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The New York Deli: Woven into the Culinary Fabric of the Nation’s Largest City

The one thing about New York City that never seems to change is that it’s always changing. With so many eateries popping up— and sadly, shutting down—in the last few years, there's a great deal of comfort to be taken in the old neighborhood standbys where time seems to have basically stood still since their opening day.

Steeped in history, tradition, and cultural significance, New York City is the home of the deli, one of the food genres that helped pave the way for the city’s massive food scene. From family owned sandwich shops to iconic Jewish delicatessens, NYC’s delis are woven into the culinary fabric of the nation’s largest city.

With competition steep and customer loyalty deep, many of these family-owned businesses have been passed down from generation to generation, with owner-operators dedicating their entire lives to being a neighborhood fixture and perfecting their menu.

From the quintessential corned beef special to the mouthwatering pastrami on rye, there’s a deli to satisfy every taste bud in this city that started it all.

History of the NY Deli

According to historians (and a little NYC legend,) the first Jewish deli, Katz’s Delicatessen, opened in 1888, though there is some debate surrounding the story. It has been said that two brothers, Morris and Hyman Iceland, established a restaurant in the location where Katz’s stands today around that time. Then, in 1903, Willy Katz joined the brothers and changed the restaurant's name to “Iceland and Katz."

In 1910, the Iceland name was dropped and the restaurant became known as “Katz’s Delicatessen.” Though there are records of a few other Jewish delis popping up in the late 1800s, they have not stood the test of time the way Katz’s has for over a century.

Delis became a part of the Jewish foodscape when they began opening in New York’s theater district in the 1910s and 1920s, attracting many actors and performers, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In the early part of the 20th century, New York Jews relied on the deli as a social gathering space where they could congregate without fear of the antisemitism that was prevalent in those days and immerse themselves in the theater’s celebrity culture. It was at this time that the Jewish deli began to shift from a market space to a sit-down restaurant.

The funny thing about the old fashioned NY delicatessen, with its mile-high sandwiches, loud deli counters, and hordes of crows every Sunday morning, is that no one really ate that way back in Eastern Europe. Most Jewish families rarely dined outside the home and many deli items were considered delicacies. Overstuffed sandwiches packed with fatty cured meats were also not the common diet of Jews in places like Romania and Poland, or as Jews refer to it, the “old country.”

In fact, the word “delicatessen” derives from the Latin word for “delicate” or “luxurious,” not at all the way one would describe the vibe of a Jewish deli, then or now. Because cheap beef was easily accessible in New York City at the time, corned beef brisket preserved in brine became a popular dish. This led to the development of pastrami and seasoned corned beef. In fact, it is more than likely that the word “pastrami” was actually coined in the U.S.

One of the earliest delis in New York City to attain national attention, Ratner’s was regarded as a complement to Katz’s because it did not serve meat. Founded in 1905 on Manhattan's Lower East Side, this early eatery was known for its dairy dishes like cheese blintzes, potato pancakes, gefilte fish, and onion rolls. Reuben’s, established in 1908 at 802 Park Avenue, was another famous first, remaining open for almost 100 years.

Barny Greengrass, also opening in 1908 in Harlem, specializing in smoked fish including sturgeon and salmon, was one of the first stores uptown to serve American Jewish fare. Barney Greengass The Sturgeon King, as it is still known today, remains a New York City institution.

As the years went along, other famous delis began to pop up across the NYC foodscape including Lindy’s, opening in 1921 at 1626 Broadway, between 49th and 50th Streets, Eisenberg’s, in 1929, Stage Deli in 1937, and Carnegie Deli in 1937.

Jewish delis became increasingly popular as Jews became more secular, and served as meeting places to hold community meals, talk politics, and socialize. Sadly, World War II took a toll on many of the NY delis, some of which lost significant business due to obstacles like unemployment and meat shortages.

Mirroring recent events in New York and across the nation, many of the deli owners of the day, faced with tough times, banded together and supported one another. This might be why many delis feature similar decor and furnishings as they did back in the early part of the twentieth century, and why this piece of national comfort food remains so embedded in the culture, heart, and fabric of the city.

Though the 50s and 60s were difficult times for New York delis, with many not surviving the difficult times of the prior decades, this period also saw the emergence of a new generation of new York delis, with Second Avenue Deli opening in 1954 and 24-hour Sarge’s Delicatessen & Diner opening in 1964.

Following World War II, many Jews moved from predominantly Jewish parts of New York City to other large east coast cities like Philadelphia, bringing with them the deli. But with the rise of suburbanization limiting interactions between Jews, delicatessens as an institution, began to dissipate.

At the same time, increased competition from larger markets and other restaurants that offered similar foods at lower prices also hurt the deli. And although some delis still open today are in their fourth generation of owners, many delis that struggled to find workers to carry on the lineage, did not survive.

