempt was made to start a new place called Belden Deli which sadly ended prematurely with the death of one of its founders. But the dream of deli at Clark and Belden persists— and one of the few guys to successfully launch a fairly traditional deli in recent times in Chicago is about to make it happen again. The guy is Brad Rubin, who’s had Eleven City Diner in the South Loop for half a dozen years, and he’s opening his second location in the very same spot sometime this spring. We spoke with Rubin about his plans and why the dream of deli won’t die— and is even making a comeback.
So this is hallowed ground you’re moving into, deli-wise. Are you nervous?
It is hallowed ground. I grew up on the north side, I went to Temple Sholom, and the Belden Deli is one of the places that inspired me, like Manny’s or Kaufman’s. I can only hope one day to be a sliver of what they are.
There’s a lot of pressure, but I’ve been thinking for a long time about where to do this. I don’t need to be where the cool kids are— they’ve already got places to go. For me it was about finding the right space, with the history and the clientele. About being part of the community.
We’re not cloning the South Loop location. We’ll bring certain things over— like the subway tile, I think that’s intrinsic to the brand. But the South Loop has this energy, it’s a busy, hustling place. It’s different here, you’ve got moms with strollers taking a break, families. This location will have its own identity, its own thing going on.
This location had been a lot of different delis, but on the whole, you’d have to say that delis and coffeeshops have kind of disappeared from neighborhoods like this, even if you do have this wave of places like Au Cheval or Little Goat Diner doing updated comfort food. So how do you think you’ll succeed in attracting an audience to a modern version of deli?
Tastes have changed with delicatessen food, for sure. You used to have funky things like lox wings or tongue or kasha varnishkes that have kind of been left behind with time. But a corned beef sandwich, or red velvet cake— that transcends time. Fancy chefs are putting their spin on it and finding a new audience for it. They’re doing the food we grew up with with modern twists. So I’m really confident that if we put it out there, people will fall in love with it.
People are a lot more specific about wanting things their way than they used to be. Like they want it gluten free, or they’re lactose intolerant, or whatever. They’re more health conscious, and they ask for things like chicken salad without the chicken in it. And we’re a family diner, so we need to be accommodating, we need to be welcoming to the community. Without the chef coming out and throwing knives at them for asking.
But you’re right, you think of old coffeeshops like Peter Pan, they used to be on every corner and they’re about gone. I think it’s a generational thing— the parents did it, maybe they owned the building, but they worked seven days a week, and the kids look at that and they don’t want to work that hard. Or that’s what the parents were working for, so their kids could go to college and do something better. And so these places are disappearing. They sell the place and it becomes a bank or a Starbucks.
I just did this show for The Cooking Channel called Unique Eats, and wherever I go, I want to check out the old diners. And there’s a real distinction between a diner that uses processed foods and the few where they’re really putting their heart into the food, making soup from stock, making cake from scratch, not from a mix. Where the fresh bagels of today are tomorrow’s bagel chips, and today’s corned beef is tomorrow’s corned beef hash.
Maybe it’s my neurosis about not eating leftovers, but I’m proud of what we do in the kitchen. That’s what we’re about— we might be old school, but we’re putting out a quality product. Like I bring in cheesecake from Brooklyn. I talk to other restaurant owners, and they say, I admire what you do, bringing in a product like that. And I say, no, I admire what you’re doing— you’re making money! Like a schmuck, I can’t make money on that.
But we manage to stay alive, doing things the way we want to do it. We’re the meeting point between diners and restaurant people who get it, get this love of deli. And we’re keeping each other fed and employed, at least.