127 Years & Still Fresh

By Sandy Nesoff

Somehow the name “Iceland’s Deli” never had the same cache as “Katz’s.” But 127 years ago the New York landmark was born with that name.

If the Iceland brothers knew that what they opened in 1888 on Ludlow Street would outlive generations, they probably would never have invited Willy Katz into the business in 1903. Only a few years later Willie’s cousin, Benny, moved to the United States and moved into the deli with Willie. Soon thereafter the Iceland brothers moved out and the establishment officially became known as Katz’s Deli.

The construction of a subway line forced a move to Houston (say it like a New Yawker-How-ston) Street where it has remained to this day. There have been recent rumors that the building was up for sale, but let’s debunk that here and now.

Katz’s is considering erecting a building above the current restaurant, but no move is planned, considered, entertained or will happen.

The influx of European immigrants, primarily Jews, heading out before being caught in pogroms or just simply looking for a better life, brought teeming masses to the Lower East Side. And, while Katz’s was not and still is not kosher, no one except for the Orthodox seemed to mind.

While uptown eateries such as the now defunct Stage and the still thriving Carnegie Deli catered to more of an upscale crowd that included hordes of celebrities, Katz’s did well on its own. The Yiddish theater was thriving and stars such as Fanny Brice were as big then as Barbara Streisand is today.

The Broadway actors made their way to the Stage and Carnegie while the Yiddish theater crowd headed for Katz’s.

As the Yiddish theater diminished, Katz’s reputation seemed to flourish. It became a “must stop” for politicians running for office or just looking to make points with New York’s large Jewish community.

Picture Nelson Rockefeller standing on Houston Street in front of the entrance, a bevy of news photographers pointing their cameras at him as he chomped down on a savory hot dog. Rockefeller, more comfortable at an uptown, upscale restaurant such as the Jockey Club, knew the benefit of being seen eating a hot dog on Houston Street in front of Katz’s. That picture made all of the newspapers and most television news reports.

He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last. The deli is still a prime campaign stop for politico wannabees.

As mentioned, the deli is not kosher, but rather “kosher style.” You won’t see the long black frock coats of the Orthodox Jews sitting at a table, but you will see African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Europeans and people from virtually every state in the Union there on any given day of the week.

A few years ago the Food Channel ran a contest to see who had the best pastrami in New York. It ultimately came down to three restaurants: Carnegie, Second Avenue Deli (in its original location) and, of course, Katz’s.

When the smoke cleared there was only one standing… Katz’s. This isn’t meant to knock any other establishment, but very little in this world can compare to the thick, juicy, fatty hand carved slices of Pastrami at Katz’s.

Tradition here is that no matter what you order, the counterman will give you a slice or a schmear (make that a “taste”) of the meat. Patrons ordering for a table have been known to order sandwiches one at a time so as to score extra slices of pastrami.

And the size of the sandwich... tourists from Dubuque would make a family meal from one. New Yorkers scarf them down without any outside help.

Hanging in the middle of the restaurant is a disc over one of the tables. It reads: “Where Harry Met Sally. Hope You’re Having What She Had.”

In the movie, When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, the table under that sign was the famed faux organism scene with Ryan writhing and squirming in her chair. A woman at the next table tells the waiter: “I’ll have what she had.” But that was not the only movie to find a home there. Johnny Depp’s character in “Donnie Brasco” had a meeting with an FBI agent there. Patrick Dempsey was there for the filming of “Enchanted.” It was also in “We Own The Night,” Across The Universe,” and a number of other films seeking a location that would immediately identify it as being in New York.

Television shows such as the never-ending series, “Law and Order,” filmed in front of the deli.

One of the most memorable catch-lines ever concocted came about during World War II when Katz’s encouraged parents to “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” The sign still hangs in the deli.

The phrase became so popular that anti-war singer Tom Lehrer warbled “Remember mommy, I’m off to get a commie, so send me a salami...”

Katz’s takes its support of American military very seriously and to this day has arrangements for special international shipping to U.S. Military addresses and has been the source of gift packages to Iraq and Afghanistan.

The deli has had a unique method of payment for its long list of foods. As each customer enters the deli he/she is handed a ticket. Everyone gets a ticket, including children. As a purchase is made, the counterman punches in the price. It’s tallied up at the exit and paid for in cash.

Here’s a secret. At the door only cash is accepted. If you go to the far end of the counter, they will accept a credit card. The receipt is then handed to the cashier at the exit door.

Lose a ticket and you’ll be some $50 poorer.

Katz’s sells with regularity each week - 10,000 pounds of pastrami, 5,000 pounds of corned beef, 2,000 pounds of salami and 12,000 hot dogs.

If there is a down side to Katz’s, it is the parking in the area. Parking ranges from difficult to non-existent. True fans and devotees will circle the block until something opens up. Some even walk from uptown, just to sample the atmosphere and bite into one of those famous pastrami sandwiches.

Katz’s Deli
205 E Houston St,
New York, NY 10002