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Mostly Underwhelmed at Billy's

Old friends called up to invite us to join them for their ritual NY Day lunch at Billy's Deli in Glendale. We had never been there but had read some encouraging words on this Board, and the guy insisted it was the best deli in LA County. He especially recommended the potato salad. Okeydoke, then...

I've had good meals in places that looked grubbier and more hard-used than this, though not by much, and the waitress was friendly enough, so we got comfortable in a large booth - we had two four-tops all to ourselves, which was nice - facing the deli case, and while waiting for the friends to arrive checked out the menu, your standard gigantic deli thing. By the time the others joined us we'd gotten our drinks, root beer for Mrs. O and water for me, and the waitress had established herself as a rough-cut comedienne. I am not going to go into my usual detail here, partly because I wasn't taking notes about who had what - I think our buddy M had the pastrami (which he also insisted was the best on the West Coast, dismissing Langer's as merely adequate), and I know that Mrs. O got two plates, a chopped liver and herring in cream. I decided to continue my hunt for patty-melt perfection, on grilled sourdough, please - sneer if you will, purist, but the waitress just said, "Oh, we call that the Frisco."

I did not ask for a taste of the pastrami, but the highly-praised potato salad was sweet enough to make my teeth ache, as was the herring. The patty melt was huge, and had just barely enough flavor to let me know it was beef; its only truly outstanding feature was how tender the grilled onions were and how many they'd given me. As for the offered condiments, there were two pots of mustard, one bland and boring and one vinegary and boring, and the mayonnaise, in little plastic containers of maybe a tablespoon each, was probably Kraft. The fun part came at the end, when our friends were getting deli-to-go items added to their tab, and the one lone counter guy was trying to fill their order, another order, and check out all of them and us and someone else simultaneously. It took us all a good bit longer to pay and leave than it had to get the food in the first place - good thing the joint was almost empty, or we'd still be there. But at least the older of the two waitresses kept our morale up by telling the same jokes the other one had told us...

Tab for the two of us, split willingly by the waitress, was a bit over $26 with tax but before tip. Mrs. O made a very good lunch a couple of days later from her leftovers, as I would have had I not been such a pig. This is a funny, grubby old joint, IMO somewhere downhill from Canter's, and despite the dusty fake sausages hanging over the sparsely-stocked deli counter - I'm sorry, it's just pathetic - I'll be more than happy to give it another visit. It surely can't be as bad as it looks... and maybe I'll hear another Tiger Woods joke.

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  1. We enjoy Billy's, but honestly never have anything but a pastrami sandwich, maybe with a side of cole slaw. I prefer Langer's but can't always get downtown, and Billy's has the virtue of being close to us deli-deprived folks in the SGV. Oh, and they do a pretty good matzoh brei at breakfast time.

    1. Billy's was one of my favorite spots growing up in Glendale. The food is alright, let's face it, it's Glendale not NYC, but the servers are hilarious. The pastrami is fantastic and if you go back, I suggest you get that, and while I too love sourdough, go with the rye.


      1. I live in Silverlake and find myself in Glendale frequently and I have tried Billy's on numerous occasions in the hope of finding something there I like - and I haven't. Oh, well, I like the pickles on the table okay. And the waitresses are good fun. But really, the food there is at best dull and in many cases just plain awful. I've given up trying it, my hopes dashed.

        1. Don't know if you've been to Canters lately, but it's far grubbier than Billy's. They re-modeled about 10 years ago when the new owners took over. The previous owner for 14 years was a Chinese lady.
          True the most authentic deli thing about Billy's is that waitress from Brooklyn who swore to me she was going to quit when the computerized check system was instituted. Other than that Billy's is a serviceable deli in the area and they have good pastrami, mushroom barley soup, good knishes, brisket and matzo ball soup is good enough. As far as the potato salad, I never heard that it was highly-praised...maybe that was the problem.

          3 Replies
          1. re: monku

            It's been a couple of years since our last Canter's stop. What I noticed about Billy's was the shabbiness of the upholstery, the dust on the fake sausages, the sparse, unlit offerings in the grubby display cases and the general atmosphere of neglect, none of which I recall from Canter's. Especially the state of the deli cases, which I remember as being both well-stocked and well-lit.

