February 12, 2019
Ben Magoon’s Famous Delicatessen
DEFINITION: Showing a great deal of variety; very different.
Brooks Smith is a busy man. He swoops in to take an order from a vinyl booth at Ben Magoon’s Famous Delicatessen, crossing the 100-year-old tile floor in just three strides from the back of the Art Deco bar. At the same time, he answers the phone, rattles off the specials of the day, greets a customer by first name and delivers the daily dose of sarcasm (or gentlemanly politeness) in equal measure. He can do all this and more, day or night, as Magoon’s serves up Reuben’s and hot chili, then transitions to live local music, five nights a week. (Are you into food, or music, or both? Read on.)
But first, a little background. It seems unjust to talk about Magoon’s without talking about the building itself. Built in 1859, the two-story soft brick structure at 632 South Eighth St. holds many secrets in its walls. The upstairs, known to local historians as “the temple,” was in its founding years a gathering place for a men’s fraternal lodge. Members were a list of “whos who” in early St. Joseph – including David Heaton, John Corby and George Bode, one of the building’s previous owners. On the first floor was a pharmacy, and current Magoon’s owner Barry Woodhull has a few very old mixing bottles and pharmaceutical artifacts to prove it. It also served as a furnace shop, and as Barry explains, it was the location of one of the first true Kosher delicatessens, spurred by St. Joseph’s growing Jewish population.
And it’s just this mix of business and conversation that set the foundation for what Magoon’s is today. The original pharmacy shelves are still there, but repurposed into a sort of museum of early entrepreneurial St. Joseph. They’re lined (or maybe stuffed) with a dizzying array of early brewery bottles, framed photos, newspaper articles and an impressive collection of bizarre ceramic decanters. Antique phones, spittoons, some nautical gear and vintage bikes are sure-fire conversation starters.
Barry himself is perhaps the best conversation starter. “I love the people here, and it just feels like home,” he says. “I remember eating here as a kid with my dad every week while he worked at Quaker Oats. Always the pastrami and cream cheese with a side of vegetable soup. Dad sometimes ordered the cow tongue. I have really good memories.”
It’s a feeling shared collectively across all walks of life. Magoon’s regulars range from business executives to local laborers, with weekly patrons aged into their 90s. Some would remember the very early Magoon’s (or Murphy’s Deli) and the Art-Deco remodel. The Ehrlich company led the high-fashion remodel at Magoon’s in the early 1940s. Original deli cases still line the south wall, bearing an Ehrlich and Company plaque. The company designed and installed many of the familiar and much-loved interior delights at Magoon’s, such as the curvy shelves (a few are on the ceiling now, per Barry) and deep red and black vinyl high-backed booths. The centerpiece may be the area just behind the bar, with a large and one-of-a-kind creation that, though missing a few letters, still has the original charm in its message: Imported Wines, Scotch, and High Grade Bourbons and Gins.
As Barry explains, Magoon’s across the decades was the place for everyone to be seen. “All the local police, detectives, judges, attorneys, physicians and pharmaceutical salesmen came here, and there are still hundreds of dents in the tiles from ladies’ stiletto heels. A lot of people shared their first kiss here. But everyone was welcome and still is. It’s always been comfortable no matter who you are.”
The original Ben Magoon’s Deli changed hands over the years, but recipes like the chili, the pastrami sandwiches and the ham salad have stayed the same. When Brooks says to a customer “Hey, I know what you’re drinking, now what are you eating?” the answer is often the chili. The official name is Ben Magoon’s Famous Chili, and they serve a lot of it year-round. The Ben Rich’s ham salad is another claim to fame, and the original grinder is still in use as well. Ben Magoon started the business in 1918 with his father’s help at the age of 13, offering candy and soda pop, and then managed it for more than 60 years as the deli. Called “the oldest deli west of the Mississippi River,” Magoon was famous for his sandwiches – but also his cocktails and spirits. It’s just a hunch, but Ben would likely be proud of the menu today and the familiar, cozy way with customers.
“We serve really high-quality deli meats and especially the pastrami,” says Barry. “We know what our customers want and like.”
The customers like the food, and they like the sarcasm, but they really love the music. Magoon’s might be just as famous for rattling the vintage Formica table tops almost every night of the week, year-round, as they are for the menu. One look at the posters of local bands in every corner (some professional, some homemade) and it’s clear that this stage is fulfilling its purpose. There are regular bands, like the Thumpadelics every Wednesday, and popular names like guitarist Jason Riley and Jeff Lux. Tuesday night jam sessions allow young musicians to get in front of audiences and get a start performing in a live setting. Some performers have gone on to fame in other cities, says Barry. The collection of photos and band posters on the Magoon’s website demonstrates the seriousness at which they take the music. So do the frequent social media posts in rain, snow or shine, like “Yes, the music is still on.”
“You would call our music a mix of rock, blues, jazz and rockabilly and folk and acoustic and everything in between,” says Barry. “It’s something different every day here, and I love it that way.”
As a man who enjoys variety, Barry hosts several annual events and festivals at Magoon’s. There’s the local winter art festival, and the annual Super Bowl Chiefs Potluck, whether they’re playing or not. And, of course, there’s the morel mushroom festival or the annual summer fish fry. At St. Patrick’s Day, Barry cooks 300 pounds of corned beef himself, on-site, and says it’s one of the most popular events of the year.
If you head to the southern edge of downtown St. Joseph, look for the big homemade star on the outside of the building that Barry, a former electronic engineer, made himself. If it’s a Monday and you’re cranky, Brooks might tell you “Monday is no excuse,” and give you a milk crate of board games to rummage through. Sit down next to Barry and have him tell you in-person about the oddities that fill the space, because he’s a people person and a history buff, too.
Just get it done before the music starts, because that will capture your full attention.
There’s no need to wonder what to wear or if you’ll like the music. As Brooks will tell you, “Hey, a diverse world is a happy world,” in mid-sentence as he stops to greet another customer or two.
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