When is a deli not a deli? When it's in New York

Paul Harris visits some of the Big Apple's traditional eateries which are sadly disappearing rapidly

IT was the public relations chief of a New York Michelin-starred restaurant who surprisingly put into perspective what traditional delis mean to the city.

"Everyone in New York is used to Jewish food and culture," according to Louise O'Brien, PR director of the five-star Langham Place, which houses the Al Fiori restaurant.

"It's part of the scenery, part of growing up, part of your life. "Everyone in New York enjoys Jewish food."

Some endorsement from a lady more readily associated with fine dining and five-star facilities than over-stuffed pastrami on rye sandwiches.

But today the traditional delicatessens of yore are a dying breed.

There are few remaining - and most of those are non-kosher, while retaining their heimishe style.

Strictly kosher delis numbered 1,500 in the 1930s, but today there are no more than a dozen.

Jews brought heimishe cuisine with them from the heim - meat and salmon, pickled, salted and smoked because that was the optimum way to preserve food, but nevertheless a taste that has remained a Jewish staple.

When the early settlers opened their own delicatessens on the Lower East Side in 1890s, they became popular among Americans generally and remained so for decades.

Today, those still open attract masses of New Yorkers and tourists who seek out some of the iconic delicatessens.

Forget McDonalds, Subway or Kentucky Fried Chicken, young people have today got the deli habit.

Interestingly, the fact that most of the establishments are not kosher appears to have evaded many who visit the delis.

A Jewish Telegraph colleague casually mentioned the fact that while he was in the Big Apple he had dined at various delis before questioning their kashrut.

Most places were featuring Pesach takeaway menus in mid-March and, unusually, customers seemed unconcerned about the level of kashrut, if any.

At Sarge's, 548 3rd Avenue, I encountered a chassid from Brooklyn who was desperate not to be photographed or identified.

Admittedly, he was eating only egg and onion, salad and a coffee, but the deli is not kosher.

He told me, opening his coat to reveal chassidic garb beneath, that he (and apparently others) like clandestinely to escape what he described as "the cloistered environment" in which they live, to enjoy "conversations with normal people".

Ted Merwin recalls in Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli (NYU Press): "Partly as a connection to my grandparents, who did not keep kosher but who ate nothing but traditional eastern European Jewish food, I grew to love eating in delis, although the suburban ones that were close to my home had a more pretentious atmosphere with their Art Deco lighting, glass columns and blond wood panelling. "The fatty, scrumptious food was mouthwatering - the peppery pastrami, the chewy corned beef, the sour seeded rye bread, the fluffy matzo balls in parsley-flecked chicken broth, the crunchy fresh pickles, the tangy coleslaw.

"Part of what entranced me was the set of elaborate, almost theatrical rituals that governed the making of the sandwiches.

"There was an intricate, elegant choreography to the movements of the counterman as he sliced up the meat.

"He took the soft, succulent beef from the steam table and sliced it by hand with a flourish, piling up the slices in the centre of the bread - sour, chewy rye studded with black caraway seeds - as if building a monument on a town square.

"He slid the sandwich down the counter to you in a single, graceful motion . . ."

He adds: "Although my family did not belong to a synagogue, did not observe Jewish law, and celebrated few Jewish holidays, eating in delis offered me a sense of Jewish identity that I found in few other places. Whenever we celebrated a family occasion, my grandmother invariably ordered a tongue sandwich which, in retrospect, seems entirely appropriate; it was as if the tongue that she ate was connected in a double sense to her own tongue - both her gift of gab and her parents' native language [Yiddish] which, to her deep regret, was not being transmitted to her grandchildren."

The sense of theatre still prevails in many of the delis.

The staff behind the counters seem almost to choreograph their routines and the traditional smells remain, as do the neon signs and the Art Decco.

And many of those visiting delis are reliving their roots; roots which have often been long abandoned.

Apparently we shouldn't be referring to 'delis', because that will incur the wrath of those who run them.

Lenny Wexler, night manager of 2nd Avenue Deli, these days in Midtown at 162 East 33rd Street and on the Upper East Side at 1442 First Avenue, explained why:

"The word 'deli' is international. Kosher is as much New York as anywhere else. Delicatessen is associated with New York.

"Other nationalities have bastardised the term 'delicatessen' to 'deli'. We are a real delicatessen - they're just convenience stores."

His comments, though, are somewhat ironic given that 2nd Avenue's own logo actually abbreviates delicatessen.

So iconic are the delicatessens of New York that they have and do frequently feature in films.

Only last year, Robert de Niro and Danny Devito filmed scenes for The Comedian at Ben's Best in Rego Park.

Devito played the part of Ben Parker who founded Ben's in 1945. His son, Jay, runs it now.

And the iconic Katz's at 205 East Houston Street was the setting for a famed scene in When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan loudly fakes sexual pleasure.

Many of the remaining delis have their own stories which would lend themselves to film scripts.

Take Sarge's, opened in 1964 by a retired New York Police Department sergeant, Abe Katz, because he couldn't find a deli to his liking.

Or 2nd Avenue Deli, whose legendary owner, Abe Lebewohl, was shot dead in 1996 as thieves robbed him of his takings while en route to a nearby bank.

