Danny's is a deli with a difference
Rising to meet a need in Venice, its light, airy space and eclectic menu buck stereotypes. So why not stay awhile?
A custard-style challah French toast. (Francine Orr / LAT)
The location, one of the original arcaded Venice-in-America buildings (circa 1906) at the foot of Windward Avenue, is a treasured landmark. Owners Danny Samakow and James Evans (who also own James Beach and the Canal Club) have collaborated with building owners and arts patrons Simone Scharff and the late Warner Scharff in an evocative renewal of what some may remember as the '80s-era home of the St. Mark's Jazz Club.
It's essentially two adjacent storefronts, one housing a bar and deli counter and the other a section with cozy, high-sided booths, tables and big windows looking out at the colorful street scene. There's none of the grab-and-go sterility of some delis; warm wooden floors, high ceilings and flattering lighting make it easy to linger.
Art and artifacts that highlight Venice history are on display: a gondola that once plied the local canals, vintage photographs, a collaged tin artwork by Tony Berlant, a bronze model for his Duke Ellington Memorial by sculptor Robert Graham (who was lunching at Danny's on a recent weekday). Famous artists, movie actors and politicians are depicted in a genial wall painting by Rip Cronk, whose murals such as the portrait of Jim Morrison are a part of the local landscape.
Danny's ever-improving kitchen has been charged with no easy task: producing contemporary versions of homey Jewish standards along with a selection of chophouse favorites, beachy Mediterranean-inflected offerings and accessible brunch and happy-hour dishes.
The menu is perhaps too broad, but it's carefully designed and shows a good understanding of what the neighborhood's diners-out, be they Venetians or visitors, are looking for.
Think of Danny's as where the deli meets the brew pub. It's great to step in from the over-stimulation on the boardwalk and be able to order an old-school martini, a microbrew or a glass of wine and a bowl of steamed Manila clams.
There's a happy-hour menu offered between 4 and 6 p.m. of snacks such as fries, hummus and pita. "Venice artist meals" — half-orders of selected menu items such as rotisserie chicken or fish and chips — are just $7. You can get breakfast until 3 p.m.
The neighborhood's so hungry for a spot like Danny's that even though the place opened very quietly (in late December), it's been discovered by many and prematurely dismissed by some. There are often problems with service, so don't come if you're in a hurry or feeling put-upon. Staffers are inexperienced, and delays and order mistakes are common. But apologies and amendments are conscientiously made.
Dinner entrees are among the best dishes. Baked white fish is a terrific comfort-food update, a mild but meaty, breaded fillet served with a deliciously herbal dill, cucumber and tomato relish. Short ribs are tender and flavorful with a rich mushroom sauce.
Sandwiches are satisfying and adroitly prepared with none of that sky-high nonsense that turns a turkey sandwich into an aptitude test. The Reuben has a good portion of juicy grilled beef or turkey pastrami and just the right amount of Gruyère and sauerkraut on fragrant fresh rye. The hearty falafel burger is outstanding, with a nicely spiced patty, grilled onions and crunchy sprouts.
Of the test-a-deli dishes we try, the lox platter (though it's touted on the menu) is just OK; beet salad is perfect, lightly pickled with the fresh flavors of seeds and spices; chopped liver is middling to good, rich and not too moussey. Matzo ball soup has full-bodied, delicious broth with plenty of dark-meat chicken and a judicious number of flat noodles and bits of tender-crisp carrots and squash, but the matzo balls are closer to cannonballs than clouds.
A light touch at the deep fryer means there are some terrific beer-friendly options. Thin, crunchy, house-made potato chips are delectable (but add salt to taste) and enough arrive in the "gondola" to serve four to six for noshing.
Breakfast and brunch menus offer remarkably seductive custard-style challah French toast and excellent house-made corned beef hash.
In the first months that Danny's was open, the deli case was often bewilderingly empty except for a few small bowls of salads. Now there are more salads as well as meats and cheeses on display.
But the kitchen, not the delicatessen, is the center of action at Danny's, and as that kitchen is more consistently able to deliver on chef Shari Lynne Robins' well-conceived menu, the distinction won't be important.
In the meantime, I'm happy to report that the good, crisp, garlic dill pickles are up to snuff.
Danny's Venice Deli
Location: 23 Windward Ave., Venice, (310) 566-5610. www.dannysvenicedeli.com.
Price: Breakfast dishes, $6.50 to $17.50; brunch specials, $12 to $17.50; lunch-menu sandwiches, $6.75 to $14.50; happy-hour specials, $3.50; Venice "artist meals," $7; kid's menu (younger than 10), $7; dinner entrees, $13 to $25.
Best dishes: Falafel burger, beet salad, baked whitefish, Reuben sandwich, fish and chips, challah French toast, corned beef hash Benedict.
Details: Open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday until 11 p.m. Validated parking. Full bar. Major credit cards.