Dear Famous 4th Street Deli, Don’t Ever Change

On the cusp of celebrating its 100th year of business, Famous 4th Street’s survival is about more than stuffed cabbage and chopped liver.

The dining room at Famous 4th Street / Photograph by Theresa Regan

One of the details I adore about Famous 4th Street deli is how far the dining room juts out into the sidewalk. It leaves just a few feet of concrete to traverse, which must be done single file. It’s a subtle reminder of how long this deli has been around — it was cemented into the city before zoning laws.

When I moved to Queen Village in 2007, it didn’t take long for me to become a regular. For a Jewish girl with New York roots, walking through the door feels like home. The deli smells like my Nana’s kitchen on Passover — and with the Art Deco pendant lights, tiles slick with a century of schmaltz, and immaculate countertops, it kind of looks like it, too. Pea soup and stuffed cabbage are my family’s love language, and I was relieved to discover how much the versions here taste like my mom’s. (Shockingly, she agrees.) I felt triumphant when I turned my gentile husband into a fan; while he’s never going to get excited about kugel, he now loves chopped liver. As a non-practicing Jew, I know a meal here is possibly the only connection my kids will have to my childhood culture.

I laughed when the New York Post anointed “delicore” a trend last spring. Pete Davidson wears hats with deli names on them. Coach collaborated with Zabar’s on a bagel bag. In September, Bon Appétit ran a story titled “The Old-School Deli Is the Newest Hot Girl Hangout” after Diplo spun at a late-night rave at Katz’s in New York. There are only a handful of delis like this left, so it was only a matter of time, really: When something uniquely American hangs around long enough, its authenticity and resolve are recognized and revered anew (see: Betty White).

Celebs aside, eating at Famous now, in the WFH era, does feel novel again. The giant sandwiches land on your table with much celebration, and you dine between PPA officers, neighborhood characters and ladies who lunch — it’s an experience that’s stood the test of time. And it’s about 8,000 miles away from a lonely Zoom desk lunch.

The corned beef sandwich at Famous 4th Street / Photograph by Theresa Regan

A few years before I moved to Queen Village, Famous was sold to Russ Cowan, who made a career of owning Jewish delis. When he took over Famous in 2005, he spruced up the place, focused the menu, and improved the quality of the food. (The consistency is a hallmark.) You can often find Cowan, in his white apron, and former owner David Auspitz kibitzing on the corner of 4th.

When Cowan adopted Famous, the city was on an upswing: Population was growing, money was coming in, restaurants were a major draw. But the pandemic brought a lot of bubbles to the surface, and the impact is being felt in my neighborhood, like many others. I walk around with a low-key sense of dread, waiting to see which store closed or hear who moved out now. So much of what I love about these blocks changed overnight, and that has only strengthened my connection to Famous, which I cling to like a childhood teddy.

Cowan assures me the venerable lunch spot is doing better than ever. Not much has modernized about Famous over the 100 years, but his decision to open online ordering in 2019 was prescient. “Around 65 percent of our sales are takeout now,” Cowan said to me in October. It’s true — chicken soup travels well, but it’s also the kind of comfort we need in our kitchens right now. Not to mention that his super-size sandwiches are good for three days of lunches.

Next year, the deli celebrates its 100th anniversary. As the kids say, the business has seen (and survived) some shit. And so for me, Famous has gone from a reliable place to get a familiar meal to something more consequential: It’s become my beacon of city living. If the deli can survive this rough patch of Philly’s history, well, so can I.

“People think Jewish delis are dying because the average customer is 80 years old, and that’s just not the case here,” Cowan told me. “We have a very, very diverse crowd.” He thinks there are fewer delis because owners lost their way, adding dishes and details that didn’t really fit: “You know, I’ve always tried to keep things traditional.” And with the state of things right now, that’s exactly what we need. Just ask Pete Davidson.

Published as “Always Famous” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.