Kosher Style Comfort

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SERVICE EXTRAORDINAIRE is provided by Danny’s Deli’s staff, such as Kathee Doppelhammer (left) and Izzy Kada (right), shown here with owner Wendy Collings.

Beloved institution Danny’s Deli embraces its community with traditional recipes,
a caring staff and a taste of Jewish culture.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Viktor Budnik

Brisket roasted to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Bagels made fresh daily. Matzo ball soup. Fat kosher dills and fluffy knishes. When you think of Jewish comfort food, the one place in Ventura County that comes to mind is Danny’s Deli and Grill.

These and other traditional recipes are the foundation upon which Danny’s Deli has built its reputation. But its embrace of other cuisines as well speaks to the diversity of the community it calls home. The multi-page menu offers breakfast all day, fabulous soups and bakery items that will have you dreaming of dessert before you even order your food. Alongside traditional Jewish recipes you’ll find burritos and Cajun chicken pasta, egg creams and chocolate phosphates, vegan chili cheese fries and fresh beer on tap.

“We want this to be someplace you could bring 10 of your friends and there’s something for everyone,” says owner Wendy Collings.

TASTE OF HOME

Collings, who is Jewish, grew up in Woodland Hills. She opened her first deli, Sandwich Man, in the Northridge area in the 1980s with then-husband Danny.

“That’s where we learned how to prepare deli meats and the like,” Collings recalls.

Later they moved to Valencia, which at the time was a smaller community. The area started growing by leaps and bounds, however, and they craved someplace less citified — and found Ventura, which appealed to Collings due to having “that small-town feel without being a small town.” They took over the space occupied by Gary’s Restaurant and Bakery and opened Danny’s Deli in 1999.

The larger space and commercial ovens inspired Collings to “take things to the next level. The mainstays are still here . . . but we added to them.”

HANUKKAH COOKIES shaped like dreidels and Stars of David make a festive presentation at any feast.

Today 90% of Danny’s deli meats are prepared in house and used to create hearty and delectable sandwiches served between slices of bread from the restaurant’s own ovens. 

“Almost everything here is homemade,” says Collings. “And a lot of our recipes are
my mom’s.”

Even the ones not from Collings’ family have that taste of home. Head chef Abel De Los Santos has introduced his own family recipes to the menu as well, which is one reason why Danny’s Deli’s Mexican specialties have their own loyal following.

“Our guacamole is the best guacamole you’ll get,” Collings says with confidence.

The menu has evolved to include burgers and dogs as well as soup and sandwiches, lighter fare and seafood, gluten-free and vegan options, and both Mexican and Italian specialties. Son Alex Everhart, who helps manage the restaurant, put the beer taps in last March.

“We don’t want to be just a meat and potatoes place,” she continues. “And we don’t want to be obsolete . . . when we find something growing in the community, we want to participate — it keeps us relevant.”

FAMILY FIRST

Delicious sandwiches and comfort food are a hallmark of Danny’s Deli, but Collings credits her staff with making it the beloved institution it has become.

“The staff is what gives us our feel,” she says. “Their knowledge and way with our customers makes the customers feel really good. We have so many regulars, and our customers are like our family.”

Notably, Danny’s Deli has very little turnover in staff. Most employees have been with Collings for years; she estimates that some 70% have been with her for 17 years or longer. Chef De Los Santos worked for Collings at her Valencia deli and came with her to the Ventura location. Server David Valdivia has been with Danny’s Deli for 22 years, while servers Trinity Shawley and Nubia Gainer both started working as teenagers. Son Alex started as a host and a server in high school, and returned after graduating from college eight years ago.

Baker Luis “has been here longer than me” Collings laughs — he’d been working for Gary’s and Collings kept him and another baker on when she purchased the space. 

During COVID, Collings kept most of her staff employed — which was important to her, as “so many of our staff had been here so long.” They stayed busy cleaning the establishment top to bottom, filling takeout orders for their loyal customer base and managing two dining spaces when Danny’s Deli converted its parking lot to an outdoor patio. 

For the most part, Collings was able to keep paying people who depended on their income . . . and Danny’s Deli was able to maintain the quality of its food and service at a time when other restaurants struggled with both. Coming together as a family: An age-old way of weathering the tough times.

KOSHER STYLE

Collings is proud of her heritage and the traditional Jewish dishes of Danny’s Deli, but notes that it is not a strictly kosher restaurant.

“We make kosher-style food,” she emphasizes. “Kosher is a special preparation of meats, the kitchen has to be approved [by a rabbinic agency] and so on . . . We are able to prepare food for people who eat kosher (we have separate slicers, for example). But we imagined a New York-style deli more than a kosher deli.”

COOKING UP SUCCESS Chefs Clemente Ramos and Hector Esparza prepare Danny’s Deli cuisine, much of which is based on family recipes.

Collings discovered quickly that what Danny’s Deli had to offer was exactly what the community hungered for: Despite doing no advertising, opening day in 1999 was an overwhelming success.

“We were slammed,” she recalls. “That showed us how much this area really needed this style of food.”

It appealed to everyone — Jewish or not. But Collings does take pride in the fact that she can serve up a taste of her heritage to Ventura County diners.

“When I started putting up Hanukkah decorations, the customers were thrilled,” she says. “And when the local temples have the Hanukkah [and other] celebrations, we usually cater the food.”

The bakery, in particular, has allowed Collings to lean into her roots. Danny’s Deli’s pies and cakes are absolutely wonderful . . . but the traditional Jewish breads and pastries are in a class all by themselves. She got an assist from Brown’s Bakery in North Hollywood (now closed). The longtime Jewish bakery on Victory Boulevard used to deliver baked goods to Collings’ deli in Valencia. Ventura was too far for them, so the owners made her a very special offer.

“They let us send two bakers to their bakery and taught them how to bake these Jewish items. That was a gift,” Collings explains, with obvious gratitude — even after all these years.

CELEBRATING CULTURE

Despite not being strictly kosher, a variety of traditional dishes are available. Year round you can find challah — plain, raisin and chocolate chip, which Collings says is unique to Danny’s and which she considers “the best challah in the world!” There are also pastries like rugelach, triangle-shaped hamantaschen (particularly popular for Purim) and delco cookies. Brisket, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup, borscht, knishes and the brisket-filled “dumpling” known as kreplach are other Jewish specialties you won’t find in your average diner. 

Potato pancakes, or latkes, are also available year round, but Collings says the restaurant sells them by the dozen for people to take home for their own Hanukkah celebrations. And every winter, the bakery turns out hundreds of festive cookies shaped like Stars of David, menorahs and dreidels. 

“We love the fact that we can serve the entire community — but especially the Jewish community,” says Collings. “There aren’t a lot of places like that, so it’s so important for us. I feel like we’ve taught people a lot about Hanukkah and Jewish culture just by being here.”