Like paying respects to the recent deceased, the surviving friends and family of Carnegie Deli stood waiting for seats or takeout in lines that snaked down 7th Avenue on Friday afternoon. Despite the crowd and freezing temperatures, people shared stories and memories of the restaurant as they waited to experience the place before it closed at the end of service.
Dressed in a tan coat and clutching a Macy’s bag, Charlene Murray looked around at the other faces. "My dad worked at NBC across the street in the 80s and when he would come to work on Saturdays he’d bring me here for a sandwich," she says. The New York native was prepared to wait the full four hours she was quoted for a table. "I had to come by."
The story of Carnegie Deli starts in 1937, a restaurant across from Carnegie Hall selling sandwiches stacked five-inches tall, bursting with pastrami, corned beef, and other delicatessen staples. In serving the neighborhood for nearly 80 years, it would seem that nearly every celebrity stopped in for a sandwich — on the way out signing a photo that would claim a permanent spot on the wall.
Sole owner of Carnegie Deli, Marian Harper Levine announced she would close the restaurant earlier this year. A staff wage lawsuit and a difficult divorce pushed her to the decision. Her father, Milton Parker, bought the deli in 1976 from the original owners and helped turned it into a landmark. Parker’s business partner, Leo Steiner, who died in 1987, was the face of the restaurant and the one who made it a celebrity haven.
As the years progressed and the walls filled corner to corner with those yellowing photos, the crowds have honored the ritual of waiting for seats in this tiny dining room, its proximity to Broadway and Times Square making it an essential stop for tourists. Yet Carnegie Deli had become more than just a place for a sandwich and celebrity-spotting, be it photos or in real life. It was a piece of Jewish history in Midtown Manhattan, and like many delicatessens in the city, a testament to the tenacity of Jewish people and their food.
News of the closing felt like a shift in the very fabric of this part of the city. The final day offered the last opportunity for people to wrap their arms around something they love —or in this case, to eat one last towering sandwich, latke, or knish. "It’s another iconic place in New York that’s closing," Murray says with a grimace. "When I told my dad about it, he was really sad."
When restaurants die they leave a lot behind. Two men in charge of supervising the lines handed out the last of the printed takeout menus and Carnegie Deli mint tins: mementos these diehards will cherish. But tactile items are nothing compared to memories and lore of the glory days.
Gabriel Kronzek, a culinary student from Santa Barbara, Ca. flew into New York City on Friday morning to say goodbye to Carnegie Deli. "I bought my ticket yesterday," he says from the end of the line. "I grew up going to authentic delicatessens with my dad." He wants to own a deli chain someday and made the pilgrimage to try one of the sandwiches he had heard and read so much about. "For me," he says, "it’s cultural heritage." His grandfather owned a deli in Pittsburgh.
Inside, the dining room is a respite from the cold. Tables are packed with guests who have shed layers of coats and scarves and settle in for their meal. Towards the front, a crowd of takeout customers wait for orders. There’s the occasional thwack as the kitchen doors swing and servers hustle from the kitchen into the dining room. Cooks seem to plate a million pastrami sandwich a minute. It’s busy. It’s crowded. But it’s also quiet. What happened to the boisterousness of the same guests who had been standing in line moments ago?
A manager escorted an irate man out of the kitchen and into the dining room. The man, a disgruntled cook, mumbled something about one of the servers being a bitch and is forced to clock out at one of the computer terminals while the manager watches.
"He’s done. I’m getting him out of here," the manager says to a waitress. He placed a hand on the cook’s shoulder and escorted him back to the kitchen and, presumably, out the back door.
As I turned to leave the restaurant, I nearly ran into a server who I saw taking a smoke break outside earlier in the day. I asked the waitress how long she has worked here and she told me 26 years. "And I’m getting nothing when I leave," she says, her eyes narrowing with anger. "No unemployment. Can you believe it?"
That’s the thing about memories and grieving. It is ultimately about us — about what we remember of the deceased, not about how things actually were. Our rosy-hued recollections don’t include the unsavory moments. We remember the best things about the dead and what they meant to us. And we move on.
In the evening, the lines waned as those who consider paying respects realize they may not get a seat for a final meal. A man and a woman walking by joined the line for a moment then changed their minds. As they turned away, I heard the woman say, "We could just go to Katz’s."
Korsha Wilson is a food writer, culinary school grad, and creator of A Hungry Society. She has worked front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house in restaurants, spent two years working as a cheese maker in New England, and took a month-long road trip eating at different restaurants on the East Coast. If you want to see her geek out, ask her about the role of restaurants in modern society or "real" crab cakes —she grew up in Maryland.