Katz’s Delicatessen is one of the seminal NYC restaurants that everyone is supposed to try. Then again, many New Yorkers haven’t been to the Statue of Liberty either, and it has been here longer than Katz’s—just barely.
Over the Christmas holiday, we finally rectified that omission. Deciding what to order wasn’t a challenge. The menu sprawls a bit—perhaps more than it should—but the pastrami sandwich is the signature item. In a one-star review for the Times in 2007, Frank Bruni reported that the pastrami out-sells the corned beef two-to-one; they make 1,000 of them a day.
The setting is bare-bones, and the cavernous space is far from charming. As you enter, you’re handed a little blue ticket. We aren’t sure what it is for, but a sign warns that if you lose it, you’ll pay an extra $50.
You can get in line for counter service, or get table service. Fans will probably tell me that if you haven’t been to the counter, you haven’t been to Katz’s. We chose table service anyway.
Bruni warned that table service is “not that efficient,” and he was right. A waitress plopped down a plate of pickles soon after we arrived, but we sat quite a while before she took our order, and quite a while longer for our drinks to arrive. I warned my son, “Drink your root beer slowly, because we might not be able to get another one.”
When the food finally came, the staff never seemed to know who had ordered what, or even which table to serve.
That pastrami sandwich almost makes up for it. At $14.95, they’re not giving them away, but you get an ample portion of thickly cut, fatty, smoky beef. There is really nothing more to it than that. A side of fries is extra ($4.50), though they do them very well. A Reuben ($15.75) wasn’t quite as impressive: the bread needed to be toasted, or at least warmer.
Although Katz’s is a Jewish deli, we didn’t notice any employees who appeared to be Jewish. The décor consists of many photos of famous customers, and signs that have been around since before most of those employees were born. One of these (mentioning that Katz’s caters parties) still carries a telephone number that pre-dates all-digit dialing.
We were fortunate to visit when there was no line, and were seated immediately. Good thing, too. This is not the most pleasant place to consume an expensive pastrami sandwich, but at least it is a good sandwich. I will be in no rush for the next one.
Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston Street at Ludlow Street, Lower East Side)