When I first heard earlier this week that Hal’s Deli is closing shop this May, I felt a pang of guilt. My father had been trying to get me to go for years, but I had always passed it up for more exciting, trendy restaurants. With its dark interior and faded sign, Hal’s Deli had never been as attention-grabbing as the other restaurants on Aurora Street. Besides, I had always thought, it’s been open for over 50 years. I’ll have time to go later. Hearing that “later” had been moved up to “now,” I texted my dad and asked if he wanted to get food at Hal’s that weekend.
Both of my parents grew up in Ithaca, and both of them grew up on Hal’s. Hal’s Deli has been a Jewish staple in Ithaca since 1961. My dad recounted the times as a child he would go to Hal’s with his family to pick up bagels, cream cheese, and lox. My mom used to walk to Hal’s while at Cornell to get blintzes. Their pre-wedding party was catered by Hal’s. The restaurant had been a part of my family for years, but I had never bothered to try it.
Walking into Hal’s, the first thing that hit me was the smell. It smelled like a home, not a restaurant. The next thing that quickly became obvious was the friendliness of the employees: We were immediately greeted by everyone who worked there, told to sit wherever we’d like, and offered coffee before we even sat down. The restaurant is family-run, and they make you feel like a part of that family regardless of whether you’ve been coming there for 50 years or if it’s your first time.
The menu was extensive and contained both all-day breakfast and various specialty sandwiches. Many of the dishes are named after the owners’ family members and Ithaca friends, some of whom my father grew up with. Everything was also insanely cheap, with most dishes hovering around the 5 to 6 dollar range. I’m not a breakfast person, but I ordered a breakfast plate anyway because it sounded too good to pass up. My dad knew from the moment he sat down that he wanted a pastrami sandwich.
While we waited for our food, I took note of the wall filled with Cornell and Ithaca College fraternity composites and football team photos. The other customers in the Deli were talking to and taking photos with the staff, who also made it a point to talk to us every time they walked past our table. The history and the family element in this restaurant were palpable.
The breakfast plate that I ordered came with eggs, toast, bacon and latkes, along with sour cream and applesauce to dip the latkes in, a tradition I hadn’t previously known about. Again, I almost never eat breakfast. I ate every last bite. I don’t think I ever fully grasped the definition of “comfort food” before that meal. Although my parents have made latkes in the past, they aren’t a food I grew up on — I think that this food would be comforting to anyone regardless of your family’s culinary background.
The sandwich that my dad ordered was stacked half a foot high with pastrami, turkey, swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing. He kept adding slices of pastrami to my plate, which I devoured along with the rest of my food. He told me that Hal’s is the only place you can get real pastrami outside of New York City. I’m also adding pastrami to my newfound list of comfort foods; I could eat just plain slices of it for days. While we were there, my mom texted me to bring her back some blintzes, so we ordered some to go, along with a Cornell Big Red Special.
Hal’s doesn’t close for good until May. I still feel embarrassed and guilty that, despite my 20 years in Ithaca, it took the restaurant closing to get me in the doors. While I don’t have the years my family did to develop my own Hal’s traditions, I will still be going for breakfast and lunch every chance I get until the doors permanently close. I encourage you — regardless of your background or traditional sense of comfort food — to go as well and become a part of Hal’s long family history. Hal’s is a perfect example of how food can permeate a town’s history and traditions. The family tradition began in 1961, and I have a feeling it isn’t going to end with 2017.