Was in Toronto last weekend and heard some grim news. Coleman’s Deli, a North Toronto institutions for many many decades, is apparently closed. I heard from several sources in the industry, my calls to the deli went unanswered, and someone spotted a “Thanks for Your Patronage” sign on the door. Not good.
Apparently they’ve stopped taking deliveries of bread of Silverstein’s (the ultimate barometer of deli health), and with the economy as it is, this isn’t so much a surprise as a shock. Still, Coleman’s was beloved by many (more on that below), and Toronto is really losing an institution of deli eating.
I first came to Coleman’s via my cousins Eric and Gordon Katz, big beefy deli eaters who lived to consume Coleman’s titanic combinations like the Big Moe (1/2 lb of roast brisket with sliced onion and horseradish) and the Big Chief (1/2 pound of 2 deli meats on an onion roll). Eric used to say “Oh, David…Coleman’s” and then roll his eyes into the back of his head and drool like Homer Simpson. It was his Shangri-La.
Set in a strip mall below an office building at the most Jewish of Toronto intersections, Bathurst and Lawrence, Coleman’s was a decidedly neighborhood place. The walls were filled with photos, stories, and poems from customers, and there was a constant jostling of familiar personalities moving in and out of the place. They came for the soup, the sandwiches, and the pickles, but also for the feeling of embrace that the owners exuded.
Up until it closed (which I presume), those owners were Carol Silverberg and her daughter Jodi, but the history goes back well before them. Coleman’s began about half a century ago in downtown Toronto, by the Coleman family. One of the brothers, Blackie Coleman, had his own location, as did another, which was called Charlie C’s. When the brothers sold the business, it was purchased by Freddy Ulrich, who operated it from its current and final location. Carol used to hang out there as a teenager, and eventually took a job from Freddy as a hostess and cashier. There, she met a young busboy named Jerry Silverberg, and the two of them were in charge of delivering sandwiches to the illegal cards games going on at the Stork Club and Executive Club shvitz’s across the street, which had telephone lines directly into the deli.
Jerry and Carol eventually fell in love and married in 1976, soon after buying up Coleman’s from Ulrich. They expanded and renovated, and Carol set up a large catering division. Even though the neighborhood became more religious and Hasidic, they kept a loyal clientele, and when Jerry tragically died a few years back, over 400 people showed up at the funeral.
I think Coleman’s did a few things better than most in Toronto, though none as tasty as their pickled tongue. Great tongue is increasingly difficult to find in North American delis, let alone the hot variety. Carol once led me down to the deli’s basement kitchen, where Joe, her Portuguese born cook, was boiling freshly pickled tongues. He fished one out of the water, rubbed it with his hands to take off the outer membrane, and sliced a fat hunk off the rear end. It exploded in my mouth as a salty, garlic scented, bomb of fatty succulence, and remains one of the better tongues I’ve ever had the pleasure to kiss. I ate it on nearly every trip back (where I’d often meet friends), and I’ll miss it dearly.
Toronto will miss Coleman’s as well. Alef Hasholmen. Rest in Peace.