Chattanooga's Unofficial Ambassador and the 1000-star review.

You can take the boy out of the NYC deli, but you can't take the NYC deli out of the boy.

Chattanooga's Unofficial Ambassador and the 1000-star review.
River St. Deli, Chattanooga, Tenn.

You can take the boy out of the NYC deli, but you can't take the NYC deli out of the boy.

"You look like a man who could be hungry."

It's good to say thanks, good to let people know how much they mean to you. Gratitude fills the heart like a big red balloon. Softens the mind like an afternoon breeze.

And fills the belly like an Elana Ruz.

"Elana Ruz," begins Bruce Weiss. "From that old Cuban cookbook. The first day I premiered it, a bunch of GPS girls come walking in. I made them some samples. They all got it."

That was 24 years ago.

"To this day, they still come in, now with their kids," Weiss said.

How many stories like this can Weiss pile up like some forever-decker sandwich? For the last 26 years, his River St. Deli on the North Shore has been a cornerstone of Chattanooga food culture. River St. is the city's deli, a place where everybody knows your name; and if they don't, one man sure as hell does.

Bruce Weiss, River St. Deli, Chattanooga, Tenn.

"People come back," he said.

There's a Chattanooga man with cancer whose doctor tells him – beyond the chemo, radiation, medical treatment – to take care of his heart. You know, his heart.

"Go eat at a place where the food is good," the doc says, "and the place is fun."

Guess where he goes? You already know. River St. Deli, as much as he can.

On Wednesdays, the Chicago ex-pats come in. One particular man idles up to the counter, rolls up his sleeves, elbows on the table and leans. Really, l-e-a-n-s over the counter.

Look here, Weiss shouts to everyone. He knows how to do it.

"So when he drips down, it drips on the plate," Weiss said. "The guy gives lessons. Watch him eat."

One morning, as his manager was opening up, Weiss comes in to a couple slow-dancing among the tables and chairs, soft music on the radio. He was about to ship out to Afghanistan. Wanted one more dance in the deli with his wife.

Stories like this?

"You can't count them, man," Weiss said.

Once, a young son and his father finished up their sandwiches. Weiss, who talks with respect to kids, not patronizing them, had made fast friends with the boy.

I like this guy, the boy says to his father. Can you tip him?

Dad pulls out $1 bill, hands it to the son, who walks it over to Weiss.

This was years ago.

Weiss still has the $1 bill taped to his office computer.

"How do you put a price on that?" he says.

River St. Deli, Chattanooga, Tenn.

On 9/11, Weiss hears the news on the kitchen radio, drops what he's doing, rushes out and buys an American flag from the hardware store.

The flag's been hanging ever since. No uniformed serviceperson – police, Marines, firefighters – has paid for a drink since.

So, Bruce, there are lots of us, who really want to make sure you hear this:

Thank you.

When he was a boy, Weiss would wake up early Sunday mornings with his dad, walk down a few blocks in Queens to the Russ & Daughters deli, near Alphabet, with his dad.

"Russ & Daughters specializes in smoked fish and real Jewish food, soul food," he said. "My nose just got up to the counter. I could watch the guy slicing lox. He had this long, thin knife."

You can take the boy out of the NYC deli, but can't take the deli out of the boy. Deli culture is a melting pot of smells, tongues and languages and accents, shouting and laughing, the sizzle of presses and grills, the incoming delight of sliced pastrami and warm NYC bagels.

"Coming from New York, deli is very ethnic. There are so many different kinds," Weiss said. "All these different foods. All these different smells."

Weiss, who loves to draw, built an early career as a courtroom illustrator, then, moves here in the early 1990s, tires of corporate work, stumbles across Neville Forsythe, who owns Chef's Underground Cafe, and asks the question that would later affect tens of thousands of Chattanoogans:

Need an apprentice?

Food as a Verb thanks Niedlov's Bakery & Cafe, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

Niedlov's Bakery & Cafe, a Main St. anchor, has elevated our city's bakery experience to beautiful levels while strengthening community in immeasurable ways.

Show up on Wednesday, Forsythe told Weiss.

"Neville had a tremendous amount of passion. I loved him to pieces. He was younger than me but with food, he was my mentor," he said.

Weiss found the same creativity in food as he did drawing. He brings up, interestingly, Ross Perot, who Weiss says traveled to Russia with money to invest.

Perot says to a guy: I see a lot of bicycles here. Any manufacturers?

No, the Russian said.

So Perot invests in bike manufacturing.

"I came to town, but didn't see any delis," Weiss said.

In 1998, Weiss opened River St. Deli in the place now known as Coolidge Park.

"There was no street. It was a dirt road," he remembers. "They were tearing down the Coast Guard reserve station. I had planks of wood and $70,000 bucks."

He built a menu, echoing all these wide influences: New York City, New Orleans, Vietnam, the local Jewish community. Began buying bread from Niedlov's, importing bagels from the Bronx. Four cases still, every week.

