It is on every tourist’s must do list when they come to New York, but it should be on every New Yorker’s list as well. To eat at Katz’s Delicatessen, that is. A mainstay of the Lower East Side since its beginning in 1888, Katz’s Deli is still one of the best delicatessens in, dare I say it, the world. It is the place where Presidents come for lunch when they are in town, where Al Gore took the Russian Prime Minister and, most famously, where Meg Ryan “faked-it” in When Harry Met Sally. It is the birthplace of one of cinema’s most famous lines, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Eating at Katz’s is like eating in another era, maybe that of our grandparents. Everyone who enters Katz’s is given a ticket by the sweatshirted greeter and admonished, “Don’t lose your ticket.” But no one seems to be able to tell us what we are to do with it. We notice a sign warning, “All used and unused tickets must be returned to the cashier. Failure to do so will result in a $500 fine.” We ask someone what the ticket is for. No one seems to know. “It’s a way to keep track,” we are told by a passing waiter, “but it’s a broken system.” We are sure it had some purpose when our grandparents ate here and are actually charmed that it seems to have no purpose now, other than to uphold tradition.
We take a seat in the waiter-service section against the wall. The tables in the middle are for the brave diners who line up ten deep at the deli counter to get their food, hoping there will be a place for them to sit when they are ready to eat.
Our waiter, David (in the photo above), comes by and immediately asks us where we are from. He rolls his eyes at our response, “From here.” It is then we notice that there are very few New Yorkers in the restaurant. Behind us is a family from Australia; next to us sit four women from The Netherlands. On the other side of us is a couple from India. The restaurant is bustling, the energy is high and the mood is buoyant. It seems everyone is truly happy to be eating at this United Nations of dining emporiums and that every country has sent a representative.
We place our orders. I order the Matzo Ball soup with a pastrami sandwich on rye. My luncheon companion orders Chicken Noodle soup and a bologna sandwich. “No,” our waiter shakes his head, “You can’t be from New York and order a bologna sandwich.” She orders it anyway, “I love bologna,” she meekly says by way of explanation. As we wait for our food, a plate of cold, crisp, homemade pickles is delivered to table. I notice a diner across the room snatch up a plate of pickles that has been leftover at another table. They are just that good.
Our food comes quickly. The Chicken Noodle soup is the real deal, a light broth with huge pieces of shredded chicken, fresh-diced carrots and loads of thin noodles. The Matzo Ball is lighter than air. Our sandwiches come out next. They are stuffed with meat, but not so over-stuffed that you’ll need a tactician to figure out how to eat them. The pastrami is hot and lean, and the rye bread is so soft it sticks to the roof of your mouth, just as it should. I am already planning my next trip back to try the corned beef.
My friend takes a bite of her bologna sandwich and practically swoons. She tells the waiter it is the best bologna she has ever eaten. “Oh-My-God,” she moans as she chews, prompting the Dutch woman at the neighboring table to look over and laugh, “I’ll have what she’s having.” The only difference now is that my dining companion is not faking it.
Katz’s Delicatessen is located at 205 Houston. Visit them at www.katzdeli.com for hours and more information.