The Demise of the Deli

The Demise of the Deli.

Old-time delicatessens and diners are disappearing so fast in New York that the imminent loss of one of the city’s most notable, down-home eateries is being publicly mourned by another that could ordinarily be considered an arch rival.

The Carnegie Deli in midtown Manhattan, a legendary business in the city and just steps away from the renowned, eponymous concert hall after which it is named, will serve its last pastrami on rye on New Year’s Eve, after more than 80 years.

The Carnegie Deli opened in 1937 on Seventh Avenue across from Carnegie Hall. But it didn’t’ achieve notoriety until decades later — around the time that director Woody Allen filmed a table full of off-duty comedians there in his movie, Broadway Danny Rose.

There’s still a “Woody Allen” sandwich on the menu at the Carnegie Deli: half pastrami, half corned beef. But the real star is that pastrami.

“People love my pastrami so much, it’s like a human being,” says owner Marian Harper. “It’s overwhelming to me.”

As regulars and tourists lined up in high emotion for hours this week to savor one last bowl of matzo ball soup or helping of latkes, the young boss of its downtown fellow icon, Katz’s Deli, has marked its imminent loss.

“The Carnegie Deli will shut its doors for the last time on December 31 and we New Yorkers have already started mourning,” wrote Jake Dell in a letter to the New York Times published on Thursday.

Dell owns the internationally renowned Katz’s in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood. The corner establishment is almost 120 years old and famous for its signs exhorting wartime families to “send a salami to your boy in the army”, its cameo in the film When Harry Met Sally, a confusing ticketing system and epic Jewish food staples served in no-frills surroundings.

“I am deeply saddened to witness the disappearance of a fellow culinary landmark,” Dell wrote about the Carnegie Deli.

A little younger than Katz’s, the Carnegie has long drawn the theater crowd to its spot on Seventh Avenue, not far from Times Square, where paneled walls in warren-like dining areas are crowded with signed pictures of the stars who have enjoyed its overstuffed reuben sandwiches or slices of brisket over the years.

“Deli is about brining … patience … preservation, not just of meat but of tradition,” Dell wrote.

The nearby Stage Deli preceded Carnegie out of Midtown four years ago when it closed, and the classic Second Avenue Deli left its old East Village spot a decade ago.

Meanwhile, vintage American diners are also departing the city relentlessly and now number in the couple of hundreds where they used to exceed a thousand, and the traditional neon shop signs that brighten the nights in “the city that never sleeps” are disappearing along with them.

The Carnegie Deli had experienced a mind-boggling variety of financial hurdles in recent times, from a pay dispute to a safety crackdown and even a contentious divorce among the ownership.

But Katz’s Dell also pointed out that while businesses cherish the bustle of New York City, they also “agonize over the nonstop gentrification when we lose too many of our classics … as we wistfully watch yet another great legend fall by the wayside”.

Celebrated chef Anthony Bourdain lists Katz’s and the classic smoked fish and bagel emporium, Russ & Daughters, nearby on Houston Street, among his favorite city eateries.

So Dell had a promise on Thursday “to deli lovers the world over”: he plans to open another branch in Brooklyn this spring and the original business is continuing to expand its delivery and mail order services, in addition to packing them in around the plain tables for pickles and pastrami from breakfast time to the wee hours.

“Katz’s is not going anywhere,” he wrote.