            1. re: Will Owen

              If the last time you've been to Canter's was 30 years ago, nothing has changed there and it's worn around the edges too, maybe they hide it better. Maybe the reason Canter's doesn't remodel is because they'd have to make the 2nd floor restroom conform to ADA regulations.

              Most memorable Canter's celeb sighting was seeing Henny Youngman (he even had his violin in hand) and Mel Brooks heaving one-liners at each other across the room.

              1. re: monku

                You call THAT a celeb sighting? Let me tell you a celeb sighting ...!

                It must have been incredible, monku. Did Youngman leave his violin case open for customers to toss in tips? ;-JD)

          2. Billy's is surprisingly decent for very a few specific things, cheeseburgers not among them. Matzoh ball soup; brisket or pastrami sandwiches; pickles. It is not a place to experiment.

            1. Billy's is decent, but far from stellar. Feels kind of shabby and old, but it's better than the alternatives (none) in the Inland Empire. If I were in your neck of the woods I would probably check out Art's in Studio City (fond memories of corned beef sandwiches from Art's and cold Seven-up in the green bottle from the fridge in my father's drug store in the 1950's/60's).

              1. Finally got there a while ago, and was also "underwhelmed"... it was all, kind of sad.

                1. I live in Glendale and everyone I know who goes to Billy's raves about it. I just don't get it. I mean, I want it to be good but it is mediocre at best. The best thing I've had there is their Matzoh ball soup but that's not exactly testing their ability to prepare complex food.

                  I get the feeling every time I've been there that they'e on the verge of closing (permanently) and I have arrived for the clearance sale. A drab vibe, "unique" service, and lackluster food... and they close so early (8:30p??)!!! Only Langer's with its stellar food has the right to close early!! lol

                  1. I think Langer's is far dumpier. Last time I was there the formica booth was actually coming apart with wood, plastic and nails exposed. And then there is the neighborhood.

                    I have been eating at Billy's for decades. As with Langer's, I stay within parameters: The brisket is stellar. Even J. Gold gave it high praise. The pastrami and corned beef are good if you are not able to get to Langers.

                    I like the Matzo Brei, Bagels / Lox, most breakfast dishes. I have heard the krepach soup is good but have yet to try it.

                    The chocolate eclair is good if that is your thing. I almost always get one to go.

                    Avoid most everything else ... especially the diner-type items. But I have found that to be the case in many delis with the possible exception of Nate'n Al's.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: SilverlakeGirl

                      For some reason, this jogged my memory of what Mrs. M, the fourth person at the table, had to eat: the meat loaf sandwich. It was a SLAB of meat loaf, of the very solid variety as opposed to the semisolid. I make mine that way so that I can slice it thin, like lunch meat; hers was more in the nature of a paving brick. This was an experiment with her, as she'd never gotten it before, but she was pleased with it and happy to take the second half home for the next day's lunch.

                      Too bad about that booth at Langer's - I'm sure a lot of it has to do with the sheer bulk of many of the patrons. As for the neighborhood, I find it hugely improved. It's still swarming with relatively poor people who don't speak English, kinda like most of the world, but the truly scary guys have apparently been mostly run off. Via Gold/Red line or by car to the lot, it's a one-block walk I don't mind taking, except of course that uphill slog on a full stomach!

                      1. re: Will Owen

                        Billy's is sort of like The Pantry Cafe in downtown.

                        Those that love it (in part b/c of nostalgia) will always love it.

                        Is Billy's the greatest deli in the Valley (or the South Bay)? Nope. Is it the worst. Probably not.

                        By the way, ever notice under Billy's menu under the heading "Healthy Sandwiches" each one of the sandwiches either contains some combo of (1) Ranch Dressing (2) Russian Dressing or (3) bacon?

                    2. You certainly have a right to your opinion, and while I generally like Billy's, it's not without issues. Still, most reviews in this thread pretty much nail it: what Billy's does well, it does very well. What it doesn't...

                      That said, I guess I'm more than a little surprised: how can you review a deli without actually trying their deli? As for tacky, how is it different than Langer's, Canter's, Label's Table, Pico-Kosher, Philippe's, Cole's - or any other 60+ year old restaurant that has kept the same ambience through the years?

