Sadly, the word deli has lost its meaning. Today, deli and bodegas are synonymous. You can get sandwiches, sure, but also Advil, detergent, multiple varieties of soy milk, and an e-cig. Once upon time, a deli, or delicatessen, was a restaurant with large booths, huge menus, celebrity photos on the walls, and the smell of pickle brine in the air. In a city that was once littered with real Jewish delis, too many have been lost to time and we are now down to fewer than 20. Lift your can of Dr. Brown's to the remaining few and look at our picks for the best of a dying breed.
KATZ'S DELICATESSEN: Some might say Katz's (which opened in 1888) is like the Disney World of Jewish delis: the lines are long, it's expensive, and it's been the subject of too many iconic movie scenes. But just like Disney World, it's a whole lot of fun. One of the few legitimate New York institutions where tourists and locals wait alongside each other, Katz's is still family-owned (by the Dell family now, no longer the Katz family) and offers a one-of-kind experience.
Since the meat sits in a steamer until it is ready to be sliced, it's always hot and moist when it drops on your plate. While other delis rely on a machine, everything here is sliced to order by hand, resulting in a thicker, meatier cut. The thing to order, of course, is the fatty, well-spiced pastrami ($19.75 for a sandwich) with a side of full sour pickles. But the frankfurters and the stuffed derma are spot-on as well.
Katz's Delicatessen is located at 205 East Houston Street at Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, (212-254-2246, katzsdelicatessen.com)
2ND AVENUE DELI: One of the last remaining fully kosher delis in Manhattan is no longer on Second Avenue—but don't let that little detail deter you. Their two locations are still overseen by the original Lebewohl family and provide plenty of old-school hospitality. Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, it's mostly a safe haven from ogling tourists and if you listen closely enough, you can still hear the long-gone vocalists of the Yiddish theater singing the praises of the Jewish comfort food. Happily raise your cholesterol levels with some chopped liver ($11.95), mushroom barley soup ($8.95), and an order of blintzes ($17.95). As a digestif, the waitress brings over a shot of chocolate soda. Pair it with an order of chocolate babka ($9.95).
2nd Avenue Deli has two locations in Manhattan: 162 East 33rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue in Midtown East (212-689-9000); 1442 First Avenue at East 75th Street on the Upper East Side (212-737-1700); 2ndavedeli.com
LIEBMAN'S KOSHER DELICATESSEN: One of two remaining Jewish delis in the Bronx, this Riverdale favorite is the one worth traveling to if you're not already a local. It's just a subway ride away, but it will feel like a time warp. The kosher restaurant remains joyously stuck in time with a stellar corned beef and pastrami combo sandwich ($17.95) that's a must-order on any visit. Stick around for the kasha knish ($4.25) and a great matzo ball soup ($4.95) if you still have room.
Liebman's Kosher Delicatessen is located at 552 West 235th Street between Johnson and Oxford Avenue in Riverdale, Bronx, (718-548-4534, liebmansdeli.com)
JAY AND LLOYD'S KOSHER DELI: A trip to Jay & Lloyd's is not complete until you are warmly greeted by co-owner Lloyd in his iconic hot dog hat. It's that charm and passion that keep neighborhood delis welcoming and relevant. Lloyd has been in the deli business since he was a child so he knows a thing or two about frankfurters and cured meat. Don't miss their zucchini pancakes (replacing the usual potato, $5.95), exceptional cole slaw, and homemade rugelach ($4.95).
Jay & Lloyd's Kosher Deli is located at 2718 Avenue U between East 27th and East 28th Street in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, (718-891-5298, jayandlloydskosherdeli.com)
MILL BASIN DELICATESSEN: Most delis have their own little quirks, but one of the most fascinating is in the unique neighborhood of Mill Basin. Instead of celebrity photos and kitsch on the wall, you'll find artwork by the likes of Marc Chagall and Roy Lichtenstein. In addition to doling out excellent pastrami, tongue, and brisket, they double as an art gallery. Yes, you can take an Erté home with your doggie bag. If that artwork is a little out of your price range, make sure to try the latke chips ($7.75) that turn the normally gargantuan pancakes into an addicting plate of chips.
Mill Basin Deli is located at 5823 Avenue T between East 58th and East 59th Street in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, (718-241-4910, millbasindeli.com)
BEN'S BEST KOSHER DELI: Part of the deli experience is the deli man: a person who has dedicated their lives to tradition, smoked meat, and entertaining customers. There's even an entire documentary about this culture. And at Ben's Best, you'll almost always see Jay Parker walking around kibbitzing with his guests and his pastrami, corned beef, and stuffed cabbage ($9.25) are superb to boot. If those don't fill you up, pick up a giant hot dog on your way out. Just don't give your waitress grief, as that will be an extra $1 according to the menu.
Ben's Best Kosher Deli is located at 96-40 Queens Boulevard between 63rd Drive and 64th Road in Rego Park, Queens, (718-897-1700, bensbest.com)
SARGE'S: What happens when you get a pastrami craving at 3 in the morning? You go to Sarge's. Opened by a retired cop in 1964, the deli recently re-opened after a fire forced them to do renovation. Nothing is too new, though. You still have those bright lights, huge menus, and cranky waitresses.
If you're tired of the usual sandwiches and knishes, Sarge's offers something different in the Deli Wellington (a mixture of corned beef, pastrami, and potatoes wrapped in puff pastry, $8.95). Whatever you get, make sure to pair it with their Souper Soup (chicken broth loaded with noodles, a matzoh ball, and beef kreplach, $9.95). Forget acai or coconut water, this is the original superfood.
Sarge's Delicatessen is located at 548 Third Avenue between East 36th and East 37th Street in Midtown East, (212-679-0442, sargesdeli.com)
MILE END DELI: We New Yorkers often forget that this city is not the only North American one that received an influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the late 1800's. And so we're not the only one with a fantastic history of Jewish delis. Noah Bernamoff opened New York's first Montreal-style deli in Brooklyn back in 2010 to introduce Gothamites to true smoked meat, which is more aggressively spiced and peppery than our pastrami.
The restaurant serves a wonderful brunch (with salami scrambled eggs and whitefish salad, $10)) and an inventive dinner menu that includes a house-made pickle plate ($9) and a restorative matzo ball soup ($9). Last year, Bernamoff spun off with Black Seed Bagel to take on our own yeast bombs with a more subtle, sweeter approach.
Mile End Delicatessen has two locations: 97 Hoyt Street between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, (718-852-7510, mileenddeli.com) and at 53 Bond Street between Bowery and Lafayette Street in Noho, (212-529-2990, mileenddeli.com)
Brian Hoffman searches for iconic New York dishes and makes comedy food videos on his site Eat This NY. He also writes for Midtown Lunch and gives food and drink walking tours around NY.