"You look like a man who could be hungry," he says, standing up, disappearing behind the deli counter, then returning with a plate of smoked salmon.

"With a toasted bagel, caper cream cheese," he said, "and a little of this, a little of that."

A surreal moment here: as I was eating, trying to listen and take notes, my attention kept getting hijacked by this smoked salmon. At the time, Weiss was talking about the way other diners often react to River St.'s food.

"They don't say anything," Weiss said. "They just close their eyes, bob their head."

The timing was perfect. My eyes closed, my head bobbing.

"You even ate the fork," he said.

To honor Vietnam, Weiss serves a special fusion of smoked tenderloin Bahn mi. With a nod to Chicago, Weiss slices Italian beef, served wet. Then, raising a glass to New Orleans, he serves a Muffuletta. For Philly, a Reuben.


South Carolina Grilled Gooey.

"Panko crusted hot chicken with melted cheddar and candied apple bacon," Weiss adds.

Is the River St. Deli menu the most ethnically diverse menu in Chattanooga?

"You see people eating here all different kinds of meals, all at the same time," he said.

He calls it "quality and eclectic" food. Some of these sandwiches have been served for nearly 30 years.

Four years ago, he had a triple bypass. Weiss, a devoted lap swimmer, is more aware of his age than ever.

"At 75, I'm still doing 50 hours a week," he said. "But I'm not getting crazy anymore. Hey listen. The passion, the hard work? You never quit."

Weiss mentions this Yiddish term: Siechel.

"Siechel is street smarts," said Weiss. "Intuition. Common sense. And if you ain't get Siechel, you ain't got nothing."

It's similar to the big-hearted audacity of Hutzpah. He says you need a little of both.

Bruce Weiss, River St. Deli, Chattanooga, TN

"Let me tell you a story," he begins.

Back in the 70s, I was working in a picture framing art supply store and also building my career as an illustrator. Every day after work, I'd go to Manhattan and Queens County Court until I was able to put a portfolio together.

One morning, I got up at 4 am, got my portfolio, took the Long Island railroad, then the Amtrak to DC. I had no money, only dimes in my pocket for the telephone. I got to Union Station, took a cab to the Washington Post.

I got in a phone booth and called upstairs.

I'm a courtroom illustrator from New York and want to show you my portfolio.

Where are you?


Well, come on up.

The guy introduces me to five different places. I go back to New York, and the next day, get a phone call from TVN, the predecessor to CNN. They want me to go to Maryland and cover the trial of the governor.

I didn't have any money. It was like an old Clark Gable movie where I'm standing at the Western Union station, waiting for them to wire me money.

That's Hutzpah and Siechel working together.

It's the same combination that created and maintained River St. Deli for 26 years. Gastro-intestinally, has anyone had a more long-lasting influence on Chattanooga than Weiss?

Locals, out-of-towners, folks in for the weekend whose hosts drag them by the arm and say, with noticeable pride: yeah, we have a deli, too.

"First thing they do is come in and smell it," he said. "It smells like deli."

Look at the walls: crayon drawings, Weiss's own artwork, Best of the Best plaques, community awards.

Like the tiny plaque on the counter says: Bruce Weiss is Chattanooga's Unofficial Ambassador.

River St. Deli, Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Some would say that I have a strong personality," Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said, "but I wilt under the pressure of Bruce’s sandwich recommendation. As businesses have come and gone over the years, The River Street Deli has remained a staple in the North Shore, drawing both locals and tourists in for food and fellowship near the riverfront.”

On Friday, Wamp made it even more official; the county mayor issued a signed proclamation in honor of Weiss and River St. Deli.

"Whereas: River Street Deli has been a cherished institution in Hamilton County since 1998, delighting the community with its New York-style delicatessen offerings and ...

"Whereas River Street Deli is not only a lunch-time staple but also a beloved gathering spot that embodies the spirit and flavor of our county, contributing to the vibrant atmosphere of the North Shore ...

"I, Weston Wamp, Mayor of Hamilton County, Tennessee, do hereby recognize and celebrate River St. Deli for its exceptional contribution to our city's culinary landscape and community wellbeing."

One final story: years ago, a young girl ate the last bite of her turkey-and-cheese sandwich. She writes Weiss a little note, tiny-steps it back to him behind the counter.

You all verry nice.

I rate ya'll 1000 stars.

It's been taped up in his office ever since.

From so many of us, Bruce, we send you as many thousand stars as the New York-to-Chattanooga sky will hold.

Bruce Weiss, River St. Deli, Chattanooga, TN

All photography by Sarah Unger (

All design by Alex DeHart

All words by David Cook (

Story ideas, questions, feedback? Interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities? Email us: and

This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

Food as a Verb thanks our sustaining partners for their generous support.

Dig in. (It's free)