Robby Morgenstein is determined to give Jewish deli fans in Marin their just due — a full-fledged, New York–style eatery, with all the trimmings.
The owner of Miller’s East Coast Delicatessen in San Francisco has opened a second Miller’s in San Rafael, promising to bring “the full breadth of New York delicatessen” to Marin residents. That means fat sandwiches, kishka, kreplach soup and other favorites. Fish is a specialty, too, from smoked sable to pickled herring.
The restaurant, which opened Jan. 4, is located in the Montecito Shopping Center in the corner space once occupied by the Pasta Pomodoro.
Growing up in Baltimore’s large suburban Jewish community, Morgenstein says that in his home, a “huge” fish platter (along with Frank Sinatra on the radio) was standard Sunday morning fare. No reason not to continue the tradition here.
Going into the restaurant business was a good fit for Morgenstein. His grandparents were kosher caterers; his mother worked for them and later at the upscale Pimlico Hotel, where locals went for fine dining in a refined atmosphere. A cousin owned the venerable (and still thriving) Attman’s Delicatessen downtown, and another cousin owned Miller’s deli in northwest Baltimore.
Morgenstein, 48, moved west when he was in his 20s (“I was young, I was bored,” he says). After working as a chef, he opened Miller’s East Coast West Delicatessen in August 2001. But an aging building, construction woes and, soon enough, 9/11 created insurmountable problems. Miller’s East Coast West lasted three years.
But Morgenstein resolved that he would learn from past mistakes. When the new Miller’s opened in 2004 at 1725 Polk St., Morgenstein was determined to do things right. “From the day it began,” he says, “it was a whole different ballgame.”
Not only did revenues climb dramatically, but Morgenstein also settled on East Coast food purveyors for standards, such as bagels (from Long Island, N.Y.) and smoked fish (from Brooklyn). “We’re getting the exact same fish that they do at Zabar’s,” he says, referring to the famous food store in New York City.
Deli aficionado David Sax, author of the 2009 book “Save the Deli,” cited Miller’s (along with Saul’s in Berkeley) as a place that could lead a Bay Area deli renaissance. They represent a “tenuous new generation of Jewish delicatessens [in the Bay Area that recently] began emerging, approaching deli with a locavore’s take on food,” he writes.
Morgenstein, a Novato resident who tends goats, chickens and a vegetable garden by his home, favors local food sources when possible for his restaurants, as well as locally brewed beers. He’ll also serve coffee roasted by Weaver’s Coffee of San Rafael.
The 1,500-square foot San Rafael location seats 86; when the weather warms up, additional seating for about 30 will be set up outside. Décor includes old-fashioned black-and-white signage proclaiming such things as “The finest meats in town” and “You name the sandwich, we’ll build it.”
Miller’s has a loaded deli counter for customers on the go; it also offers catering and home delivery.
In the final weeks before the San Rafael opening, Morgenstein put in 15-hour workdays, starting at the San Francisco Miller’s, then heading across the Golden Gate Bridge to oversee construction and make the countless decisions required to get the establishment up and running.
The restaurateur is well aware that Marin has had its share of Jewish-style delis: They’ve come — and gone. Authentic Jewish deli is an expensive operation, he concedes, but Miller’s has the “degree of scale” to succeed.
“This feels right,” he says of his latest endeavor. “I think 11 years later, all the lessons learned on Polk Street will serve our clients well.”
Miller’s East Coast Delicatessen Marin is located at 421 Third St., San Rafael. (415) 453-3354 or www.millerseastcoastdeli.com.