These days, if a restaurant makes it to its seventh anniversary, it’s practically an institution. Cecil’s Delicatessen is about to hit the 70-year mark. That’s a lot of latkes.
Cecil and Faye Glickman opened the doors of the neighborhood landmark in 1949. “ Cecil was my father-in-law,” said David Leventhal, who owns the joint with his wife, Sheila. He took over the business in 1980. “I married the boss’ daughter.” He laughed. “I thought it was a temporary job.”
Back when Leventhal took the helm, Cecil’s wasn’t particularly unique.
“Every block in the neighborhood had a grocer, a butcher, a general store, a deli,” said Brad Hall, Cecil’s unofficial spokesman — or dishwasher, depending on whom you ask. “As time went on, larger grocery stores came in, and one by one they closed, the Red Owls, the Hoves. The ones that remain started to change, and now they’d have a deli. But we’re still here.”
And that’s not because the deli has changed with the times.
“Customers come in and ask Dave, ‘What’s new?’ And Dave says ‘Absolutely nothing,’ ” said Hall.
There’s a very good reason for that, according to Leventhal: “Coleslaw and potato salad hasn’t changed for 70 years.”
Sure, there have been a few changes.
“We put turkey on the menu about 40 years ago,” Hall said. It didn’t get a warm reception from everyone. “Cecil wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Over the years, the menu has expanded. Cecil Glickman had 60 items on the menu when he opened the restaurant in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. There are more than 300 items now, which can make the menu a bit daunting.
So, where do you start? Does Cecil’s have a signature sandwich?
“There’s the Sasha,” Hall said. “It’s named after the granddaughter, although she’s becoming a vegetarian. It’s a hot pastrami on grilled rye, Swiss cheese, Bird sauce — that’s a long story — and an over-easy egg. It never worked with the well-done egg.”
Hold on. Bird sauce?
“Bird sauce. Way back we had a roast-beef sandwich on a knotted roll, and it looked like a bird,” said Hall. “People would ask for the bird roll. They made a mild-horseradish sauce for the roast beef, and people started ordering ‘bird sauce’ to dip their fries in it, go figure. To this day you see adult men licking the plate to get all the bird sauce.”
If you want to seem like a regular, don’t ask for a pastrami sandwich, ask for a Sasha, with extra bird on the side.
Unlike delis of yore, Cecil’s doesn’t have a wall of photos of celebs who no one recognizes anymore. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had its share of movers and shakers.
“Governors, sure,” Leventhal said. “Rudy and Lola [Perpich] would come here a couple times a week. He would sit right over there with his back to the audience. Neither ordered different than the first time they were here.
“Once I said ‘Governor, look at the menu,’ he said ‘I only came here for one thing.’ He had a Reuben, and she had the Cecil Salad.”
A few Hollywood stars discovered Cecil’s, too.
“Walter Matthau came in one day, ordered a corned beef. He said he wanted a beer. I had to say we didn’t have any.”
The fourth generation is now working the operation.
“I didn’t give my kids money,” Leventhal said. “I gave them jobs. My wife started working here at the age of 9, packing eggs in cartons.”
But others — many others — have worked here over the decades.
“Some come back, and they’ve gone on to be lawyers, doctors,” said Leventhal. “Maybe even accountants.”
It takes a lot of people to run the place; they bake over 400 loaves of bread a day, for starters.
Leventhal still works, too. He said it’s good for his constitution.
“I play cards with a group of guys, seven of them still working. Those people who continue to work, they’re a lot sharper, compared to some people who just watch the grass grow.”
Highland Park is on the cusp of change. The redevelopment of the massive Ford site will bring thousands to live in the area. It’ll be places like Cecil’s that will help the new construction connect with the old neighborhood.
“The old joke in the neighborhood is the first three words children learn were mommy, daddy and Cecil’s,” said Hall.
That matters to Highland Park, or anyone who wants the real thing.
“Supermarkets have delis,” said Leventhal. “Cecil’s is a delicatessen.”