Ben’s In the News

December, 1996

 Jonathan Mark/ The Jewish Week

Lou, Meet Ben

Five months after Lou G. Siegel’s ended its legendary, Runyonesque 70-year stint as the granddaddy of all fleishig restaurants, a young deli operator from Long Island, Ronnie Dragoon, has moved into Siegel’s old space at 209 w. 38th St. with a kosher restaurant all his own — Ben’s, his seventh deli with that name, and his first in New York City.
Why call it Ben’s? Why not Ronnie’s? Dragoon, 48, explains that Ben is his father: “What kind of kosher deli would be named Ronnie’s? It has to be either Ben, Abe, Max or Sam.”

Dragoon is respectful to his predecessor, while asserting himself as the spiritual heir. A bronze plaque informs passers-by that on this site was “The Lou G. Siegel’s restaurant, built in 1926 by Irving Herschenfeld, builder, rebuilt in 1996 as Ben’s Kosher Restaurant by his son Edwin Herschenfeld, builder.”

But Dragoon doesn’t want to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. Ben’s, says Dragoon, will be “less expensive, less elitist. [Siegel’s] could only feed well-to-do Jews. Our dinners are half the price.”

The restaurant — whose kashrut is supervised by Rabbi Israel Mayer HaLevi Steinberg of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinical Alliance of America — is open on Shabbat, through a halachic allowance premised on the fact “that no Jews light the fires [ovens or stoves] on Shabbos,” says Dragoon. “and only gentiles prepare the foods.” Because traditional Jews will rarely eat in a Jewish-owned restaurant that is open on Shabbat, Dragoon says “We sell Ben’s to a gentile” for the duration of every Shabbat,” so on that day it is still Ben’s but not Dragoon’s, similar to the concept of selling chametz before Passover.

The shelves above counter are lined with ketchup, mustard, pickled red peppers, tea boxes, bottles of Ben’s private-label root beer, and Ben’s private-label 100-percent pure natural spring water from a source in the Catskill Mountains, near Kiamesha. Fountain service is available, for those who crave a shpritz of seltzer with parve chocolate syrup.

The architecture is traditional yet startling, as might be expected from the Haverson firm, designers of the Motown Cafe and other theme restaurants. The old Siegel’s facade, once heavy with travertine marble, has been replaced by extensive glass, allowing a sidewalk view of the deli counter and the main dining room. The floors are splashed with terrazzo imprints of coffee flowing from a coffee cup, a big green pickle by the deli queue, a 10-foot-long violin, an uncorked champagne bottle. The multi-hued banquettes and booths are high-backed with the curves of a cello’s waist.

The ceiling is an illuminated Chagall-esque mural depicting everything from the old Lou G. Siegel’s façade to cops and robbers, and a pair of ducats — spelled out in Yiddish.

Hey, enough with the interior decorators. This is a deli, and it looks like a very nice deli. The stuffed cabbage and the cold cuts are the right color (and the right taste) and that’s all anyone has to know. The music being piped in is Jewish music. Dragoon is everywhere, bussing tables, making sandwiches, shmoozing, doing business.

The king is dead. Long live the king.