10 September 2005
475 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA

Please note: This selection was accepted under protest. I maintain that Saul’s is not a legitimate Jewish deli, but a deli-themed restaurant, and should not therefore be included in this search. But I was outvoted.

Atmosphere: If Disneyland were to open Jewish-deli-land. Mom, can I get a Mr. Half-Sour doll, pleeaaase? Also, don’t get me wrong, I love booths, but Saul’s are so tiny and cramped, it’s forced footsie with your table-mate every time.
Attitude: Server who seated us has her share, and seemed like a gem, but our server was a bit too nice for my taste. And is it absolutely horrible for me to question her legitimacy as a deli server simply because she’s skinny? I mean, how am I supposed to trust someone working at a deli who’s that skinny? That’s like trusting a vegetarian to write Jewish deli reviews.
Food [general]: Any chance I can get some egg salad in my dill sandwich? Served, by default, on (decent) challah, which I actually kind of liked. Nice change of pace from the rye. Fries were decent—the thin variety—but undercooked. Oh, and that’s a large order? Really. Oh, and yeah, I hear their matzoh ball soup isn’t bad. Wonderful. Nice work.
Pickles: The fact that they’re full sours isn’t the problem. I think it’s that they’re mushy and not good.
Dr. Brown’s black cherry: Hey, even Disneyland gets it right sometimes.
Prices: Like Walt’s palace, it’s overpriced.
Summary: It’s not a deli. sometimes, it’s comforting to confirm something you’ve known all along.

Please note: Jonathan isn’t kidding about his protesting. He put up quite a fuss about this particular adventure. Though we all agreed that Saul’s does not meet our own definition of a Jewish deli, Saul’s considers itself a Jewish deli, and markets itself as such. In the spirit of comprehensive research, it felt wrong to omit Saul’s “deli museum.”

Atmosphere: Katz’ it ain’t, but Saul’s is completely acceptable. Certainly the cutesy romanticization of Jewish cultural iconography is nigh upon tasteless (thank God they nixed the New York City theme… that was simply painful), but what Saul’s lacks in genuine character it makes up for in its refreshing cleanliness. Now, while cleanliness is not on the list of essential deli qualities, delis and cleanliness need not be mutually exclusive, and Saul’s is pleasantly clean and bright. But beyond being clean, there’s not much to rave about: it’s a loud and crowded family restaurant with only a shadow more subtlety than a Denny’s.
Attitude: Berkeley. not the raving activist Berkeley, but the tepid, non-threatening, humorless Berkeley. You’ll get more edge in a handful of tapioca pudding than you will from the staff at Saul’s. Add to that that the service is unreliable and preoccupied — must I skywrite for more coffee? – and you get a pretty unimpressive human resources experience.
Food [general]: Fine, but in no way special. The pastrami was passable—flavorful, if unmemorable, but to compare it to something like Langer’s in LA is like comparing castanets to a bear trap. Tt’s more like a tribute to pastrami; a karaoke version. The fries are excellent, but fries are my own fetish, and have no place in the real deli evaluation. One grievous problem: egg cream. mine came to the table unmixed and under-chocolated. A $4 egg cream should reinvent the drink; instead, I contemplated not finishing it (I did, of course, finish it).
Pickles: Too “green” for my tastes. I don’t want to taste that they were ever cucumbers.
Prices: These guys must really have Berkeley in their back pocket. Managing to stay consistently packed and well-reputed while charging $10+ for mediocre sandwich plates is some kind of achievement.
Summary: Saul’s is an overpriced novelty act celebrating nostalgia and caution. It would take but a nudge to make it into a Johnny Rocket’s or Mel’s Diner. It’s a place to go to feed family in from out of town, or a group with divergent tastes; it is not a place to pursue a deli experience.