Cheapskating With Victor: Barclay Prime-Quality Steaks at a Jewish Deli?

We’re introducing a new column to Foobooz: Cheapskating with Victor. You might know Victor Fiorillo from his spirited writing in the magazine, his encyclopedic Weekender newsletter and his controversial Faker’s Mark investigation. But what you might not know about Victor is that he is pathologically frugal. And not just in the generally thrifty way we all like to think we are: this is a 36-year-old man who clips coupons and then sends emails bragging about how much he saved at the supermarket; who can tell you where to get dinner for four on the Main Line for less than $20 and who can sniff out an opportunity for a free meal from a mile down the road. This is someone who doesn’t just look for a deal: he glories in his tightwad stature. So for all of you who don’t mind saving a buck, Foobooz has put his talents to work for you.

When you’re married to a cheapskate, birthday flowers come from Produce Junction and your card from Dollar Tree, where birthday wishes are just two-for-a-dollar. (And no, they do not let you buy one card for fifty cents. Believe me, I’ve tried.) So when it comes to birthday dinner, you can forget about Vetri or Le Bec or at any restaurant where the chef has been on television.

And so it was, last week, on the occasion of my wife turning the ripe old age of 35, that I found myself looking for a reasonable (which is, of course, code for “cheap”), though still appropriately celebratory, night out.

She was craving a hunk of steer, and to fulfill these cravings, we used to go to the Tudor-style Pub in Pennsauken for cheap meat night on occasion. But the last two times I was there, the quality had declined significantly. Unacceptable considering that my check lingered in the $100-plus-tip zone.

A friend had recently told me that Schlesinger’s, f/k/a The Kibbitz Room launched an affordable steak menu and that owner Allan Domb–he of the real estate world – prided himself on procuring his meat from the same folks who supply Stephen Starr at Barclay Prime and Butcher & Singer, so much so that his people were sending out marketing emails to that effect. Plus, I was pretty sure there was no bar.

Good cheap steaks and a BYO wine? Yes!

When I called the restaurant, a gruff voice answered. I explained that I was coming in for my wife’s birthday and asked for a 7 p.m. two top. “Sure,” was all he said, making me wonder if he wrote my name down in the book, if a book even existed. I also asked if they were BYO, which I had to explain. “B-Y what?!” And when I asked if there was a wine store nearby, he simply said, “I’m not from around here. I have no idea. See you later.” Click.

Hmmm. Suddenly I had to wonder if this place was within the realm of Restaurants Acceptable to Take Your Wife For Her Birthday.

I had never been to the Kibbitz Room, but my impression is that it was a quick bite Jewish deli, and Schlesinger’s is no different, with all the ambiance of a can of baked beans. It’s brightly and fluorescently lit, like a dive bar at 2 a.m. There’s a gigantic self-serve refrigerator filled with sodas and juice, an abundance of pastrami and blintzes, and a pickle bar nearly identical to the one at Hymie’s, not surprising since the Hymie’s guy is a consultant here. We drank our $15 bottle of Blind Dog Midnight Cuvee (a gift, of course, since I would never spend $15 on a bottle of wine) out of pint glasses, not because it was kitschy or ironic, but because that’s all they had.

But what Schlesinger’s doesn’t have in ambiance, service, or glassware, it makes up for – well, almost – in its food and cost. My wife enjoyed a boneless rib eye (Mr. Domb’s favorite) complete with a decent though under-salted matzo ball soup and sauteed broccoli for – get this – $17.95. I opted for the bone-in cowboy steak with potato pancakes that still need work and a chilly Caesar salad, all of which came in at a whopping $22.95. Both steaks were perfectly cooked (by the same gruff voice that answered the phone) and while they didn’t exactly match those I’ve had at Barclay (on someone else’s tab, naturally), they were very good, and not the Melrose-level steak you might expect at this price.

Desserts were on the house, thanks to the birthday. The German chocolate cake “slice” could have fed four. And at $6, a lot of people – those who like to leave with multiple doggie bags – might think that’s a good thing. The cake was tasty, but the quantity was disgusting. Instead, opt for a few of the homemade rugelach, priced at $14-a-pound. My wife, who grew up in an intensely Jewish neighborhood in the Northeast, estimates that she’s had a hundred different rugelachs and says these may be the best.

At Schlesinger’s, I spent $44 plus tip (and yes, I always leave at least 20-percent, regardless of my cheapness). So even if I had paid for the wine and desserts, I’m still coming in at $30 less than the lesser Pub – and to me, $30 means another night out on the town. So Schlesinger’s is certainly a cheapskate-approved meal. But until they do something about the “ugly lights” and phone mannerisms, you may want to go elsewhere for your wife’s birthday.

Schlesinger’s Deli, 1521 Locust Street, 215-735-7305

Other Things On My Cheap Mind:

$1 cups of hearty (to put it mildly) Rogue-spiked chili at Old City’s PBR ¦ Tuesdays at Best of Philly-winning Le Virtu bring welcome wine bargains: corkage-free BYO and their entire list at cost ¦ And while I normally run for the hills at the sound of “all-you-can-eat” (cheap does not mean I eat at the Old Country) I’ll make an exception with Percy Street’s $23 rib, biscuits, beans, and greens Monday night hoedown.