Playful Nostalgia and Honed Classics, at S&P Lunch

For legal reasons the name Eisenbergs couldnt be revived along with the space when the place opened in 1928 it was...

“I’m looking for that old New York flavor that you don’t see anymore,” an anonymous narrator says in a YouTube clip entitled “Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop – Open 1929 and still going strong.” In shaky footage, filmed in 1991 at the Jewish-style lunch counter near the Flatiron Building, a couple of good-natured soda jerks indulge questions about their work between answering calls on a rotary phone and shovelling ice into plastic cups, dutifully maintaining a disappearing way of life.

For legal reasons, the name Eisenberg’s couldn’t be revived along with the space; when the place opened, in 1928, it was called S&P Sandwich Shop.

Thirty years later, the rotary phone needs a new ringer and the place is under new management, and yet: the prognosis for that old New York flavor is good. If Eisenberg’s never achieved the international acclaim of, say, Katz’s or the Carnegie Deli, it earned a cult following with its tuna melts and matzo-ball soup, and, more important, by never seeming to change a smidge. When, in 2021, the building’s landlord sought a new tenant to carry the torch (the previous one reportedly defaulted on the rent), dozens applied. From among them, the finest possible victors emerged: Eric Finkelstein and Matt Ross, the sandwich experts and playful nostalgists behind Court Street Grocers and the HiHi Room.

With their latest venture, Finkelstein and Ross are proving to be gifted preservationists as well as savvy restaurateurs. For legal reasons, they had to drop Eisenberg’s as a name, but historical research solved the problem: before it was Eisenberg’s, it was briefly called S&P Sandwich Shop, after the founders. This reinstatement is just one example of the pair’s deft efforts to distill the shop to its essence. They rehired long-term staff members, such as Jodi Freedman-Viera, who had worked the register for around fifteen years. They spruced up the interior, but not so much that it doesn’t look and feel just as it ever did: comfortable and clean yet decidedly worn around the edges, the original forty-foot counter intact and lined with vinyl swivel stools. The menu has been pared down, but it still feels encyclopedic in the tradition of a short-order diner, featuring roughly three dozen sandwiches, including hamburgers. The classics have not been updated so much as painstakingly honed. “It’s like, in your brain, when you eat something, what you want it to taste like,” Ross told me recently. “That’s our goal.”

Plenty of New Yorkers have never heard of Eisenberg’s, and yet it earned something of a cult following with its Jewish-deli standards, including matzo-ball soup.

I’d like, genuinely, to eat at S&P every day. Some of my happiest moments of late have been spent marvelling at the glory of dishes I’d taken for granted: a ripe half cantaloupe, deseeded and filled with cottage cheese, a bowl of lightly dressed iceberg lettuce topped with a scoop of egg salad, cream cheese and chopped green olives (a surprisingly thrilling combination) on squishy white bread. I dug into chicken liver with saltines; I sipped a cherry-lime rickey so sweet that my teeth ached. I ordered my first, but certainly not my last, Dusty Miller, a remarkably unphotogenic sundae, featuring vanilla ice cream, a dollop of marshmallow fluff, chocolate syrup, and malt powder. One afternoon, I was moved nearly to tears by the sight of a bespectacled middle-aged gentleman enjoying, solo, a towering slice of carrot cake and a cup of tea while crocheting.

The new proprietors have resisted the temptation to elevate any of the humble offerings, focussing instead on honing classics to their purest essence.

Look up to the left while sitting at the counter and you’ll see, where the ceiling drops, a tiny, ancient-looking door with a sign that reads “no admittance.” I’d been to Eisenberg’s many times; how had I never noticed that before? The answer was that it was only recently installed, a cheeky design flourish, to cover an air-conditioning hatch. “A number of people have said, ‘I’m so glad you guys left that door there,’ ” Finkelstein told me, laughing. “On Instagram, people have posted things like, ‘So glad they kept the cottage fries,’ or ‘The pastrami is exactly how I remember it.’ ” The cottage fries are new to the menu; the pastrami is sourced from a different producer. “It’s really interesting talking to people who have spent a lot of time in that space, much more than we ever did, and how much information is just completely misremembered,” Ross said. “Everyone has this memory, and we’re fulfilling that memory in a weird sort of way.” (Sandwiches $6-$19.) ♦

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