Davis deli: Gone but the memories live on


Over a long career at the Providence Journal, I was honored to interview presidents and such icons as César Chavez, John Lewis and Elie Wiesel. But the most reportorial fun I ever had was going in 1997 with Joslin (Josh) Davis, owner of Davis Dairy Products, to the international Kosher food show in New Jersey.

What qualifications did I have for doing such a column? I hung around delicatessens, most notably Davis on Providence’s East Side. Despite the “dairy” in the name, this retailer-wholesaler also purveyed such life-affirming items as corned beef, pastrami and, yes, tongue.

We traveled to the Meadowlands Exposition Center in a limo. As we approached the army of vendors offering samples of franks, knishes, latkes, blintzes, gefilte fish and rugelach they were hoping to sell to distributors, caterers and restaurants, Mr. Davis warned me, “Pace yourself.” I wandered around for hours, chatting with vendors like the guy from United Pickle Products, and, of course, vacuuming up small portions of everything that caught my eye. 

I was in dreamland.

But now, like legions of other Davis customers, I have to face the harsh reality that the deli, whose building was ravaged by fire last May, will not be reopening. My wife, Elizabeth, and I shopped there for decades and were among its very last customers, stopping in only hours before the blaze. That day, we bought the famous hand-sliced lox, incredible cream cheese, outstanding chopped liver. … It hurts even to think about it. Some of this stuff we put in the freezer and it lasted awhile, but then, like watching a boat fade off into the horizon, we were left only with memories.

You went to Davis, at 721 Hope St., almost as much for the schmoozing as the food. It was like a repertory theater.

The characters were Mr. Davis, his daughter Lori, her husband, Mark Glazer, and employee Nate Anthony. There was a definite, if playful, edge in the air, certainly if Mr. Davis was on hand. Like, if my order was tiny, he might say, “For this I had to come to work?”

He regularly asked how I was handicapping an election, and he was quick to offer his political views. He disliked the Kennedys. And don’t even mention Al Sharpton.

He’s 88 now, and God bless him.

It was a quirky place. When you were checking out, one person – say, Mark – would call out the price of each item. Someone else – say, Mr. Davis – would tote them up on an old-fashioned adding machine.

I wasn’t around when the business began in 1906, but I can tell you that right to the end, in 2020, they took no credit cards.

Some things did change.  When you walked in the store years ago, you had to take a number, a paper slip from a dispenser. Eventually, they stopped doing that. But I recall those days well because Lori once took a Number 1 slip and crafted it into a souvenir lifetime pass for me.

I loved the glistening lox, which my friend Andy Miller says they’d cut for him so thin it had only one side. 

I’d often see Jerry Kapstein, the Red Sox senior adviser who later ran for lieutenant governor, standing near the counter, waiting for his lox order. One day I whipped out my iPhone to take his picture, but, no, he snapped that I was violating his privacy.

Most of the people you’d see in there were Jewish, of course, but one time I brought in Sheldon Whitehouse, now the U.S. senator, and they made him a bagel and cream cheese, and he loved it.

In announcing that the store would not reopen, but would still do wholesale, Mark noted that generations of a family had shopped there. My mother used to go in. I became a regular, and I’d frequently take along my young daughter, Maggie. I called her the Queen of Corned Beef and kept buying it for her over the years even as she married. Her husband, Randy Yarlas, savored their pickled tomatoes. I’d bring in their young daughter, who loved the individual bottles of Kedem grape juice.

I admit I was a quirky customer, but Mark, the Davis son-in-law, was an amiable enabler. I took to asking him to grab a small plastic container and fill half of it with whitefish salad and half with chopped herring. It initially cost $1.68. Over the years, the price ballooned, but I still referred to it as “the $1.68 trick,” and Mark always knew what I meant. 

Then there was the “seldom-seen trick”: half coleslaw, half potato salad.

And yes, if I was taking the train to visit my older daughter, Diane, and her husband, Tommaso, and could bring only a modest cooler bag, I’d have Mark do up a small container with half plain cream cheese and half chive for their daughters.

But listen, I wasn’t the only customer with unusual orders: Kathe and Chip Cobb would go to Florida in the winter and have Davis ship a case of gefilte fish for their poodles.

Which reminds me of a journalistic episode of which I am not entirely proud. But it happened, and I am now going to report it for the first time.

One of my interests in the late 1990s was chronicling the emergence of Latino politicians. One day I got a phone call from Luis Aponte, inviting me to cover a fundraiser kicking off his (eventually successful) quest for a Providence City Council seat. I blurted out, being silly (okay, stupid), “What are you serving?”  He asked, “What would you like?”  I said – to this day I don’t know why – “Gefilte fish.”

The evening of the event, at the Roger Williams Park Casino, I arrived early. Aponte’s wife, Gwen, said, “I have your gefilte fish. I went to Davis’s to buy it.” She asked if I wanted to put it in my car or whether she should add it to the buffet. At least I had the presence of mind to choose the latter.

So there it was, along with such other fare as Buffalo wings, fried-chicken drumettes, and Puerto Rican meat pies.  I ate a piece of it and now what? Like, who else was going to want any?  In walks state Rep. David Cicilline, now a U.S. congressman. He’s Jewish, so I brought him over and he ate a portion.

OK, but could there be any other takers? Ta-da! In strides Mayor Buddy Cianci, not Jewish, but he got around, so I ushered him over and he welcomed the chance to have a piece. “It’s gefilte fish,” I said, trying to be helpful. “I know!” huffed the mayor. He was actually offended that I’d think he’d never eaten it before.

And now, it’s goodbye to all that. Davis deli definitely is gone, and I am left to forage. But say, a new Kosher place, Bubbie’s, is opening nearby. And, wouldn’t you know?  Jeff Ingber, one of its owners, was at that 1997 Kosher food show in New Jersey and rode back to Providence in the limo with Mr. Davis and me. I take that as a promising omen. Jeff says Nate will work in Bubbie’s, and he guarantees there’ll be hand-sliced lox for me. So that’s a start, and if the new business is anything as classy and as interesting as Davis, we can all live happily ever after.

CHARLES BAKST is a retired Providence Journal political columnist.