NEWARK, NJ — It's a ritual that plays out every season: Somebody wearing a New York Rangers jersey wanders into Hobby's Delicatessen on Branford Place in Newark, a block over from the New Jersey Devils' home at Prudential Center. Marc Brummer, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1962, will seat them in the middle of a room filled with red and white jerseys, announcing their presence:
"Everyone, there's a blue shirt walking in the door!"
The diners customarily boo, jeer and taunt the Rangers fan. And then get back to devouring their pastrami.
"It's just a fun crowd," said Michael Brummer, another co-owner of Hobby's, along with his brother and father, Sam, a World War II vet. "No fights. Just a fun crowd."
Since The Rock opened in 2007, Devils fans have made the awkward transition from a car-based culture of pregame tailgate parties in the Meadowlands' vast parking lots to the city blocks of Newark. Some valiantly attempt to tailgate in pay lots around the arena. Some hang in a designated fan zone in front of the building, overpaying for beer. Others have migrated to new hangouts like a pub across from the arena and Dinosaur BBQ, which recently opened a block away.
Hobby's, by comparison, feels like a mile away despite only being one street over. You walk past nail salons and barber shops and shuttered businesses to get to the nondescript façade over the deli's door. At first, it wasn't a walk many fans were eager to take on a game night.
"The first year, we'd have 11 people in for dinner," said Michael Brummer.
Nearly five years later, Hobby's is filled with 200 Devils fans before playoff games. Somehow, a Jewish Delicatessen became a pregame destination.
The Brummers are Devils fans, owning season tickets at the old building from 2000 to the lockout. Through happenstance, their deli ended up being a puck's shot away from their new arena in Newark.
"To us it made sense. They were talking about putting the arena in Hoboken. People like driving to the game. It's very hard to get to in Hoboken — you can't drive. Here in Newark, you've got all the mass transportation and you can still drive," said Michael Brummer.
Still, there were fans that were put off by the Devils moving from the stadium in the swamp to an urban locale.
"People would walk in here and say, 'I'm coming to the first game and I'm not coming back.' And then they said, 'Maybe we'll come to a few games this season, but we're not coming back here next year.' And then by the middle of the year they said 'this is best move they ever made,'" said Brummer.
Hobby's had a stand inside Prudential Center for four years as part of its "Taste of Newark" section. Fans discovered it there, and migrated over to the deli. What they found were elephantine sandwiches stuffed with hot meat, a selection of beer and a pregame vibe perfect for families.
"You have your bars, where people pound two or three beers. We have people come in, they have a beer with a pastrami sandwich. It's a family type place," said Brummer.
The owners also inject a sense of whimsy into the proceedings. Along with mockery of Rangers fans and Flyers fans, they also offered a birthday cake in honor of Devils goalie Marty Brodeur when he turned 40.
Brodeur delivered season tickets to the deli as well. To the surprise of no one, he stayed for lunch:
As a Devils fan, I've been trying to get a sense of the fan culture in Newark for a while. A few readers told me about Hobby's; I stopped in before Game 2, and it's nothing you'd ever expect to see in a random deli before a gameday. It's still a hidden gem for Devils fans; but year after year, more are discovering it.
For Brummer, that means they're starting to feel at home at The Rock. "People are getting comfortable in Newark," he said.