There’s nowhere like New York City when it comes to dining options, casual food to fine dining and everything in between. And one of those classic “in-betweens” is the New York deli, an institution that is embedded in popular culture and loved by natives and visitors alike. A trip to a NYC deli is something that should not be missed, and here are a few of New York's best delis to put on your must-eat-at list. A couple of house rules you should know, though, before venturing into deli world in this town: sandwiches are insanely big, and can often feed two, or even three. Don't be put off by gruff waiters or curt service: it comes with the territory and is part of the charm of a genuine deli. Expect cole slaw and pickles to accompany your plate, or be served ahead of your meal, and don't ignore them: in classic Jewish delis, they are, to some, the best part of the meal! Finally, a “bagel with a schmear” simply means a generous dollop of cream cheese.
Often, visitors crave dishes made famous in iconic New York City movies and TV shows. “I’ll have what she’s having,” trills the woman sitting next to Meg Ryan at Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston St., New York, 212.254.2246) in When Harry Met Sally (see our guide to New York restaurants which appeared in the movies). So, if you make your way to this historic deli, what will you be having? What gets my vote is the oversize hot pastrami sandwich, served on rye bread, with a little mustard or Russian dressing. Have a side of juicy pickles with it for the full experience. The corned beef is equally ambrosial, and both hearken back to Katz’s opening in 1888.
Zabar’s (2245 Broadway, New York, 212.787.2000) is the spot when it comes to what we call “appetizing.” Start with a tasting at the smoked fish counter, sampling Scotch-cured salmon or a piece of smoked whitefish. At Zabar’s Café next door, enjoy a bagel with Nova and a schmear (of cream cheese) in a sit-down setting: Try and grab a table by the window, where you can happily munch away while people-watching.
The Carnegie Deli
The Carnegie Deli (854 Seventh Ave., New York, 212.757.2245), near (you guessed it) Carnegie Hall, is world-famous for its Reuben sandwich. For $27.99, you get an open-faced sandwich with a staggering amount of corned beef, pastrami or turkey, melted Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. The price is steep, but the sandwich will fill you up for the day.
Barney Greengrass (541 Amsterdam Ave., New York, 212.724.4707) does lox like no other. Sit down with a cup of java and any kind of lox and cream cheese sandwich, made from one of their chewy, exquisite bagels and watch the mania: Barney Greengrass gets chaotic on the weekends, when the Upper West Siders, on holiday from their day jobs, cram into this enormously popular spot for their whitefish or smoked salmon bagels with a “schmear.”
2nd Avenue Deli
The 2nd Avenue Deli started out on the Lower East Side, and is now housed on 33rd Street (162 E. 33rd St., 212.689.9000) but still retains its old school Jewish sensibility. Munch on a huge sour or half-sour pickle and order a thinly-sliced and pepper-flavored pastrami on rye sandwich. If you are feeling unusually hungry (or sickly), pair it with the restaurant's wonderful matzo ball soup (Jewish penicillin!).
Though the original is housed in Brooklyn (386 Flatbush Ave. Ext., 718.852.5257), Junior’s in the Theater District (1515 Broadway, 212.302.2000) is great, not only for its classic deli sandwiches (fresh brisket of beef, turkey and pastrami, corned beef and pastrami) and its legendary cheesecake, but a best bet for theatrical celeb-spotting. Try to get a table by the window that faces the stage door of The Booth Theatre: if you eat late enough, you can catch luminaries from whatever show is currently playing come out of the theater.
Sarge’s (548 Third Ave., 212.679.0442), a comfortable Murray Hill restaurant “proudly serving since 1964” offers a diner-style menu, but do not be fooled: this is no diner, this is a classic NYC deli, where you would be doing yourself a disservice if you did not order one of their oversized sandwiches (ordered by number) like their turkey, tongue and swiss, with cole slaw and Russian dressing. Mmm, mmm good!
Ben’s Kosher Deli
Ben’s Kosher Deli (209 W. 38th St., 212.398.2367), with outposts in Queens, Long Island, Scarsdale and Florida, serves traditional deli food from way back to the turn of the 20th century: here you can find stuffed derma, chopped liver and fried kreplach with sautéed onions, kashe varnishkes and even knishes baked on premises. All the classic sandwiches are offered as well, of course, along with the option to build your own!
Mile End Sandwich Shop
The Downtown Mile End Sandwich Shop (53 Bond St., 212.529.2990) has become a favorite of the hipster set. The restaurant combines old world deli classics with new world cuisine: fried Brussels sprouts, for example, come with “schmaltz dijon vinaigrette” and a smoked meat burger comes with a fried egg on top. There are also, of course, the comforting standards: a “grandpa” will get you smoked turkey, pickles and mustard on rye, or try a classic reuben: turkey or corned beef with swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on pumpernickel bread. If you are going with a group, the mile end platter (smoked meat, smoked turkey, potato salad, chopped liver, pickle, slaw and rye) is strongly recommended: all meats are smoked on premises.