If you want to understand Jewish culture, start with our people’s food. Jewish food is strongly linked to the history of the Jewish diaspora (picking up flavors and techniques from the places through which Jews have traveled), family values, and religious practices. Dishes like latkes, for example, reflect Ashkenazi Jewish migration but also religious elements of the Chanukah miracle.
That’s why San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum has a fantastic tool to assist in telling Jewish stories: its museum restaurant, which is run by Wise Sons.
A Rare Bay Area Deli
Wise Sons is my favorite Jewish deli in the Bay Area. It’s hard to find true Jewish deli food around here. There are a few places that make it onto many peoples’ lists, like Saul’s in Berkeley. But deli in the Bay Area definitely isn’t the constant presence that you see in New York, and to a lesser extent Los Angeles. I love to visit Wise Sons’ flagship location in the Mission and their outpost in Lafayette, but the location at the CJM feels almost perfect. You can visit the museum and use a stop at the restaurant as a sensory journey into the Jewish experience, before embarking on a mental/intellectual one in the museum itself.
Wise Sons offers all the traditional deli dishes I grew up eating on the East Coast. They largely resist the urge to California-ize everything (the kimchi Reuben being a notable exception) instead hewing to classics. One of my favorite dishes on their menu is a simple pastrami sandwich, with slices of house-cured meat stacked on rye bread.
Each table at Wise Sons comes equipped with bottles of deli mustard that you can squeeze all over your pastrami sandwich, completing the classic deli combo. Wise Sons’ pastrami sandwich only has three ingredients, but it’s a beautifully executed deli staple that evokes all kinds of deli memories for Jews like me.
If you want something a little more schmaltzy, Wise Sons’ Reuben’s are excellent too. They’re topped with Russian dressing, melted cheese, and homemade sauerkraut, taking the restaurant’s pastrami to a new (and decidedly un-Kosher) level.
A Jewish Food Greatest Hits
Another thing I love about Wise Sons is their willingness to serve Jewish classics outside their normal season. Traditionally, Jewish food is closely tied to the ever-repeating loop of Jewish holidays. Many Jews spend December and occasionally November shredding and frying potatoes for Chanukah latkes (again, the frying in oil reflects religious aspects of the holiday) and then don’t eat Chanukah food for the rest of the year. To be able to order delicious latkes with the traditional sides of sour cream and apple sauce in April is thrilling.
The same goes for other dishes at Wise Sons, like their yummy matzo ball soup. That’s a dish normally served during the week of Passover, but it’s a delicious, hearty soup, and there’s really no reason not to eat it year-round. Wise Sons’ menu feels a bit like a “greatest hits” of the Jewish food world. For a Jew, going there is kind of like going to a restaurant that serves Thanksgiving dinner year-round—unconventional, but fantastic!
Wise Sons’ menu reflects other things about Jewish foodways and food culture. Their menu leads with the text “Eat something, you look skinny!”, a line uttered by countless bubbies (Jewish grandmothers) over the years. Feeding others is an essential part of Jewish culture. As a teenager, I remember coming back to a friend’s house around 11 pm after a concert. His mother—bleary-eyed from sleep and drifting downstairs to say welcome us back—worried that we looked hungry and offered to roast us a chicken right on the spot, despite us being the middle of the night. She was deadly serious.
The Brilliance (and Limitations) of CJM’s Cafe
That’s the brilliance of serving fantastic Jewish food right in the lobby of a Jewish museum. It draws you into the Jewish experience in an immediate and visceral way, making you an active participant in the Jewish story (and if you come from a Jewish background, evoking all kinds of memories of your own upbringing and experiences.) Once you’ve tasted Wise Sons’ pastrami sandwich or crunched on one of their pickles, you’re perfectly primed to explore the CJM’s excellent exhibits and dive headlong into Jewish learning.
Although Wise Sons is a hugely beneficial addition to the CJM, there are some challenges. Wise Sons’ menu primarily reflects Ashkenazi Jewish food (the cuisine of Jews hailing from Eastern Europe.) Sephardic Jewish foods like chreime or bourekas, as well as Israeli specialties, are largely absent from Wise Sons’ menu.
That’s likely because most traditional deli food comes from the Ashkenazi tradition, but given Wise Sons’ place in representing Jewish cuisine in the context of a museum, some Jews may feel that their traditional dishes have been left out of the story.
As long as you understand Wise Sons’ limitations in telling the whole story of Jewish food culture, the restaurant is not only a great place to stop for a hearty lunch before heading into the CJM—it’s a crucial part of the overall museum experience. If you want to learn about Jewish culture and history, head to the CJM and be sure to stop at Wise Sons first. You can learn a lot about Judaism from the museum’s three floors of exhibits. But there’s a lot to learn from a plate of chopped liver or a bowl of matzo ball soup, too.