Posted: May 26, 2010, 1:06 AM
Join Date: Aug 2009
It's now official, Nate's is closed.
'Where will I get my smoked meat?'
There were lineups, hugs, laughs and many memories, but for fans of Nate's Deli, the closing of its doors on Rideau won't ever go over easy. Jennifer Green reports.
By Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen May 25, 2010
As the fluorescent lights went dim and the lineups finally diminished, the staff at Nate's Deli on Rideau had nothing left in them but sore feet and sighs. The Ottawa landmark had closed for good on its 50th anniversary.
"We made it," said Tony Paolino, leaning on the counter where he has sliced and served smoked meat since 1979. "These last few weeks have been crazy."
Ever since word got around that Dave Smith was hanging up his apron, customers have been streaming into 316 Rideau St., getting that last smoked meat, wishing the staff well.
Etna Greening -- her intravenous line tucked into her purse beside her -- was enjoying a final Reuben at 7:40 p.m., just 20 minutes before closing. Against her doctors' advice, she left the hospital for one last sandwich at Nate's. "It's so damn good."
Dave Smith, in a white T-shirt, apron, and his Order of Canada pin, leaned back, exhausted, as Maureen and Emile Arial made their way out. They had dated at the deli and now, years later, they had to come back to say goodbye for one last dinner. Of course, Smith ever the host, gave them both great hugs.
As waiter Blake Robertson slid her order in front of one woman, she said to him: "It's so sad. Where will I get my smoked meat?"
"Sad! I'm unemployed," he replied with a laugh. "I got a bigger problem. Where am I going to get my rent money?"
Robertson had worked at the place on and off since he was 13 or 14, starting by washing dishes.
Now, at 52, he's going to take a few weeks off, drive around in his new convertible, and then look for work.
Not everyone lasted that long. One guest book entry recalled: "I was an employee in 1975. Maybe one week."
Smith said younger wait staff often struggled. "It was hard for them to understand the menu. The knishes and the latkes. They didn't know what they were."
He grew up in nearby Lowertown, the youngest of 13 children. In 1959, when he was 26, he and his sister Freda drove by a house for rent on Rideau Street.
"We both said, 'Deli!' Four siblings went in on the business: Freda, Dave, Jack and Nathan. They used Nathan's name for the new place because it sounded the most Jewish.
The place was tiny, with counter service to the left, and four tables for two on the right. The cashier reigned at the front door.
The restaurant, small as it was, made an instant name for itself. In staid Ottawa, it offered an exotic, ethnic food. It opened at 6 a.m. and stayed open until 2 a.m.
"We only closed to clean up," said Smith.
People lined up to get in and lined up to pay and get back out. Over it all was shouting, laughing, even singing.
Smith says performers coming into Ottawa loved deli food, so they would always come to Nate's. In those days, they were eager to get all the attention they could, so a singer would sing, a drummer might tap something out on the table top. "They wanted people to know who they were. Ottawa was just starting to get popular."
People coming from the Chaudière Club or other Hull hotspots dropped in for a bite. It was a place to be seen, to take your girl, maybe even make out.
Peter and Barbara Howatt wrote in the guest book that they had had their first date at Nate's in 1965 when the smoked meat sandwiches were 45 cents. Ken and Joy Moore had their first date there in 1987.
As one guest book contributor puts it, with a nudge: Thanks for the memories in the parking lot.
Bob Gencher was a family friend who grew up with Jack Smith. "It was a family restaurant, the Jewish community was centred in that neighbourhood. It was family-friendly."
Gencher said Nate's was like something out of Damon Runyon's racy stories of prohibition-era New York, a little rough, but lively. Or, as another entry puts it: "Thanks for always helping me with my hangovers."
The Smiths developed their recipes by trial and error over the years. "We have our own specifications. We don't want a lot of junk. We want it strictly pickled and smoked. Don't give me this stuff that can stay on the shelf for three weeks. I don't want to hear that. So we get ours delivered three times a week."
It comes from Montreal, but that didn't stop one person from writing: "I never tell Montrealers this, but I prefer your smoked meat to (the famous Montreal restaurant) Schwartz's."
Over the years, Liberace, Paul Anka, and Rich Little all made regular appearances, especially after 1970, when the restaurant expanded into The Place Next Door, a slightly tonier addition that closed about six years ago.
In his pre-diet days, Sen. Mike Duffy came regularly for smoked meat and chopped liver sandwiches. He might have been the one to write: "Thanks for all the calories and delicious cholesterol."
"Chopped liver and crisp fried onion," says Smith. "That's soul food."
Nate's made its own chopped liver, 24 pounds a day, and went through 1,500 pounds of smoked meat a week.
For now, Smith is hanging up the apron. "Fifty years is a long time."
As usual, he has several charities on the go, establishing a new residential treatment centre for youth in Carp, and travelling to Haiti to establish new housing, some farming and a fish farm that could be run like a co-op or kibbutz.
In the past four decades, he's raised more than $145 million for charities.
One last, poignant entry:
"Thanks for all the amazing smoked meat sandwiches. My mother and father were coming here in 1960 when the sandwiches were 35 cents. Dave Smith very kindly gave my parents free smoked meat sandwiches when they told him they were hungry, but couldn't pay. Thanks very much for feeding them at those times."
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