Lynne Abraham has a table reserved for six at the Famous 4th Street Deli for Election Day. Jim Kenney will probably stop by. So will Council members, political consultants and media. They always do. For years, the homey Queen Village restaurant has been an Election Day staple, and it all started decades ago because two connected, well-liked politicos met for lunch and soon the rest of the Philadelphia political scene followed.
The tradition dates back to the ’70s. In business since 1923, the crowd already skewed influential at times.
“(Former mayor) Dick Dilworth’s wife used to come in with a long fur coat and let it hang on the floor,” says Dave Auspitz, whose family owned the restaurant from 1933 to 2005.
He recalls then Democratic city chairman Pete Camiel, who died in 1991 at the age of 81, coming to the Deli during those days. He would partake in some kind of Eastern European traditional toast– Camiel was the son of Polish immigrants — on Election Day, always at the Deli out of superstition.
In 1980, longtime political strategist Neil Oxman remembers, he came to the Deli on Election Day with David Glancey, who had become the city’s Democratic chairman after Camiel. They ate with Camiel and decided to do the same the next year, inviting friends this time. Camiel may have had his superstitions, but Oxman’s reasons were purely based on the food.
“It’s the best deli in the city, period,” he says. “It’s always been the best.”
First, friends joined. Then people who wanted to talk with Oxman, Glancey or Camiel. Then everybody started coming, like former mayors Bill Green and Ed Rendell, union leader Johnny “Doc” Dougherty and Abraham. The crowd is overwhelmingly Democrat, but Auspitz says a group of Republicans usually reserves a table, too.
“It’s kind of like the Pennsylvania Society, and they’re actually happy to meet and greet,” Auspitz says. “And then they do battle later.”
The tradition has continued under current owner Russ Cowan, and the Deli’s fame has spread nationally. President Barack Obama visited in 2012. When Al Gore was running for president in 2000, he and Rendell made a last-minute, unpublicized visit to the Deli. Word spread to residents in the neighborhood, who started crowding the restaurant wanting to see Gore when he left. Rather than try to avoid the people, Gore ran through the crowd.
“It was a real moment,” Auspitz says. “If they could’ve passed him around on their shoulders they would have. I wish Gore had become president. He loved Philadelphia.”
Asked for a favorite Election Day memory, Auspitz can’t come up with one. He says the best part about Election Day is how random it is. Nobody knows exactly who’s going to win the races, and nobody knows exactly who’s going to show up at 4th Street Deli.
“The President of the United States could walk in Tuesday,” Auspitz says. “I doubt it seriously, but I don’t know that either, that somebody won’t say, ‘we’re going to this crazy thing that happens and nobody knows why.’”