The History of Katz’s Delicatessen
A photo history of the iconic corner deli on the Lower East Side
by Seung Won Baik.
Established in 1888, Katz’s Deli has proudly been serving specialty sandwiches, knishes, hot dogs, and pickles, complemented by cream soda, celery tonic, and Katz’s own brewed beers, to the public. It is the oldest original Jewish deli still active in New York City. Located on 205 Houston Street, Katz Deli has become a familiar spot for New York locals and tourists, appearing in popular films like, When Harry Met Sally (1989) and hosting everyone from Al Gore to Spike Lee.
Although Katz’s has withstood the test of time, the Lower East Side is constantly evolving. Where tenements and warehouses stood, Whole Foods and condominiums now stand. The Lower East Side is now saturated with fashion boutique stores, clubs and bars, barely recognizable with the exceptions of some local stores like Katz’s. The restaurant was originally located across the street. But, due to the construction of a subway in the Lower East Side, the deli moved itself across to the then-vacant lot on Houston Street, “home to barrels of meat and pickles until the present storefront façade was added between 1946 and 1949” — (Katz’s Website).
Even within the management of the deli, change is seen. When the original owner, Willy Katz, died, his son Lenny took over the establishment. In 1980, both Lenny Katz and partner, Harry Tarowsky, passed, leaving the store in the hands of Lenny’s son in law and Harry’s son. In 1988, the two families sold the restaurant to Martin Dell, his son Alan Dell, and Martin’s son-in-law Fred Austin. Today, 28-year-old Jake Dell runs the business with his father Alan.
The junkies have disappeared from the Lower East Side as tourists visit to scour the streets. Gone is the typical crowd from the Jewish tenements. Now, foreigners and international tourists have become the core of Katz’s customers. With a flood of this new demographic, Austin and Dell have expanded the menu, attempting to cater to their tastes with “blintzes, soups, and even Philly Cheese Steaks” — David Sax, Save the Deli.
“As American cities have expanded into the suburbs, their urban cores have languished. The densely packed central city Jewish populations that were the crucible of creation for the deli have dispersed. As Jews have achieved and assimilated, they have moved to the outlying areas…” — Nick Zukin, ‘Why a Cookbook About Jewish Delicatessen Food?’
Katz’s Deli is more than a simple New York attraction; it is an embodiment of a process of enduring through dynamic change in the Lower East Side. The Jewish Deli speaks to an establishment of a cultural community, it’s gradual divorce with locale, and the reconciliation of those customs with the present. It’s a story of transformation through earnest efforts to stay the same. If you take another look closer at the interior of the deli, you’ll see how Katz’s is attempting, bit by bit, to bring a part of history back from the past.
Their signature slogan, “Send A Salami To Your Boy In The Army!” originates from a tradition where the Katz’s family would send food to their three sons who were serving during World War II. This slogan is still displayed to this day on neon signs and the backs of staffers’ t-shirts.
Once entering, a staffer by the door hands you a ticket, one you must keep throughout your stay at Katz’s Deli. It’s your tab. If you lose it, you’ll face a considerable fine. The grid of numbers on this ticket harks back to 1888, when the deli was founded. The curious array of numbers refer to antiquated prices, as well as tax prices, of foods sold at Katz. By punching holes in particular boxes, your final fee is made known to the cashier when you leave.
The interior of the restaurant remains close to same, the hanging lights, the long-stretching counter, and the tables placed right next to each other. Atop these tables, there is the same arrangement of ketchup bottles, salt & pepper shakers, and napkin dispensers. Scales still hang in front of the line of cutters, who are dressed in their signature white. It’s through these little gestures that nostalgia begins to seep through into a diner’s experience.