It almost goes without saying, at least certainly for anyone with even a cursory knowledge of New York restaurants that are legendary, Katz’s Delicatessen is a New York institution. Opened in 1888 on the Lower East Side, in the early years, the delicatessen put up a hand-painted sign that said: “We are famous for the best sandwich in town.” When you walk up to the restaurant now, a couple of modern neon light signs say: “Best sandwich in town,” and “Known as the best.”
For all the hype about itself, and as long as the lines are, you’d think the sandwiches Katz’s Delicatessen is serving is the second-coming of sliced bread. After having one of its corned beef sandwiches, though, what comes to mind is the anonymously famous quote: “You tell a lie long enough, people start to believe it.”
My wife asked me to think about picking up a sandwich from Katz’s Delicatessen for her, knowing the following day I would be down on the Lower East Side. Had she asked me to pick up a McDonald’s hamburger I would have done so for her, but having never been to Katz’s Delicatessen, and knowing how popular it is, I was that much more inclined. Having lived in NYC for a decade, or so, longer than me, my wife had already long bought into the exaggeration about Katz’s Delicatessen.
Ready to be wowed! My daughter and I managed to carve out a space in the mass of humanity in front of the long counter for ordering, after entering the establishment and getting a ticket, for what, we didn’t know; nor did I hear, for the excessive noise, the explanation for it, when I asked. At some point, though, while looking at the menu on the wall, over the heads of the sandwich makers, and at the same time trying to figure out if I even wanted to muscle my way to the counter, with a small child in tow, I heard one of the sandwich makers yell to the crowd that was packing ever tighter between the front door and the counter: “Get in line!” Or he may have barked, “Find a line!”
We did, and with my daughter now in my arms, 15 minutes, or so, later, just as we were shifting a couple of inches to one side to let the person who had just ordered and received his sandwiches make his way away from the counter and through the crowd that was several people deep, another person slid in front of us and began to order. This because we shifted to the right instead of to the left. She knew full well we were next “in line,” but pulled a fast one. Of course, after ordering she turned to us and apologized. If you like disorderliness, Katz’s Delicatessen is where you want to go.
Part of the attraction to Katz’s Deli is watching the sandwich maker make your sandwich. Oh! And the pickles. Indeed, it’s nice to see the corned beef get sliced by hand for your sandwich. And Katz’s Deli does pile it high onto your sandwich. Though again, the sandwich is not as over-the-top as what is claimed on the menu: “Ours [sandwiches] are the largest and best you’ll ever have…We dare you to finish one.”
I had no intention of finishing the sandwich, in the first place, since my wife and I had earlier agreed to split it. However, if I were hungry enough, I certainly could finish the sandwich Katz’s Delicatessen is claiming is so large. Though, it is large enough for two persons to share and be satisfied.
And that’s about what I was with Katz’s Delicatessen: satisfied. No more, and no less. I was satisfied in that I fulfilled my wife’s specific request for a sandwich. I was satisfied they threw in several pickles, of both varieties, with my, near, $16 dollar sandwich. I was satisfied with not wanting to find a seat to eat my half of the sandwich. And I was satisfied when leaving the place, not having to fight the crowd anymore. The sandwich? I was satisfied. No more, no less. I’ve had better corned beef, for sure.
205 E. Houston St. (corner of Ludlow St.), 212.254.2246, Katz’s Delicatessen
Atmosphere: A large rectangular dining area, including the deli counter, and with walls filled with pictures of famous persons that have frequented the place; large and small communal tables fixed close together.
Sound Level: Very loud, with conversations overdubbing one another; one has to intensely focus on listening and speaking to another person.
Recommended: Avoid the madness, by going during off-eating times. Try the pastrami. I hear it’s the best thing on the menu.
What The Stars Mean: Very similar to The New York Times, the stars reflect my reaction to the food, ambiance, and service, taking price into consideration. Zero stars is the lowest rating, while four stars is the highest.