Eunice Kim walked into Saul’s Deli in Berkeley on the evening of March 26 expecting to order stuffed cabbage rolls. Her friend Matt Krueger had a taste for a corned beef sandwich.
Instead, the Berkeley residents ended up with a seder plate placed in front of them and eating gefilte fish, matzah ball soup and haroset.
“We weren’t sure what to do with the stick,” Kim said, referring to a julienned piece of horseradish root on the seder plate. “The waiter said we were supposed to hit ourselves with it — so we did.”
Turns out the waiter was toying with them about Jewish tradition, but Kim and Krueger didn’t mind. They had unwittingly but happily joined a two-decade tradition at Saul’s: celebrating the second night of Passover at the deli with a holiday meal, surrounded by people conducting mini-seders at their own tables.
“It’s really great. You look around the room and people are enjoying Passover foods, and a lot of them are reading the haggadah,” said longtime Berkeley resident Andra Lichtenstein, the first owner of Saul’s in the mid-1980s and now a minor investor. “You get to be with friends and family and community at the same time. You’re at your own table, but it always feels so much like being part of a community.”
Saul’s serves traditional Passover food all through the holiday, but the second night is different. The regular menu is out of service and only Passover food is available. And while a few diners conduct seders as the week goes on, the second night is heavy with haggadah readings.
Saul’s prepares for the second-night tradition by closing its dining room at 3 p.m. before the first night of Passover. The only other nights the deli closes are on Yom Kippur and Thanksgiving.
Parties that show up on the second night are seated at their own table, where they make selections from a prix fixe menu. Appetizer choices include house-made gefilte fish, puréed beets with yogurt and zatar, matzah ball soup and chopped chicken (or walnut) liver. Main-course choices are brisket, the Israeli egg dish shakshouka or salmon.
In short order, a plate with the symbolic Passover items is brought to the table, and a number of customers opt to launch into a seder, although they tend to keep it short. For those who don’t come with their own haggadahs, Saul’s offers one that its staff put together a few years ago.
The table service can be a bit spotty. One party, for example, had to jump forward to the dipping of the parsley into salt water because it took a while for the wine to arrive. A few minutes later, they were able to say the blessing over the first cup.
“It’s kind of tough for the waiters, especially if they don’t have any exposure to a seder, trying to time the meal,” Saul’s co-owner Karen Adelman explained. “There are some people who will do the full service, so they will be there an hour before they eat, while others pick and choose among what they do. It’s a strange thing for servers to try to navigate, but fortunately it’s all pretty light-hearted.”
Adelman said the tradition started slowly, when Saul’s began serving Passover foods mostly for takeout.
“Then people started reserving tables just for a meal,” she said. “Over time, since it was a holiday meal, and since we had all the component parts foodwise, we started to hand out haggadahs if people asked. And then more and more people started bringing their own, and it came to be this strange hybrid of a restaurant and a seder.”
On March 26, many of the tables were parties of two or four, with a few parties of six or more. One couple was shown to a table and seated, only to be seen leaving a minute later after they found out Saul’s wasn’t offering its normal menu. They didn’t stick around long enough to sample this year’s specialty matzah, a not-kosher-for-Passover flatbread made by Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland.
Charlie Haas, an Oakland novelist, enjoyed the March 26 dinner with his wife, B.K. Moran, and a friend who kept on thumbing through the Saul’s haggadah, nostalgic for the seders of her youth.
“We love the food, and we love being surrounded by people who are doing the seder,” said Haas, a Saul’s regular who plans to return for another Passover meal on Saturday, March 30 with his 94-year-old mother, Eunice.
“The atmosphere is wonderful, and my mom, who lives in Palo Alto, wouldn’t miss it,” he said.
Adelman and co-owner Peter Levitt have some funny stories from when Saul’s used to offer its regular menu alongside its second-night Passover meal. Levitt recalled one Jewish couple a few years ago who were so aghast when a kid at an adjacent table was eating a hot dog on a bun that they walked out.
“It used to be a little more nerve-wracking for me,” Adelman said. “Some people were shocked to see a pastrami sandwich on bread at the next table, and that mix used to make me very nervous. But now I enjoy the whole scene. And the second night is always a very high-energy night.”
By the numbers
During Passover week, Saul’s Deli will make and sell 4,000 matzah balls, 200 pounds of horseradish, 1,200 servings of gefilte fish and 100 gallons of chicken soup. Also, the staff will peel 200 apples a day for haroset. Those totals, a Saul’s spokesperson said, include takeout sales as well as five Passover dinners at the 27-year-old Berkeley restaurant.