In the past eight years, Ive reviewed more than 100 restaurants in the D.C. area, including gastronomic shrines of celebrity chefs, sleek steakhouses and seafood emporia catering to the expense account crowd, ethnic eateries of a dozen national origins, and mom-and-pop establishments of varying quality.
Many have since gone out of business, victims of changing tastes, economic pressures, management missteps and fierce competition. But Loebs Perfect New York Deli Restaurant is still prospering, 43 years after Walter and Sigrid Loeb opened their doors across from the Treasury Department on 15th St. N.W., in the space now occupied by the Old Ebbitt Grill.
Rating: 3 Domes
Ratings: Based on a one-to-10 scale for food, service, ambiance and price/value; up to 5 domes awarded on the basis of reviewers judgment.
Im glad to report that Loebs is still going strong since it has the distinction of being the very first restaurant I reviewed, eight years ago this month, just two months after The Hill published its first issue from our offices a block down the street from Loebs present location at the edge of McPherson Square.
The Hill, the neighborhood and this reviewer have all gone though quite a few changes since then, but Loebs still remains pretty much what it has been, even before moving from its original site in 1979.
Loebs Perfect New York Deli Restaurant 832 15th St. N.W. (202) 371-1150
PRICES: Inexpensive: Sandwiches from $5.55 to $8.49; Salad platters from $6.15-$7.15. Breakfast specials from $1.99- $5.09.
Leonard Garment at Loebs
The prices have obviously increased the corned beef sandwich that cost 65 cents in 1959 now goes for $5.85, and the nickel cup of coffee now costs 77 cents; there is more emphasis on low-fat foods, although you can still get a major infusion of cholesterol if you choose; and Walter and Sigrid no longer put in the hours they once did when they arrived at 5:30 a.m.
But the kosher-style food is still mostly first-rate and Loebs still draws overflow crowds on most days, including customers whove been regulars for years. The only other noticeable difference, although its a major one, is that Walter, 73, and his wife, 68, have pretty much turned over the business to their three children, David, 38, Marlene, 36, and Steve, 28.
The next generation of LoebsDavid, Steve and Marleneprepares to take over the deli started by their parents.
But not entirely. A lot of people come in now and ask where Mom and Dad are, Marlene said Monday after her dad sauntered in for a couple of hours around noontime and her mother stayed home. We tell them were running it now, but were running it their way. We hear about it if we dont.
Loebs still attracts its share of recognizable faces. New York Times columnist Bill Safire is a regular; in fact, he began a recent column by declaring that Loebs, where he interviewed a source, serves the best corned beef sandwich in town. George Stephanopoulos was a regular when he was in the Clinton White House and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), formerly with a law firm across the street, sends his driver by regularly for a BLT. And the superlawyer husband and wife team of Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing are also regulars.
Loebs customers also include a former governor and ambassador to Canada, Democrat Jim Blanchard of Michigan, also at Doles law firm, and a possible future governor, Cruz Bustamante, who was just elected to a second term as lieutenant governor of California. He stops by whenever hes in town, often with his family.
Theres even a Cabinet secretary whos a customer, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi, one of many regulars from his department, which is located only a block away on Vermont Avenue. In fact, he showed up the other day with the departing president of the Export Import Bank.
Walter Loeb, a native of Connecticut who operated a Takoma Park, Md., bakery before opening his own deli, says people are much more health conscious today, ordering turkey pastrami, chicken Caesar salads and a souped-up version of matzoh ball soup with vegetables and turkey created by son Steve. Were selling the hell out of it, he says.
But the old favorites remain just that for many customers, especially the 6-inch-high sandwiches whose names evoke New York City origins, such as the Times Square (pastrami, fried egg, cheese, slaw and Russian dressing); the Greenwich Village (corned beef, chopped liver, Swiss cheese, tomato and lettuce on pumpernickel); the Madison Avenue (roast beef, Muenster cheese, slaw on twin rolls); and the Park Avenue, which is my favorite when I get tired of the fresh fruit and cottage cheese platter (corned beef and pastrami on twin rolls).
However, the biggest selling sandwiches remain Walters Favorite (pastrami, Muenster cheese, slaw, Russian dressing on pumpernickel) and the Philly cheesesteak.
During the 1967 Six Day War, Loebs offered the Nasser Special (half tongue and half chicken with Russian dressing on Jewish rye). Soon, we may see one named after Maryland Terrapins football coach, Ralph Friedgen, or their basketball coach, Gary Williams, since David Loeb is a fanatic Terrapins fan.
Loebs took its moniker from a 1978 review in the now- defunct Washington Star that gave the restaurant a perfect New York deli rating, with four out of five pickles for food, three and a half for service and four for ambiance. Thats roughly how this reviewer, who has been a loyal customer since 1965, would rate it today, right up there with its New York counterparts like Carnegie Deli and Stage Deli.
Walter Loeb says hell stay actively involved in the restaurant that bears his name as long as his health holds out he had quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1994. But hes confident the kids will manage just fine. When I look back on it, he said Monday, its been a lot of hard work and lots of hours, but its been a lot of fun too. I got to meet a lot of great people.
His only regret is that when the Washingtonian magazine recently published an article about a group of Brooklyn natives whove made their mark in D.C., including Safire, former Nixon aide Leonard Garment and Martin Tolchin, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Hill, the magazine failed to mention that the photograph it used to illustrate the article was taken at Loebs.
It prompted several letters to the editor pointing out the omission, including ones from Loeb and Garment. Garment came in today, Loeb said Monday, and I said, I see we both got our names in the Washingtonian.