By now everyone who cares to know has heard the news that the Carnegie Deli, a Midtown sandwich stalwart since 1937, will carve its last pastrami on December 31. To judge by the lines, everyone who has heard the news has come to pay their respects, and that equals roughly every nonvegetarian (and some vegetarians who’d like a knish) on the planet. Our team of writers and editors decided to give the place a proper lunchtime sendoff—though when that failed, due to the hour-plus wait that lay in store, we audibled to mid-morning a few days later. Pastrami for breakfast? Sure, why not. Visions of peppered meat still dance in our heads.
For more on Carnegie Deli’s history, appeal and food—and, crucially, where to get your Jewish delicatessen fix going forward—read on.
Well before the announcement of its imminent closing, Carnegie Deli was firmly on the tourist map. Many date its universal popularity back to Mimi Sheraton’s glowing evaluation in The New York Times way back in 1979; others to Woody Allen’s featuring the place in 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose. Whatever the reason, it’s long been rare to just walk up and be able to stroll right in. Even at 9:20am on a brisk Tuesday morning.
Once inside, the place is not quite the carnival it would seem. Past the meat-and-pie-filled glass cases in the front, the dining room’s rectangular tables, simple chairs and wide center walkway speak of commonality—not Times Square over-the-topness. Sure, every square inch of the walls is covered with autographed celebrity mug shots—we found ourselves sitting under the watchful eyes of Jerry Lewis, Jon Bon Jovi and the late John Glenn—but it didn’t feel quite as kitschy as you might expect given its location, visiting hordes and distinctive neon sign.
Face it, this is half the reason you come to a place like this: a healthy dose of New York attitude. The sometimes curt words of our veteran waitperson, Desmarine, always came with a side of humor and empathy. When delivering water, “You can pass this down. Don’t be selfish.” When one of our party asked, “Can I get turkey on my egg and cheese,” the answer came back quickly and flatly, “No.” When delivering plates of food to a nearby table: “OK, Honey. Mama’s here.” And when offering the only advice you’ll need: “Plain pastrami is just right.”
Soon the parade begins. An egg-and-cheese sandwich looks like a half-dozen eggs were sacrificed for the cause. The latkes are the size of Frisbees. The corned beef hash could feed four. The pickles, a grab bag of dills and half-sours, snap like an NYC velvet-rope bouncer.
The Reuben covers a football-plus-size plate, a glistening dome of cheese obscuring the open-face stack of pastrami, sauerkraut and bread. “I’m eating this on faith alone,” says the person who begins the lengthy task of unearthing/devouring it.
But the piece de resistance is the straight-ahead pastrami sandwich, meat piled up halfway to the ceiling (or at least a good 4 inches) on slices of soft rye trying desperately to stay balanced on top. There’s some smoke, some saltiness, some fat, some pepper in the pliable, rosy-red shavings of meat. With a few generous squirts of the spicy house mustard, it is, in fact, just right.
The pastrami alternatives*
The demise of the Carnegie Deli—and that of its longtime rival, the Stage Deli, back in 2012—has altered the Jewish deli landscape in NYC. But fear not; plenty of places, both old school and new, continue to serve up the goods:
2nd Ave Deli, $19.95. Even at its current non–Second Avenue address, this mantle holder oozes authenticity, with sass to spare and pastrami nonpareil.
Ben’s Best, $16.95. This place has been serving Rego Park in Queens since 1945.
Ben's Kosher Restaurant and Delicatessen, $13.99. Just south of Times Square, Ben’s dishes out good-value deli classics in its spacious dining room.
Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, $12. It may be better known for its tuna fish, but this 1929 Flatiron entry is the NYC exemplar of a traditional luncheonette.
Frankel’s Delicatessen, $14.95. A pair of young bucks in Greenpoint have created an ode to the legendary appetizing shops of the Upper West Side.
Harry & Ida’s Meat and Supply Co., $17.50. Newish place in the East Village, though with some pedigree (the owners’ great grandparents had an NYC deli); the sandwich is adorned with dill and cucumber. Heresy can be good.
Katz’s Delicatessen, $19.95. Superpopular, and more than 100 years old, Katz’s might be Carnegie’s equal in terms of bustle and celebrity photos.
Liebman’s Kosher Deli, $14.45. This Bronx standby is convenient for outings to Wave Hill or Van Cortlandt Park, and worth it even if not combined with a scenic adventure.
Mile End, $15. Take your complaints that this “smoked meat” isn’t pastrami elsewhere (perhaps the Canadian Consulate).
Pastrami Queen, $15.95. Everything is kosher at this Upper East Side locale, known for piling high its thick-cut deli meat.
Sarge’s Delicatessen and Restaurant, $16.95. An unassuming spot in Murray Hill where you can get a reasonably priced sandwich.
*All prices given for a basic pastrami on rye, or the closest you can get to such an order.