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Looking Beyond the Tourist Trap Cliche at Stage Deli

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This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Krieger, 2/1/11]

It was not quite fair of me, I thought, to visit Midtown's Stage Deli on a Tuesday night at 8 PM during a snow-rain storm, when the joint was certain to not be at its vibrant, pulsating best. But, then, it was a good time to see what the 74-year-old sandwich palace is when it's not its usual self—that it, a tourist-clogged cliche.
What is was was kind of sweetly lonely, the sort of port-in-a-storm urban island one might have expected to find on every corner of the Theatre District fifty years ago. Waiters in black pants, black vests and varying baseball caps peered listlessly out at the storm, thinking of the tips they were not getting. Lone diners rooted themselves at the central, square-shaped counter and watched the television as if at home. The bald, big-gutted manager, built like a bouncer, slipped silently off his stool whenever a party walked in and delicately showed each guest to a table. There were a few tourists on hand, earnestly studying the large menu as if it were a subway map. But mainly it was New Yorkers. I know they were New Yorkers because they were unafraid to dine alone, because they constantly checked their phones, because they smartly gamed the ridiculously expensive menu by ordering a single bowl of soup and lingering over it.

I, too, played it smart, doing the half-sandwich and soup combo, which kept my bill safely under $20—not an easy feat at the Stage Deli. This time of year is always quiet, the manager told me. Many of the Broadway shows have closed, and people tend to stay inside. A waiter said the general clientele is made up almost equally of New Yorker and tourists, or "foreigners," as he put it. (Even within that sparse crowd, I could hear French and Russian.) Many a sandwich is named after a star, but, in my many years of visited the Stage, I've never actually seen a celebrity eat there. Perhaps I have bad timing.

Locals like to think of the Stage, the Carnegie, Katz's and the few other surviving Jewish Deli icons left in Manhattan as being their past their prime, purely cynical tourist traps composed of equal parts bad service and disappointing food. But New Yorkers are spoiled by the cultural and culinary bounty that surrounds them, and I've always found this assessment a bit unfair, and calamitously short-sighted. I was surprised to find both my corned beef and matzo ball soup more than acceptable; in fact, I craved the other half of my sandwich. But forget that. It must be remembered that—should the Stage ever be lost—the City could never replace or replicate the utterly Gotham atmosphere in which that place marinates. These are the ancestral culinary juices of New York. So go stew in them, why don't you?
—Brooks of Sheffield

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