Bedlam with Corned Beef on the Side Part IX

Written by Barry Kessler. Originally published in Generations 1993, reprinted in Generations 2011 – 2012: Jewish Foodways.

Part IX: Where All Rubbed Shoulders

Miss part 1? Start here.

Nate’s and Leon’s, c. 1940. JMM 1994.195.2
Nate’s and Leon’s, c. 1940. JMM 1994.195.2

Nates and Leon’s is still legendary in Baltimore. For 32 years, from 1935 to 1967, Nates Herr and Leon Shavitz ran one of Baltimore’s most popular eateries, open around the clock, “a meeting ground for the rich and poor, the famous and would-be famous, the old and the young, everyone from bookmakers to judges and debutantes.”[1] Centrally located at 850 West North Avenue, Nates and Leon’s attracted a wealthier and more diverse crowd that the neighborhood-oriented Ballow’s (further west on the same street). It had a mix of politicians, sports figures, rabbis (from Reform temples), department store owners, young couples leaving movie palaces nearby, and performers starring at Pennsylvania Avenue nightclubs and downtown theaters. About a third of the clientele was not Jewish, many of them having been first brought by Jewish acquaintances. All rubbed shoulders in a high-spirited camaraderie engendered by the late hours, Leon Shavitz’s extroverted enthusiasm, and mountains of delicious food. Nights were a social field-day of table-hopping, wide-ranging gossip, seeing and being seen – and getting in on a good football pool.

Nate’s and Leon’s Delicatessen., c. 1945. JMM 1992.53.18
Nate’s and Leon’s Delicatessen., c. 1945. JMM 1992.53.18

The layout was familiar: shelves filled with cans of soup, jars of olives and boxes of crackers, among other specialty groceries, lined one wall in front of which was a long counter, partly refrigerated, containing the meats, cheeses, smoked fish, and prepared salads. Breads and pastries were piled above; pickle-barrels jostled in front. Countermen, including both Nates and Leon at times, worked behind it waiting on the carry-out trade, slicing meats, cooking on the grill, and constructing sandwiches of mind-boggling complexity at dizzying speed. Waitresses, both Jewish and Gentile, worked the booths and the white Formica tables; they made good tips.[2]

Nates and Leon's Menu. JMM 1992.53.9
Nates and Leon’s Menu. JMM 1992.53.9

Aficionados still rhapsodize about Nates and Leon’s food. The pastries – strawberry cake, napoleons, and eclairs – were made by Nates and Leon’s German chef Henry Hoefges, brought down from New York. Baltimoreans remember the incredible chicken salad, the luscious chopped liver, and the Number Three Combination sandwich of corned beef, coleslaw, lettuce, and Russian dressing. A series of menus dating from the mid-1930s to the restaurant’s move away from North Avenue to the Pimlico Hotel in 1950 reveals a progression of combination sandwiches: from the original fourteen, based on corned beef, lox, and sturgeon, to 120 elaborate confections incorporating turkey, tongue, Bermuda onion, tuna salad, sardines, chopped liver, bacon, and hard-boiled eggs.[3]

Continue to Part X: The Longest Survivor


[1] Baltimore Sun, “Nathan J. Herr, Co-owner of Nates and Leon’s, at 83,” December 15, 1980.

[2] Interviews with Reta Davis (July 1991), Duke Bergerson (August 1991) and Jerome Tucker (January 1992). Davis is the daughter of Leon Shavitz; Bergerson and Tucker are former Nates and Leon’s counterman.

[3] Jewish Museum of Maryland, gift of Rheta Davis, 1992.53k.

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