This week, we share the news that Hal’s Deli will close this spring after 56 years in Downtown Ithaca. The eatery on Restaurant Row has offered inexpensive breakfasts and overstuffed sandwiches to countless generations of students and locals.
Hal Kuntz, the original proprietor, passed away about thirty years ago, but his memory has lived on in the tasty food, and his wife, Sandy, still comes in from time to time to help her kids run the business. They opened the original Hal’s in April 1961, and it will close just over 56 years later.
“I was five when we opened up, so that’s all I know,” says Jackie Schaaf, Hal and Sandy’s daughter, who still runs the family restaurant with her brother, Michael. “I don’t remember so much from my younger years, but I remember when my grandparents came in and worked.” Jackie’s grandfather owned the Marilyn Hotel, which later became Leonardo’s, and the Alpine, on the corner where Asia Cuisine is now.
Older brother Mike remembers not just the Marilyn Hotel (named after an aunt, who now goes by “Lyn”) but family dinners at other family-owned eateries in town, like Joe’s Restaurant and the College Spa.
There are still families in the food business in Ithaca, but it’s rarer for a multigenerational family to work together. We asked Michael what it’s like to work with his kid sister all day, every day. “It’s fine,” he answered with a gleam in his eye, as Jackie listened from the other end of the counter.
Starting at 6 o’clock each morning, Hal’s plays the role of downtown diner, offering breakfasts starting under two bucks for a bagel or about three bucks for a breakfast sandwich or waffles, but we suggest The Coach — two eggs cooked however you’d like, served with mini potato pancakes, toast, and a cup of coffee — or a mushroom or pastrami omelet, or french toast. They’ll keep the coffee coming.
“Once I moved off campus,” says Cornell alum Gary Kaye, who was a freshman fifty years ago, “I found myself often heading down to Hal’s for Sunday breakfast. I was partial to lox, eggs, and onions,” he adds, “and, frankly, they make it the way I like it which is scrambled on the dry side.”
He says he grew up with great deli in Forest Hills, New York, so “naturally sought out familiar foods” when he got to Ithaca. “Those were the days when Cornell Dining was nothing to write home about.”
At lunchtime or for an afternoon snack, Hal’s is a deli, with everything from grilled cheese for a few bucks to their famous triple-decker sandwiches. Check out the Cornell Big Red special, with roast beef, swiss, tomato, cole slaw, and russian dressing… or the Ithaca College Bombers sandwich, corned beef, pastrami, and turkey with cole slaw and russian. Or keep it simple with a well-stuffed pastrami on rye.
Gary says his favorite lunch “was, and still is, the Ithaca College Bombers sandwich,” which, then and now, costs “a fraction of a comparable sandwich in most NYC delis.”
“I’ve always gotten a kick out of the fact that on the left-hand wall of Hal’s you can still find fraternity composites dating back to my era, including one or two from the now defunct Tau Epsilon Phi house that have my much younger face,” he says.
Hot sandwiches include comfort food like hot turkey with gravy or that quintessential New York deli sandwich, the reuben, hot corned beef and swiss cheese with sauerkraut on grilled rye. You’ll want that with one of Hal’s knishes. Never had a knish? Think of a square of mashed potatoes, deep fried until the outside’s crisp. Or stay cool and healthy with a chef’s salad or tuna salad bowl.
“We were one of the first restaurants in town delivering,” says Michael, “besides a couple of pizza places.” Delivery and takeout now make up a majority of the restaurant’s business, thanks to lots of online orders from Grubhub.
“We used to do all the team bag lunches,” Jackie adds, “especially the Ivy League basketball teams playing in town,” though more and more of the hotels that teams stay in while on the road are boosting their own bottom lines by offering in-house catering. Teams are also ordering stacks of pizza, or sandwiches from familiar national chain sub shops.
Visiting Hal’s before they close? Plan on spending four to ten bucks for breakfast or lunch, and yes, Hal’s delivers a piping-hot breakfast as early as 6am.
Michael and Jackie won’t be surprised to see lots of familiar faces over the next several weeks, as word spreads that they’re closing. Many will be locals who just come in once or twice a year, or Cornell and Ithaca College alums who visit town occasionally.
“In my fifty years of traveling to Ithaca,” Gary Kaye agrees, “I have seldom been through town without making a stop at Hal’s. I’ve always looked forward to catching up with Sandy and Jackie.”
The restaurant’s family feel has always extended to customers, Jackie says. “We always have people come in when they visit Ithaca and say if it weren’t for my mom and my dad — especially my dad — they wouldn’t have made it through college,” she adds.
” It has been a warm, wonderful, and tasty part of my life for some fifty years,” Gary tells us. “Without Hal’s, my trips to Ithaca will never quite be the same.”
Hal’s Deli will close on May 23rd. Call them at 607-273-7765 or visit them at 115 North Aurora Street on Restaurant Row, and tell them you heard about them here.