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Deli vs. Diner in the Battle of Waukegan Road

With Max and Benny's nestled close to What's Cooking, what gives each eatery an edge?

Old-fashioned Jewish delis and Greek diners rarely compete for the same business a block from each other, as and George’s What’s Cooking? Family Restaurant have done for the past 12 years on Waukegan Road just north of the Edens Expressway Spur.

But when their menus are perused and the aromas wafting through their aisles are sniffed, and What’s Cooking have a lot in common. Each features many of the same rib-sticking staples: chicken matzo-ball or kreplach soup that can be further loaded up with ingredients like noodles, kasha and chicken slices for a digestive-system-stuffing “mish-mosh” combo, corned beef and hot-turkey sandwiches, skirt-steak omelets or gargantuan salads.

So what gives either the edge in just plain down-home dining of the type patrons can’t get in the chain or specialty restaurants? has a wonderland carry-out deli with items beyond what the old neighborhood joints could have ever dreamed up, while What’s Cooking’s entrée roster could probably blow the deli away with sheer numbers.

The families who run each claim they do not in head-to-head competition, despite their shops' close proximity. But in the end, and What’s Cooking both go after diners--Jewish and other groups--who love the same kind of traditional, yet familiar, foods.

“We have our own bakery, a much bigger catering department and a different kind of menu,” said owner Lester Schlan. “I can’t talk negatively about other people. We’re trying to be the real thing.”

“A deli is a deli, a restaurant is a restaurant,” said What’s Cooking co-owner George Christakis. “They know how to make [specialty foods], we know how to cook. Everybody likes a deli here and there. It’s a counter where you buy bagels, a pound a salami, a pound of corned beef.  Now they have a full kitchen. But it’s a carry-out place with sandwiches made to order.”

The personal touch

began 25 years ago, moving to its present location in 1994. Schlan named the deli in honor of his two sons, with one, Ben, now his right-hand man in the business.

Also family-run is What’s Cooking, via the husband-and-wife team of George and Vicky Christakis. The diner was first established in 1978 in the Lincoln Village Shopping Center on Chicago’s far North Side. Then, the restaurant could play off the old Lincoln Village Theater and Wieboldt’s department store. Eventually, the cinema and store closed, and many of the Christakises’ Jewish clientele moved to the Northbrook and Deerfield areas, where the Christakises already had settled. By 2000, What’s Cooking moved to its current location, in a building made to order.

George Christakis doesn’t think of his relationship with as a competition, rather he says both restaurants complement each other.

“I believe the more restaurants, the more people coming around,” he said. “Yes, they will go for a cup of soup [at ] or meal [at What’s Cooking]; they don’t go the same all the time."

"He [Schlan] believes he has a fine place, I believe I have a fine place.  It’s the same concept. We plan to be around a long time. There’s enough for everybody,” Christakis said was how he saw it.

Both keep the doors open via tried-and-true favorites.

“You have to market yourself not just as a deli,” Schlan said. “We have other foods, too. Somebody coming [in] who likes a deli is not necessarily coming with someone who also likes a deli. People want a good salad. People want other things—different omelets, healthy, gluten-free foods.”

Although Schlan says his restaurant’s best seller is corned beef, the menu now features a “junior” sandwich—a nod to more health conscious customers.

But for those with a sweet tooth, doesn’t hold back. Schlan now has developed a reputation for custom-made baked goods. His bakers produce cookies crafted in the image of people—even one with then-Sen. Barack Obama’s face during the 2008 presidential elections. His-and-her cookies for a wedding party were displayed as samples one recent day.

Six varieties and counting

The bakery offers not just the traditional two kinds of mandelbrodt—the Jewish version of biscotti—but six. The limit is only Schlan’s imagination.

For sale are cinnamon, chocolate chip, chocolate-dipped chocolate chip, double chocolate chip, sugar-free raisin and sugar-free nut. Schlan has even more flavors in the pipeline, including carrot cake and mint chocolate chip.

Half the fun of running a restaurant is coming up with ideas, Schlan said.

“I just think of ideas. That’s my favorite thing. That’ s my forte. You see how the Food Channel thinks up things,” he said. “Instead of making big cheesecakes, we make individual ones and individual pies.”

But, he acknowledged that “sometimes things don’t work.”

An expert in matzo balls

Down the street, Christakis prides himself on having been trained in taking a recipe and knowing “how to turn it around.”

“We sell a lot of chickens, fish. We prepare to the customer’s likeness. I know fish very well. Our biggest seller is whitefish. Also salmon, tilapia.”

Carried over from those days in Lincoln Village are old reliables, such as Greek chicken, stuffed cabbage and short ribs.

“Our matzo balls and kreplach are both homemade,” Christakis said. “We have a very good matzo ball. I can put it next to the ones from even the famous delis. Short ribs, you can see in the upscale places, it’s a delicacy. We also have gefilte fish. The sweet and sour cabbage is made to the taste. A lot of people prefer it on the sweet side.

“We used to make boiled tongue [in Chicago], but we don’t do it here,” he said.

The chocolate phosphates

Serving a good chocolate phosphate—seltzer water expertly mixed with chocolate sauce-demonstrates the ability to handle on old-world culinary arts. Many unfamiliar with old-time delis or diners don’t know about the phosphate. But it’s a tradition (not to be confused with the egg cream—chocolate syrup, milk and soda water).

A good chocolate phosphate will not taste like seltzer predominates. What and What’s Cooking? serve up are almost indistinguishable. But the phosphate wins by a nose, having been stirred to a rich, thick consistency—although the What’s Cooking production is still a chocolate paradise.

Delis vs. Diners

Through changing demographics and economics, the family-owned diner has held up longer and in greater quantity than delis. Almost every suburb still has a stalwart diner or three, more than holding its own against the big restaurant chains.

“In California or in the South, they have a lot of chains,” Christakis said. “We have the quality and the product and the value. They have the fat salaries. I’d rather go to an independent. I get my money’s worth.”

But the deli, especially a full-service type like , seems an endangered species. Schlan was interviewed, in fact, for a 2009 book titled Save The Deli, by David Sax.

Sax concluded delis had a hard time moving from the city to the suburbs, as they attempted to follow the migration of their clientele. Schlan, however, opened from the start in Northbrook.

“A Jewish deli, unlike other ethnics like Italian and Chinese, unfortunately needs a lot of Jewish people to support it,” Schlan said. “The only two areas that have a lot of delis are New York, which is losing its delis anyway, and Los Angeles.

"[The] Chicago area has 250,000 Jews, but New York has 2 million, and there are more than 650,000 in LA. There’s a certain mystique to the East Coast and West Coast on how things are done. People in Midwest are set in their ways and want things a certain way. Also, the older generation is dying out,” he explained about the demographic changes.

Somehow, Schlan has carved out enough of a market on Waukegan Road, however.

“We still do a nice business here,” he said. “People from out of town are the people we get the most compliments from. People come from all over the city. But we still depend on our [local] base.”

Assuming locals continue to split the vote with their mouths, the battle of Waukegan Road will go on a while longer.

Sue Lieberman September 15, 2011 at 04:59 AM
Dining at What's Cooking is like coming home. Vicky and/or George are always there to welcome you. They'll prepare your food how you like it. It's nice to dine where everyone is glad to see you and knows your name! Cheers! Sue Cherry Lieberman
Ronald Rappaport October 10, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Neither of these places are very good. Max and Benny's is a watered down version of what delis used to be. It's big, but the food has little flavor. What's Cooking serves typical diner fare. The food tastes as if it had been warming for hours. You can do a lot better than either of these restaurants.

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