The PA Eats Classic Deli Bucket List

A really good deli does so much more than set you up with a great sandwich for lunch. With their timeless decor, laughably large portions, and all-around comforting vibes, delis provide nourishment for the soul. With people from all walks of life sitting elbow-to-elbow, delis are a place where the community gathers, where ideas are hatched, where connections are made. Classic delis have been an essential part of American food culture for the last century, and we hope they never stop being so!

Here are some of our favorite classic delis from across Pennsylvania. They’re not all Jewish delis (though many of them are), but what they all have in common is local pride, welcoming environments and, yes, really, really good sandwiches.

Northeast PA

Somewhere between an old-fashioned general store and a lunch counter, Cable’s Deli has been open since Spring of 2011, right alongside the D&H Rail Trails in the village of Union Dale. The surrounding community is smitten with its breakfast, classic sandwiches, homemade salads and fresh baked goods. Neighbors often come by in the morning for the daily paper and a hot coffee, or they pop in at lunch for Cable’s favorites, like cabbage soup, grilled ham and cheese, or an Italian hoagie. There are a handful of tables inside, and a picnic table out back for enjoyment during sunny weather. On the general store side of things, pantry staples, paper goods, ice, cold drinks, ice cream, bread, dairy products and pet food are available. Cable’s even has its own branded t-shirts, house-made jams and jellies and arts and crafts, which are great mementos for visitors to take home with them. 948 N. Main St,, Union Dale; (570) 679-2151

If the outside of Circles on the Square doesn’t immediately win you over, we don’t know what will! The retro font and neon circles on this Wilkes-Barre institution, open since 1985, are the stuff deli dreams are made of. Of course, so is the menu. Literally any kind of sandwich you can think of is available, with entire sections of the menu dedicated to specific deli meats. For instance, there’s not just “ham,” but “cooked ham,” “Black Forest ham,” “sweet sliced ham,” “Virginia ham,” and no joke, four other types, and then 12 ham combos, which are delicious sandwich inventions. Among these, try the #20 Hap’s Happy Ham (cooked ham served hot on whole wheat with a double portion of American cheese, coleslaw and champagne mustard), the #71 The Horseshoe Road Inn (black forest beechwood smoked ham on a hard roll with chipotle gouda, fresh tomato, lettuce, sweet onion and balsamic) and the #1 Diane’s Different Drummer (Virginia ham, brie and honeycup mustard on a French loaf). We could go on and on, with other sorts of meat, Italian combos, vegetarian combos and salad combos — a truly beautiful, dizzying array of sandwiches. With daily specials, homemade soups, a salad bar and an “emporium” with quirky gifts and collectibles market, this is possibly the most epic lunch spot in the region. 9 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre; (570) 829-4005.

Abe’s Deli is Scranton’s own little slice of Jewish deli heaven. A simple storefront with a red sign outside is matched by a sparse but comfortable interior, with a walk-up counter and a handful of tables. The Reuben is top-notch, and all the deli favorites are on offer: liverwurst, salami, chopped liver, brisket, turkey pastrami and more — upgrade your portion to “New York size”, a hefty 10 ounces of meat. Jewish delicacies like blintzes, potato pancakes and matzo Brei, Middle Eastern vegetarian options, like falafel and quinoa tabouli, and all kinds of salads and fish platters, round out the offerings. Breakfast is served all day, with the nova lox bagel the most popular choice on the menu. 326 N Washington Ave. Scranton: (570) 342-4517.

Lehigh Valley

Cindy’s Deli was founded in 2012 when its owners were just 21 years old. The community-focused deli, which sponsors a local little league team and raises awareness around breast cancer, is named after one of the owner’s mothers, who passed away in 2002 after a long fight with the disease. “Her life insurance policy paid for our store,” it reads on Cindy’s website, “so everything we do here is in honor of her memory.” This casual deli captures a friendly small-town vibe, with everything on the menu prepared from scratch each day. Sandwiches are made with Dietz & Watson products, and chopped salads, wraps and hot items, like cheesesteaks, nachos, pizza and soup, are also on the menu. In addition to fast and convenient lunch takeout and delivery service, Cindy’s also runs a robust catering program to serve its region. 828 Main Rd., Lehighton; (610) 379-4747.

