One of my earliest childhood memories is going to the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan with my grandfather, staring at a 4-inch pile of pastrami sandwiched between two pieces of rye. This image doesn’t exist so much in my memory as in my imagination, reinforced by countless stories and legends told by my family over the years—an act that sought to reaffirm our roots in the five boroughs long after my Bronx-bred grandfather was gone. For those of us who grew up in and around New York City—particularly within Jewish families—the Carnegie Deli was more than just a Times Square tourist trap filled with overpriced cured meats. Along with Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side, and 2nd Ave Deli in the East Village, the Carnegie was a symbol of Jewish culture and identity that extended far beyond the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose.
I haven’t been back to the Carnegie in years. A few weeks ago I tentatively walked across 55th Street, hoping the restaurant might be experiencing a lull at 3 p.m. on Wednesday. But instead I was met with a line of fanny pack-toting tourists that stretched down 7th Avenue. Still, despite my failings as the prodigal son, I always liked knowing that the Carnegie was there if I needed it, its red-and-yellow sign hanging like a window into a forgotten era, as one Starbucks after another continued to colonize the neighborhood.
So on Friday, I was saddened to learn the 79-year-old restaurant would be shuttering for good in just three short months, the store’s owner, Marian Harper, fed up with the constant struggles of the restaurant industry. In 2015, the deli was forced to close for nearly 12 months after it was caught running an illegal gas hookup, and over the years a series of dramatic lawsuits kept Carnegie in the press. Finally, it seemed Harper was just ready to throw in the towel.
“The restaurant business is one of the hardest jobs in New York City,” she said in a statement. “At this stage in my life, the early morning to late night days have taken a toll, along with my sleepless nights and grueling hours.”
In the wake of the announcement, fans mourned the deli with classic Jewish humor and cynicism (“How’s a Jew like me supposed to suffer a heart attack at age 37 in this city anymore?!” one post on Twitter read), while others wondered much an institution the Carnegie Deli would truly be missed in 2016.
To help me untangle my complex feelings around the news, First We Feast enlisted the help of David Sax, the James Beard Award-winning author of Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. From the closing of the Carnegie Deli, to the future of Jewish food in the five boroughs and beyond, Sax breaks down where delicatessens are heading now that a giant is closing its doors.
Let’s start with the big picture. What does the closing of the Carnegie Deli mean for New York City, and the state of Jewish cuisine as a whole?
David Sax: What does it mean? It’s sad, first of all. It’s sad. As much as people might say, “Oh, it’s so touristy, and it’s so over priced,” the Carnegie Deli was one of the defining institutions of the Jewish delicatessen—worldwide. It is the deli they aspired to; the deli they dreamed of; the deli they had heard about. It was almost the deli of the imagination, because it was enmeshed with the legend of the Jewish deli and the mythology around it—Woody Allen and show business and Times Square and the look of it and the feel of it and everything beyond the food. And the food was good, though not everything. Every deli has a few things they do well, and a lot stuff that they just do. The last couple times I ate there, the pastrami still holds its own. But the Carnegie Deli was more than that. It was one of those institutions—a sort of mythic place—and so to hear that it was closing is a great blow.
When the news broke on Friday, I was surprised to hear so many people bashing Carnegie as a tourist trap. Yes, the sandwiches are expensive. And yes, it’s right in the middle of Times Square. But New Yorkers still go to these places to experience the nostalgia and the history.
And they’re not opening up again. That’s it. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. So is it nostalgia for a bygone era, and we shouldn’t worry about it and just move ahead? Sure, there’s an argument you could make for that, people could say that. I think there’s a real sense of loss there, because these places had character and a genuine soul to them that’s not easily replicated. Were the people who were eating [at Carnegie Deli] in the past couple of years largely drawn from the tourist pasture? Of course. But that’s more because Times Square became a tourist area after the 1990s, and more tourists went to eat there. That speaks to [Carnegie’s] power of imagination. But it’s not Guy Fieri’s Kitchen & Crap-ery, or whatever its called. It’s not the fucking Olive Garden or the Cheesecake Factory. It was a real place, that was a family-owned business. The family was crazy. And it was tied to a culture and a real part of the city’s history.
One often hears that the food at places like Carnegie Deli and Katz’s has gone down hill over the years. I usually brush this off, but I went to Katz's this week and they stuck my reuben in the microwave, and…
Oh, yeah. They always microwave the reuben. Don’t get a reuben, man. Don’t get a reuben.
