After 8 Decades And Countless Pastrami Sandwiches, New York's Carnegie Deli Folds

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on December 26, 2016 6:35 pm

One of the most famous delicatessens in New York will slice its last sandwich this week.

The Carnegie Deli opened in 1937 on Seventh Avenue across from Carnegie Hall. But it didn't' achieve notoriety until decades later — around the time that director Woody Allen filmed a table full of off-duty comedians there in his movie, Broadway Danny Rose.

There's still a "Woody Allen" sandwich on the menu at the Carnegie Deli: half pastrami, half corned beef. But the real star is that pastrami.

"People love my pastrami so much, it's like a human being," says owner Marian Harper. "It's overwhelming to me."

Harper inherited the Carnegie Deli from her father, Milton Parker, who took over the restaurant with partner Leo Steiner in 1976. Back then, the Carnegie was just another deli in the theater district. Then a reviewer from The New York Times listed its pastrami among the best in the city. Ever since, Harper says, it's been tough for customers to get a table.

"They know to come here hungry," says Harper. "They love the big portions. My father called it gargantuan sandwiches, he used that name."

The deli's oversized portions and over-the-top attitude made it an essential New York experience.

"The Carnegie is really the New York Jewish deli," says Ted Merwin, professor of history at Dickinson College, and the author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli. "It's a symbol for what I call the ethos of excess."

Merwin says restaurants like the Carnegie Deli and its longtime rival, the Stage Deli, played an important role in American Jewish culture.

For Jews, an important part of their becoming American was being able to eat in delis that were in and around the theater district, says Merwin. "So the celebrity culture was something they participated in very avidly."

The walls of the Carnegie Deli are still lined with photos of Broadway stars. But most of them are forgotten now. And most of the patrons don't bat an eye at the Christmas music being piped into the dining room. They're mainly tourists, hungry for a nostalgic New York experience.

"I'm sorry to see it go," says John Sinnott, who was dining with his wife and two children. The family lives in the Hudson Valley and visits New York City every year during the holiday season. Sinnott says it's an annual family tradition to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and stop at the Carnegie Deli for lunch.

"It's another part of New York that's gone forever," he says. "You have to move forward. But some things you don't want to leave behind."

The Carnegie Deli has been struggling lately. It closed for 10 months after workers reported a gas leak. A court ordered the restaurant to pay its employees more than $2 million in back wages.

Marian Harper went through a nasty divorce from her husband, who allegedly stole the deli's prize pastrami and cheesecake recipes, and shared them with his mistress. But Harper says none of that is responsible for the closing of the deli's Manhattan outlet at the end of the month.

"I'm at that certain age where I want to enjoy my life, and I want to do certain things," says Harper. "And all good things must come to an end."

The Carnegie Deli will still have outposts in Las Vegas and Bethlehem, Pa. But if you're looking for that table full of comedians in the back, you'll have to watch Broadway Danny Rose.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the most famous delis in New York will make its last sandwich this week. Manhattan's Carnegie Deli is closing its doors after nearly 80 years. Its oversized portions and over-the-top attitude made it an essential New York experience. NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Carnegie Deli opened in 1937 across 7th Avenue from Carnegie Hall, but it wasn't really the Carnegie Deli until a few decades later around the time that director Woody Allen filmed a table full of off-duty comedians there for his movie "Broadway Danny Rose."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BROADWAY DANNY ROSE")

SANDY BARON: (As himself) The man is a living legend. Do you know that only six months ago they gave him the single greatest honor you can get in the Broadway area?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Why? What's that?

BARON: (As himself) Look at the menu. At this very delicatessen, they named a sandwich after him, the Danny Rose special.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: There's still a Woody Allen sandwich on the menu at the Carnegie Deli - half pastrami, half corned beef. But the real star is that pastrami.

MARIAN HARPER: People love my pastrami so much. It's like a human being.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah.

HARPER: It has its own emotion and feeling towards people. It's overwhelming to me, their beloved pastrami.

ROSE: That's Marian Harper. She inherited the Carnegie Deli from her father who took over the restaurant in 1976. Back then, the Carnegie was just another deli in the Theatre District. Then a reviewer from The New York Times listed its pastrami among the best in the city. Ever since, Harper says, it's been tough to get a table.

HARPER: They know to come here hungry. They love the big portions. My father called it gargantuan sandwiches. He used that name.

TED MERWIN: The Carnegie is really the New York Jewish deli. It's a symbol for the whole - what I call - the ethos of excess.

ROSE: Historian Ted Merwin is the author of "Pastrami On Rye: An Overstuffed History Of The Jewish Deli."

MERWIN: This was something that, for Jews, was a very important part of their becoming more American was being to eat in delis that were in and around the Theatre District. And so the celebrity culture was something that they participated in very avidly.

ROSE: The walls of the Carnegie Deli are still lined with photos of Broadway stars, but most of them are forgotten now. And most of the patrons don't bat an eye at the Christmas music being piped into the dining room. They're mainly tourists hungry for a nostalgic New York experience.

JOHN SINNOTT: I'm sorry to see it go. It's one of those New York landmarks.

ROSE: John and Barbara (ph) Sinnott live just north of New York City. They say it's an annual family tradition to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and stop at the Carnegie Deli for lunch.

J. SINNOTT: It's another part of New York that's gone forever.

BARBARA SINNOTT: Yeah, definitely.

J. SINNOTT: You have to move forward, but some things you don't want to leave behind.

B. SINNOTT: This is just New York City at its best here, definitely.

ROSE: The Carnegie Deli has stumbled lately. The deli closed for a while after a gas leak. The court ordered the restaurant to pay its employees more than $2 million in back wages. Marian Harper went through a nasty divorce from her husband who allegedly stole the deli's prized pastrami and cheesecake recipes and shared them with his mistress. But Harper says none of that is why the deli's Manhattan outlet is closing at the end of the month.

HARPER: I'm at that certain age where I want to enjoy my life, and I want to do certain things. And all good things must come to an end.

ROSE: The Carnegie Deli will still have outposts in Las Vegas and Bethlehem, Pa. But if you're looking for that table full of comedians in the back, you'll have to watch "Broadway Danny Rose." Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.