Breakfast, lunch and coffee are the name of the game at Syb’s West End Deli, an adorable corner spot in downtown Allentown, festooned with a perfect yellow-and-white-striped awning. Inside, find a warm, cozy atmosphere, including cheerful orange booths and eclectic art and signage on the walls. The menu features extensive breakfast items, served until 11 on weekdays, and until noon or later on weekends, as well as lunch, which includes all the deli classics. Pastrami, corned beef, Reuben, chicken salad (with walnuts!), egg salad and many more types of sandwiches are listed, as well as veggie options, like pita stuffed with eggplant and falafel, salad platters, and soup and chili. Desserts are no joke here, with homemade options like rice pudding, mile-high pies and luscious cakes and cookies. 2151 Liberty St., Allentown; (610) 434-3882.

Black Forest Deli & Catering is an award-winning deli in Bethlehem headed by mother-daughter team Vica and Milana Shparber. Everything is made fresh daily in house, and the menu features an Eastern European twist, with items like Rassolnik (pickle soup), Pelmeni soup (a Russian/Ukrainian dumpling soup), Pirozhki (puffed pastry with meat or veggie filling), blini with sour cream, herring and onions, Haluski and Chicken Paprikash. More familiar deli items, like tuna and BLT wraps, chopped salads and specialty sandwiches, are also on offer. Black Forest Deli opens at 9 a.m. each day (8 on Saturdays) with snacky breakfast items, like yogurt, bagels, muffins and blini with farmer’s cheese and fruit. 745 W. Union Blvd. Bethlehem; (610) 865-3036.

Southeast PA

There is a large and active Jewish community in and around Philadelphia, and great delis are everywhere. The mother of them all, however, is Schlesinger’s, a beloved institution in Center City Philadelphia. Everything, from the smoked meats to the baked goods, is made in house, and the oversized sandwiches, pickle bar, comforting soups and sides (think knishes and potato pancakes) all just scream deli perfection. The menu is long and can be overwhelming — how are you supposed to choose between specialty sandwiches like The Edward Special with roast beef, coleslaw, and Russian dressing; wildly loaded platters like The North American with hot brisket served between two potato pancakes and topped with gravy; and a smoked fish platter with all the fixings? Go with a couple of friends so you can order a bit of this and that and taste through a bunch of Schlesinger’s specials. Just leave room for a black-and-white cookie for dessert! 1521 Locust St., Philadelphia; (215) 735-7305.

Yes, it’s a bit touristy, and yes, it’s a tick more expensive than other delis, but Famous 4th Street Delicatessen is famous for a reason: it is extremely and inarguably great. The interior is old-school, with crowded tables, curtained windows, a black-and-white checker floor, and perpetual loud, boisterous conversation. The menu is pretty straightforward, with sandwiches available in regular and Zaftig (larger) sizes; bountiful fish options; and dozens of salads and soups. 4th Street’s secret weapon, though are the appetizers: Do not skip the health salad, applesauce, potato pancakes and string beans. The dessert menu is also intensely appealing, with choices like macaroons, rugelach, enormous cookies and all kinds of cakes, strudels and tarts. You will not leave this place hungry, we promise! 700 S. 4th St., Philadelphia; (215) 922-3274.

Just outside of Philadelphia, Bala Cynwyd (one of the first towns on the Main Line) is home to a large Jewish population and has not one, but two great delis on its main drag. Hymie’s Delicatessin and Murray’s Deli are basically facing off across the street from each other. Hymie’s, which shares a manager with Schlesinger’s, is a bit more decorated, with a number of “Best Of” awards from Main Line Today. Murray’s has its fair share of fans, too. The two delis’ menus are relatively similar, with breakfast and lunch served throughout the day. At Hymie’s, find house specials like The M.R. Schmucker Sandwich, six ounces of corned beef on fresh rye with coleslaw, and The Yellybelly, Hymie’s version of a French Dip, with freshly sliced brisket topped with melted provolone on a roll with a side of au jus. Murray’s offers a deli side and a restaurant side; at the deli, generously-sized sandwiches, homemade matzo soup and Jewish apple cake are favorites, and the dining side dishes up hot entrees like roast brisket, veal Parmesan and fried chicken. On a day you’re feeling extra-hungry, give both Hymie’s and Murray’s a try and see how they stack up! Hymie’s: 342 Montgomery Ave., Merion Station; (610) 668-3354; Murray’s: 285 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd; (610) 664-6995.

