Katz's Delicatessen, New York City

A sandwich at Katz's, New York City

Even if you have never crossed the threshold of Katz’s in person, there is still a good chance you will be familiar with the slightly beaten décor of this fantastic old deli. The simple furniture, or rather one table and two chairs in particular, is famous for co-starring in probably the most famous ‘non-sex’ scene in cinematic history. Today a cardboard sign dangles from the ceiling pointing to the spot where Meg Ryan faced Billy Crystal and writhed in faux sexual ecstasy to confound his character’s scepticism that she could successfully simulate an orgasm. The scene became an instant classic and helped catapult ‘When Harry met Sally’ into movie folklore. Sadly during my visit nobody was 'having what she was having’ so the room remained frustratingly moan free. Indeed visitors seemed particularly keen not to occupy the infamous seats, perhaps fearful they would be obliged to provide an impersonation, and circled around the spot like it was the site of a car wreck. When a couple did finally sit at the table they were soon in the glare of camera flashes as tourists spotted a chance to snap the location complete with stand-ins.

Despite the allure of the Hollywood connection, Katz’s remains a staunchly old school deli. Aside from a nice sideline in t-shirts the sole purpose of this cavernous eating emporium is to fill the bellies of hungry New Yorkers to breaking point. For overseas visitors there is always a strong suspicion that non-American notions of what constitutes large are deemed to be only worthy of diminutive status Stateside. At Katz’s the portion sizes try to squeeze another ‘ex’ in excessive and the main ingredient is meat; lots and lots and lots of meat. I should perhaps warn any faint hearted vegetarians to discontinue reading now because Katz’s is a temple where people pay homage to salad dodging. Its menu is a lentil free list, a bible for beef, a catalogue of carbohydrates, where the only concession to greenery is a side order of pickles and coleslaw. However if you like the sound of a Reuben sandwich (toasted sandwich made with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing) or a Philly Cheesesteak (thinly sliced pieces of steak and melted cheese on a long roll), then please read on.

For those seeking an archetypal New York experience a lunchtime visit to Katz’s will be highly rewarding. Here, everything the movies have ever told you comes true. Upon entry the deli crackles with energy and attitude. As banter fires off in all directions so the room is filled with a symphony of American accents which range from first generation Hispanic to full on ‘Tony Soprano’. The temptation to say ‘eh, alrightalready’ with a theatrical shoulder shrug is hard to resist and the conversation seems to have only one volume setting - loud. As orders are barked out, a legion of workers zip around, making their own ballet out of what appears to be chaos. At the door you are given a blank ticket and pointed in the direction of a long counter which runs nearly the entire length of the shop. Behind it an army of white capped men await your order with dangerous looking knives in hand. The list of coronary clogging culinary delights is daunting, and while seasoned regulars issue their requests with practiced confidence, the patience of the cutters seems easily tested by hesitant virgins. Indeed, getting served in Katz’s is half the fun as the servers seem to take a disinterest in customers which would please even the surliest of Parisian waiters. Fortunately there is a row of inviting beer taps situated at the one end of the counter so it’s not a bad idea to partake of a brew and take your time deciding. In fairness the bark of the employees is worse than their bite and they are actually quite happy to explain the dishes or provide a sample of the meat. Whatever you order is marked on your ticket for payment upon departure. Given the size of the portions your exit could be somewhat delayed by the demands of your digestion.

Katz’s has been around in New York since 1888, making it the oldest in the city, and has become famous for the quality of its hot dogs and particularly the hot pastrami sandwiches. The Second World War saw the coining of Katz’s enduring catchphrase, when customers were invited to ‘send a salami to your boy in the army’, the words are immortalised in neon behind the serving counter. Today, over 5000 pounds of corned beef, 200 pounds of salami and approximately 1200 hot dogs are served each week. The deli is a local legend on the Lower East side and the enduring quality sees Sunday morning queues snaking out onto the sidewalk. Once you have been served it’s a good idea to grab a table near to one of the photograph bedecked walls and tuck into your doorstep sandwich. As your heart valves tighten you can inspect the famous faces visitors who now stare out from the hundreds of framed pictures. A smiling Ronald Reagan looks more cheerful than a brooding Johnny Depp, but maybe the latter just had a touch of heartburn.

How to get there

Katz’s is located at 205 East Houston Street Manhattan Island New York NY1002 on the corner of Ludlow Street. Multimap.

For those seeking a healthy alternative try Earthmatters organic café which, oddly enough, is located next door on Ludlow street.


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