Everyone remembers their first Deli Haus experience. And unfortunately, most people remember their last.
For me it was the morning my freshman year at BU that I discovered you could skip “The History of Print Journalism,” listen to the Ramones, and get scrambled eggs for $1.25. Diner coffee never tasted so good.
From that moment on, I ate at least one meal a day at Deli Haus.Lisa became a devotee her freshman year as well, when a 2:00 AM entrance attempt failed. “We tried to get in but there were way too many people in line. I couldn’t see anything through the haze of Parliament Light smoke. As mohawked, tattooed, leather-clad bodies turned to look at us, I thought, I sure ain’t in New Hampshire anymore.”
Kenmore Square in 1994 was still kicking and screaming its way through the punk rock and indie scene, trying desperately to sustain itself. The Rat still harbored its grungy locals and violently loud bands, and Deli Haus gave them a place to eat after the bars all closed. Open until 3:00 AM or later depending on when you ordered, the Deli was a roosting place for the Goths swooping home from Manray, bar hoppers in search of salt, insomniac indie rockers, and the handful of college kids who realized we mustn’t tell anybody else about the little gem we had discovered.
Deli Haus crouched unassumingly in a dug-out portion of the sidewalk on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, a worn white and green sign declaring it “truly unique.” The tall green booths always seemed shifty, and as Lisa says, they stuck to your ass like glue. Graffiti-style art covered the place, and framed prints hung on the walls, interspersed with several velvet Elvises.
Always the unforgettable smell of clove cigarettes and burnt grill items permeated the place and filled your clothes when you left, making you smile fondly when you put them back on the next day.Sweet potato fries and white zinfandel. Scrambled eggs, potato knishe, peanut butter and banana sandwiches (the “Velvet Elvis”), and Guinness floats (true story — beer and ice cream).
As a matter of fact, Jared sites his favorite Deli Haus day as the moment he discovered they served Pabst Blue Ribbon, which he complimented with 2 eggs, over easy with bacon. I remember Ruby’s order like it was my own: cheddar burger cooked medium, toasted bun, side of mayo. My item of choice was the pastrami reuben, with half white rye and half dark rye — an ongoing joke between myself and the cook regarding our inter-racial love affair.
Everyone either regrets ordering the Guinness float, or is glad they never did. Those of us who attempted a re-enactment of this beverage in the dining hall came to the conclusion that it probably wasn’t any better when served with vanilla rather than coffee ice cream.
Lisa’s last menu choice was on August 17th, 2001, after the Radiohead show at Suffolk Downs. “I had been puking for 2 days so all I could eat were a few bites of mashed potatoes and sip ginger ale…my last supper.”
If I had known my last visit to Deli Haus was going to be my last, I would have gone about it differently. I certainly would have ordered something besides the pastrami Reuben.
Getting hired to wait tables at Deli Haus was like trying to get a job at the Pentagon. The staff was innately and effortlessly hip, and they dealt with us coming in drunk and indecisive at 2:30 in the morning. Not all of them were pleasant about it, mind you, but I never heard of anyone getting kicked out.We had our favorites. Some of them I’d even forgotten about until my friends reminded me.
One of my favorite employees was Toks, who I am biased toward because he was my boyfriend, but Lisa will back me up on his skills behind the grill. He worked it hot. My least favorite employee quickly became the skanky little indie bitch who draped all over him, glancing over at me and daring me to do something about it. I never bothered. I am not easily threatened.
Everyone loved the waiter referred to as “the Brad Pitt guy.” I’m pretty sure his name was Tim, but he looked like a perfect cross between Brad Pitt and Rob Lowe. He had the smirk and the swagger to go with it. Every man or woman there wanted to bed him.
Phyllis would be my favorite employee if it weren’t for Toks. Phyllis was a 20- year-old waitress when I first started hanging out at Deli. She had a wide, disarming smile, and she made me feel like I was eating breakfast in her kitchen. She was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, undeniably feline, and she wore green tea perfume and crazy velvet pants. She spoke calmly and drank Crazy Horse. I was in love with her.
We also fancied Elijah, who I referred to as “Puck,” because he was spritely and looked like he should be wearing curly toed green slippers and a panflute around his neck. Ruby preferred “the spun honey blonde of the fit-to-be-in-a-Francesca-Lia-Block-story Elijah.”
Adam was the owner, always smiling, running around pouring coffee. We liked him because he always remembered us. Or he pretended he did.
The sound system in there was problematic and the jukebox was stocked with priceless CDs. We heard Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at least twice a week all the way through, and it was always skewed between the confused speakers because of the mixing. When Pulp Fiction came out, the soundtrack stayed on for months.
No one there promised that you’d get to hear whatever song you put on the jukebox. The selection numbers were mixed up and the employees had veto privileges, which they exercised fairly and appropriately.
With the music, the food, the free refills and the stories, that place became our living room. We moved in. Ruby estimates that she smoked approximately 21,900 cigarettes in the tall dark booths. Jared and I shared several psychedelic adventures in the Deli, during which the undeniable incongruity of the glassware became apparent. The orange juice glasses were Alice-in-Wonderland-size, smaller than the melting salt and pepper shakers. We kept trying to keep the plates from sliding off the table. I surfed the dancing black and white checkerboard floor to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and giggle at myself in the mirror.
When I asked a bunch of my friends to highlight their favorite times at Deli Haus, many of us shared the same story. The Night of the Brownie Orgasm was a hit. After a raucous night of dancing, we drooled in anticipation of the freshly-baked, filthy chocolate brownie — smothered with ice cream — which we were sure was the fountain of youth that night. We had to pin one friend down because she couldn’t take the suspense any longer.
A dozen of us ended up there boisterous and late, pulling tables together and ordering obscene amounts of food. At the end of the meal we cleaned up a bit out of pity for the waitress, stacking all the plates and glasses neatly on one table. Matt rose stumblingly from his chair knocked the table over, projecting a shower of destroyed Deli plates. That was one of many red-faced evenings.
I asked Ruby what she thought made the Deli unique. “Well, for starts, we kids accustomed to the lifestyle a reliable diner provided were in for a rude awakening upon arriving in Boston. No diners. So we starved and scrounged, eating cheese sandwiches, omelets and chocolate milk in the dining hall. Deli Haus had the diner atmosphere yet it catered directly to we kids who could sit for hours and drink cups of coffee. I think the owner Adam was a diner kid in his day, being also from somewhere in the tri-state area (Long Island?), understanding the plight of the diner kid, getting run out after two cups of mediocre coffee, nowhere to go except the local convenience store or mall. He gave us refuge, we diner kids… “Give us your Goth, your nocturnal, your lazy and broke.”
A few months before we found out Deli Haus closed, I went in to grab some lunch with a few friends, and Adam the owner came over to me looking slightly misty-eyed. He handed me one of the house mugs, two pounds of ceramic etched with their motto: “Sleep? We don’t need no stinkin’ sleep!”
He passed it to me reverently with a nod, and told me it was for seven years of dedicated patronage. Some of my friends who worked there said they couldn’t even get a mug out of Adam. Drinking coffee out of it now could never measure up.
The coolest thing about Deli Haus was that it never tried to be cool; it just couldn’t help it. It was always authentic, and we loved it for that.
Deli Haus closed its doors to business the first week of January 2002, after feeding Boston’s hungry for thirty or more years. That $1.25 egg special will blaze on in my memory forever.
Please join me in a moment of silence.