Anyone who visits Katz for the first time will take away sensual memories that will linger forever. Outside, the old neon sign shines like a beacon day and night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Thanksgiving, Christmas and weekends. The store is large and plain, unadorned save for more than 750 photos of patrons — including Mikhail Gorachev’s — and old New York beer brand signs like Piels, Schlitz, and Schaefer. The noise comes from people shuffling in and out, pulling back chairs and tables, ordering, banging plates and cutlery on the worn Formica tables. The mingling flavors of steaming beef, sausage and beans, pickled juices, sauerkraut, roast turkey and french fries are intoxicating. You’re given an admission ticket on the way in, the counter men prepare your food – all cuts of meat are still hand-carved by master slicers who have been slicing for decades – then clip off your admission ticket and you’re on your way quickly to order potatoes and to get drinks. And if you lose the ticket, you’ll pay a $50 fee.
And then there’s the sound of swooning from those sampling the world’s best Jewish deli. The most famous swooning, of course, is that of the very WASP-esque Meg Ryan faking an orgasm over pastrami sandwiches for the very Jewish Billy Crystal When Harry met Sally (1989)followed by a customer who watches and tells the waiter, “I’ll take what she has.”
There is table service (for which you can use a credit card, otherwise cash only). So they sit where countless others have sat for 120 years — who knows if Jerry Lewis or Leonard Bernstein sat there? — and face the colossal amount of pastrami, tongue, brisket, turkey, and other meat stuffed into two slices of rye bread that reach about four inches in height. Eating at Katz’s is being part of a tasty immigrant story that only New York can encompass.
Katz’s began in 1888 as a small deli called Iceland Brothers on the Lower East Side, then the main district for immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe. In 1903 Willy Katz joined the business with Harry Tarowsky and the name was officially changed to Island & Katz. When Willy’s cousin Benny joined him in 1910, the brothers bought them out and it became just Katz’s Delicatessen, moving across the street in April 1917.
Initially, though it was never a kosher deli, Katz’s clientele consisted mostly of local Jews, including performers from the Yiddish Theater and the National Theater on Houston Street. You will still find her photos on the walls. In the ’30s, Katz’s drew uptown showbiz audiences (many of whom had once lived downtown). During World War II, with the owners’ three sons in the service, Katz’s began the tradition of sending them groceries under the (trademark) banner “Send salami to your boy in the army.”
Later, when Willy and Benny Katz died, the shop was left to Benny’s son-in-law, Artie Maxstein, and Harry’s son, Izzy Tarowsky. A new generation found they had no relatives to turn the shop over to, so longtime friend and restaurateur Martin Dell, along with son Alan and (son-in-law Fred Austin, were officially bought into the partnership in 1988 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Shop Alan’s son Jake officially joined the shop in late 2009 and is currently responsible for all major operations.
Given its history as a true New York icon, it’s no wonder so many filmmakers have hauled their cameras to Katz’s for a scene that immediately makes a connection to old New York food culture. The deli was inside Treaty on Cherry Street (1977), Donnie Brasco
(1997), through the universe (2007), We own the Nnight (2007), Enchanted (2002), even a French film, Nous York (1912).
Things are moving quickly on the counter line at Katz, a Stab 140 ensures that things run smoothly. This counter goes through 30,000 pounds. meat per week, and the preparation process hasn’t changed: “Our corned beef and pastrami are cured using a slower method that gives the meat the best flavor without injecting chemicals, water or other additives to speed up the process. Our finished product can take up to 30 days to set, while commercially prepared corned beef is often injected (or “pumped”) under pressure to set in 36 hours. Yes, you read it right. 30 days versus 36 hours.
Order what? Anything but pastrami and corned beef is required to get the unique flavor of what makes Katz’s better than any other deli in town. Unfortunately, that’s a result of attrition among delis, which once proliferated, many strict Glatt Koshers, with strict rules never to serve meat with dairy. These were referred to as “appetizing” stores. Few were as big or as interested in sandwiches as Katz’s; Most were small and served salmon, smoked fish, bagels, and pastries. A few notable names still exist: the 2nd Avenue Deli, Sarge’s and Barney Greengrass and the Carnegie in Manhattan, Frankel’s in Brooklyn and Liebman’s in the Bronx. To some extent, they all do many things well. But only Katz’s, which has had well over a century to perfect and then sustain a great deli, has every taste catered for.
All delis are expensive now, but as any connoisseur knows, you bring at least half a sandwich home for another meal.
Oh, and Katz’s is probably there whenever you go. You own the building.
205 East Houston St