OK, point taken. But even so, is there a case to be made that the food isn’t what it used to be?
Some old guy—because I get emails from old Jews all the time—he’s like, “I grew up in the 50s, and I want to know if they changed the recipe for the pastrami, because it doesn’t taste as good as it always did. Something’s changed. It’s gotta be something different.” As far as I know, nothing has fundamentally changed in the way that this food is made, not since 1952. In a lot of cases, it’s from the same supplier. What changes is that you’re older now, and everything tastes better in your memory. If someone tastes something like Katz’s for the first time today—unless they have a particularly bad sandwich for some reason—it’s going to be one of the highlights of their lives, and one of those culinary experiences that they never forget.
I was speaking to someone who is taking their family to New York this weekend for the first time from Toronto, and they’re like, “We’re going to Katz’s! I’ve always wanted to go there. I saw it on Anthony Bourdain, or Guy Fieri, or in When Harry Met Sally, whatever.” So the question is are these old places—like Carnegie, and Katz’s, and the other older Jewish delicatessens—are they the same? It depends on which one you go to. It depends on which day you go. It depends on so many different factors. Certain things have gotten better, certain things are not. I still love Katz’s. I still think it’s the Yankee Stadium of delis.
Despite some of these places like Carnegie throwing in the towel, there is still a huge appetite for Jewish food today. Why do you think that is?
In the sense of the general state of Jewish delis in New York—as well as nationally and internationally—in many ways it’s actually been undergoing a Renaissance over the past decade. You have a whole new generation of people who have been opening up delis with no previous connections to the business and getting into the world of Jewish food. You think about a place like Mile End in New York, which was the first new, young, farm-to-table-y deli that opened up in the city. It had a Montreal flavor—not even a classic New York one. I remember before it opened people were like, “What, you’re gonna come to New York and tell us how to do delis?” Next thing you know, you’re gonna tell us how to do bagels.” Well, they did, and they were tremendously successful, because the food was incredible. And you’re seeing this all over. There are all sorts of interesting Jewish restaurants and delis and appetizing stores that are blossoming now.
In many ways, there’s never been a better time. For these old stalwarts, the bar has been raised. They can’t just get along by existing, they have to be judged on how they taste. That wasn’t the case with the Carnegie. The reasons for its demise are fucking complicated and crazy, and kind of astounding to me.
The other criticism people often had of the Carnegie Deli was the price. Its famous “Woody Allen” sandwich costs just a couple cents shy of $30.
If you break down the economics of that thing, it’s two pieces of bread and a pound-and-a-half of meat. And not meat that’s just taken from a bin and put on a grill. Meat that’s cured and seasoned and smoked until it loses a huge percentage of its weight, and [cuts like] brisket have gone up tremendously in price. People have no problem going to Fette Sau, or Hometown Bar-B-Que, or whatever hipster barbeque place they’re going to….Barbecue is en vogue now. People expect deli to be a certain way. So, is it the food of the people? In a way, no. But in another way, I can’t remember the last time I ate an entire an entire sandwich at Katz’s or at Carnegie by myself—I always split it with someone else. I’d be insane to eat that much from a pant-size perspective. So then you divide that price in half and suddenly a $20 sandwich isn’t unreasonable. We’re also not garment workers in the late 19th century trying to pull together a few cents to get the rest of our families out of Romania. Most of the people eating at these restaurants have jobs.
I think most people are aware of some of the drama surrounding Carnegie Deli—last year the restaurant was forced to close temporarily because it was siphoning gas—but there’s all this other stuff about the owner’s husband having a girlfriend who tried to open a bootleg Carnegie Deli in Asia. There’s been a lot of infighting and lawsuits over the years.
It’s like a Coen Brothers movie waiting to be written. No, it’s nuts. It’s nuts….It wasn’t a financial thing at all. I mean, maybe some sense of it was, but they own the building. I went to her father’s shiva at their apartment. I think it was in Trump Tower or something. It’s right there on, like, the 50th floor overlooking Central Park. It’s not a scraping together the pennies type of thing. The business is hard, but why not sell it?
There’s a level of mishegas that I don’t really want to get into.
When was the last time you ate at Carnegie Deli?
It must have been lunch with my publisher—because they’re actually around the corner—maybe two or three years ago. I got a matzoh ball soup and shared a pastrami sandwich. It was hectic. The tables were packed. It was kind of dim and loud. It was awesome. It was everything it should be.