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Feb 15, 2004 11:16 AM

Elsie's Deli in Cambridge?

  • d

Back in the 70's, there was an awesome, always crowded, very popular deli in Cambridge. They had the best corned beef on rye sandwich I ever had!
Does anyone know if it still exists?

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  1. Long gone and lamented.

    14 Replies
    1. re: GretchenS

      Elsie's was founded after WW II, probably in the 1950s by Elise & Henry(??) Bauman, Jewish refugees from Germany. It was sold probably in the 70s or 80s to someone with a name like Phil Markel, who ran it until the 90s or so when it started the current series of transformations. By the pre-Atkins 90s carnivorousness was no longer in style and salads and noodle bars had taken over the neighborhood. Combined with the current high rents, the kind of Ma and Pa start-up operation that Elsie's literally was is no longer feasible in the Square. Of all the places I knew from the 60s, Cronin's (an original old fashioned brew-pub on Mt. Auburn St., across from the post office), Charlies Lunch (nearby), Elsies, and Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage. Only Charlies (transformed) and Bartley's remain.

      Elsie's most famous sandwich was the roast beef special, thin-sliced rare meat with onion slices, German mustard, relish, and Russian dressing on a bulky roll. Other specialities were the fresser's dream: ham, turkey, corned beef, swiss cheese, and one or two other meats. Their cheese burgers featured Swiss rather than American. The knockwurst and bratwurst were boiled or grilled. The cream cheese with caviar was a special touch. They usually had two kinds of hot pastrami, Rumanian (big greasy chunks of well-cured meat), and regular, thin-sliced stuff soaked in boiling water. I have never found quite the distinctive match for the Elsie's Rumanian pastrami. It is comparable to Katz's (in NY), Langers (in LA) and Schwartz's (in Montreal).

      When the new owners took it over, a number of the classic elements disappeared, most notably the Rumanian pastrami. It was never the same.

      1. re: VivreManger

        Many thanks for the history. Elsie's together with Cardell's, Cronin's, and the Midget were about the only places that I could afford to eat in after I moved here from Chicago for my first job in October of '62. An Elsie's roast beef special or caviar and cream cheese was frequently my dinner in those days. Your putting Elsie's Rumanian pastrami in the same class as Langer's and Katz's is indeed high praise. Sorry now that I was so stuck on my usual order that I never tried the Rumanian pastrami. Still hope to live long enough to get a first-rate hot pastrami in Boston.

        1. re: VivreManger

          I'm glad someone else fondly remembers the pastrami. Elsie's had a Landsman Pastrami sandwich that was hand cut thick pastrami that was my favorite there.

          1. re: gourmaniac

            What kind of bread/roll was the Landsman on? I remember it with a sharp mustard.......

          2. re: VivreManger

            Thank you for that. My father, who introduced me to Elsie's in the early 60s, said he ate there when he was a student at MIT (1946-50). You bring back such memories, both of Elsie's and of my late father.

            1. re: VivreManger

              Thanks for the memory. I had forgotten how good the thick-cut Roumanian pastrami was.

              1. re: VivreManger

                Oh my, does this date me; I was there when it opened and the Roast Beef sandwich late at night was better than coffee for keeping me stoked up. R.I.P.

              2. re: GretchenS

                years ago, i was getting lunch for a group. there was one guy who would always resist anything exotic for dinner.-- thai, indian, mexican.

                for lunch, i was just going to run over to au bon pan for sandwiches, but apparently, that was too exotic for him --only elsie's would do. thankfully, it was still open.

                1. re: GretchenS

                  I became an Elsie's fan around 1960, the year I graduated from high school & started College at Tufts, a < 15 minute drive from Harvard Square.

