Kornblatt's outdoor sign


Kornblatt's outdoor sign

By Tara Dublin



The iconic Jewish deli has been slowly disappearing in America. Tourist draws like the legendary Katz’s Delicatessen in New York City and its West Coast cousin, Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles, anchoring the tradition on both coasts.

But once you move away from cities with large Jewish communities, the deli pickings get slimmer and slimmer. And if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, one of its most iconic delis is joining the list of casualties from the pandemic fallout.


After 32 years in business on Portland’s trendy NWest 23rd Avenue, the rose city’s oldest Jewish kosher deli could no longer evolve and survive and chose to close its doors for good at the end of March.


Kornblatt’s owner said that he made the surprising decision after seeing his business change during the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the restaurant industry particularly hard. Portland has seen several of its most popular restaurants close down over the last four years. Rising food and labor costs, along with the high rents on NW 23rd, also added to the choice to close.


The spot will be taken over by local bagel chain Henry Higgins Boiled Bagels, which plans to reopen the space as early as the first week of May. As the name implies, they know how to make bagels the correct way. But since it won’t be a traditional Jewish deli, it just won’t have the same schmaltz at Kornblatt’s, say the devoted locals “devastated” by the closing.

Kornblatt’s small dining room was packed on its final Monday as clearly exhausted servers tried to keep up with the demands and the counter help shouted to each other to get through the backlog. A long line snaked out the door thanks to locals jamming in to get either their very first and/or one last taste and the restaurant was forced to close down early as they ran out of almost everything on the menu.


A woman named Lisa waiting for her to-go order lamented the “end of an icon” when asked about the closing, and said the new tenants might occupy the same space on the street, but they won’t ever replace Kornblatt’s in her heart. “The Chopped Chicken Liver, it’s my favorite and I’ve been eating it for YEARS,” Lisa said, shaking her head sadly as she grabbed her brown paper bag. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”


Another woman–who was originally from New York, she said–had dashed in with her two young sons just before service ended for the day. “I had my second date with my husband here,” she told me. “He asked for bacon, and you should’ve seen the looks he got!” While pastrami and corned beef dominate the menu, there’s clearly no pork at Kornblatt’s. “I just had to get my sons in here to experience this place before they closed,” she said as the boys greedily eyed their bagel bounty.

Two Gen Z locals who live just down the street eyed the few bagels left from the lunch rush shook their heads and echoed the sadness others had expressed, down to calling Kornblatt’s “iconic.” Like Lisa, they agreed that there’s just nowhere else in Portland that can compete.


Glancing at the decimated deli cases, I recalled the countless brunches I’d had at Kornblatt’s since moving to the Portland area in 2001. My sons loved the food, and we often made the deli our first stop on our outings around town. One of my friends brought me matzoh ball soup from Kornblatt’s this past December while I was down with a cold that wasn’t COVID. It’s sad to lose a taste of my old East Coast home even though I’ve been living here for more than twenty years.

After I left the still-crowded and noisy deli, I popped into a nearby clothing store and asked the tattooed and pierced owner what she thought of the changing of the bagel guard next door.

“I won’t see a change in foot traffic,” she shrugged. “It’s just bagels under a different name.”

While she’s right that NW 23rd Ave will still draw shoppers and diners, her neighbors vehemently disagree about things feeling the same. As the two Gen Z women I met said: while they probably will grab bagels from Henry Higgins out of convenience, “They’ll never be the staple of NW 23rd that Kornblatt’s is.”


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