Doing a deli deep dive

The food is wonderful, the exhibition is fascinating


NEW YORK – I am in the world-renowned Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side with my friends Dave Reid and Lu Cribari. We’re here to do some serious eating, soak in the atmosphere and undertake a little research.

Actually, it is an annual ritual for this couple – fellow Providence Journal alums who now live in Manhattan – to join me in devouring Katz’s incomparable pastrami and fabulous brisket. But this visit takes on an extra dimension: We will be heading from here to an exhibition on Jewish delicatessens at the New-York Historical Society.

The exhibition, which runs through April 2, is called “‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’’: The Jewish Deli. The quote comes from a famous scene – set in Katz’s – in the 1989 movie, “When Harry Met Sally.” Telling a skeptical Billy Crystal that women can credibly fake sexual pleasure, a moaning Meg Ryan loudly and convincingly portrays an orgasm.

Ooh…Oh, God…Yes!…Yes! Yes!

A lady at the next table tells a waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.” (That lady was Estelle Reiner, mother of the film’s director, Rob Reiner.)

A sign dangles from Katz’s ceiling above the table where Ryan and Crystal sat. It announces “WHERE HARRY MET SALLY…HOPE YOU HAVE WHAT SHE HAD! ENJOY!”

If you’re talking about food, the answer is an unexciting turkey sandwich. On the other hand, Crystal was luxuriating in a pastrami sandwich.

Kevin Albinder, a top Katz’s manager, tells us that customers will zero in on that table and take pictures – indeed, over the years many have reenacted the scene.

Albinder says the moviemakers took over the restaurant for the day, and everyone you see in the scene, including customers, countermen and waiters, is an actor.

You don’t see Albinder, but he was working that day as an adviser, coaching the actors portraying the countermen on how to interact with the “customers.”

He says it took awhile for Ryan to perfect her performance. “Rob Reiner actually sat down in Meg Ryan’s spot to give her a little bit of a tutorial of what he really wanted for the scene. He actually was like yelling and banging on the table.” When Ryan then nailed it, people applauded.

There can be major lines to get into Katz’s. But pass by the long salamis hanging in the window. Stride into the dining room that at first glance looks as big as a football field, with photos lining the walls and neon signs highlighting the wares. Look, there’s an orange and green one touting Dr. Brown’s soda! You immediately feel better.

TV foodie Adam Richman writes that the atmosphere and tradition are so evocative “you literally want to eat the air.”

True enough, though my first priority is to skirt the crowds who get sandwiches from carving stations and then scramble for seats. My goal is to find a section with waiter service and get down to business in a more leisurely fashion.

So here we are, in a side room, and we immediately focus on a $42.95 platter that the menu says feeds three tourists or one regular customer. It offers “generous” portions of hand-sliced pastrami, brisket and corned beef. But instead of one-third, one-third and one-third, we ask the waiter to skip the corned beef and bring us half pastrami and half brisket. (By the way, “generous” is an understatement. Dave and Lu will bring home leftovers. Husband and wife each will build two more meals around them.)

The pastrami – not too fatty, not too lean – is the best I have ever had anywhere. To get better brisket you’d have to have my wife, Elizabeth, cook it for you.

The half-sour pickles are glisteningly green, so fresh you might think they leapt right out of their barrels and flew to the table. A stack of sliced rye bread. A pile of coleslaw. And cans of Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda. This is civilization at its most cultured.

Now, over to the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society on the Upper West Side.

It is an amazing melange of pictures, posters, signs, postcards, matchbook covers, advertisements, TV and film clips – yes you can watch the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” scene – and such artifacts as an antique seltzer water bottle and an old meat slicing machine. Did I mention the molded models of such Jewish classics as kugel or a bowl of matzo ball soup?

Several of the famous Jewish delicatessens and markets, such as 2nd Avenue Deli, Russ & Daughters, and Zabar’s, are still around, but many more businesses have changed hands or left us, and the exhibition drives me further and further into my past.

Here are materials touting such storied purveyors of hot dogs and cold cuts as Isaac Gellis, Schmulka Bernstein and Zion that I used to buy at Providence’s Davis deli of sacred memory.

I spot a picture postcard of the former Wolfie’s Restaurant in Miami Beach and point out to Dave and Lu where I sat with my parents and my brother Arthur and ate corned beef sandwiches, circa 1956. And here’s a matchbook cover from the Stage Deli, where we would go in New York.

Here is an ad for Leb’s, which was a Jewish-owned New York-style eatery in segregated Atlanta, and a 1963 photo of folks picketing in protest of its refusal to serve Black customers. As a visiting college journalist, I actually was in Leb’s in early 1964 to watch a sit-in there.

“Dozens of Negro students filed into the establishment and occupied the booths,” I would write in the Brown Daily Herald. “Students from Brown who accompanied them downtown joined them inside too and began filling up on the pickles that adorned the tables until waitresses took them away along with the salt and pepper shakers.”

Leb’s finally integrated after the Civil Rights Act was enacted later in the year.

And here’s a picture of New York’s old Carnegie Deli. What a place that was, known for its gigantic corned beef or pastrami sandwiches and, well, perhaps you remember the old comedians shooting the breeze there in Woody Allen’s 1984 film, “Broadway Danny Rose.”

I loved the place, but I recall it less for its food than for an episode during the 1992 Democratic convention. I asked a taxi driver to take me to the Carnegie. He claimed not to know where it was, even when I reminded him it was near Carnegie Hall. He seemed to feel the ride wasn’t long enough to justify his time. I stormed out of the cab.

One other thing about the deli exhibition:

The museum gift shop has an impressive number of goods you might like, including t-shirts and mugs, and books on Katz’s, Russ & Daughters, and Zabar’s. Maybe you’d be interested in the Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. There’s Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup and Gold’s Zesty Horseradish Sauce.

Or – wait for it – a Katz’s chocolate egg cream-scented candle. And yes, it smells like a chocolate egg cream.

M. CHARLES BAKST was Providence Journal political columnist.