Not Really a Deli

But discovering a great deli sandwich during a great summer festival is quite nice

Being a fan of George Gershwin (and American popular song in general), Broadway, Yiddish theater, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Michael Tilson Thomas, I couldn't resist the San Francisco Symphony's summer festival, Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice, which featured all of the above, spread out over four programs in slightly more than a week's time. What a feast!

I managed to cobble together tickets to everything, even though the jewel of the series, Thomas' labor of love devoted to the work of his grandparents, "The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater," was sold out long before I was aware of it. A week or so prior, the symphony added an open rehearsal of the program, on the morning of its evening performance. Score!

The eternal student in me demanded that I show up early for the first event, semistaged productions of Gershwin's politically themed musicals Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake, so that I could attend the pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m., even though I know from experience that trudging up to my seat in the gods after listening to the lecture from a prime orchestra seat (generally third or fourth row on the aisle; why not, it's free) is rather dispiriting. It feels like I'm suddenly looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Still, the view was decent from my first-tier seat, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cleverly staged minimusicals, beautifully mounted and wittily costumed, with (above all) a wonderfully performed score. I shared a seat rest with a rather cherubic grandpa who turned out to be named Cohen, and, like landsmen everywhere, we began to talk during the intermission about food, more specifically Jewish food, after he made the inevitable Jews-don't-drink joke: "Did you notice how easy it was to get a drink before the show tonight?" (I need to put together a list of famous Jewish alcoholics to have on hand when faced with this base canard. Or maybe just carry around a copy of Lillian Roth's I'll Cry Tomorrow.)

The sign on the door says, "CRITICS NOT 
WELCOME," but ours loves the brisket 
sandwich at Max's Opera Cafe.
James Sanders
The sign on the door says, "CRITICS NOT WELCOME," but ours loves the brisket sandwich at Max's Opera Cafe.

Location Info



Matzo ball soup $5.50/cup, $8.50/bowl

Pastrami sandwich $10.95

Brisket sandwich $10.95

Cup of soup & half-sandwich $1 less than price of full sandwich


Open Sunday through Tuesday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday until 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:30 p.m.

No reservations

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 47, 49

Noise level: moderate to high

601 Van Ness (at Golden Gate)

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We both bemoaned the lack of good delicatessen, listing the disappointing local purveyors that masquerade as Jewish delis, when he surprised me by saying, "I like Max's. They do a good pastrami." "Maybe I'll go there after the show," I said, whereupon he cautioned me: "I like the Max's in Palo Alto better than the one down the street."

I wasn't going to drive down the Peninsula just on Mr. Cohen's say-so (though after a few minutes' conversation I trusted him implicitly). As it happened, I didn't show up at Max's that night: I was still too full from the cheese plate I'd eaten during the half-hour in between the lecture and the performance. It's my favorite item offered on the abbreviated and not particularly interesting menu at the Davies Hall snack bar: chunks of four cheeses, including brie and a very mild goat cheese, slices of undistinguished baguette, a couple of prunes, a couple of dried apricots, and some grapes, for $11. (I always wonder why, in this food-obsessed city, the catering at Davies is done by a Los Angeles-based outfit.)

A week later, I was walking down Grove on my way to the morning rehearsal of "The Thomashefskys," and as I passed by the windows of Citizen Cake, I saw lots of people, looking content, scarfing down pastries and coffee. I was tempted to join them, but the skinflint in me won out: Every open rehearsal I've been to at the symphony has featured free coffee and doughnuts.

But not this one, as it turned out. I had left the house uncaffeinated and unfed, and was facing the unappetizing prospect of remaining in this state until 1 in the afternoon. But when the rehearsal started, a real dress rehearsal that duplicated that evening's performance in full, I forgot my stomach, and everything else: I was so completely taken by the magical world in front of me. A real multimedia presentation, the production used slide projections, recordings, film clips, and multiple cast members to re-create the glamorous Yiddish theater milieu of the Thomashefskys.

Even though the final glimpse of Boris, who ended his career tummling between courses at a Romanian restaurant on the Lower East Side, awakened memories of the fabulous skirt steak, greeben (cracklings), and liquid schmaltz in a pitcher (to be poured on chopped liver, mashed potatoes, or any damn thing you want) available to this day at Sammy's Roumanian on Chrystie and Delancey in NYC, I still didn't find my way to Max's.

That was saved for the next night, after I'd enjoyed the Copland-Bernstein program. As I walked up Van Ness, I knew what I was going to order: kreplach soup and a brisket sandwich. Just I was about to enter, I remembered why I'd never eaten at Max's. Emblazoned on the door, right beneath the listing of the place's hours, was the following screed: CRITICS NOT WELCOME.

I'd first read those words a couple of years ago, when I wandered into Max's hoping I might grab some takeout after a movie at the adjacent Opera Plaza multiplex. (I remember thinking, "If you were proud of your food, wouldn't you say, 'CRITICS WELCOME'?") The menu at Max's is long, very long, but, despite its question-begging, hubristic slogan, "Everything You've Always Wanted to Eat," I didn't end up ordering anything that night.

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