Filed Under Food

Irv's Deli

For decades, Irv's Deli, on the corner of Coventry and Hampshire Roads, was the place to wallow in Coventry Village’s eclectic edginess. The delicatessen and adjoining bar opened in 1959, when the street was mainly a commercial district serving the area's heavily Jewish population. In the thirty years Irv's was in business, Coventry Village changed drastically: at various and often overlapping times a hangout for hippies, biker gangs, punks, wannabes, gawkers, drug seekers, university students, and even middle-class families. For many years, restaurant owner Irving Gulko’s business model and customers kept pace with Coventry's many transformations. However, as Coventry continued to evolve, Irv’s came more and more into conflict with the neighborhood.

When Gulko opened his deli and bar, he served everything from Chinese food and pizza to shots and beers. Although Gulko came from a family of restaurant owners (his father and grandfather both operated delicatessens in Cleveland), his establishment was often associated with unappetizing food and poor sanitation. Rumors accusing the enigmatic Gulko of running prostitution, drug, and bookmaking businesses were common. What is known for sure is that Irv's Deli was indeed a hangout for down-and-outers, counter culturists, and motorcycle gangs such as the Outlaws and Hell's Angels. But it also was popular with other types. At 2:00 AM, one might find Irv’s still crawling with bikers, late-night munchies sufferers, and Case Western Reserve University students cramming for exams.

Irv’s problems escalated in the early 1980s. The neighborhood was becoming more family-friendly, but Irv’s was the epicenter of more and more crimes and police reports. In 1982 Coventry Neighbors, Inc. (CNI), a civic betterment organization formed in 1969, took action. It introduced a (winning) referendum on the 1982 election ballot that stripped Gulko's right to serve wine and liquor by the glass. Gulko fought the election results with little success. Starting in 1983, he could only sell beer by the glass and take-out alcoholic beverages. The facility limped along for another six years and closed in 1989.

Ironically, for a business associated with alcohol, crime and drugs, Irv's was for a short time a popular venue for Cleveland's straight edge hardcore community. Musical performances were organized by local teens, featuring bands like Confront, Project X, Gorilla Biscuits, and other acts known for their steadfast sobriety and lyrics promoting the virtues of "clean living." A decade after its closing, Irv’s also received a fictive cinematic treatment: the epicenter of a movie called The NightOwls of Coventry starring “Marv” as the restaurant’s somewhat too sympathetic owner.

Audio

Mysterious Place Tommy's Restaurant owner Tommy Fello talks about what one could find at Irv's Deli. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
The Bugs Help Us Tommy's Restaurant owner Tommy Fello talks how dirty Irv's was. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Hell's Angels Daniel Landau talks about the Hell's Angels on Coventry. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Hippies Daniel Landau talks about the Hippies at Coventry Village. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Police at Coventry Daniel Landau talks about the police presence at Coventry Village. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Irv's Scene Daniel Landau talks about the eclectic scene at Irv's. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
Closing Down Irv's Dennis Coughlin recalls how Coventry Neighbors Inc. worked to force the revocation of Irv's liquor license. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Irv's Deli, 1982 From the 1960s through the 1980s, a number of eclectic groups and individuals would frequent Irv's Deli. The kinds of conversations that took place were likewise diverse. A group of old timers (including Harvey Pekar) would discuss politics near the front of the store, while the younger generation and hippies would spread the latest gossip. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1982
Before Irv's There Was J. Benkovitz Irv's Deli opened in 1959 at 1798 Coventry Road, replacing the J. Benkovitz Delicatessen. Source: Cleveland Heights Historical Society
Irv's Sign, 1982 In the seventeen months before Coventry Neighbors, Inc. (CNI) successfully lobbied to strip Irving Gulko of his license to serve alcohol, there were more than 140 police reports involving Irv's Deli. According to the Plain Dealer, there were almost twenty arrests for intoxication, ten arrests for fights, five arrests for assault, and even one for auto theft. Gulko had to give up his moneymaking liquor license in 1983, but his business survived for six more years. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Date: 1982
Irv's During the 1975 Coventry Street Fair Irv's Deli was the inspiration for the 2004 movie "NightOwls of Coventry." The movie takes place at Marv's in 1973 and centers around the same clientele and cultural tensions to which Irv's was host. Creator: Joe Polevoi Date: 1975
Irv's Location Today The Avalon Exchange now sits at Irv's previous location. Creator: Heidi K. Fearing Date: 2021
Irv's During the 1982 Coventry Street Fair Irv's Deli burned down in 1978. When he reopened his restaurant in 1980, Irving Gulko added a brick planter in the front of his store. This added feature was another point of contention between the Coventry Neighbors, Inc. (CNI) and Gulko. Loiterers would sit on the planters, cat-calling and harassing women who walked by. Creator: Joe Polevoi Date: 1982
Matinee Straight Edge Show at Irv's In the late '80s, Irv's became one of Cleveland's best-known venues for straight edge hardcore music. Source: hardcoreshowflyers.net Date: May 1988

Location

Metadata

Heidi Fearing, “Irv's Deli,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 9, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/438.