The King of Pastrami: Looking Back at Katz’s Deli
June 15, 2015

One of the most iconic businesses in the Lower East Side is Katz’s Deli located, at 205 Houston Street. Like Russ & Daughters Café, it’s a frequent stop for visitors of the Tenement Museum before or after their tours. Remarkably, Katz’s Deli has been serving their famous pastrami sandwiches to the public since 1888. That’s a lot of pastrami over 125 years. And while the Lower East Side has gone through many incarnations since then, Katz’s Deli remains a vestige of a time and neighborhood that is all but gone. It would be a mistake to dismiss Katz’s as simply a popular spot for tourists and celebrities, so this week we will look back at the restaurant’s history to see how it all began.

Katz’s Deli was first established in 1888 as Iceland Brothers, a small kosher deli on Ludlow Street owned by two brothers with the last name Iceland. In 1903, they took on an additional partner, Willy Katz, and changed the name to Iceland & Katz. In 1910, Willy’s cousin, Benny, would join the business, and the two men would buy out the Iceland brothers, officially creating Katz’s Deli. A few years later, in 1917, they would take on another partner, their landsman named Harry Tarowsky.  In those days the Lower East Side was a town unto itself, home to a population of largely Yiddish speaking Jews. United by their immigrant backgrounds and similar traditions, this insular neighborhood became a tight community every town needs a square and in the early 20th century, folks would gather at Katz’s to plan, gossip, and eat. It became a tradition on Friday nights for hot dogs and beans to be served to the locals.

Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: an overstuffed history of the Jewish Deli, writes that delis were most important not to the first generation populations who opened them, but to their children. In reality, the second generations where the first group with enough money and leisure time to treat themselves to a meal out , but not outside of their comfort zone.

Katz’s Deli was originally located across the street from its current location. However it was forced to move into its present location as a result of the subway that was being constructed in the Lower East Side at the time. According to Katz’s website, “the vacant lot on Houston Street was home to barrels of meat and pickles until the present storefront façade was added between 1946 and 1949.”

With the emergence of the Yiddish theater in the Lower East Side during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Katz’s Deli would also become a common meeting place for the entertainers. Even as the Yiddish theater scene waned, Katz’s continued to draw celebrities. If you visit Katz’s today, you will notice the walls are covered with famous faces from all fields and industries that have come by to chow down.

In 1989, Katz’s Deli probably achieved its most wide-spread recognition when it was used as the backdrop of the famous “I’ll have what she is having” scene between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in the film, When Harry Met Sally. The scene is so well known that the table the two actors sat at now has a sign hanging from the ceiling to identify it.

It was during World War II that the restaurant coined its famous slogan, “Send Salami to Your Boy in the Army,” as a result of Katz’s owners sending food from the deli to their two sons serving oversees. The slogan was actually created by the Tarowsky family.

The 1980’s saw a lot of change for Katz’s Deli in terms of ownership. After Willy Katz died, his son Lenny took over, however, in 1980, both Lenny Katz and Harry Tarowsky died, leaving the store to Lenny’s son-in-law and Harry’s son. With no offspring of their own, the two families decided to sell the business to longtime restaurateur Martin Dell, his son Alan Dell, and Martin’s son-in-law Fred Austin in 1988. The Dell family still operates it to this day.

More than 125 years after the Iceland Brothers opened up the small kosher deli, Katz’s Deli is still packed on a daily basis. They serve around 15,000 pounds of pastrami each week. The Lower East Side keeps on changing, but Katz’s Deli is showing no signs of going anywhere.

– Post by Jon Pace