Sailor’s Delight

Behind RVA’s massive and meatiest sandwich.

When it comes to naming Virginia’s state food, we’re blessed with great options. There are peanuts, a subterranean cash crop for which the Commonwealth is well known, plus the peanut soup that was once ubiquitous on fine dining menus around the state. There are Hanover tomatoes, the earthy, juicy epitome of a Virginia summer, known worldwide as a gold standard. And then there’s ham, our commitment to exceptionally salty, cured ham being somewhat legendary. But there’s another contender to consider—the Richmond original known as the Sailor sandwich. Though it lacks a bit of the universality of the other three, it deserves a nod as one of Virginia’s best creations.

Massive and meaty, the Sailor starts with toasted rye bread, warm and scented with caraway seeds, onto which a stack of peppery, savory pastrami is piled with a slice of Swiss cheese melted on top. Next comes a link of knockwurst, a German beef sausage named for its characteristic snappy casing (it comes from the German “make a cracking sound”), grilled and sliced in half before crowning the tower of meat. A slick of spicy mustard cuts through the fattiness, giving the sandwich a sinus-clear-ing kick. Though its exact origins have been debated, most folks around Richmond accept the Sailor’s creation story as an innovation meant to satisfy a boisterous and hungry crowd.

Forced to flee the Nazis in Austria in the 1930s, Jewish immigrant Arthur Brandeis and his two brothers landed in Richmond in 1939. Working for Thalhimers department store, the brothers squirreled away enough money for a down payment on the New York Deli, where they continued to offer the kind of Jewish deli fare that the hot spot became known for. 

Two years later, the United States found itself pulled into the global conflict of WWII, and in 1943, the University of Richmond launched a V-12 training program for the Navy, inviting an influx of seamen to the capital city. On paydays, those sailors would make their way to the New York Deli, where Brandeis fed them Reubens and liverwurst sandwiches and, his favorite—a combination of pastrami and knockwurst on toasted rye bread with a dollop of hot mustard. 

According to a 1957 Richmond Times-Dispatch article, the Navy men made one key upgrade to Brandeis’ favorite sandwich, adding a thick slice of Swiss cheese, which was referred to as Schweiser or Switzer cheese at the time (something the kosher-observant Brandeis would have avoided on his own plate, where mixing meat and dairy was verboten). According to lore, when the hungry naval trainees would belly up to the deli counter, Brandeis’ wife, Jerda, would call out for more of the “sailor’s sandwiches,” and the Richmond original was born.

Though fiercely loved in Richmond, the Sailor never really made much of an impact outside of the Commonwealth. However, last year, Barry Enderwick, of the popular Instagram account, Sandwiches of History, took a stab at recreating the “gut bomb,” and, with his own “plussed-up” addition of sauerkraut, gave the Sailor a perfect 10-point rating. 

Photo by Fred + Elliott

5 Sailors Worth The Hype

Where to find one of Virginia’s finest sandwiches.

New York Deli, Richmond

Embrace the original where it was invented. New York Deli assembles all the traditional elements—the pastrami, knockwurst, swiss, and rye, with a dollop of spicy mustard on the side.

The Continental, Richmond

Swapping the traditional beef-based knockwurst for porcine kielbasa departs notably from the original, but otherwise, The Continental serves up a faithful version of the Richmond classic. 

Chutzpah Deli, Fairfax

From the original Sailor Sandwich formula, Chutzpah Deli deviates in only one point, adding their signature “chutzpah onions,” which are griddled, seasoned, and sliced. In doing so, they may have stumbled on a way to make the octogenarian sandwich even better.

Tad’s Deli, Virginia Beach 

A classic version that aces the essentials—juicy knockwurst, a sultry pile of pastrami, gooey Swiss, and zippy deli mustard on toasted rye.

Perly’s, Richmond

Served open-faced, Perly’s Jewish Sailor is a roll-up-your-sleeves affair, crowned with hot pastrami and smoky sausage, plus thinly sliced red onion, pickled red cabbage, and an unexpected schmear of chopped chicken liver that ties the whole business together with an unctuous flourish.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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