Columnists :: South End Character
The Premier by Alison Barnet
MySouthEnd.com ContributorThursday Apr 12, 2012 Mention the Premier Deli to those of us who’ve been around a while and, immediately, if not sooner, we’ll tell you our favorite dish. I liked the Hungarian goulash, Ron Geddes the tongue and Swiss sandwich, and Dr. Bill Malamud the beet soup-borscht with a big dollop of sour cream. Nikki Flionis, whose family was once in the South End cafeteria business, remembers the cheese blintzes.
For Helaine Simmonds and her co-workers at New England Nuclear on Albany Street, the Premier was a weekly payday lunch treat. They’d cash their checks at the nearby First National Bank and indulge, for example, in an over-stuffed corned beef sandwich.
Dr. Conan Kornetsky of BU Medical Center once told me, "The Premier got us a $1 million grant"-by providing a great catered lunch during a site visit.
"Robert Nadeau" (Mark Zanger), the legendary restaurant critic, thought the Premier’s "great specialty" was the homemade gefilte fish ($2.20); he found the tzimmes meat "classic" and the soups "homemade and really super," but the stuffed cabbage a little too sweet and the pastrami "terrible." Oh, well.
Sherm Feller, the Red Sox announcer, reportedly said, "The Premier introduced Boston to bagels and lox." It was "Jewish-style," not kosher, not like a New York deli.
You walked in the door at the corner of Washington and Dover (East Berkeley) streets, where Empire Loan is today, and took a ticket from a free-standing dispenser. Then you went up to the counter, chose what you wanted to eat, and the counter staff, in white uniforms and white hats, punched your ticket in the appropriate places. You didn’t argue with them. I sometimes found them a little intimidating, but others liked being recognized and treated well. After eating, when you were ready to leave, you handed your ticket to the cashier behind the cash register near the door, and she totaled it up.
This was the system in other places too, such as Harvey’s Lunch on Washington Street near Mass. Ave. Harvey’s had a large early morning clientele of construction workers; work gloves were sold in the glass case under the cash register near the door. Harvey’s elderly mother came to your table and opened the little plastic containers of jam and jelly for you. Table and booth service at the Premier consisted of a cross-eyed busboy.
Water-and glass glasses-were available at a self-service station in the corner. In the Seventies, one of the owners, who’d worked as a shoeshine boy on Washington Street as a kid and had availed himself of the Premier’s water fountain, welcomed anyone off the street to come in for water. "Why shouldn’t they refresh themselves?" he asked.
Patrons were a diverse group, coming from all over. Once, when I was interested in philosopher George Santayana, an older South End friend told me he’d heard that "the greatest mind in western civilization" used to eat at the Premier. Great minds ate there, for sure, if not Santayana.
After you hear all about our favorite dishes, next you’ll hear how upset we were in the mid-Seventies when the Premier changed its plain, utilitarian décor and became kitschy. Nothing could have been worse than the fake Tiffany lamps, hanging plants, and plaid wallpaper-what were they thinking? Some took it hard and wouldn’t go back. Another disillusionment was the opening of the Premier II on Harvard Street in Brookline. You couldn’t talk about the two in the same breath.
As I piece together the history, the Premier opened in the late Twenties. Abraham Mitchell of Allston and Jacob Breyan of Roxbury went in together on two delicatessens, one on Essex Street downtown and one at 1128 Washington Street: the New Premier Cafeteria and Premier Cafeteria, respectively. By the mid-Thirties, Mitchell was out, and the Breyan family, father and three sons, was running the Premier.
After the Breyans sold the business in the Seventies, Richard Keesan and co-owner Bruce Hoffman, the former thirsty shoeshine boy, decided to "modernize" and open the Brookline Premier.
Owner Douglas Williams brought in a piano in 1984 and hired a Brazilian pianist to entertain at lunch, giving the place, he hoped, "a touch of New York City." Joaozin Lilha sat in the middle of the room playing movie tunes with a flourish. Ray Stiles of Ringgold Street, who played at "a bunch of little spots" like Jake Wirth, took over a few years later. Stiles played jazz, swing, classical and sing-a-long, while smoking Camels.
But by now, it was the late Eighties, and everything was changing. The El was being torn down, businesses were closing, and there was less foot traffic in the area. Empire Loan took the place of the Premier -well, not really-in 1990.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.