Frankel’s Delicatessen & Appetizing, a new Jewish restaurant on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, was created as a fuck you to everyone who says New York has lost its soul. “My Facebook feed, for a year, was just filled with people moving to L.A. and complaining about New York being dead, that it’s been over-gentrified,” says co-owner Alex Frankel. “We felt like, Fuck that, we wanna put a flag in the ground and stay here.”
The restaurant is primarily the brainchild of Alex’s younger brother Zachary, a veteran of the Williamsburg food scene who got his chops working in mainstays like Marlow & Sons and Diner before crossing the Hudson River to act as chef at SoHo restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda. Together with Ashley Berman—their executive chef, plus a food stylist and a Food Network Kitchen emeritus—they’ve meticulously designed Frankel’s to pay tribute to NYC institutions like Russ & Daughters and Barney Greengrass. They’ve also created a finely crafted menu that, as Zachary says, “reads like a greatest hits album” with items like a pastrami, egg & cheese breakfast sandwich and brisket on challah bread
The deli also has strong connections to the city’s music scene. Alex Frankel is one half of DFA veterans Holy Ghost!, and minor investors include Alex’s bandmate Nick Millhiser, fellow DFA affiliate Andrew Raposo, and rappers Despot and El-P.
Here the Frankel brothers talk about New York City’s delicatessen drought, why they chose Brooklyn over their native Manhattan, and the universality of Jewish food.
Zachary, you’ve been in the food industry for a long time. Why was now the time to open up your own place?
Zachary Frankel: I’ve come up with enough hair-brained schemes for restaurants for the last ten years and always came back to this idea [of a Jewish deli] and always tossed this idea around with my brother. Then I found this space about nine months ago and I became kind of obsessed with it. I kept taking my brother and friends to see it and bugging this real estate agent over and over again. The first time I found the space, I knew I wasn’t going to give up on it until I could put my name on the lease.
Having come from Marlow & Sons and Diner, was it important to you to be in Williamsburg or was it just a coincidence?
ZF: I’ve never had any real interest in opening a place in Manhattan. The restaurant business is competitive regardless. I’ve worked in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Brooklyn just seems to be more of a familial atmosphere. Manhattan is a little bit more cutthroat. But more than anything, this type of place didn’t exist and I wanted to capitalize on that open market.
Why do you think that is? Just the other day I was saying to someone that it’s absurd that I don’t know where to go to get a good bowl of matzoh ball soup without having to visit family.
ZF: People really underestimated the love of this food and the need for it and the fact that this is not a cuisine that discriminates. It’s not something that just Jewish people like. I have friends of every race, color, and creed, and the non-Jewish ones are just as interested in a good pastrami as the Jewish ones. I also think that institutions like Katz’s and Russ & Daughters and Barney Greengrass have this kind of imaginary stranglehold on the market where people just assume those are the only places you can go to get it. It’s really kind of bizarre to me because how many Italian restaurants and pizza joints are there?
Do you think it’s also possible that some people are just afraid of other kinds of smoked fish that aren’t lox? Or are they afraid of chopped liver?
ZF: People just really underestimate the love of this food. Chopped liver—because of the saying, “What am I? Chopped liver?”—has this stigma around it like Brussels sprouts. How long did people think that Brussels sprouts were this nasty food? But they’re on every menu now. And you can’t go to a farm-to-table restaurant without finding chicken liver paté on the menu.
You’re right, there’s a weird stigma around some of these dishes, but there’s also just nowhere really to get them. For me and my brother, to us as kids and I’m sure to many other people, this has always been celebration food. It wasn’t every day food, it was kind of a treat because it is definitely high in fat and high in sodium. That’s part of the reason why delis disappeared, because people stopped eating this every day because they realized it’s not the healthiest way to eat.
I also think that a lot of people don’t do chopped liver right, a lot of people don’t do matzoh ball soup right. And when those things are bad, they can be really bad.
How did recipe development work? Are you using family recipes?
ZF: The recipe development was very much a collaboration between me and Ashley Berman. Ashley is someone I met a couple of years ago in a restaurant. I fell in love with her food. We’d be working together and I didn’t want to eat the stuff on the menu. And she always cooked the best version of Jewish grandmother food. She is a food perfectionist. She’s a food stylist, so her food is very beautiful. We just worked in collaboration—a lot of eating, a lot of traveling around and trying food in different places, looking through her family recipe book, my family recipe book, comparing notes and seeing how we could kind of bring those recipes into the new generation.
How did you bring your brother into the fold?
ZF: My brother has been my closest friend for a long time, so obviously as I’ve been in the industry, we have talked about restaurant ideas for a long time and he always loved this idea. But really, it was a matter of taking him to the space. I told him about the space maybe four or five times before he saw it and when he saw it, he was really influential in getting people involved in the project. I also think it was just important to us. This is a small family business, and we always wanted it to be a family business.
Alex, when your brother came to you with this idea, what was your first response?
Alex Frankel: I wasn’t ready to pull the trigger until Zach found this space. I never had any doubts about how good or cool it could be, I just thought the location would determine a lot with us fitting into the right neighborhood. When I saw it, I was like, “This is it.” The triangular shape, the windows on both sides, the access to the train, the lack of competition in the neighborhood. There was a moment after the final touches had been made and Zach and I were sitting in there two nights before it opened and we were both like, “I love it here, I don’t wanna leave.”
How long have you been talking about something like this?
AF: My brother and I, like many siblings, have kicked around ideas of things we wanted to do together. We wrote a book together—I was like seven or eight, he was four—reviewing the best restaurant bathrooms, which we thought would be a bestseller, but it didn’t really take off. But that’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing since we were little kids. I really wanted to do something with him. I had some down time with touring and working on a record, and we had become more and more focused on this idea of reviving the delicatessen. We saw it as a dying New York City establishment. My family’s been here for four generations on both sides, so we’re not going anywhere and we’re gonna pay homage to the city instead of complaining about it. Once I started to see it as a fuck you to people who say New York is dead and doesn’t have grit or soul anymore, then I got really excited.
What kind of input did you have on the menu?
AF: I demanded that our latkes have the ability to have caviar on them because I like doing that. Basically, I would go over when Ashley had prepared something and eat. The first time I tasted Ashley’s food I knew right away that my input was kind of not needed. It was perfect right out of the gates. And she was always like, “It’s not done, it’s not ready, I’m still working on it.” And if that’s not ready, I’m just gonna shut up because this is phenomenal. I don’t like some of the things she was making—I don’t love chicken salad, but I love hers. Only my mom really knows how to make this stuff, or my grandmother knows how to make this stuff the way that I like it, and [Berman] does it better. She went to the French Culinary Institute, so she can really cook. Like, my grandma sometimes would fuck up the brisket. Ashley doesn’t fuck up the brisket.