Playful nostalgia and refined classics at S&P Lunch

“I’m looking for that old New York flavor you don’t see anymore,” says an anonymous narrator in a YouTube clip titled “Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop – Opened in 1929 and still going strong.” In shaky footage, filmed in 1991 at the Jewish-style lunch counter near the Flatiron Building, two good-natured bastards engage in questions about their jobs between answering calls on a rotary phone and shoveling ice into plastic cups, now dutifully a disappearing way of life.

For legal reasons, Eisenberg’s name could not be revived with space; when the place first opened, in 1928, it was called S&P Sandwich Shop.

Thirty years later, the rotary phone needs a new ringtone and the place is under new management, and yet: the prognosis for that old New York flavor is good. While Eisenberg never achieved the international fame of, say, Katz’s or the Carnegie Deli, he earned a cult following with his tuna fondues and matzo dumpling soup, and, more importantly, by never seeming to change a little. When, in 2021, the owner of the building looked for a new tenant to take over the torch (the previous one would have missed the rent), dozens applied. Among them, the best possible winners emerged: Eric Finkelstein and Matt Ross, the sandwich experts and playful nostalgists behind Court Street Grocers and the HiHi Room.

With their latest venture, Finkelstein and Ross are proving to be gifted curators as well as shrewd restorers. For legal reasons, they had to drop the Eisenberg’s name, but historical research solved the problem: before it was Eisenberg’s, it was briefly called S&P Sandwich Shop, after the founders. This reintegration is just one example of the couple’s deft efforts to distill the very essence of the boutique. They rehired longtime staff members, like Jodi Freedman-Viera, who had worked at the registry for about 15 years. They’ve beautified the interior, but not so much that it doesn’t look like it used to: cozy and clean but decidedly worn around the edges, the original forty-foot counter intact and lined with vinyl swivel stools. The menu has been reduced, but it still seems encyclopedic in the tradition of a short diner, with about three dozen sandwiches, including burgers. The classics haven’t been updated so much as painstakingly perfected. “It’s like, in your brain, when you eat something, how do you want it to taste,” Ross told me recently. “That’s our goal.”

Many New Yorkers have never heard of Eisenberg’s, and yet it has earned a cult following with its Jewish deli standards, including matzo dumpling soup.

I would really like to eat at S&P every day. Some of my happiest moments lately have been spent marveling at the glory of dishes I took for granted: half a ripe cantaloupe, seeded and filled with cottage cheese, a bowl of lightly seasoned iceberg lettuce topped with ‘a scoop of salad with eggs, cream cheese and chopped green olives (a surprisingly exciting combination) on fluffy white bread. I dug into chicken liver with saltines; I sipped a cherry-lime rickey so sweet it made my teeth hurt. I ordered my first, but certainly not my last, Dusty Miller, a remarkably unphotogenic sundae, with vanilla ice cream, a dollop of marshmallow fluff, chocolate syrup and malt powder. One afternoon, I was moved close to tears by the sight of a middle-aged man with glasses enjoying, solo, a massive slice of carrot cake and a cup of tea while crocheting.

The new owners resisted the temptation to elevate one of the lowly offerings, instead focusing on refining the classics to their purest essence.

Look up to the left while sitting at the counter and you will see, where the ceiling drops, a small old-looking door with a sign that says ‘no admission’. I had been to Eisenberg several times; how had I never noticed this before? The answer was that it was only recently installed, a cheeky design, to cover an air conditioning hatch. “A number of people said, ‘I’m so glad you left that door there,'” Finkelstein told me with a laugh. “On Instagram people have posted things like ‘So glad they kept the fries’ or ‘The pastrami is exactly as I remember it.’ “Cottage fries are new to the menu; the pastrami is from another producer. “It’s really interesting to talk to people who have spent a lot of time in this space, way more than we ever have, and how much information is completely misremembered,” Ross said. “Everyone has this memory, and we fill that memory in weird ways.” (Sandwiches $6-$19.) ♦