A trio of childhood friends with deep roots in Chicago hospitality have turned their teenage dreams of co-owning a restaurant into reality with Mensch’s Deli, their new Ashkenazi-style Jewish diner and delicatessen in suburban Evanston.

Look for Eastern European Jewish staples including house-made pastrami, corned beef, smoked fish, and blintzes, Mensch’s opened Wednesday, July 3 at 1608 Chicago Avenue in the former home of diner stalwart Golden Olympic, which closed in 2021 after more than half a century in business.

Founders Jack DeMar, Eric Kogan, and Kiki Eliopoulos, who grew up together in suburban Wilmette, launched Mensch’s last year as a pop-up out of Picnic, DeMar’s carryout and delivery-only salad spot near Northwestern University. They were pleased to discover that locals were positively ravenous for Mensch’s, buying as many as 300 bagels in a single day.

“Excitement and demand were so great that we realized there’s a hole in the market,” says DeMar, also behind fast-casual suburban spot Pono Ono Poke. The trio began to shift their vision toward a permanent location, one that’s “not just a Jewish deli in terms of matzo ball soup or smoked fish by the pound — [it’s] more about the diner side of it. There’s no place like that in Evanston anymore.”

While Jewish delis that serve items like that are scarce in Evanston, nearby Skokie is a quick drive away with contenders like Kaufman’s and New York Bagel and Bialy. Still, Mensch’s also celebrates diners with eggy breakfast dishes like corned beef scrambles and fried matzo (or matzo brei, for those in the know), as well as delicate blintzes stuffed with farmers cheese and berry jam. Open-faced bagel sandwich options include the Boychick (lox cream cheese, seasoned tomato, caraway, chives) and the Purist (nova lox from New York’s Acme Smoked Fish, onions, scallion cream cheese). On the sweet side, Eliopoulos, a pastry chef, spent a year honing baked treats like rugelach, black and white cookies, and babka. “She comes from a Greek background but that hasn’t stopped her from making Jewish cookies,” jokes DeMar, who’s also engaged to Eliopoulos.

The team is especially proud of its smoked meats and fish, the vast majority of which are brined, braised, and smoked on-site aside from salami brought in from local favorite Romanian Kosher Sausage Co. and nova lox from New York’s Acme Smoked Fish. A smoker was the founders’ biggest investment by far, says DeMar, but ultimately the proof was in the pastrami. “It tasted so different and much better than anything we’d tried — we hugged when we got it.”

The overlapping phenomena of American diners and Jewish delis have a rich history, one that is embedded in DeMar’s lineage. His great-grandfather, also named Jack DeMar, fled what is now Ukraine in the 1930s and would go on to establish a chain of DeMar’s Restaurants, which he called “chili parlors.” His strategy was to open new restaurants alongside the expanding El tracks and partner with other Jewish immigrants to grow the business and spread economic benefits.

DeMar, who estimates more than a dozen locations at its peak, likens the restaurants to Edward Hopper’s famed painting Nighthawks — an open kitchen and long counter with sandwiches, soups, and coffee. Mensch’s unites these components with three sections: a deli case, a small quick-serve dining area, and a full dining room, that seats 75 at booths and tables. It’s decorated with old family photos that Eliopoulos “meticulously” printed and framed for display on the walls, and classic deli elements like tile and vintage light fixtures.

Between the legacy of DeMar’s Restaurants and the ineffable romance of diner culture, the founders set out imbue Mench’s with more than a menu of lox and bagels (sourced from New York Bagel & Bialy). They wanted to channel menschlikhkeit, a Yiddish word with no English equivalent that describes traits associated with being a mensch, or person of fundamental honor and decency.

To capture this intangible atmosphere, Kogan, Eliopoulos, and DeMar visited New York and hit 14 Jewish delis and restaurants in just two and a half days. The fast-paced yet comforting energy of institutions Barney Greengrass, 2nd Avenue Deli, and Katz’s Delicatessen furnished ample inspiration, says Kogan, and the founders are training their staff to emulate that homey bustle.

In the weeks ahead of the deli’s debut, Evanston residents made it clear that the team needn’t worry about a lack of local interest. “People have been stopping me on the street,” says DeMar. “They’re angry we haven’t been open!”

Mensch’s Deli, 1608 Chicago Avenue in Evanston.

2024-07-09T20:28:35Z dg43tfdfdgfd