Take a Number: The Hungry Traveler's Guide to New York City's Best Delis
By Emily Saladino
New York Local Expert
You've seen When Harry Met Sally, right? You know that scene where the titular characters meet for pastrami sandwiches and she... well, you know what happens next. Can New York City's delis really be that good?
The answer is yes. A million times yes. The classic cuisine of the city that never sleeps has been imitated, parodied (see: Muppets Tonight) and occasionally overlooked -- even by locals -- for fusion fads or lunchtime flavors of the week. But the classic New York deli has unending appeal.
Of course, like everything in this city of endless options, there are countless variations on the theme. Your corner bodega, a 24-hour mainstay for anyone who has ever needed gum, laundry detergent or coconut water in the middle of the night, has little in common with a sit-down sandwich shop where they cure the pastrami in-house. And neither is the same as an Italian-American counter joint happy to cater your cousin's birthday party.
Whether you're in the mood for the sky-high sandwiches served on grainy rye from Katz's Deli, knishes so good you'll want to call your mother at Russ & Daughters, or prosciutto-heavy heroes at Defonte's of Brooklyn, there is no shortage of deli variety. Step right up to the counter, and grab a number, friend. You've come to the right place.
Mile End Sandwich
In 2012, the owners of Boerum Hill's beloved Mile End Deli opened this sleek sandwich shop in Manhattan's tony NoHo neighborhood. Its Bond Street environs may also include a celebrity hairstylist and designer perfumerie, but Mile End Sandwich is the real deal. Decked out in subway tiles and mod chrome, the counter boite reimagines the Jewish-Canadian fare from Montreal's Mile End neighborhood. The roast beef sandwich, made with cured Wagyu, is served on a caraway-studded weck roll with light horseradish. The sliced veal tongue sandwich is a velvety indulgence, served on pumpernickel bread and covered with golden raisins. Or go straight-up nouveau with Mile End Sandwich's Breakfast Burger, which combines a turkey and veal sausage patty, apple-maple butter and sharp cheddar on a house-made English muffin. ((212) 529-2990)
Russ & Daughters
Anthony Bourdain, Louis C.K. and decades of Shabbat dinner-goers can't be wrong. This "appetizing store" debuted in 1918, and today stands as a throwback to a time when the Lower East Side was a neighborhood of new immigrants. The iconic storefront on East Houston Street stocks a broad selection of Jewish-American staples like hand-rolled bagels with cream cheese and lox, buttery pistachio halvah and unctuous, irresistible pickled herring. The renowned caviar selection spans Siberian and American roes, the bagels and bialys are made on-site, and pastries like cinnamon babka, raspberry rugelach and hand-dipped chocolates are the reason gym memberships exist. Having second thoughts? Don't. At Russ & Daughters, it's all worth it. (212-475-4880)
Named in honor of the late restaurateur Artie Cutler, this top-notch joint was based on the concept of the classic, 1930s Jewish delicatessen. Artie's is a vision in tile, with simple flooring complemented by a display counter and tables appointed with an array of condiments. The place can get loud (especially at lunch), and it always seems to be busy ... But, then again, what's more New York than that? The old school eats range from the Famous Roumanian Pastrami, piled high with peppery cured beef, to the open-faced steak sandwich served on an onion roll. And, for the truly indulgent, there are french fries topped with melted cheese, scallions and pastrami. (212-579-5959)
D & F Italian Deli
Queens' Astoria neighborhood has undergone a considerable transformation in recent years. The Mediterranean and South Asian immigrants residing in its brick-walled, pre-war buildings are now joined by young families and professionals driven out of Manhattan due to rising rents. Storefronts that were once vacant now house trendy wine bars and organic dry cleaners. Fortunately, Astoria's beloved D & Fs remains. Inexpensive sandwiches are joined by crowd-pleasing Italian-American fare like marinated olives, prosciutto, mortadella and all manner of salumi. At D & Fs, the fresh mozzarella is made in house daily, and specialties like meatball marinara, eggplant parm and homemade pasta keep patrons old and new coming back for more. ((718) 278-3672)
