When Schmaltzy’s Delicatessen opened the week before Thanksgiving, the line streaming out of the Ballard joint demonstrated the clamor for Jewish-style deli food in Seattle. The crushing enthusiasm overwhelmed owner Jonny Silverberg, despite his extensive experience in the industry. “We were selling 100-plus pounds of meat a day,” he says — running through what his team thought would last four days in less than half that. He had to hire more staff.
At Napkin Friends, Silverberg’s successful food truck precedent, the seasoned chef took a hard turn away from tradition, serving his own innovation of meaty sandwiches bookended by latkes in place of bread. Inside the white-tiled walls of Schmaltzy’s, he steers back a bit, embracing the motto “steeped in tradition, never stuck in it.” Schmaltzy’s is not, he says emphatically, a clone of the classic Jewish deli. “The only place you’ll see ‘New York’ in here,” he notes, “is on the seltzer bottles.”
Instead of Manhattan skylines, the walls have pictures of his family and illustrations from an old cookbook his grandmother gave him. Chairs in cheery primary colors give the space a distinctly modern feel. And while the glass cases hold perennial stars like house-cured pastrami and lox, they share space with updated versions, like babka muffins called “babkins” and hints of Silverberg’s Phoenix upbringing, like green chili mac and cheese and poblano cream cheese.
“We are a Seattle deli,” he says, taking inspiration from classic East Coast Jewish foods and weaving it into the Northwest. They cure, smoke, and select their own trout for a spin on whitefish salad, since getting whitefish out here would be cost-prohibitive. “We hope people come in with an open mind,” says Silverberg, rather than fixate on something they ate elsewhere at another time. Rather than re-create an experience people want to return to, Silverberg wants to present a new one that keeps them coming back.
So far, Schmaltzy’s has kept limited hours to keep up with the demand, but Silverberg plans to expand as he catches up. The future likely includes afternoon hours as the weather improves, so they can make use of the garage-style front and patio area, and possibly even occasional seated dinners. But as surprised and overwhelmed as Silverberg may be at his instant success, the most important part is having fun with the concept and traditions, he says. “The only thing we take seriously is the food.”