Paul Stern is a born schmoozer. Walk into his restaurant, Fritzi’s Delicatessen, a small well-lit place in Oak Park, and chances are you will find Stern schmoozing at one of the tables in the dining area—cracking jokes, telling stories, quizzing the people around him about lives and likes, and asking how they enjoyed their meals. It makes sense. His livelihood depends entirely on pleasing his clientele.
But Stern’s interest in people runs deeper than that. He seems to genuinely care about his customers. Or maybe being in the hospitality industry for more than 40 years—as a bartender and restaurant manager and owner—has taught him how to give that impression. He gets to know his regulars very well.
“He was a firefighter in New York City through 9/11,” Stern tells me about one customer. About a couple: “I met these guys on Maxwell Street. They sell jewelry on Maxwell Street.” Another: “She comes in literally every day of the week; she doesn’t cook.”
Stern’s customers return the favor, grabbing him for a bit more schmooze before they vamoose. While I was interviewing Stern, a customer came up to him on their way out and handed him two small glass jars, one containing homemade horseradish, the other homemade chopped liver. Stern thanked him and put the jars carefully away for future sampling.
You don’t have to talk to Stern long to find out he is a major foodie. He loves talking about all the odd, out-of-the-way eateries he knows in and around Chicago—the overlooked food trucks, the eccentric hot dog stands, the little holes in the wall that serve great tacos, the remarkable chicken-fried steaks, the unusual variations on the pizza puff.
Fritzi’s Delicatessen has only been open since August of last year, but it already has the feel of a place anyone would adore: comfortable, solid wooden chairs and tables sit underneath recipes for classic Jewish foods like Nonie Sidell’s Orange Mold, Aunt Bibi Fink’s Knishes, Aunt Hannah’s Pickles, and Lillian Zlubin Feldman’s Knaidles with Neshama, all reproduced in large print along one wall. Photographs of quaint old Chicago hot dog stands (from Chicago photographer Patty Carroll and historian Bruce Kraig’s 2012 book Man Bites Dog: Hot Dog Culture in America) adorn the other. And there’s a menu full of deli classics devised by a bona fide foodie to please fellow foodies.
Stern first fell in love with cooking as a child growing up in Gary, Indiana. “When I was six or seven,” he says, “my mother went back to work at the Gary school system as the head of reading diagnostics. So I said, ‘Mom, what are we going to do about breakfast?’ She said, ‘You want breakfast? Cook it.’ So I started cooking breakfast for myself and my two brothers. And I found I enjoyed cooking. I have loved cooking and loved food ever since.”
In his early 20s, Stern worked for a time as a firefighter in Gary. Naturally he spent most of his non-firefighting time at the firehouse in the kitchen. “I cooked lots of things for the guys I was not used to. Chitlins. Smothered chicken. Smothered pork chops. I mean, I would also cook on my side of the coin, too. I would do brisket,” he remembers.
Later, Stern switched careers (“Gary was a poor city, so the firefighters were not paid well enough to be worth my life.”) and entered the restaurant industry. His experience includes stints working at two restaurants owned and run by legendary Chicago restaurateur Mike Foley—First Street and Foley’s Grand Ohio. “I was everything there,” Stern explains, “waiter, bartender—whatever they needed me to do, I was doing. That was my first really good introduction to what it meant to work for a white tablecloth [restaurant].”
Stern also helped open Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse: “I came in two months before it opened up to get the bar set and ready to go for them. I was the original head bartender, and they won’t admit it, but I was largely responsible for bringing the full menu into the bar. So my debate with them was that single people don’t want to sit at a table by themselves and eat, but they’re happy to sit in front of the bartender.”
After Harry Caray’s, Stern had his own place in Lincoln Park, Lucille’s, before closing it after 12 years and going to work at a friend’s place, the Suite Lounge, in Old Town. “I was there for the next 14 years. I was there until the pandemic started.” The Suite Lounge was one of the many places shut down by the city of Chicago after the crazy weekend of March 14 and 15 when hordes of drunk Saint Patrick’s Day revelers failed to follow COVID protocols and maintain social distancing.
“So that happened,” Stern says, referring to the closing of the Suite Lounge, “and then I took the next two or three months off and just sort of, for the first time since I was about 12, enjoyed not having to work.” It turned out to be a fruitful time. “There was never a time I did not think about opening a deli,” Stern admits. Suddenly he had time to do more than just daydream. Stern began meeting with chef Nick Labno in his home kitchen, working through recipes for Jewish food. “I’m the happy owner of about 600 Jewish cookbooks,” Stern kvells. “They have their own cabinet in my house.”
For years Stern had been playing around at home smoking different deli meats. “The pastrami recipe we use is something I worked on for probably a decade. The brisket I have been making for a very, very long time.”
Together they worked to make Stern’s recipes “restaurant worthy.” “Because,” Stern explains, “there’s a difference between what you can do at home and what you can pull off in a restaurant.”
The result is a menu that looks like a familiar deli menu but doesn’t taste like it. All of the items have a personalized spin to them. The meats on the menu—the pastrami, the corned beef, the brisket—are smoked in-house, and all of the bread used for the sandwiches is freshly baked in the kitchen. “We do everything. The thing that makes us really unique pretty much in the whole midwest is that we’re one of the only places that does all this by hand anymore.”
113 N. Oak Park, Oak Park
Open Tues-Sat 11 AM-9:30 PM, Sun 11 AM-3 PM
During lockdown, Stern also sketched out his ideas for the look and the feel of Fritzi’s; even before he had found a space, he knew what kind of layout the restaurant would have and what its ambience would be.
“Restaurants are not like regular businesses; they are like people. They have to have a personality. They have to have a statement of what they believe is the right thing to do. And it can be anything, but it has to be a complete thought, a complete statement.”
“So one of the reasons why this menu is what it is is that I want to be very clear that this is what I’m doing. This is Ashkenazi Jewish deli food. Not putting a hamburger on it, not putting pork on it, no shellfish. But I don’t pretend to be kosher.” (Fritzi’s menu includes a Reuben sandwich, which cannot be kosher as it mixes dairy with meat.)
And the result of all of Stern’s hard work: a workplace that doesn’t feel like work, a job that doesn’t feel like a job. On the sign out front, underneath the name of the place, is its shibboleth: “Good Food for the Soul.”
It has certainly been good for Stern’s soul: “I get up every day, and no matter if I’m tired or not, I get here and I find energy here. I have the joy of working with people who I love around me. This is my home. This is my family.”