                      I've heard mixed things about the brisket at Billy's, their kreplach is too doughy for my taste, their pastries can sometimes look a little tired, and they don't carry Kosher hard salami (a head scratcher to me). But their matzoh balls are excellent, and their Chicken in the Pot is one of the best. And while Billy's pastrami may not be Langer's, or even Canter's, it's not far behind - a really excellent sandwich. I generally don't order hot dogs in a deli, but theirs (I believe with natural casing), grill up at home quite well. I don't know who their supplier is.

                      FWIW, I haven't had it, but my son does happen to like the burgers at Billy's.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: Briggs

                        "That said, I guess I'm more than a little surprised: how can you review a deli without actually trying their deli?" For those of us who come from a deli-deprived culture, "deli" is simply a name for sandwiches and the stuff they come with, or for a restaurant/snack bar that features same. I treat delicatessens as restaurants featuring a cuisine based primarily on middle-European Jewish sources, and eat whatever's there that most appeals to me at the time, as I do in any restaurant. I regret not having gotten the pastrami, but not deeply, as I intend to go back and try it. Never again the potato salad, though!

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          Sorry to come across a bit hard-edged - it's from my own deli-purist genes. Or obsession. Just like some here won't consider 'cue unless it's smoked to a certain standard, I feel the same way about Kosher-style delis. I'm not anywhere close to knowledgeable about Italian delis (actually I can't tell the differences between Mario's, Bay Cities, etc.). OTOH, I can discuss for hours the subtleties among the different Jewish delis in L.A. - from pastrami to stuffed derma, kreplach soups, etc... Um, I realize that this is nothing to brag about.

                          Will be looking forward to reading your reassessment - even if you're still less than thrilled.

                          1. re: Briggs

                            Hey, Briggs, you're the kind of 'hound I wanted to see post his ideas about what to have other than pastrami at Langer's -- over at http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/678379 . How about giving us the benefit of your "deli-purist genes. Or obsession."

                            1. re: Briggs

                              I don't agree that Billy's is any more run-down than Canter's or Langer's. They're all pretty well-worn, but it doesn't matter to me anyway.

                              Chopped liver at Billy's is better than chopped liver at Brent's. There, I said it. The pastrami is not as good as Langer's or Brent's but is better than Junior's, Nate 'N Al's, Art's, Canter's, Fromin's, Solley's or (ugggggh) Izzy's.

                              As for the burgers, etc., they remind me of burgers in mediocre NJ diners. I don't order burgers in delis because they all taste like burgers in mediocre NJ diners.

                              The mustard seemed fine to me, incidentally, as did the pickles (and they're more gracious about giving half-sours on request than other places).

                              My ¥2...

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                "My ¥2..."

                                Wouldn't that be "My ₪2..." ;-D>

                                1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                  "As for the burgers, etc., they remind me of burgers in mediocre NJ diners. I don't order burgers in delis because they all taste like burgers in mediocre NJ diners." Ah, we can simply agree to disagree on tastes, then. My total time in NJ is measured in minutes, but I'll bet there's not a lot of difference in mediocre diners anywhere - or at least didn't used to be forty-odd years ago - and I have a deep fondness for those places and their grub. A perverse fondness, even...

                                  My lack of familiarity with the deli milieu made me unaware that such a thing as a "half-sour" even existed, much less was a thing that could be requested. I assume this is a pickle fished out in mid-process, not yet brined to the fullest? That sounds like a good thing, especially to someone who's supposed to be riding herd on his blood pressure. I have had pickles very much like that at some delis I've been to in the past, and have liked them very much.

                                  1. re: Will Owen

                                    There's a certain kind of burger platter that is the "NJ diner burger platter" to me, because I grew up in NJ and that's where you got them. They're usually fairly thick patties, often cooked to char on the outside, but not good-quality meat and never seasoned, which gives them an almost sour, flat taste. I'm sure NJ diners don't have the patent on mediocre burgers, and not all burgers in NJ diners are mediocre, but there you have it.

                                    A half-sour is exactly what you describe: a garlicky pickle fished out of the brine before it is "done" (in New York, at places like Guss', you can actually order the mellifluous "half-dozen half-done"). It's brighter green, much, much snappier, and still has some of the cucumbery taste left. I always, always order half-sour, and I have anecdotal, non-scientific evidence that ordering them when I sit down results in more tender, fattier pastrami when I get around to the sandwich order.