This past December, did you join the collective shopping frenzy around Friendship Heights? The bustling shopping malls and boutiques once had a quieter past as a home to small mom-and-pop businesses. One of those businesses was a grocery and later a luncheonette called “Friendship.”
Herman Levine opened Friendship Grocery shortly after World War II, in a small, two-story building at 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, between Fessenden and Ellicott Streets. Like many mom-and-pop groceries, the store was on the first floor, and the family lived in an apartment on the second floor.
“It was a typical mom-and-pop store,” remembers Herman Levine’s son Ron, who, with his older sister Maxine, spent part of his childhood living “above the store.”
“It was open seven days a week, from 7 am to 11 pm. And my mother worked in the store, but would run upstairs to fix lunch and meals, and then go back to the store.” Levine remembers being called home from school to help. “They would call the principal who would come into my classroom, and I knew that someone didn’t show up for work that day.” Herman usually took off Monday afternoons, and he and Ron would fish near the current site of the Kennedy Center.
From its beginnings, Friendship was a family affair. Levine, who was born in Brooklyn, NY, served as an airplane mechanic in Hawaii during the war and spent some time training in DC. He met his wife, Lillian Furash, while staying at a boarding house for government workers on Nebraska Avenue, which Lillian’s family owned. Lillian was born in Washington to immigrant parents originally from Pinsk, Russia. Shortly after the war, Herman and Lillian married. Lillian’s father Jacob urged Herman to go into business and helped him establish the grocery.
Friendship Grocery was nestled within a strip of shops owned by Jewish, Greek and Italian families. “The Kahn family ran a shoe store down the street,” recalls Ron Levine. “Next to my father’s store was a barber shop, and that was an Italian family. The toy store was next door, and next to them were Henry and Rose Greenbaum, and they had three kids. They lived above the shop and were in business with Henry’s brother. Both were survivors of Auschwitz. Next to them was a Greek florist. All the children would run into [and out of] each other’s stores, and all the parents watched us. On summer evenings we’d all be sitting out on Wisconsin Avenue and get together and talk. Our fathers were, of course, still in the businesses, still working.”
In the early 1950s, a Safeway supermarket opened on the next block (it’s still there). Unable to compete, Levine converted the grocery into the Friendship Delicatessen, a luncheonette that served breakfast and “kosher-inspired” sandwiches.
Friendship Delicatessen offered signature items, including a version of a familiar DC favorite of the time: “Hot Shoppes came out with the Mighty Mo,” recalls Ron, “and my dad came out with the Mighty Hy—because his nickname was Hy,” short for his Yiddish name, Hyman. “It was a triple burger,” similar to the Mighty Mo.
Friendship Delicatessen flourished. Most of its regulars worked nearby at the WTTG (Channel 5) and WRC (Channel 4) studios, as well as at other offices and stores along Wisconsin Avenue. Within a few years, the family could afford to move to a house. They purchased and remodeled Lillian’s childhood home on Nebraska Avenue, the same house where Herman and Lillian had met.
“Once my dad changed the business to a deli, he worked Monday through Friday and then closed up on the weekends,” remembers Ron Levine. “After about 15 years, he had his weekends off.” No longer needing to man the store on Saturdays and Sundays, Herman followed his passion for fishing. He purchased several progressively larger boats, which the family would take for deep-sea fishing excursions.
Herman retired in 1977 and sold his business. Similar to other Jewish Washingtonians, the Levines’ mom-and-pop business helped the family to settle and prosper. The Levine and Furash children still live in the DC area.
Today, 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, is home to the National Diving Center, which outfits scuba-diving enthusiasts. The block continues to reflect the city’s ethnic diversity, with Chinese, Thai, Mexican, French and pizza restaurants, in addition to a bank, yoga studio and pet groomer.
Top photo: Herman Levine (right) and patron at Friendship when it was a grocery store (ca. 1950s).