For more than 20 years, the Mass. Street Deli has presented a changing face to Lawrence diners.
It's hard to remember a time when there was no Massachusetts Street Delicatessen.
The Mass. Street Deli, as it's always been known, has been serving hungry students, shoppers and downtown workers since opening its doors at 941 Mass. in 1973. In the Lawrence restaurant biz, that's longevity.
It's not exactly the same place it was in the swinging '70s or the opulent '80s. The original restaurant was about one-third of its present size, according to owner Bob Schumm, before the dining room was expanded to the rear in 1978 and a major renovation added sidewalk dining, a glassed-in ground-floor cafe, a balcony and elevated gallery in 1994.
The inspiration for the latest face-lift, Schumm says, is Europe, where dining outdoors along busy streets or indoors in crowded multi-level bistros lends a certain quaint charm and excitement.
"We try to give our customers a little more thrill for their dollar," he explained.
Schumm's collection of more than 50 vividly colored antique French advertising posters adds to the ambience. Many establishments use old promotional items as a decorating gimmick; these posters, original stone lithographs dating from as far back as 1888, are true works of art and deserve at least a second glance.
Frankly, it had been a number of years since I sampled the Mass. Street Deli fare and I was expecting little more than its old "make your own sandwich" menu. That's still an option (your choice of meat -- corned beef, pastrami, smoked ham, etc. -- and your choice of cheese on your choice of bread, roll or bagel), but the lunch menu has expanded to include soups and a number of specialty sandwiches, burgers and full-meal salads. Dinner options are appetizers, pizzas, pastas and other entrees.
My choice for lunch was the Pesto Chicken Salad Sandwich ($5.75), which featured a dressing made with fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, mayo and sour cream. My server was cheerful, attentive and unfazed by my request to substitute steak fries for the potato chips.
In a different mood I might have tried the Owner's Special, a mammoth sausage sandwich that has a reputation among a certain group of locals ($6.50), or the Kansas All American Salad, which features pieces of chicken breast, lettuce greens, tomatoes, sliced boiled eggs, red onions, sunflower seeds, alfalfa sprouts and fresh baked croutons ($5.50).
But I was especially eager to check out whether the Mass. Street Deli's fabled homemade cheesecake lived up to its reputation.
"It's always been one of our best draws. We have people come in just for the cheesecake," Schumm said.
Mass. Street Deli's cheesecake (five varieties, $2.25-$3.25) passed muster with me -- no big deal, considering my sweet tooth. But what impressed me most was a delicate crumb crust that didn't taste like it just rolled out of a box of Nabisco graham crackers.
Schumm credits "all fresh, whole ingredients -- whole sour cream, whole eggs, full-strength cream cheese."
"If you try to alter it, you don't get the quality," he said. "Our philosophy is, 'Sin once, enjoy it and go on.'"