Over 42 years he had transformed a tiny 12-seat restaurant in the East Village into a New York institution. The murderers were never caught.

Today, a poster offering a reward for information leading to their arrest is still posted on 2nd Avenue's door.

And sadly, the landmark Carnegie Delicatessen in 5th Avenue, so called because it was originally situated next to Carnegie Hall, closed at the end of December after 79 years and three generations in the same family.

Rumours abound that a messy divorce contributed to its demise.

The personal lives of owner Marian Harper and her husband Sandy were thrust into the public spotlight after she accused him of having an affair with a hostess and slipping her cash and pastrami recipes.

The deli was also ordered to pay $2.6 million in back wages to its employees after an employment dispute.

Harper has insisted the closure has nothing to do with any of those issues.

But Carnegie's "Woody Allen", an overstuffed sandwich of half pastrami and half corned beef, has died with it.

The deli named the sandwich after the director when he filmed key scenes for Broadway Danny Rose there.

Sarge's was taken over seven years ago by Andrew Wengrover.

His father-in-law Steve Thall was in charge when I visited, proudly bringing dishes to display the overstuffed sandwiches overflowing with cholesterol- charged meat.

One thing I learned from him is that the ideal beverage to wash down any deli meal is Dr Brown's black cherry soda.

Many of the delis still smoke, pickle and preserve their own fare, but the fear is that the art, the skills and the desire will disappear in a generation or sooner.

At Ben's Best in Rego Park, Queens, owner Jay Parker is sanguine about the future of delis.

"Deli was from your grandmother's kitchen. Every owner made up his own stuff. You didn't study it at school," says Jay.

"Fast-forward to now. What we're seeing is a professionalisation. They're taking a concept and plugging in the fare that we offer. Deli is not on the decline at all - just the contrary. It's a niche market, and there will always be a place for it."

But Jay is nostalgic about what classic delis used to mean in New York.

"The kosher deli was the place you took the family out to, but it was more like being in your own kitchen," he says.

"Waiters were gnarly and snarly. My father would kick people out and say, 'Get the hell out of my restaurant!'. They'd leave, then come back next week, with their wife and kids.

"That was the sociology of the time. You were dealing with people who understood what you meant. That kind of culture is from a different generation."

Former president George W Bush and Hillary Clinton are among those who have enjoyed Ben's fare, which apparently has remained unchanged in 72 years.

Brooklyn-born Marty Stein, who has worked there for more than three decades and previously owned his own deli in Queens, can be found front-of-house and organising parties.

What's Ben's speciality? No question, says Marty, it's pastrami.

Ben's is under supervision of Vaad Harabonim Lemeshmeret Hakashrut and open 9am to 9pm daily.

Early on a Saturday evening, they were queueing right round the block at Katz's, but that's quite normal.

Open since 1888, and now run by 30-year-old Jake Dell, who is vaguely the fifth generation owner, Katz's is kosher-style, "but we're not allowed to described it as that", says Jake, who gave up a university place to study medicine to take over the family business.

"The heritage of delis is deservedly New York, taking traditional methods like smoking and curing that immigrants could get their hands on. The cooking techniques were brought with them.

"We're the last of the Mohicans. Our neon signs are from the 1950s. Recipes are still the same as in 1888. It's like a time capsule."

Jake's family emanate from the Russian shtetls. His grandmother would say in Yiddish: "I'm from a small village, outside a small town, outside Minsk."

Jake eschewed medicine for the world of the deli, "because I love this place too much".

What remained unsaid was that there would have been no other family member to carry on the tradition after his father Alan and uncle Fred. "This is about tradition and nostalgia. Food creates the strongest bonds. Food brings people together," said Jake.

"There is something about classic food in a classic environment."

Jake always helped out at Katz's during his school holidays and even his barmitzvah reception was held there. A plaque commemorates the occasion.

The deli opens 24 hours daily, employing 130, selling 20-30,000 lbs of home cured and pickled meat a week, half of which is pastrami, and 30 barrels of pickles.

"People come from all over the world and the nostalgia takes them back to the heim," said Jake. What are Jake's own favourites? Pastrami on rye, latkes and matzo ball soup.

Add to that, chopped liver, corned beef, cheesecake, brisket, noodle (lockshen) kugel, coleslaw and smoked salmon and you have the most popular items on most delis' menus.

The traditional delis of New York may still be noisy and bustling but the rich and the famous just can't keep away.

2nd Avenue Deli, under supervision of Reform Rabbi Israel Steinberg and serving only kosher meat, can number Jerry Seinfeld, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner among its regulars.

These days, the President's daughter and her husband have their heimishe fare delivered to their home.

But they, like all 2nd Avenue's customers, have been happy to wait for 45 minutes to be served - "It's all part of the experience if you say you waited," said Lenny Wexler.

And that has included Muhammad Ali, Joan Rivers and Joe DiMaggio.

United operates daily flights from Manchester to Newark, from 612 return.

Paul Harris used a meet and greet facility at Manchester Airport. To compare airport parking across the UK and internationally visit

Further information:

Using City Pass can save up to 42 per cent on New York's top attractions, including the Empire State Building and Ellis Island.

Site developed & maintained by
© 2017 Jewish Telegraph