It’s not quite what you’d expect from an illustrious Midtown Manhattan restaurant; it’s dark and dingy, small and crowded, where waiters are surly and won’t accept credit cards but what they do accept are reservations up to a year in advance.
On 7th Avenue, a couple of blocks from Carnegie Hall between West 55th and 56th, Carnegie Deli is celebrating its 75th anniversary, a popular neighbourhood deli since it opened with 40 tables in 1937.
New York’s delicatessens have become the quintessential Jewish eating experience and it was here in 1975 that delis became known nationwide when New York magazine rated Carnegie’s pastrami the “Big Apple’s” number one.
If you caught Woody Allen’s movie “Broadway Danny Rose” you would have seen this deli. The opening scene featured Allen (who used to play clarinet there with a jazz band every Friday night) at a table with a bunch of old stand-up comics swapping stories and consuming large dinners.
In a country where large dinners are de rigueur, much larger dinners are Carnegie’s raison d’etre.
Its walls are a gallery of images of the movie and stage celebrities who have dined there and keep coming back and it’s not just for the thrill of gluttony. Apart from the incredible food, Carnegie really is the essence of New York City packed into one tight little place.
Much of the city’s deli food originated in 18th century Eastern Europe and was refined by immigrants when they came to America in droves in the mid-19th century. To satisfy their needs, Jewish migrants started restaurants in New York launching a new, rich and hearty alternative to the established Anglo-Saxon diet. They have never looked back.
Now matzoh ball soup, gefillte fish, latkes, knishes, Hungarian goulash, Romanian chicken, blintzes with cheese or berries are local icons but the staples of any decent New York deli are pastrami and corned beef.
Corned beef comes from the brisket and the more fatty pastrami from the belly a little further down. At the Carnegie all the meat products, pastries and pickles have been homemade since 1937. Their celebrated pastrami is firstly cured then rubbed with coriander and black pepper and smoked for several days.
At the entrance to this chaotically busy deli is a window filled with preposterous cakes, a colourful hint of the cake of cholesterol lurking inside the restaurant, which has now tripled in size since it opened 75 years ago.
On every table is a silver bowl of pickles with “sours” (dill pickles) and “half sours” (less pickled) and you can crunch them while interpreting the huge menu crammed with sandwiches, soups, salads, and desserts.
Ordering food anywhere in New York City can be dodgy without knowing the local lingo. For example, don’t just ask wait staff for bacon and eggs. The desired method of egg preparation must be unambiguous. Eggs scrambled, eggs boiled, egg whites only, poached eggs, eggs over easy, eggs over hard, sunny side up…
But the Carnegie has evolved its own specific jargon. A Pistol is a pastrami sandwich, CB – corned beef sandwich, CB Dress – corned beef with coleslaw and Russian dressing, RB Combo – roast beef with Swiss cheese and Ham Dutch, for some reason, is ham with American cheese.
Prime brisket pot roasts, platters brimming with roast turkey, giblet gravy and candied sweet potato, platters of hot tongue with potato pancakes and sweet and sour gravy and an incredible breakfast binge called Sarri’s Combination Fish Platter that overflows with sturgeon, novie (Nova Scotia) salmon, smoked white fish and baked salmon with lettuce, tomato, onion, cream cheese and bagels on the side, are just a hint of what lurks inside this daunting menu.
But it’s the big open sandwiches that have been largely responsible for Carnegie’s international reputation, variations of rye bread slices crushed under mountains of meat, and while the place is a bit touristy these days and not particularly cheap, it’s worth the extra cost just to see the tourists’ reactions when their colossal sandwiches arrive.
Gripping a Woody Allen Sandwich with a mammoth pile of pastrami and corned beef on it poised near his mouth, owner Sandford (Sandy) Levine told me, “Our rule of thumb is that if it can fit easily into someone’s mouth, we’ve done something horribly wrong.”
As a rule of thumb, anything over $19 will be big enough to feed at least four people.
For example, from a list headed “Gargantuan Combos” costing between $18.95 and $26.95, Carnegie Haul – a triple-decker pastrami, tongue and salami sandwich; Fifty Ways to Love your Liver – chopped liver, hard-boiled egg and salad; Nova on Sunday – Nova Scotia salmon with lake sturgeon, Bermuda onion, lettuce, tomato, olives and cream cheese; Tongues for the Memory – tongue and corned beef smothered with Swiss cheese and Russian dressing.
If you decide to share one of these monsters it will cost an extra $5. If that still sounds too intimidating, don’t go for the turkey dinner. It has twice the amount of meat. Whatever you demolish, follow it up with the richest chocolate cheesecake you’ll find anywhere on the planet and you won’t need to eat for a month.
But if you’re out to do some proper arterial damage, get stuck into one of their latest, the disgusting Jetbow.
To honour footballer Tim Tebow’s debut last March as the New York Jets’ backup quarterback, the Carnegie debuted the Jetbow, a 1.6kg sandwich colossus Sandy Levine described as “stacked with all-American pride to celebrate Tebow’s all-American boy image”.
The stack includes roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, American cheese, tomato and lettuce and, for the first time, it’s covered in white bread and mayonnaise instead of the Carnegie’s trademark rye and mustard.
Fortunately, some things at Carnegie never change. “We have two mottos here,” Sandy grinned. “You can’t leave until you’ve finished – and if you have finished, we’ve made a serious blunder.”
That’s not quite true. The good news is you can finish it at home; the Carnegie also keeps a stock of oversized doggy bags. Getting it safely past New York’s homeless without suffering wretched pangs of conscience is up to you.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2014 (Copyright Agency Limited)