$24.99 may seem like an awful lot to spend on a sandwich, but just you wait. The gargantuan portions at this legendary Midtown deli mean your turkey sandwich can feed a family of four. Try the Brisketball, a blend of turkey and beef brisket topped with lettuce, tomato and onions, or charmingly named novelty acts like Beef Encounter, a triple decker of roast beef, chopped liver and sliced onion. There are also crowd-pleasers like chicken salad with chopped bacon, and a classic turkey club. Carnegie is a popular pre- and post-theater spot, and nearly always crowded, but the crisp, efficient service keeps lines moving and mouths happy. (212-757-2245, 800-334-5606)
2nd Avenue Deli
It may not be on Second Avenue anymore, but this timeless deli brings Lower East Side elan to a small but spirited space on East 33rd Street. The menu spans all the kosher classics. Start with the heart-stoppingly good gribenes, or fried chicken skin with onions, to get appetites going. Then, move on to a beef tongue and pastrami sandwich, covered in coleslaw and Russian dressing, double-decker pastrami on rye, or the hearty, oddly elegant chopped liver. Service can be spotty, and wait times considerable, but it's all part of the 2nd Avenue Deli experience. So sit back, sip your egg cream, and bite into old New York. (212-689-9000)
Affectionately known as "The Sturgeon King," Barney Greengrass is the place where fish want to be smoked. Housed in its current location on the Upper West Side since 1929, the faded wallpaper and worn linoleum scream old-school Jewish eatery, even as the crowds change, and elderly regulars are joined by Bergdorf blondes pushing thousand-dollar strollers. Pay them no mind, and get ready for an old-fashioned, fishy feast. Try the Nova Scotia Salmon, lox or the famed Sturgeon with rich cream cheese on a bagel. Want to diversify? Consider the overstuffed pastrami sandwich, filled with peppery punch, or the hearty corned beef on rye. (212-724-4707)
DeFonte's of Brooklyn
Grab your Metrocard and bring an appetite to this Italian-American sandwich shop, where the nearly 90-year-old Red Hook original serves up eggplant parm subs, pork heroes smothered in tomato sauce, and tangy cucumber, eggplant and pickled giardiniera salads. The sandwich board is expansive, and the ordering system slightly convoluted, but, hey, that's just part of DeFonte's charm. Breakfast sandwiches like potatoes with eggs are hearty enough to cure anyone's Monday morning blues, the Sinatra Special includes steak pizzaiola that would bring a twinkle to Old Blue Eyes, and the crispy fried eggplant atop the hot roast beef sandwich with house-made mozzarella make us wonder why ho-hum lettuce and tomato get all the sandwich-topping glory. Come on in, and taste the revolution. ((718) 625-8052)
Eisenberg Sandwich Shop
They don't make 'em like this anymore. A narrow, no-frills counter joint, Eisenberg's sits in the shadow of the Instagram-worthy Flatiron Building, on a stretch of Fifth Avenue that also includes an Armani Exchange boutique and barn-sized Club Monaco. The sandwiches here are not of the gargantuan, Katz's variety, but what they lack in size they make up for in authenticity. Try the justly famous tuna salad, a revelation served with an ice cream scoop, or a hearty beef brisket sandwich with a side of crisp, straight-from-the-fryer onion rings. And don't skimp on the slaw. New York deli-style coleslaw is different from other region's -- less vinegar, more mayo -- and Eisenberg's version is does good by the house motto: "Raising New York's cholesteral since 1929." (212-675-5096)
A Manhattan mainstay since 1888, this kosher-style deli has been delighting generations of the cold, tired and corned beef-ready from its brightly lit corner on the Lower East Side. Once an immigrant neighborhood, the area is now populated by twentysomethings in Doc Marten throwbacks. Yet Katz's simple tables, well-stocked meat counter and quick-but-kind service somehow feels timeless. The freshly carved corned beef and pastrami sandwiches are worth the hype, and large enough to last at least two more footwear trends. Make sure someone at your table orders an all-beef frankfurter, served on a soft roll with tangy mustard, and don't overlook the knockwurst with beans. Best of all, if you want to take a taste of East Houston home with you, Katz's now ships nationwide. Giddyup. (212-254-2246)
About Emily Saladino
Emily Saladino has spent over a decade eating her way through New York City. She has collaborated on cookbooks, developed original recipes and voyaged from Philadelphia to Papua New Guinea as a food and travel writer.
Read more about Emily Saladino here.