The late 20th century began to see an reemergence of the NYC deli with modern Jewish delis opening around the five boroughs and old ones that still remained standing being glorified by Hollywood.

In the 1989 movie “When Harry Met Sally,” actor Meg Ryan’s loud rendition of a woman faking an orgasm while seated at Katz's Deli stands as one of the most memorable moments in deli history. To mark the 30th anniversary of the movie’s release, the restaurant invited anyone who wanted to to sit at the same table in the Lower East Side landmark and imitate Ryan’s famously feigned fake out.

The Deli Today

Today, while only a handful of the original delis remain, including Katz’s the granddaddy of them all, the deli is undergoing a revitalization and a modernization that is keeping the food, flavor, and tradition of the early delicatessen alive. By adding vegan, gluten-free, and vegetarian options to the menu, but keeping some of the most traditional items alive, a new generation of the New York deli has found a home on the streets of the city where it all started.

And the good news is, for anyone who has never experienced a real old-fashioned Jewish deli, there are still a few that have remained true to keeping every historic detail intact, to the point where sitting down at a table feels like you’ve stepped into a magical time machine!

If you’re not a native New Yorker, simply hungry for a great pastrami sandwich piled high with all the fixins’, or just want to "have what she's having," there are 10 delis you should experience at least once in your lifetime.

Lower East Side, 205 E Houston St.

Undoubtedly, the most iconic deli in NYC, if not the world, Katz’s Delicatessen has been a New York institution since 1888. Withstanding the great depression, two pandemics, and 911, this steadfast establishment has withstood every bump in the food industry road. One of the original focal points for immigrants who came through Ellis Island, millions of Americans congregated at Kat’z deli on their way to building a new home in the US.

Upper West Side & Upper East Side - 138 W 72nd St, 1125 Lexington Ave.

As the name suggests, pastrami is the mouthwatering attraction at this Uptown kosher NYC establishment. This popular kosher deli has been an Upper East Side mainstay since 1998, when it moved and swapped names from Pastrami King to Pastrami Queen. The slices are juicy, the cut thick, and the overstuffed sandwiches are made with rye bread that is always fresh. With locations on both the Upper East Side (UES) and Upper West Side (UWS,) Pastrami Queen reigns supreme.

Greenwich Village, 63 E 8th St.

Chelsea, 286 8th Ave.

Astoria-Ditmars - 35-09 Ditmars Blvd., Long Island City

Astoria-Broadway - 3505 Broadway

Astoria - 30th Ave.

Serving Manhattan and Astoria for over two decades, this neighborhood favorite offers old-fashioned bagels, mouthwatering nova, signature deli and breakfast sandwiches, daily-baked Parisian pastries & muffins, and deliciously bold house-roasted coffee, as well as gluten-free bagels.

373 W 34th St

A deli and pizza spot all rolled into one, this New York City gem offers an array of traditional and unique catering options as well as a wide selection of lunch, breakfast, and dinner options made to order.

527 3rd Ave.

Offering free direct delivery to customers within a 5 mile radius, this is the deli of choice for customers seeking a delicious plant-based selection in addition to its massive menu of classic sandwiches, Philly steaks, paninis, burgers, and breakfast choices, as well as meats and cheeses by the pound.

Greenpoint, 631 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn

When in Brooklyn, do as the locals do and check out this popular kosher deli for its delicious deli classics and modern decor. Whether you decide to stop in the morning for a breakfast sandwich, or want to come later on for a lunch sandwich (we suggest Anita’s Hot Brisket), this is the perfect place for a quick bite.

For more great kosher delis that offer delivery, see our blog post, Noshing in New York: Kosher Cuisine Hits the Brooklyn Culinary Scene.

548 3rd Ave.

Founded in 1964, this Murray Hill fixture is open every evening till 11 p.m., (a rarity these days.) Overstuffed pastrami, tongue, rolled beef, hot brisket, and turkey pastrami sandwiches are all worth considering.

Offering free direct delivery up to 5 miles on orders above $30, LIC Bagels offers an array of deliciously prepared hot breakfast options, bagel sandwiches, wraps, paninis, tacos, and burritos, as well as many “create your own” sandwiches and salad options.

54-12 31st Ave.

One of the best delis in Woodside, offering free delivery to customers within a 5 mile radius, Woodside offers a wide variety of lunch and breakfast options including quesadillas, tacos, burritos, burgers, salads, and more.

545 2nd Ave

Fresh delicious deli delivered straight to your door, Kips now offers free delivery to customers within a 2 mile radius. With an array of deliciously prepared hot breakfast options, bagel sandwiches, wraps, paninis, tacos, and burritos, as well as smoothies, freshly squeezed juices, and meats and cheeses by the pound, Kips is one of the area's most popular delis.

By Eileen Strauss


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