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A Counter Culture Dies : Zucky's Deli Suddenly Closes After 39 Years in Santa Monica

February 16, 1993|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a few hours, Zucky's Delicatessen in Santa Monica will be going out of business and Bob Shapiro, who is eating a pastrami sandwich at a corner table, is trying to console his mother, who has just finished the roast chicken. He mentions another deli in Santa Monica she might like.

"Their soup is too salty," Ethyl Shapiro says, shaking her head.

He suggests a second deli.

"Their corned beef is too fatty," she says.

The son thinks for a moment and then mentions a third deli, in West Los Angeles.

"They do you a favor by waiting on you," she says, dismissing the restaurant with a wave of the hand.

For Ethyl Shapiro and other faithful customers who learned Monday afternoon that Zucky's would be closing that night, it will not be easy to find another delicatessen with the same melange of counter camaraderie, lean corned beef and devoted waitresses. Zucky's has been a landmark on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and 5th Street for 39 years, and customers and employees were stunned at the suddenness of the decision to shut down.

The owners informed the manager Monday that the restaurant would close, the manager told the employees, and the waitresses told the customers. As the evening progressed, and closing time grew closer, the ambience grew increasingly funereal. Waitresses moped about. Some customers cried. Others just bid final farewells to waitresses and cooks.

Norma Barfield, who worked the counter at Zucky's for 31 years, has been serving some regulars for so long she considers them more friends than customers. She spent Monday night calling to tell them not to bother coming in this morning.

"I didn't want them just to see that the place was shut down. . . . I wanted to tell them myself," she said. "Some elderly people only leave the house to come to Zucky's; some people with no families eat all their meals here. We're like family to them."

Last month the county health department inspected the restaurant and ordered the owners to make a number of expensive renovations, said Jamil Sayabalian, Zucky's manager. The renovations, and the remodeling and repairs that have been needed for years, would cost more than $500,000.

The owners were unwilling to make that kind of investment, he said, so they decided to shut the restaurant down. The owners could not be reached for comment. Sayabalian said he did not know why the decision was made so suddenly.

But the news left many employees angry and confused. One busboy with five children discovered that he would be unemployed in eight hours.

"It was a lousy way to do it," said waitress Susan Kilker. "I just found out about it today. No severance pay. No time to find another job. No nothing."

Bill Mendlen, who was sitting at the counter, had planned to eat dinner at home and watch the President's speech, but when a friend told him Zucky's was closing he hurried over to enjoy a final meal. He considers the pastrami and eggs--at $6.35--too pricey and normally would not order the dish. But Monday night, he ordered it.

"I might as well splurge," he said, shrugging. "I'll never get this chance again."

The closure of Zucky's, he said, is another grim sign of the "yuppification" of Santa Monica. When he moved to the city almost 30 years ago, there were dozens of places like Zucky's, family style restaurants and coffee shops and delis, establishments with counters and daily specials and reasonable prices. Now, he said, they are all dying off, one by one.

Zucky's opened in 1946, facing the former pier at Pacific Ocean Park, and was named after one of the owner's wives, whose maiden name was Zuckerman. The restaurant thrived during the summer because of the activities at the pier, but slowed down in the winter, so the owners moved to its present location.

Seven years ago, the current owners purchased Zucky's, and during the past few years, even the most devoted customers acknowledge that the restaurant has deteriorated.

"Sure there were some problems, but we came here for more than the food," said Jim Sharfman, pushing aside his bowl of borscht. "For a lot of us, the place just felt like home."

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