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Piles of Meat, Photos of Celebrities at The Carnegie 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.

[Bess Adler]

We all know the answer to this one. Tourists. Tourists go to the midtown institution The Carnegie Deli. The question is: How many tourists?

My affable waiter seemed stumped by the question. I tried to prompt him. Is the clientele 60 percent tourists? 70 percent? More, he thought, but he wasn't sure. I looked around. Quite honestly, the diners around me could have been tourists or they could have been New Yorkers. They didn't have cameras around their neck, weren't gawking at the surroundings, and had tons of gritty character. They were certainly the heaviest group of chowhounds I had encountered in one place since I last visited Zum Stammtisch in Queens. And here they were shoveling in more pastrami.

My earnest waiter returned with a veteran colleague, a man with glasses and salt-and-pepper hair. He had waited tables at the Carnegie for 17 years. "It's 80 percent tourists," he said with authority. I had to believe him. But surely he still got some native New Yorkers. He did, he said. Even had a few regulars who came in fairly often. The younger waiter bemoaned that, after six years at the deli, he still didn't have a single regular. He seems genuinely sad about it. (I don't know about the Carnegie's reputation for rude waiters. These guys were sweethearts.)

A different sort of patron shows up in the wee hours of the night, my waiter added. "Really drunk people." One would assume these would be locals; tourists wouldn't be smart enough to know that the Carnegie is open that late.

In theory, celebrities are also among the Carnegie customer base. Framed and signed photos of famous faces fill every inch of wall space in the main space, as well as the windowless Siberia of the side room. (I have never eaten in that forlorn area, and I never intend to.) Some are just publicity shots. Others feature stars caught on camera near the front counter, deer-in-headlights style. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, pre-Seinfeld; critic Gene Siskel; a tiny-looking Ted Koppel; Bon Jovi when he was just a young rocker from New Jersey; Waylon Jennings; Steve Allen; Jerry Lewis; Larry "Bud" Melman; Bob from Sesame Street; and Oliver North! And Vincent Pastore—Big Pussy from The Sopranos—whose head shot I've seen on more New York restaurant walls than any other actor. My favorite shot of all has always been the one of Peter O'Toole, caught near the cashier, looking dazed and half in the bag. Looking at all the images, one wonders what celebrities haven't been to the Carnegie.

Pastrami and corned beef are the most popular items on the large menu. They are not listed under the "open-face sandwich" section, but the meat is piled so high, it's not accurate to regard them as anything but. You can't pick up these sandwiches; the bread can't carry the load. Everyone goes at the plates with a fork and knife. I had the pastrami. It was good. Not the best in New York. But, to a tourist, probably heavenly. Good pickles, too. The potato pancake needed salt, but that can be fixed. The Carnegie Deli may be a tourist trap. But as a classic New York Jewish Deli experience, it still rates.
Brooks of Sheffield

· All Editions of Who Goes There? [~ENY~]

The Carnegie Deli

854 7th Avenue, New York, NY 10019

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