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Jun 29, 2008 07:53 AM

REVIEW: Carnegie Deli

Yes, I did it. I should know better, right? I mean, I lived in New York for a time, and grew up a bridge-and-tunnel kid. It's the most touristy spot in the world, right? Well, I'm thirty-mumble years old and I'd never been, and I was staying practically behind it, so more for the benefit of the tourists than the locals, here's a write-up on the Carnegie Deli (7th Av. at 55th St.).

First off, don't order at the counter unless it's to go. The back is waiter service only. This means that at some point a waiter will stop at your table and stare at you. This is your only cue to speak. I heard some people with really obviously Minnesotan accents talking about "wow, they weren't kidding about people in New York." This is not representative of anything except servers in touristy restaurants everywhere. The same behaviour can be observed on the Champs Elysees, La Rambla, the Ponte Vecchio, Third Street Promenade or Pier 39.

What this means is that you cannot buy a sandwich at the front, take it to the back, and eat it. Waiter service only.

My suggestion? If you're there because you really want good New York deli, walk out the front into Seventh Avenue, put your hand up, hail a cab and go to Katz's on East Houston Street (and remember that it's "how-stin" not "hue-stin"). If you're there because you can't deal with taking the F train to someplace better (Katz's), but you don't want to be treated like a particularly ugly insect, get it to go and walk up Seventh Avenue and eat in the park. If you're there because your Aunt Edna from Saskatoon told you it was a seminal New York experience, go ahead and sit in the back and get waiter service.

The food -- deli sandwiches are fine. The corned beef is actually quite good; the pastrami ditto. The rye bread is completely insipid and will be mush by the time the sandwich hits your mouth because of the sheer volume of meat on there. The hot food (potato pancakes, etc.) is just... meh. Desserts are OK but large enough to be shared by a party of six (and priced that way, too). The half sour pickles are OK; the full sour pickles are chaloshes (that's Yiddish for "gross", by the way). The sour green tomatoes are OK but not worth $3 extra.

Prices are high. Expect to pay $10-$20 for your sandwich. Granted, it's a shamefully large amount of meat, but it's still a lot to pay for a sandwich that comes with four forlorn little pickles in a plastic cup. A pastrami sandwich is $14. The chicken salad with bacon and half a friggin' head of iceberg that a friend ordered is $21.

Service is damn near nonexistent. You will have to essentially physically stop your server in order to get anything (napkins, silverware) that you didn't order when they first graced you with their awesome presence.

It's cash only. That's right -- no checks, no credit cards, cash ONLY. So stop off at the ATM on your way to get ripped off. Don't overtip. You were treated badly -- everyone is treated badly. You can tell why by listening to the accents in the room -- foreign, Southern and Midwestern. So don't overtip, do you want to encourage this sort of behaviour?

In conclusion: if you're looking for the best deli in Manhattan, this isn't it. If you're looking for a reason to convince Aunt Edna to slum it down to the Lower East Side, you've got a better chance. If you're looking because Aunt Edna won't be convinced, you absolutely have to go -- get a corned beef sandwich and some extra rye bread, and share it with a couple other people.

I will say this: the Carnegie Deli is the very best Jewish-style (notice I didn't say Jewish -- they serve bacon at the Carnegie) deli on the west side of Seventh Avenue between 54th and 56th Streets.

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  1. Great review - thanks!!

    1. Yes, great review, and thanks. My experience is slightly different though. I have eaten there several times and while the service isn't bad, the pastrami is horrible. I once even overheard a waitress boasting that they use extra lean meat! If they are too cheap to put fat in it, no wonder it doesn't taste good.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Brian S

        I probably should have mentioned that I ordered it extra-fatty... because while lean pastrami has its place (delis that cater to people with no taste), I like mine with a little sumpin' sumpin' to make it go down easier.

      2. I like the pastrami/corned beef/roast beef sandwiches. The prices are comparable to or cheaper than most delis in midtown. Your average midtown deli roast beef sandwich costs 6-8 bucks, gives you about 1/6th of the meat and tastes blehhh.

        I get my sandwiches takeout since they want cab fare (they were estimating 10 bucks each way) + tip for delivery. my avg lunch is 1/2 a roast beef and 1/2 a pastrami sandwich, so im not gonna pay 25 dollars in fees for 30 dollars of food.

        1 Reply
        1. re: SomeRandomIdiot

          Cab fare plus a tip?! What happened to kids on bikes?!

          I do have to say, though -- one of the things I miss most about Manhattan is that you can have just about anything you want -- right down to a Big Mac -- delivered to you for not very much money. Food delivery in Orange County seems limited to the bigger pizza chains and a few Asian restaurants (but not the majority).

        2. "This means that at some point a waiter will stop at your table and stare at you. This is your only cue to speak. I heard some people with really obviously Minnesotan accents talking about "wow, they weren't kidding about people in New York." This is not representative of anything except servers in touristy restaurants everywhere."

          This is so true. I loved your post and I've had a similar experience at the 2nd Avenue Deli (as well as countless other places) before they moved to their new location. You've captured it all perfectly. It's disgraceful and ridiculous You should insert you write-up into all NY tourist guides!!

          1. I like the full sour pickles at Carnegie, better than the half sour. They used to give you a big stainless steel bowl that was kept full with lots of pickles--sour, half sour, and tomatoes--but I'd imagine the health regulations have caught up to them.

            I think of the gruff service as part of the act. If you go there with some regularity (we go once or twice a year, I suppose) and know what to expect and what to order it's not so bad.

            Katz's is also a great place. I prefer the pastrami at Katz's, but order the corned beef at the Carnegie.

            1 Reply
            1. re: David A. Goldfarb

              I think you can (or used to be able to) just walk in and get one of those pickles to take away for only 50ยข