Andrew Dana insists that his new restaurant venture, the aptly named Call Your Mother in D.C.’s Park View neighborhood, isn’t a “modern spin on the classic deli.” And nobody would confuse it with Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side. But it’s undoubtedly part of a larger, younger trend.
Just as demographic shifts led to the shuttering of many classic urban delis at the end of the 20th century, the staples are making a comeback in the 21st, though often with something different on the side.
At Call Your Mother, you’ll find a plain bagel with lox if you want it. But you’ll also find candied salmon cream cheese with crispy shallots on a za’atar bagel (za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice). You can get pastrami on rye, or you can get it alongside brisket in a “cheesesteak” on a challah sub roll (there’s little kosher about this “Jew-ish Deli,” as the sign says).
“I think people like classic, timeless stuff. And the deli and bagels sort of tug at everybody’s childhood heart strings,” Dana, a native of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, says. “But we knew we wanted this place to be fun. There’s teal and pink walls, it’s sort of crazy. We didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously and we put the dash in there so we could sort of just go wild.”
Dana considers himself “Jew-ish” as well. His father is Jewish and his mother is not. But he says that his father would often tell people he wished he’d opened a deli. For Dana, the dream was always pizza. Eventually, he did what his father never could and left a stable career for the fickle D.C. restaurant scene, opening the award-winning Timber Pizza Co. with head chef Daniela Moreira in nearby Petworth. A few years in, the two were up for the next wood-fire challenge.
Dana said it took them almost nine months to perfect their bagel, a mix between the water-boiled density of a New York bagel and the wood-fired sweetness of the Montreal style. They quickly began selling out at farmers’ markets.
“We really love that kiss of fire on a Montreal-style bagel and that extra bit of flavor and color you can’t replicate,” Dana says.
And in the lead-up to the brick-and-mortar opening, the two held a recipe submission contest, ultimately putting “Janie’s white fish croquettes” on the menu.
While pastrami fried rice (an item found in the “Fun Jew-ish Stuff” section of the menu) might be a new concept, Call Your Mother’s is not. Washington’s seen its share of what The Nosher’s Shannon Sarna calls “new-ish Jewish” places come and go. DGS Delicatessen in Dupont Circle closed earlier this year after a nearly six-year run. In December of last year, On Rye in Chinatown closed after just 13 months.
“We’ve seen basically for the last four to six years this real resurgence, almost a renaissance in traditionally Ashkenazi food. And by and large, it’s not through a kosher lens,” Sarna says. “It’s Eastern European comfort food restaurants being opened by the next generation of younger Jews who are really interested in their roots.”
Just last month the Washington Post published an article titled “The Jewish deli is having a moment in places where you’d least expect it.”
For Noah Meister, who braved the line at Saturday’s grand opening and has enjoyed Dana and Moreira’s bagels at numerous markets, the appeal is in the creativity.
“I love classic deli food, don’t get me wrong. But the quality might differ, the offerings probably won’t. It’s like a diner, you know what’s on the menu,” Meister says. “At some of the newer places you’re probably going to find things you’ve never seen before along with the classics. That’s fun.”
And as with any restaurant appealing to the transient millennial class, a clever name is a necessity. Dana says he and some friends were talking about things their Jewish grandparents would say to them over Thanksgiving and it quickly became a brainstorming session.
“‘You should eat something!’ ‘Put some meat on your bones!’ And my friend’s sister yelled out, ‘Call your mother!’ and everybody burst out laughing,” Dana says. “It was like, yeah, that’s it.”
Sarna says the resurgence in Jewish deli food ties in to what’s happening in the broader restaurant world, where ethnic food that was once considered exotic is now highly sought after, and authenticity is prized.
“People are taking the food of their grandparents or their great-grandparents and they’re reviving it. Maybe they’re using more elevated cooking techniques, or more locally-sourced ingredients,” Sarna says. “The legacy of the Jewish deli will live on, it might just look a bit different.”
Trendy or not, Dana wants Call Your Mother to have a legacy of its own, saying he hopes it’ll be around for generations
“At our core, we want to build neighborhood restaurants. That’s why we picked Petworth and Park View, not sort of shinier, more trafficked areas,” Dana says. “Neighborhood restaurants that people bring their kids to and that hopefully they’ll take their kids to.”
Maybe in 50 years, deli purists will be clamoring for their pastrami fried rice.