Cafe Society

The Bagel Deli & Restaurant

I'd spent most of a lazy Saturday avoiding the commitment of deciding where to eat that night. Laura kept asking, kept pestering me to make a decision — wanting to know what kind of freaky, dumb-ass experience her darling husband would settle on this time: raw fish, testicles, chicken-fried steak, what have you. She wanted to know if it was going to require travel, research, a cocktail dress, a new credit line, hospitalization. Quite reasonably, she was just trying to plan her weekend. Meanwhile, I was just putting it off — knowing that if I could do so long enough, it would become a moot point: too late for reservations, too late for anything but scavenging in the pantry, eating ramen noodles and ice cream.

By around nine o'clock, we'd passed the critical threshold. And with the pressure off, it suddenly occurred to me what I wanted. Lying on the floor in front of the TV watching a rerun of Ace of Cakes, it hit me like a revelation. I sat up and said, "Bagel Deli."

"Get out of the way. I can't see the TV."

"We'll go to the Bagel Deli. Breakfast. Tomorrow."

"You mean you'll go."

Laura does not eat breakfast out. Ever. She's one of those people who dreams of someday living in a hotel penthouse — not for the housekeeping or the views or the glamour of being the sort of person who lives in a hotel penthouse, but just for the room service: bowls of cereal and coffee and platters of pastries appearing outside the door every morning, as if delivered by magical kitchen elves.

I, on the other hand, am one of those people who dreams of food. And on Saturday night, I did. Knishes and chicken soup. A hot-plate special of kosher salami and scrambled eggs. Blintzes topped with a fall of shiny red cherries in syrup. Long before I fell asleep, I was imagining standing in line at the Bagel Deli & Restaurant — reconstructing from my somewhat foggy recollections a rattletrap relic of other days and other places, a strip-mall operation that's part market, part restaurant, part lunch counter and mostly Jewish deli, renowned for its tenacity, its salt bagels, its matzo brei, lox, chopped liver and the bottles of rendered chicken fat knocking around its dark coolers. I recalled how the deli side was divided by a row of ancient, dusty dry-stock shelves piled with boxes of flat matzo crackers, bags of bagel chips (really good bagel chips, so far from those pieces of cardboard you get in the grocery store as to be a different species altogether) and sixers of Dr. Brown's soda. Not a pretty place, not always a friendly place, never a quiet place — but one of my favorite places in the city, a restaurant I've loved and forgotten and fallen in love with all over again a half-dozen times over the past five years. And by then, it had already been around more than thirty years. Paul and Lola Weiner opened the first Bagel Deli in Mayfair in 1969, then opened a second spot in southeast Denver, then consolidated operations at the East Hampden address. Today, the Weiners' daughter, Rhoda, and her husband, Joe Kaplan, run the Bagel Deli. It's a distinctive spot that sticks like a burr in your mind if, like me, you organize everything about your life (dates, people, histories, momentous events) around what you've eaten that day, ate the day before, will eat the day after.

The first time I went there was about a month after moving to Denver from Albuquerque. Oddly, I was feeling lonely for New York (the city, not the state), which is something I almost never am, and hungry for an egg salad sandwich. At the Bagel Deli, I got an egg salad on seeded rye, a fat pickle spear, some terrible potato salad and a black-and-white cookie. The black-and-white cookies here are not the best on the planet — more like upside-down muffin tops, cakey and moist, frosted on the flat side, rounded and golden on the other. They are good for just two bites (one from the softly frosted black side, one from the stiff and glazey white), then become a chore. Regardless, I keep ordering them, missing those two bites if I don't have them.

I ate there after one of Denver's big winter snowstorms (2002 or 2003, maybe), going directly from my recently cleared driveway to the Bagel Deli's ice-slick parking lot and hunkering down in the brown-on-brown-on-brown dining room for a big bowl of chicken and matzo ball soup and a massive corned beef sandwich on white bread with nothing. I sat in a booth, beneath the black-and-white photographs that make up the bulk of the decor, and ate all by myself with a hunger like I'd just survived something. And I wasn't the only one. The day after a bona fide disaster, Joe and Rhoda Kaplan and the ladies behind the counter were doing business. Not a lot, but they were ringing the register. In ones and twos, people trickled in looking for comfort, for encouragement, for company, for soup or hot brisket sandwiches or kishke or pickled tomatoes.