Ode to Goldberg's
One man's Kosher-style appreciation of Atlanta's 45-year-old South African Jewish deli chain
When my younger half-sister, Shari, was growing up, she used to say that she did not keep Kosher but instead kept "Kosher-style." I knew exactly what she meant. She didn't actually abide by the strict and exact rules of Kashrut (outlawing, among other things, the mixing of milk and meat and the exquisite delicacy known and worshipped as "bacon"), but she refrained from eating anything egregiously non-Kosher, like, say, a baloney sandwich with American cheese and iceberg lettuce on Wonder bread. That would not only not be Kosher, it would be the opposite of Kosher-style.
The Atlanta-based chain Goldberg's has taken the art of Kosher-style cooking a step further. At any of their homey cafes, you can order all manner of egregiously non-Kosher things, but the vibe there is so comfortingly Jewish that you can be egregiously mixing milk and meat by, for example, eating a cheeseburger on an everything bagel with grilled onions and cheddar cheese (my personal favorite), and still feel Kosher, in spirit at least.
During the year I spent in Marietta, living in my in-laws' basement, the local Goldberg's was my home away from home, a makeshift office where I took full advantage of the free wi-fi, the electrical outlets and the refreshingly lax attitude toward me occupying a table for hours at a time. The waitstaff came to know me, but it's the kind of place where they treat you like a regular even when you're not.
It was in Marietta that I learned to enjoy the hospitality and warmth of Goldberg's servers while purposefully tuning out the overheard conversations of the locals, particularly when I'd hear words like "Trump" and "Obama." The former were never particularly critical; the latter, never complimentary enough for this former Chicago liberal's ears. I managed to stay in my progressive bubble by listening to podcasts and watching movies and working rather than hearing the thoughts of my then-neighbors. Because while I loved and still love Goldberg's, I did not feel at home in Marietta ... except when I was inside Goldberg's. The city itself was too rich and too conservative and had something against my amazing dog, Ghostface, for some reason. And when a neighborhood cannot properly appreciate an adorable Yorkie-schnauzer, something has gone horribly awry with its soul.
I'd just moved from Chicago and there was something reassuringly familiar about Goldberg's, perhaps because a Jewish-style deli in suburban Georgia by definition is going to have more in common with Jewish eateries in the Midwest and Northeast than it will other Georgia eateries. And while I fell deeply in love with Southern barbecue upon moving down South, Goldberg's is my ultimate comfort food, a perpetual reminder of Jewish meals past. Every potato pancake invites a Proust-by-way-of-Philip Roth reverie, every bite a trip back through history, both my own and the Jewish people's.
Goldberg's was, not surprisingly, one of the first suburban Atlanta institutions to make a positive impact on me when I was just visiting, a Chicagoan in love with a South African Jewish Marietta girl who had no idea that his future would involve a year-plus stint in his in-laws' basement or spending more time in the company of Goldberg's waiters and waitresses than his own family some days. The place instantly reminded me of Jewish delis I'd loved in suburban Milwaukee, like Benji's, or Chicago's legendary Manny's.
Established way back in 1972 by a father and son serving six types of New York-style boiled bagels and one po' boy, Goldberg's was eventually discovered by two Jewish immigrants from South Africa. Unable to find the type of cooking they were used to from their grandmas back in Johannesburg anywhere else in Atlanta, the pair bought the deli/bagelry and has been growing it ever since. There are now six locations dotted around metro Atlanta.
The South African influence is part of what made Goldberg's instantly feel like home for me. I am not South African by birth, but I am by marriage, and Goldberg's embodies what I find reassuring and welcoming and comforting about Atlanta's thriving, close-knit and industrious South African Jewish community. Of course, a lot of that comes down to food.
Goldberg's understands that a great Jewish deli is all about quantity as well as quality, and that there is no sin greater than letting people desperate for a nosh go hungry. The New York sized Reuben sandwich is particularly glorious in its excess, an elegantly proportioned mass of lean corned beef, Swiss cheese, rye bread and Russian dressing. This gustatory brick house is served with steak fries of perfect consistency: not too greasy, but not too dry.
This place has mastered the staples of Jewish cooking. The bagel is at the core of what it does best, doughy and moist and just salty enough. Its matzo ball soup bought back sepia-toned memories of my late aunt Ruth's home cooking, and its corned beef is exactly to my liking: tender, lean and moist, the perfect companion to rye bread, which rivals the bagel as the most Jewish bread and also, not surprisingly, is another Goldberg's carbohydrate masterpiece.
The decor at the Goldberg's where I ate and worked and lived was wonderfully random and garish in time-honored deli tradition, a low-budget and homemade tribute to the Great White Way featuring disturbingly yet fascinatingly off-brand representations of Broadway attractions like The Little Mermaid. The waitresses all seemed to have been working there since the place began, if not since the beginning of time, which only adds to the sense that this is not just a particularly nifty Jewish style deli, but every Jewish deli ever.
I haven't been back to Goldberg's much since I moved out of my in-laws' basement and to Decatur. I've eaten at the Toco Hills branch and some of the other locations, but there is a nostalgic magic to the Marietta location that's impossible to reproduce anywhere else.
Decatur is a much better fit for my family and I in every way politically, socially, culturally and I still do a lot of my writing in nearby restaurants. I am particularly enamored of Mellow Mushroom's two-slices-and-a-soda $7 lunch special, and the similarly laissez faire attitude toward me spending hours at a table, pecking away at my laptop. But while I love and appreciate Mellow Mushroom, I don't need it as a safe haven the way I needed Goldberg's back in Marietta. And for that, Goldberg's will always be genuinely special to me, and not just special-style.