Oh how we kvelled in 2013 when writing about the opening of Shorty Goldstein’s, a new family-owned Jewish deli in downtown San Francisco.
“Like a 10-year-old who finds out a candy factory is being built in his neighborhood” — that’s how former J. managing editor Andy Altman-Ohr described his feelings when he learned that a “real Jewish delicatessen” was opening just two blocks from our office.
And now, four years later, almost to the day, how we mourn to hear that Shorty’s, like so many other San Francisco dining establishments, is shutting its doors. The last day for its pastrami, latkes and bagels is this Thursday, March 9, right after the lunch crowd empties out. It opened on March 5, 2013.
“It was a sad moment when I announced it to staff last Friday,” owner Michael Siegel told J. this week in an interview at the restaurant. The lunch rush had just subsided, and he was mopping up after weighing out a bunch of lox onto wax paper-lined trays.
It’s a place you just have to love. Named after Siegel’s great-grandmother, Pauline “Shorty” Goldstein, from whom he learned his love of all foods Jewish, the eatery is small, kinda dark, with long wooden tables, bar stools, and the menu written up on a chalkboard at the counter up front. It was never snooty, never pretending to be anything other than what it was: a down-home Jewish deli run by a young guy who wanted to eat — and serve up — the brisket and matzah balls of his youth.
Sure, there were the California touches, notably the homemade pickle selection that changed daily: radishes, tomatoes, and yes, even fresh-pickled grapes, all lined up on a small white tray. The pastrami was cured in-house, like all of Shorty’s deli meats, cut thick and piled on the homemade rye bread. And the chopped liver — to die for. Where can you get chopped liver anymore?
In December 2015, when they first rolled out their homemade bagels, Altman-Ohr, the writer of the old Hardly Strictly Bagels column about the local Jewish food scene, pronounced them the best in the Bay Area. The deli called them “the last piece in the puzzle” — now everything, from the mustard to the knishes, was made in-house.
So when the news went out this week that Shorty’s was closing down, sighs could be heard throughout the newsroom.
“It was a numbers thing,” Siegel explained. “We sat down and had to look at the numbers. Six months ago we realized we either needed to expand or close.” Three expansion deals fell through, and the decision to shut down was made.
It’s not Jewish food that’s the problem, Siegel insists. “It’s increasingly difficult for a small, independent restaurant to make it in San Francisco, without expanding,” he said, noting that Shorty’s had just 30 seats. Also, located as it was on Sutter Street across from the Crocker Galleria, the restaurant kept Financial District hours, open only on weekdays, and only for breakfast and lunch at that (an after-work “happy hour” experiment a few years ago landed with a thud).
Also, the fact that Siegel’s menu was meat-based was problematic. He was paying double for his meat compared to four years ago, and he did not increase prices correspondingly. Barbecue eateries face the same challenge, he pointed out.
Shorty’s was always a family place, owned and operated by 37-year-old Siegel and his wife. A family tree runs down one wall in white chalk, starting with Pauline in one of the top positions and ending with Michael — it was written up there by Siegel’s mother, who died just three weeks ago. “She was here for the opening,” he said quietly.
Yeah, “it’s bittersweet,” he admitted, shaking his head. “Especially because this is all about family. This is a very personal thing to us. That’s my mom’s handwriting on the wall,” he said, noting that he doesn’t have an investment group behind him. It’s all family money and family sweat.
This week’s sad news means that since December 2013, six local Jewish delicatessens have thrown in the towel: Moishe’s Pippic, Rye Project, Paulie’s Pickling and now Shorty’s in San Francisco; Miller’s East Coast Deli in San Rafael; and the short-lived, kosher RoastShop in Palo Alto. Paulie’s didn’t shut down, but the lip-smacking Jewish deli counter in Bernal Heights recently changed its menu to what the owners call Middle Eastern street food.
So what’s next for Siegel, a native of Tucson, Arizona, who rose to prominence as a San Francisco chef, and was even dubbed a “Mochi Master,” for putting contemporary spins on Asian delicacies at Betelnut (which itself shut down in 2015, after 20 years in business)?
He and his wife live in Sonoma, and after taking some time off, he’ll look around. If he gets into any new venture, it will be closer to home, he says. The new owners of his current space will also open a restaurant, although he wouldn’t disclose what it will be. “The signs will go up soon,” he said.