Katz’s Delicatessen in New York: Is America’s most famous Jewish deli worth a trip?

The scene: Many people know it as the setting for the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene starring Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in “When Harry Met Sally…” and there’s even a sign over the table where it was filmed, pinpointing the spot for tourists. But despite being a popular film location (“Donnie Brasco”, “Enchanted,” “We Own the Night,” “Sidewalks of New York,” etc.) Katz’s was famous long before Hollywood came knocking. Its enduring slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army,” dates back to World War II. Katz’s is nothing less than the most famous remaining Jewish-style deli in the nation, especially since the closing of iconic New York eatery Carnegie Deli, and has been dispensing its famous pastrami and corned beef on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for more than 130 years (since 1888).

While wildly (and justifiably) popular with tourists, Katz’s can be confusing and intimidating to the uninitiated. It is the dining equivalent of walking in midtown Manhattan: crowded, fast-paced, unapologetic – and if you hesitate, everyone passes you by. When you walk in you are handed a blank ticket, which immediately sets it apart from just about every other restaurant, as does the turnstile you must pass through to exit – and just as at parking garages, you do not want to lose the ticket or you will be billed $50 for your visit.

There are two ways to eat at Katz’s: the classic and more popular self-service model, or full-service seating. Regulars will tell you the latter is less authentic and misses some of the craziness of the experience. Even the staff agrees: We were recently greeted with, “Do you want to do it the fun way or the easy way?” But grabbing a seat in the full-service section is actually a good option for first-timers and I recommend considering it, especially if you don’t like crowds or waiting in multiple lines.

Katz’s is one very large cavernous space. The greeter with tickets, turnstile and cash register are by the front door, and down the right side is a long line of ordering counters. The bulk of the space is a sea of tables jammed closely together. At the far end is the catering, pick-up and mail-order counter. Beyond this, the dining room wraps around to a slightly hidden alcove which can be your best bet for finding a seat when the restaurant is crowded. Wherever you sit, you will find nearly every square inch of the walls covered with framed photos of celebrity and pseudo-celebrity regulars, many from decades gone by.

The full-service section is simply a cluster of tables with signage putting them off-limits to self-servers, but otherwise you order and find a place to eat. The recommended strategy (endorsed by staff and not considered rude) is to divide and conquer, sending someone to grab seats while someone else orders. For larger parties you should take this even further and divide your order among companions, since one of the most frustrating things about Katz’s is not waiting in line, but all the different lines.

At the main counter are several carving stations where you can get your sandwiches, pastrami, corned beef, salami and so on (tip: head farther in where the lines are shorter). But if you want a hot dog, there’s a line for that; if you want a knish, there’s line for that. Ditto for dessert, and there’s even a separate line if you want to pay by credit card instead of cash. If you don’t know what you are doing – and many visitors do not – you will end up spending much of your visit waiting in a series of lines before securing a place to eat.

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