Corned beef hash and eggs, with fruit and a sesame bagel
Forty years ago this year, Zvika and Debi Akin put their initials together to open D.Z. Akin’s, the San Diego region’s foremost Jewish restaurant, delicatessen, and bakery. Originally a small counter shop, the business expanded five or six times over the years, taking over adjacent storefronts to become a primarily sit-down restaurant. Since the second expansion, it's been producing virtually all of its food in-house, including pastrami, bagels, lox, and what is, for those in the know, one of the best items on the menu: Debi’s chopped liver.
6930 Alvarado Road, San Diego
However, arguably the biggest changes in the mainstay’s four-decade history have taken place this year. Like all other local restaurants, the family-owned-and-operated eatery found itself making unprecedented adjustments in response to the coronavirus. The first being a month-long closure.
The new-look entrance to the D.Z. Akin's dining room, now promoting take out and social distancing
According to Elan Akin, one of two Akin sons who have joined their parents in running the business, the restaurant had been pro-active in making pandemic-conscious changes to daily operations, even prior to the governor’s March shelter-in-place order. While it remained open into early April, it soon became apparent to the family that the surest way to protect the health of its employees and (often elderly) customers was to cease operations temporarily.
“A couple of guys came in,” Akin recalls, “and they were clearly sick. They wanted matzo ball soup.” The men refused to cooperate with safety protocols, and it made the Akins realize, “We didn’t need to take that risk.”
Complimentary pickles, an enjoyable part of the ritual of dining at D.Z. Akin's
However, D.Z. Akins came back from the time off in mid-May with improvements to its take-out system, implementing curbside pick up and, for the first time, working with a delivery service. Now, what were once crowds of loyal customers, may isolate at home for their health, but still get their customary matzo ball soup, deli sandwiches, and baked goods.
The truth is, despite restaurants being conditionally allowed to re-open to diners last week, such strong take-out and delivery efforts remain crucial to a restaurant’s survival. Last week, D.Z. Akin’s did resume dine-in service, with wait staff donning full face shields, and guests spaced out with empty booths between them. Therefore, while the restaurant may seat up to 220 in normal times, Elan Akin estimates it currently maxes out at 80 customers.
A mural at D.Z. Akin's invokes take out memories.
So, it felt uncharacteristically quiet when I stopped by for a late morning dine-in experience. But despite the masks and sense of abundant caution, my D.Z. Akin’s meal itself proved comforting as ever. There was a small plate of house pickles for the table. There was my order of corned beef hash and eggs. It remains the best example of that in town, thanks to the restaurant’s signature corned beef, and the fact that, unlike most diners, the hash is more meat than potatoes.
One of the biggest functional changes to dining at D.Z. Akins is that diners enter and exit through a side door, rather than pass by the deli and bakery counters on the way out. I’ve always found it impossible to pass by the bakery without stopping to load up a box of cookies to-go, and wasn’t about to skip this part of my dining ritual.
Rather than the traditional take-a-number system, which saw customers crowd into the space waiting to make their orders, now the bakery and deli area is sealed off from the rest of the restaurant, and treated like a separate entity, restricted to no more than three customers at a time. Those waiting stand in a spaced-out line on the sidewalk, which, tuns out, after all these years, makes the whole thing a more streamlined experience.
“We’ve learned, happily, we’re becoming somewhat more efficient with this new method,” says Akin.
My experience backs that up. I was able to fill a box with rugelach, macaroons, and black and white cookies in record time, while picking up bagels, and some of that chopped liver. And seriously, if you haven’t tried Debi’s chopped liver, after four decades, what are you waiting for?