Marc Attman’s family has been piling corned beef on rye bread for generations — a lineage that he expects could end with him.
Attman’s Deli on East Lombard Street is one of the last remaining holdouts of Baltimore’s famed Corned Beef Row. The deli has outlasted a number of its peers, and continues to serve sandwiches stacked high with corned beef, pastrami, smoked turkey and other deli favorites.
But Attman said the idea of taking over the family deli hasn’t garnered much interest from younger generations.
“When I’m done, I’m done,” Attman said. “I don’t think anyone else is interested in running our business.”
His problem isn’t unique. Overall, the number of traditionally Jewish delis and kosher bakeries in Baltimore has dwindled since the 1960s heyday of Corned Beef Row, when the 1000 and 1100 blocks of East Lombard Street were peppered with merchants. The Baltimore region has seen a string of recent high-profile closures. Lenny’s Delicatessen shuttered its Lombard Street location, across the street from Attman’s, last year. Suburban House in Pikesville closed in late December. And Goldman’s Kosher Bakery in Northwest Baltimore and its sister location, Pastries Plus, closed in early January.
The number of Jewish delis nationwide has shrunken as their place in Jewish culture has become less necessary, said Ted Merwin, executive director of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill and author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”
“The deli used to be in some ways a retreat, in some sense a place for Jews in particular to be able to enjoy each other’s company where there wasn’t all that pressure of the outside world,” Merwin said.
They were also destinations for Jewish specialty foods. Now, that’s not the case. In many instances, they’re not centered around religion or even kosher foods — it’s more about a vibe. Merwin pointed to details like lettering on signs resembling Hebrew characters, Yiddish humor or sexual innuendos (for instance, the Essen Room’s slogan is, “Where size does matter”), or the friendly relationship between owners and customers.
“Part of the problem is that it’s hard to define what a Jewish deli is because now so many of the foods that were only sold in Jewish delis are sold everywhere,” Merwin said. “Jewish foods like bagels and pastrami had long ago ceased to only be in Jewish establishments; they’re now ubiquitous in our culture, you don’t have to go to a deli to get them. … Jews assimilated but also the food assimilated.”
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A number of recent deli and bakery closures have stemmed from retirements, and Attman expects his shop will one day meet the same fate. He said he’s asked his children, nieces, nephews and their children if they would be interested in taking over the family business, but he hasn’t found any takers.
Goldman’s Bakery, a kosher staple in Pikesville, closed last summer as brother and sister owners Max and Leah Cohen retired after more than 50 years in the business.
“It’s so exhausting,” Leah Cohn told the Sun in December. “I just want to relax. I want to read a book. I want to take a shower without taking a phone call. I just need some quiet time.”
That doesn’t mean Jewish delis and bakeries have disappeared from Baltimore entirely, though. At least one new establishments, the Essen Room in Pikesville, opened last year.
The food keeps drawing longtime customers and newcomers alike.
Yvette Harrison, a Catonsville resident, came to Attman’s for a corned beef sandwich on a recent Thursday. She had been coming to Jewish delis on Lombard Street since she was a child, and recalled the days when Lenny’s was bustling — before business soured there and it ultimately closed.
“It’s a piece of Baltimore. You don’t see it everywhere,” Attman said. “It’s not like our restaurant is limited to one sector. We have all ZIP codes at our business.”
Some of the same faces have been behind the deli counter at Attman’s for decades, and many customers have been coming just as long, Attman said.
“What makes it special is hearing what other people eat,” Attman said. “If you’re a first-timer, people in front of you could have been coming in there 40 years.”
Marc Combs, a drywall contractor based out of Frederick, was one of those first-time customers when he stopped in for lunch on a recent weekday. He came to Lombard Street looking for Lenny’s, and opted for Attman’s instead.
“I don’t get down to Baltimore too much, so I figured while I was down here that’s exactly what I wanted to do was stop in and get a corned beef sandwich,” Combs, 45, said.
Although Attman has watched other delis come and go, he remains optimistic. He recently invested about $400,000 updating his deli’s kitchen and seating area. And as long as his deli is open, he said he’ll keep taking care of customers.
“That’s my business,” he said. “One sandwich at a time.”
Attman’s is just one of the delis worth biting into in the Baltimore area. Here are some of the other Jewish delis and bakeries worth a visit.
The Essen Room is among the Baltimore area’s newest Jewish delis. A sister location to the Kibitz Room in Cherry Hill, N.J., the Essen Room opened last year in the former Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. space at Hooks Village.