South Central PA

S. Clyde Weaver is a purveyor of smoked meats and cheeses, so it’s no surprise that its own cafe and deli is top-notch. Its sandwiches veer more toward subs, panini and wraps, with a little bit more of a country aesthetic than some of the other delis on our list. House specialties include turkey, bacon and pesto on 11-grain bread, Lancaster smoked pork BBQ, and twisted sweet bologna on a York City pretzel roll.  There are plenty of tasty dishes for breakfast, like grilled sticky buns and a breakfast egg wrap with scrapple, great options for kids, and an on-site market with delicious local foods to take home. 5253 Main St., East Petersburg; (717) 619-9684; 1509 Lititz Pike, Lancaster; (717) 392-5244.

Mr. Deli and Mrs. Too! is the only New York-style Kosher deli in Harrisburg, so if you’re caught with a hankering for corned beef or pastrami in Dauphin County, this is the place to go! With a chef trained in New York delis, high-quality and fresh ingredients, and bagels imported from Brooklyn Bagel Company, Mr. Deli is the real deal! Other styles are represented on the menu, too, like vegan panini, Italian subs and turkey chili. This casual spot is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and is closed on Sundays. 2023 Linglestown Rd., Harrisburg; (717) 545-4261.

North Central PA

Tucked into the small town of Galeton, find Brickhouse Deli & Cafe in the historic Thompson Hurd Home, serving handcrafted sandwiches, soups and salads. In a land of many chain restaurants and corporate fast-food sandwich spots, a place putting as much love and effort into their food as Brickhouse is a total gem! At breakfast, there’s coffee, smoothies and all kinds of egg-y delights, and at lunch, an impressive array of sandwiches, ranging from classic subs, to pressed panini, to burgers and cheesesteaks. The homemade soups and artisan salads are also not to be missed! 4 W. Main St., Galeton; (814) 435-2444.

Tony’s Delicatessen & Fresh Meats is Williamsport’s top spot for superior-quality freshly cut meats, imported artisan cheeses, spread trays, homemade baked goods and fresh cut vegetable and fruit tray. A lot of Tony’s business centers around catering and business lunches, its deli and market offers plenty of readymade salads, entrees and sandwiches on-site. Family-owned and operated since 1977, Tony’s is exactly the kind of old-school, homegrown community anchor that we love. Bonus: Its bakery makes 12 different kinds of fresh-baked cookies every day!  508 Washington Blvd., Williamsport; (570) 322-8329.

Western PA

Widely heralded as the best Jewish deli in Pittsburgh, Smallman Street Deli keeps it classic, through and through. In the business since 1995, its menu favorites include corned beef, lox and bagels, matzo ball soup and Hebrew National salami. For a twist on a classic, try its Smallman Street Rachel, much like a Rueben, but with homemade creamy coleslaw instead of sauerkraut. Egg and tuna salad platters, burgers, homemade soups and other deli sandwiches round out the menu. For the brave at heart, there’s the “You Can’t Eat It” signature sandwich, with an entire pound of your choice of deli meat on rye with mustard! 2840 Smallman, Pittsburgh; (412) 434-5800.

In Erie, Dabrowski’s Restaurant & Deli combines two genres that we can’t get enough of: Polish food and deli food. There are seven varieties of pierogis  on the menu, as well as golombki, potato pancakes and paczki. Sandwiches, patty melts, breakfast omelettes, and traditional deli sides, like macaroni salad, french fries and coleslaw may seem like strange bedfellows with Polish cuisine, but to us, it makes perfect and delicious sense. 4003 Main St., Erie; (814) 899-4411.

Where’s your all-time favorite classic deli in PA? Let us know in the comments here or on the PA Eats Facebook page!

  • Feature photo: Pixabay

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