                  The "menu" consisted exclusively of signs plastered all over the walls behind the counter. The star of the show was indeed the roast beef Special, always referred to as just the Special. You could have the Special on cissel, but I first discovered it on the original bulky roll & tended to favor it that way thru my college years, although I would switch to cissel occasionally. And there was no mustard on a standard Special, just the trademark russian dressing & sliced onion. The turkey sandwich was called the Turkey Deluxe & had the same dressing plus bacon; it, too, was enormous for the money. I also liked the Landsman Special ("Hot Rumanian pastrami cut extra thick with a heavy hand", said the sign) & the hamburger with grilled onions, & occasionally had the caviar & cream cheese (there was a lox & even a grape jelly variant on this), a thickcut liverwurst on a roll, or the grilled knockwurst. (both of these with German mustard, of course. Oh, & once in awhile I'd go for The Fresser's Dream, which was truly huge & overflowing & I think contained 4 different meats (roast beef, turkey, corned beef, & I forget the 4th - or maybe there were just 3), swiss, cheese, & the russian dressing.

                  When I first went to Elsie's the Special cost 50 cents! Knockwurst, liverwurst, & burger were even cheaper, the Landsman & caviar w/creamcheese maybe a quarter more; only the Fresser cost more than a buck, All of this was before mad cow, of course.

                  Elsie's husband's name was indeed Henry, as stated in the thread, & he also worked the counter, as did their daughter for awhile -- I think her name was Agnes, & many of us college boys had a crush on her.

                  I remember well the $5 punch card (called a Meal Ticket), which was worth $5.50 in food. When I was in a dorm at Tufts & had a car on campus, I would sometimes get up a bunch of sandwich orders; using the Meal Ticket, if you brought back 10 Specials, you got your own for zip - that was the delivery commission. I was not the only one to do this.

                  And of course in (slightly) later days, my ex-to-be & I would sometimes make a "Special" trip to Harv. Sq. just to hit Elsie's.

                  Ah, the good old days!

                  1. re: Grampa D

                    Thanks for the memories and a nice first post.

                    1. re: Grampa D

                      Not to mention a great lemonade that would make you pucker! She also had a place in Falmouth in the summers (the old ice cream place next to Goodwill Park - right on rt 28. Always filled!

                      1. re: Grampa D

                        As another student entering Tufts (Medford, MA, just two towns away from Cambridge) in the Fall of 1960, I can attest to the accuracy of Grampa D's post. Resident freshman at Tufts were not allowed to have cars, but I managed to chug my way by bus or hitch to HSQ to Elsie's: I don't think I ate anything other than the roast beef special in all my many scores of visits there over the years. A clamorously boisterous place, jammed seemingly at any hour. Fond memories, indeed.

                        1. re: Grampa D

                          I was a year ahead of you at Tufts and made many trips to Elsie's. No one seemed to mention one famous feature of the Elsie experience: the blinding speed. The sandwich would be ready before you finished getting the words out.
                          I was watching Diners, Dives and Drive-Ins and it made me think of Elsie's.

                        2. re: GretchenS

                          Ah, Elsie's! As a 'Cliffie in the early 60's, I remember walking with my boyfriend (now husband) from Dunster House up to Elsie's on a late Sunday afternoon, and ordering Roast Beef Specials and a slice of chocolate cake with white icing, coated with chocolate icing. What sheer bliss those meals were! Thanks, Vivre Manger, for sharing your history of the place. Brings it all back...

                        3. My own favorite was Elsie's cream cheese and caviar on a roll. The caviar was about as low-grade as you could get but still made for a memorable sandwich. I think of Elsie's every summer as I chomp on my own version of the sandwhich at lunch time on the Wellfleet beach.

                          1. Alas, alas. My fave was the knockwurst and mustard on a fresh bulkie. $1.25.

                            1. I was a fan of the turkey supreme or was it turkey deluxe. Now its an ATM machine.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: chuck s

                                Was the turkey supreme the one with bacon and russian dressing? Or did I make that up myself? MMMMMM good memories from my meat eating days. ;) Whenever I'm back in Harvard Square, I wish I could have just one more sandwich from Elsie's. BTW don't think it closed til nearer '94 cos that's when I stopped working in the square.

                                1. re: Paulabear

                                  That's the one. Don't remember when it closed. I remember it the most from the sixties and seventies. I think the decline started when they expanded next door and added pinball machines.

                                  1. re: Paulabear

                                    Turkey deluxe, definitely. I'd forgotten about the bacon!

                                2. Sorry to hear that Elsie's is no more, but I think I still have some green sawdust in my shoes.