Top Hat Delicatessen Reinvents the Jewish Deli for a New Generation

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On the menu at 3-month-old Top Hat Delicatessen in Fort Lauderdale reside items that seem vaguely familiar and yet not: Reuben egg rolls, bacon ramen, pastrami burgers, and hybrid croissants/doughnuts. Flip the menu over and the restaurant's extensive beverage selections are equally vibrant, from egg creams and cold-brew milkshakes to gin-forward cocktails you can order as early as 7:30 a.m., spiked with St. Germaine liqueur and frothed with egg whites.

To say this is not your average deli lineup is an understatement, but then, Top Hat is not your average deli. Instead, the New Age New York-style establishment that opened in Fort Lauderdale's burgeoning Flagler Village neighborhood specializes in a fusion of traditional and modern Jewish dishes.

"We're doing the usual deli food different, and that's the idea," says Top Hat co-owner Eliot Wolf. "The Jewish deli as we know it is dying. So this is my tribute to the memories I had growing up, a way to preserve tradition and keep the nostalgia going."

In recent years, many long-standing peddlers of matzo-ball soup, corned beef, and liver and onions have closed. Take Ashkenaz Delicatessen in Chicago, now replaced by a swanky new seafood restaurant called Da Lobsta after 102 years of business. Or 53-year-old Junior's Deli in Los Angeles, closed after its aging patronage steadily declined; and 75-year-old Stage Deli in Manhattan, shuttered due to rising rent.

Blame it on the economy and the changing palates of younger generations who push for bold foods, exotic cuisines, and upmarket experiences. It's an era that's driven traditional Jewish delicatessens from their midcentury pinnacle into steady decline, and one that's accelerated by an aging clientele and the fact you can buy a bagel almost anywhere now.

So when Wolf decided to open a New York-style deli in Fort Lauderdale, he did so with a new approach in mind, a desire to break the mold without disrespecting tradition.

"The older generation doesn't understand it, but my kids do," says Wolf. "Top Hat Deli is all about filling a void. The deli business is dying, but it was something I truly enjoyed growing up. I couldn't find what I wanted here, so I took a leap of faith and decided to do my own spin on the traditional Jewish deli."

Wolf grew up in Miami, but like many Floridians, his ties to New York are strong. His father was originally from Manhattan and would take him to visit his favorite Jewish delis on holiday visits. Wolf recalls many fond memories of those times, and even the name — Top Hat — is a nod to his grandfather, Max Wolf, who immigrated from Germany to New York City in 1932.

"He only brought a handful of things with him, one of which was the top hat, the same one he wore to marry my grandmother," says Wolf.

Top Hat is now Wolf's latest venture. Armed with a hospitality degree, he worked for several years as a general manager for both Houston's Restaurant and the Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant Group in cities like Washington, D.C.; Chicago; New Orleans; and San Francisco. In 2006, he returned to South Florida, where he purchased his first restaurant, Coconuts in Fort Lauderdale, from founding owner John Bay. He later opened several more establishments in town, including the Foxy Brown and G&B Oyster Bar in 2012 and barbecue restaurant Red Cow in 2013.

If you're looking for a fix of Jewish soul food, bring your appetite at Top Hat Delicatessen. The menu isn't a complete reinvention of tradition; the menu has all the standard Eastern European dishes you're craving, from stuffed cabbage and chopped liver to pastrami or corned beef.

You can, of course, go the safe route: A server can order you a steaming bowl of Jewish penicillin — AKA matzo-ball soup — to start. While it's not the best you'll have in town, the matzo balls are huge and fluffy, floating in an herbaceous chicken broth.

Likewise, the customary black-pepper- and coriander-laced pastrami isn't anything Earth-shattering, but it's ruby red and sliced to order, piled atop rye bread with a schmear of brown mustard. Instead, you might try the brisket; it makes for a belt-loosening meal, aggressively seasoned and hand-sliced into big, meaty hunks glistening with fat, served with a side of lip-smacking gravy for dipping and drenching alike. It's also good chopped up and smothered with gravy on fries or along with your breakfast hash.

But it's the newfangled takes that deserve the order here.

After all, what deli do you know that has cold-brew milkshakes made with locally roasted coffee, six beers on tap, or a list of creative cocktails with ingredients like Aperol, orange bitters, and absinthe? Ask barkeep Becky Cummings to whip you up a fresh egg cream, an old-school fountain drink consisting of milk, carbonated water, and chocolate syrup (but neither eggs nor cream). It will stay frothy and bubbly for your entire meal.

Reuben egg rolls are tiny meat bombs stuffed with diced corn beef that's blended into a wet hash thanks to melted Swiss cheese, Thousand Island dressing, and sauerkraut. It's dumbed-down deli food, and you'll finish it because it's filling and fried.

The breakfast ramen — neither Jewish nor authentic — is rife with squiggly noodles, six-minute soft-boiled eggs, and fatty blocks of Red Cow's house-cured bacon and spicy maple sausage, submerged in a rich chicken- and bacon-based broth. Ramen lovers won't be wowed by the execution, but it's flavorful enough without leaving a grease slick across your lips.

Then there's the hauntingly delicious gut bomb the pastrami burger, a 50/50 blend of diced pastrami folded into a beef patty and laid on a flat-top for a heavy char. From there, it's pretty straightforward: layered with pickles, melted Swiss, a sweet coleslaw, and stuffed between two slices of chewy-thick kaiser.

For larger appetites, the blue plates aren't just big; they're also beautiful. The chicken pot pie is served in a bowl, its flaky, puffy crust overflowing from the confines of the crock like some sort of overgrown mushroom cap. And the meatloaf, plated with mashed potatoes and a gelatinously thick brown gravy, could feed a family of four.

Wolf is quick to point out that his concept is still evolving and that — as the new neighborhood grows — so will Top Hat Deli. Dinner service is on the horizon, for example, but for now, the restaurant is open for breakfast starting at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 3:30 p.m., just after the lunch rush. And though Top Hat isn't the most traditional deli, it does sell meats by the pound and can cater your event.

Come the end of your meal, you might not be impressed with a Reuben reduced to egg rolls or that pastrami in your burger and find yourself pining for more traditional offerings. Or maybe you'll like it better that way. Bottom line: Top Hat is getting one thing right. It's good food, at a good price, with good portions.

"A good Jewish deli is all about nostalgia, tradition, and a healthy debate over who has the best bagel with lox or pastrami sandwich," says Wolf. "It's the memories that inspire people and — like the ones of my father — that inspire me."

Top Hat Delicatessen
415 NE Third St., Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily. Call 954-900-3896, or visit tophatftl.com.

  • Matzo-ball soup, $8
  • Reuben egg rolls, $10
  • Doughssaints, $8
  • Egg cream, $3 to $5
  • Cold-brew milkshake, $8
  • Good morning ramen, $12
  • Top Hat burger, $14

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