On the Side: Funny, it still looks like Murray's

Murray's Deli, the Bala Cynwyd fixture, has long derived its identity not so much from its decor or menu of Jewish deli standards, but from its proximity - less than a block away - to competing Hymie's Deli, the older of the two (at this location), but the more recently updated.

You won't find locals bragging that Murray's or Hymie's are exemplars of the best deli they've ever tasted. But they both reliably have kosher-style pickles and hot corned beef, matzo ball soup and Sunday morning bagels, smoked fish, Hebrew National salami, and, well, the usual.

More than that, they field servers who are brusque enough, or in some cases downright surly enough, to satisfy a craving for New York deli authenticity.

So the news last week that old-school Murray's was being sold was bound to set tongues wagging in parts of Bala, Lower Merion, and the monied lower Main Line.

That it was being bought, though, by the Wakim brothers, the enterprising Lebanese family who own (among other eateries) Al Dar Bistro next door, set them wagging overtime.

And nowhere more freely, to be sure, than in the tired padded booths of venerable Murray's itself.

One morning last week, a Jewish grandmother, her two grandchildren toying with challah French toast, was moved to pass mistaken judgment: "They say Greek people own it," she said of Al Dar. "I don't care who owns it; I'm not coming in for a corned beef sandwich!"

The fact that the Wakims haven't been ready to disclose their entire business plan had left big blanks that the locals are happy to fill. (The brothers - Joseph, George and Michel - are not Greek, of course, but Lebanese Christians, whose family has owned olive groves in Lebanon's northern Koura region for 400 years. The olive oil on the tables at Al Dar, in fact, is from the family's ancient groves.)

In a booth closer to the kitchen from the Jewish grandmother, Michel Wakim himself was consulting with an associate in a baseball cap by the name of Sean.

No, he said, Murray's wouldn't close for renovations, as one employee had just told me: A cosmetic "freshening up" would be completed during off-hour shifts, from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m.

No, he said, it wasn't going to be in any way, shape or form an extension of Al Dar's: It was going to be a Jewish deli - Murray's Deli, with all the mainstay dishes, but nicer booths.

He called Joseph on his cell phone. Joseph was even more adamant. The menu would be tweaked, yes. He'd add some healthier, lighter dishes, some new dinner specials, some food to bring in a younger crowd.

But it was still going to be Murray's Deli, shaped by the "community," which - in stretches of Bala and Lower Merion - is informed not simply by a tradition of secular Jews, but increasingly a visible presence of soberly dressed Orthodox.

Indeed, Joseph adds, 10 of the investors in the reinvented Murray's are Jewish neighbors, hardly a signal that its deli roots are being disregarded.

So, he says, where's the evidence of an identify crisis? The knishes will stay. The sides of Nova, too. The egg salad, and the big, black-and-white cookies.

Is it such a sin, then, that the Wakims plan more dinner specials; home delivery; and, the capacity, heaven forfend, to process credit cards?

No, Michel answers from his booth. And 'no' to those - including the cashier at Hymie's that very morning - who insist that Murray's Jewish deli days are over.

"Stop the demagoguery!" he blurts, jumping to his feet.

He laughs at Sean's double-take.

"You didn't think," he says, "I knew that word?"


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols