In early September, New York’s Carnegie Deli announced that they were closing their doors for good at the end of the year. The famous landmark was home of deli owner Leo Steiner’s renowned pastrami and corned beef which drew locals, tourists, and celebrities under the restaurant’s bright-red awning and through their doors.
The Jewish American restaurateur opened the restaurant back in 1937. In its very cellar, he would cure tons of meat each week, used to make his beloved pastrami and corned beef until his passing in 1987.
Carnegie Deli continued Steiner’s vision after his death, at least, until this year.
Current owner Marian Harper Levine announced that the early mornings and late nights have taken a toll on her and closing down the restaurant was for the best. She needed a permanent break.
I happened to be on vacation in New York City a few weeks after this announcement was made. Seeing as how I wouldn’t be back to the city for a few more years, this was the perfect opportunity to try Carnegie Deli for the first, and sadly, last time.
I woke up early, ready to head out and snag an early table before beginning my day. Unfortunately, my “quick bite” turned out to be a little more problematic than I thought.
The line for a table was out the door and down the block. I snagged my spot in the line and waited for my turn. There was a much shorter “take out” line, but I needed the full experience. I told myself I was waiting and that was the end of that.
Across the street, there was Benash Delicatessen. The deli was not nearly as crowded as Carnegie, but drew a few customers from the much more popular spot’s run-off. They just had to wait til the end of the year, and they’ll be running the deli game on 55th and 7th.
About forty minutes in, a man walked out of the restaurant, a look of false exasperation on his face.
“Place like this, can you believe they ran out of pastrami?”
In that moment, a handful of patrons stepped out of the line and scattered into the city. They couldn’t be bothered with the wait if there wasn’t any pastrami left to try. I was steadfast, however. That guy was clearly messing with tourists.
Nice try, dude.
There was no way Carnegie would run out of pastrami right before the lunch rush.
Finally, it was my turn to be seated. An hour and a half, not the worst wait of my life. As I stepped inside, I realized why it was worth the wait.
Like Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum series, everything came alive.
The restaurant itself was quite miniscule, made even smaller thanks to the many patrons enjoying their lunch. To my left was the deli itself, where regulars and newcomers ordered their meats to go.
It was also loud. REAL loud; a cacophony of excited conversations of dozens of customers as they eagerly decided what to order, recant their weeks to one another, or simply just babble for the sake of white noise.
I was seated between a middle-aged couple and a mother and son. We were all shoulder-to-shoulder and it didn’t matter. It was finally time to eat.
An elderly Asian waitress set a bowl of pickles on my table. In my excitement, I forgot to make a note of the waitress’ name. She placed a menu in front of me and moved on to the next table. Her no-nonsense approached was probably due to the sheer amount of customers she must have served at this legendary spot. I earnestly picked up the menu and locked my eyes on the text, a schoolboy trying not to get scolded.
I scanned through noticing the usual rundown of classic deli items like sandwiches, frankfurters, deli meats, and cheesecake. So much to choose from.
One notable item, The Woody Allen, was a pastrami and corned beef sandwich stacked nearly half a foot high.
It was the first and last time I would ever set foot in this restaurant. Might as well go all out. The sandwich was named after the actor/director during the filming of Allen’s film Broadway Danny Rose, filmed at Carnegie more than three decades ago.
I placed my order once the waitress circled back and looked around the restaurant, taking it all in.
The walls were littered with framed photographs of celebrities and politicians. Practically every famous person in the last several decades, from former president Bill Clinton to Pauly D of Jersey Shore, had a home on the wall.
I’d watch a reality series starring those two.
Before I knew it, my massive sandwich was placed before me. I took a moment to appreciate its majesty, each tier of meat an architectural blessing. The top half was chock full of pastrami and the bottom respectively with corned beef. While nearly the same color, there was a noticeable aesthetic difference between the two meats. The pastrami boasted a slightly dark pink tint from being smoked, with a salty rub. The corned beef a brighter pink, brined but untouched by the smoker, was lighter in flavor.
For the first time in my life, I had no idea where to start eating.
A sliver of pastrami had fallen off the sandwich when the waitress set it down. I picked it up with my finger and popped it into my mouth. Moist, salty, with a smoky aftertaste. Perfection.
OK, I’ve waited long enough.
The next 20 minutes was a blur of meat and mustard. I tried to savor every bite and relish the history behind such a prolific landmark. Easier said than done, however, as an insatiable appetite and some of the finest cured meats around was a recipe for gluttony. The sandwich was gone.
Regrettably, I left no room for dessert. As far as pastrami sandwiches go, this was definitely in the top five. The sheer size of The Woody Allen, however, boosted its ranking to top three.
I paid my bill and was on my way. Having waited in line, I didn’t want to linger inside when there were others outside, hungry themselves.
As I walked out, a wave of melancholy swept over me. This was an experience I’ll never have again. I stood outside the doors, directly underneath the iconic red awning and held a moment of silence for the beloved restaurant. Picking the final piece of pastrami (or was it corned beef?) from my teeth, I said my goodbye.
Farewell, Carnegie Deli. Your meat tasted so good in my mouth.