“Man, this place is a circus,” my friend Jeffrey said when we entered the Carnegie Deli (854 Seventh Avenue, 212-757-2245). We’d just waited 15 minutes outside with a large group of eager tourists, only to be ushered inside, whisked past the congested deli counter, and then forced to squeeze by packed tables of customers, while employees, who seemed to be everywhere, conducted the chaos. My seat left my head a few inches away from an ATM. More Disney World attraction, I thought, than Barnum & Bailey.
The Carnegie Deli has been a part of the New York deli landscape since 1937. In 1979, Mimi Sheraton, then the food critic for the New York Times, declared the pastrami here “the tops.” “Since that article, we have always had a line out the door,” says Sarri Harper, part of the third generation that’s owned Carnegie since her grandfather Milton took over the pastrami kingdom in 1976.
Eating at Carnegie is to be reminded of the history of the restaurant. Woody Allen based the narrative of his greatly underappreciated “Broadway Danny Rose” from its tables, and celebrities used to call this place home. Now, the biggest known regular is Phillip McGraw, better known to daytime TV enthusiasts as Dr. Phil, and Carnegie turns out an array of delicatessen standards in a bustling tourist trap that no longer caters to locals.
Following the nice touch of some complimentary pickles, Jeffrey and I started with a nosh of the chopped liver appetizer. While versions of this old-school treat still gleam at places like Barney Greengrass and Katz’s, Carnegie’s version is in a league of its own — a league that’s bland, chalky, and absent of any real flavor. Two bites and we couldn’t do anymore — and we were out $17.
Next we went for the signature “gargantuan” sandwich, The Woody Allen. Composed of over one pound of house-made pastrami and corned beef, it looks ridiculous (that’s the point). It tastes gargantuanly mediocre. And at $25 with a $3 surcharge for sharing, it does not quite stack up in taste or value. We also tried the classic brisket sandwich. Served on thin rye bread with a side of gravy, the brisket was tasty and moist, while the gravy tasted like someone had left a package of powdered instant mix lying on a shelf for too long.
Now for some good news: We decided to finish with a slice of their strawberry cheesecake, and it was delicious. Topped with fresh strawberries, the cream cheese based cake fills a well-textured crust. It didn’t save the ($90) meal, but we left on a sweet note.
Eating at the Carnegie reminds me of taking the subway at rush hour during the summer: It’s overcrowded, disorienting, and all you can think about is finding a way out. The servers at the Carnegie are jarringly abrupt in a non-kitschy way. Where places like Katz’s or Eisenbergs makes you feel connected to their past and also a part of it, the Carnegie makes you feel as though you could easily be dining at their second location in Jackson, New Jersey — which is located inside Six Flags.
In 2012, after 75 years of business, Carnegie’s longtime rival The Stage Delicatessen shuttered. So now, Carnegie stands alone, underneath the shadows of midtown offices and skyscrapers. Its current husband-and-wife ownership team is in the middle of a $10 million dollar lawsuit over missing funds and sharing the secret family recipes with employees-turned-girlfriends, and it’s hard to catch a glimpse of the restaurant’s once-glorious ways.
Carnegie Deli is nice for tourists, but it’s certainly no longer “the tops.”