I would wager that few people could tell you the first restaurant their parents took them to as a baby, but such is the lore of Saul’s Delicatessen in my family.
As a toddler, I remember being transfixed by the glow of jelly fruit slices in the candy jars that sat atop the maitre d’s podium at the vast Jewish eatery in North Berkeley.
In elementary school, I remember sharing a chocolate egg cream with my dad and learning to defend the odd mixture of seltzer, milk and Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup to my goyish friends.
As a sullen teenager, I remember cringing when my dad asked for yet another stack of extra napkins to sop up the Ba-Tampte mustard that had dribbled out of his corned beef on rye.
Saul’s was the closest thing we could get to the old-world delicatessens of my dad’s New York upbringing, or the konditoreis of my grandmother’s early years in Germany. Needless to say, we take our deli food a little too seriously.
As such, Saul’s was a favorite on special occasions, after summer camp—and even when we had no business being there. Our synagogue was a few blocks away, and on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the mandate to atone for the past year’s transgressions was no match for the short attention span embedded in my family’s gene pool.
Eighty minutes or so into Yom Kippur services, my parents decided enough was enough, and we surreptitiously ducked out of temple in search of cured meat. Wandering through the crowded desert of Shattuck Avenue, it wasn’t until my parents spotted the closed sign on Saul’s door that we grasped the futility of trying to dine at a deli on the one day of the year we Jews are instructed to skip two entire meals.
Though I hesitate to join the chorus of complaints about how much the Bay Area has changed, over the years Saul’s has become a personal bellwether of what’s changed and what’s remained the same here. I lived out of state through the 2010s, and whenever I would escape the ungodly New Orleans summer for a visit, it was a comfort to dine at Saul’s as the Twitter buses began to roll through Downtown SF and I heard about my artist friends being priced out—signaling a new era in the Bay.
Of course, Saul’s had to adapt as well. Following the lead of New York institutions like Katz’s and Russ & Daughters, a pastrami reuben at Saul’s now costs $24.
Still, sometimes change is good. For the most part, residents no longer call the gastronomically gifted neighborhood that Saul’s inhabits “the gourmet ghetto,” and that, to me, is progress. Saul’s rose to the occasion during Covid and built a roomy parklet out front. As of this August, the restaurant is under new ownership, but they serve the same caliber of pastrami, matzo ball soup and potato latkes.
I still can’t eat at Saul’s without remembering our blasphemous Yom Kippur. The walls of the restaurant remain a gallery of Hebraic stars of stage and screen. And I can’t look at beef tongue in the deli case without thinking of my late grandfather. Nostalgia allows us to time-travel, if only for the length of a meal.