Jim’s Deli and the Nostalgia of Hope

I’ll Have What I’m Having

Maybe it was Eddie Money shouting Take. Me. Home. TONIGHT. on the speakers, or the clinking of metal spatulas on a 4-person griddle. Maybe it was the abundance of green vinyl booths in the absence of tables, or the cafeteria trays whereon the jocular line cooks with slicked-back hair will place your chosen sandwich. 

Was it the Reuben I ordered, a fortress of crisp, dark rye bread housing the precarious load of sauerkraut, pastrami, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing that, for some reason, reminded me of When Harry Met Sally? Or, maybe it was the absolute lack of signage denoting a pandemic that made me feel, for a brief and beautiful meal, that I wasn’t in 2020 but in 1989.

I, of course, wasn’t alive in the ‘80s. All I have to go off of are the action movies my father’s shown me and a recent revival of ‘80s nostalgia. The sleek boxiness of an ’88 Quattro, big windbreakers and even bigger hair, and optimism—that sweet, sweet optimism. To feel on top of the world, Reuben in hand, is a unique elation. So, it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that Jim’s Deli, a Brighton cultural institution, was opened by brothers Jim and Nick Tziavas in 1985. 

Jim, fittingly, is the first person you see upon entering. He’ll take a break from slicing some steak, pouring some pancakes, or building a burger and ask what he can get for you. You’ll say anything from eggs and bacon to a Pu pu platter, and he’ll oblige.

You wait, and as you in your patience look around the restaurant, you’ll see a large mural depicting old Brighton, with a pair of anachronous train tracks rolling down the middle. The road to Jim’s was long and flanked by history turned nostalgic as time floats lazily by. Your thoughts are interrupted by Jim calling out the name of whatever you ordered, and you put it on your green tray and make your way to the register. 

Nick Tziavas is probably the last person you’ll interact with during your lunchtime odyssey. He’ll ask if you want anything to drink—coffee, soda, water, tea—and he’ll give it to you in an opaque pebbled tumbler, red, the kind you only see at a restaurant. You’ll find a booth that fits your preference and mood: by the window, closer to the kitchen, by the line, by the mural. You’ll carry your abundance there, sit down with your sandwich and fries and single pickle. The low winter sunlight streams in through the window, casting a sharp angular shadow on your adjacent wall. You take in the warmth from all around you, and take a bite. That was my experience, anyways.

There was a brief feeling, somewhere after the last bite of the first half of the Reuben, where Every Breath You Take by The Police was playing, and I felt excited for the future. It wasn’t the foreboding, COVID-abundant winter, or the special, Dustin Hoffman-type terror of graduation. I had the other half of the Reuben and my pickle to finish, and I felt genuinely happy about the small joys that were yet to come. 

I was able to abstract this feeling into my whole life on the walk back. With the synth-fueled optimism of Rick Springfield and Laura Branigan coursing through my veins alongside the Thousand Island dressing, I felt energized for the trials ahead.

The Jim’s Deli experience is a beloved one because it’s the feeling of a pat on the back. It’s the feeling of reward after a tribulation passed, and the feeling of invigoration that comes from reaching a view on your journey upwards. 

Jim and Nick are restaurateurs indebted to the era in which they began, an era home to much of the over-the-top optimism that we need nowadays. Some may call it kitsch, some may even call it camp; I’ll call it the feeling of doing 80 in your red Chevy Camaro, not a care in the world, on the road towards your uncertainly happy future, Eddie Money blasting carelessly on the radio.

Cover photo courtesy of Yelp.

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