Like alligators in the subways, the Carnegie Deli is buried in the mythos of Manhattan, an idea of what New York City is. A dish of sour pickles. Brusque, harried servers ferrying plates of gargantuan corned beef sandwiches across linoleum floors. Autographed photos of out-of-time celebrities and the promise of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.
On Friday, the Carnegie Deli announced that after nearly 80 years, the midtown institution will close its doors at the end of 2016. And though the looming death of Jewish delis everywhere has been the cause of some hand-wringing in recent years, the reasons this time at least were personal. “I’m very sad to close the Carnegie Deli but I’ve reached the time of my life when I need to take a step back,” Marian Harper told the New York Post. Harper, who owns both the restaurant and the building on 7th Avenue that houses it, cited “the sleepless nights and grueling hours that come with operating a restaurant business.”
That the deli isn’t being forced shut in the era of changing tastes and high rents in some ways only adds to the disappointment. “The closure of the Carnegie was not an inevitable thing,” said David Sax, author of Save the Deli. “There are too many delis that close because they have to.” Nodding to the historic debate about whether Katz’s, Carnegie, or the now-defunct Stage Deli reigned supreme in New York, Sax likened the cultural import of Friday’s announcement to the Mets or Yankees abruptly deciding to leave town.
Armed with a menu overstuffed with both cured meat and kitsch—“Tongues for the Memory” and “Fifty Ways to Love Your Liver” are staple sandwiches—Carnegie’s fare still stands at forefront of the outsized New York foodscape, a portrait in exaggeration. “The most identifiable thing [about the Carnegie Deli] is size.” Sax explains. “The size of those fucking sandwiches. Carnegie kicked off an arms race in sandwich sizes in the 1970s and 80s and initially it was a war between them and Stage [Deli].”
When erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush sought to define America’s greatness with the image of a pistol earlier this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s rebuke was the massive Carnegie Deli pastrami on rye.
Situated around the corner from the deli’s namesake, Carnegie Hall, these skyscraper-shaped sandwiches were part of the gimmick. Like the interspersing of New York City iconography in the opening scene of Manhattan, Woody Allen sets the telling of Broadway Danny Rose, a tale of showbiz redemption, at a table in the back of Carnegie Deli.
“Carnegie became well known because it was near Broadway, because it was near the great centers of screenwriting and comedy and production and late night,” Sax says. “This was pre-Letterman. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and the golden age, that’s when Carnegie really grew in prominence. And so, all the photos that line the walls, the connection with Woody Allen, that was the pin that set the genesis of modern American comedy. That restaurant and Stage [Deli] were tied to it. It associated the Jewish deli with that in the popular imagination.”
This quirkiness remains part of the charm. Just this month, the deli was hawking a $29.99 specialty turkey-and-pastrami sandwich for New York Fashion Week, which it generously offered for free to any model that managed to finish it.
Of course, just as the Borscht Belt fell out of favor, Carnegie Deli also lost its luster as its prices and novelty status made it more and more of a tourist trap than a New Yorker standby. It almost seems fitting that the deli will actually live on at outlets in Vegas casinos and Madison Square Garden. For the rest of us, there’s always the Lower East Side.