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Landmark Deli's Comeback Special : Business: Last week's reopening of Art's, a legendary show-biz hangout in Studio City, promises to revitalize a stretch of Ventura Boulevard.

October 24, 1994|JON D. MARKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pastrami rose from the ashes last week.

Nine months and a day after its fiery destruction in a Northridge earthquake aftershock--long enough to have a baby, long enough to whet a million appetites--Art's Deli reopened on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.

More than a birth, it was the rebirth of a San Fernando Valley and show-biz institution--a return from limbo for an entire neighborhood badly smashed in January.

"What was it like around here without Art's? A four-letter word: D-e-a-d ," said Marty Petersil, 52, owner of The Flask liquor store a few blocks away. "That proved, as if anyone doubted it, that this is the hub of the boulevard."

Added his friend, lawyer Hugh Lipton, 51: "You knew it was bad around here when you could always find a parking space."

Parking was scarce again Wednesday morning, even at 6:30 a.m., as friends and customers drove in from as far away as Simi Valley, Newhall and Culver City to line up outside in the chilly dawn for a chance to have eggs and onions, maybe some lox (could it hurt?), and welcome their mishpocheh , their family, back to life.

Art Ginsburg himself--the restaurant's owner, maitre d', godfather, impresario--looked as high as a helium-filled balloon, his feet barely tethered to the ground, a rose pinned to his blue dress shirt.

"I was so excited this morning that my legs were shaking," he said.

The deli, founded 37 years ago with a few tables and a long counter, survived the main shock of the Jan. 17 quake with only a cracked front wall. At 3 a.m. the following day, however, an aftershock caused an electrical fire that burned it down. Ginsburg arrived with family members just in time to see flames shoot through the roof.

"We cried and watched it go--and then smiles came across our faces and we began to plan what we wanted to fix!" said Ginsburg. "It was like watching a child get hurt, then it was like watching it in the hospital getting chicken soup as the workmen built it back up from scratch."

The Ginsburg family credits its accountant, David Levi, with quickly developing the menu for recovery: Hire a contractor, wrangle with a recalcitrant insurance company and lobby their councilman for help with a variance on city parking requirements (the deli has only six spots--the city originally demanded 65).

On Wednesday, Levi the consigliere sat at a table of honor with Ginsburg's son-in-law and other regulars. Between bites of poppy-seed bagels and sips of hot coffee, they showed off the new wainscoting, the graceful wood chairs ("Roberta picked them out, you like 'em?"), the shiny white-and-black tiled floor. And they toasted their new fire walls and foundation.

"It's haimisch , it's homey, it's like a big Jewish family here," said Manny Celnik, a veteran barber who said he attended Art's opening in 1957. "My wife Goldie and I missed it when it was closed; we didn't go anywhere else. We waited! Fish like this you cannot find."

Such a cluster of celebrity noshing, too, you shall not find--at least for breakfast. Now, you want name dropping? No Ginsburg would hesitate to oblige.

Producer Ivan Reitman is a regular, said Ginsburg's son-in-law, and so are MCA chief Lew Wasserman, producer John Landis, comedian Steve Martin and actors Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Asner and Rob Lowe. Warner Bros. has a regular Saturday table; their late chief Steve Ross had Art's cater meals to his corporate jet.

Numerous CBS television shows order up to 200 lunches a day. The restaurant lets 500 individuals and businesses keep running accounts.

The waitresses are proud of their boss and proud of their customers. Kitty Sherman called Ginsburg "the greatest boss in the world," then caught sight of a favorite ponytailed customer and alternately whispered and yelled:

"He's O.J. and coffee. . . . How ya doin' honey! . . . I remember when he came to town and drove a truck. Now he's a millionaire--a real Hollywood story!"

Remarkably, all but four employees returned to the restaurant. During rebuilding, they received unemployment insurance checks for a while, then Federal Emergency Management Agency money.

Now neighborhood businesses are likewise waiting to reap the reward of having the deli back. By some merchants' estimates, business on the block is down 40% since Art's 1,000 customers a day stopped walking off their meals by window-shopping along Ventura Boulevard.

Said Valley Gem Shop co-owner Susan Frieder: "I have a feeling of completion now after the earthquake. With Art's back, and people looking in our door again, you feel like things will finally get back to normal."

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