Next time you sit down at the Carnegie Delicatessen, brace yourself for what may come with your big sandwich:
A big smile.
After 75 years, the place has decided to start being nice. It’s enough to make you ask for your money back before you start eating.
The new COO is Robert Eby, and his niceness policy is the third in a recent series of shocks to hit the deli right in its kishkas. First, its lifelong rival, the nearby Stage Delicatessen, closed up. Then, its 20-year manager, Sandy Levine, stepped down. Oy.
Those two consecutive events prepared it for anything — except this. A Jewish deli without grumpiness is like a day with sunshine.
The place won’t go schmaltzy, Robert says: “We’re just gonna warm it up.” That’s reasonable when you’re getting seventeen bucks for a pastrami sandwich. But usually it’s competition that triggers such a reversal. With the Stage gone, you’d think that they’d let themselves get crabbier than ever.
Then again, the demise is a good reason to cheer up. The Stage was a relentless source of crabbiness for years.
Both delis opened in 1937, but the Stage Deli made its debut at 48th Street and Broadway. Five years later, it moved to Seventh Avenue between 53rd and 54th streets. The Carnegie was on Seventh Avenue between 54th and 55th streets.
The Carnegie’s founders, Izzie and Ida Orgel, sold the deli to Max Hudes. He got the sobriquet “Carnegie Max,” but that didn’t get him the crowds. The Stage, too, had a Max — Max Asnas — and he’d already made his Stage a star. For over three decades, the Carnegie was relegated to second fiddle.
It stayed there till 1976, when Milton Parker and Leo Steiner took over. Steiner hired his brother Sam to cure their own meats in the basement. In 1979, Mimi Sheraton, in The New York Times, named the Carnegie one of the three best places for corned beef and pastrami. She didn’t name the Stage.
But the day the story came out, the Carnegie’s line reached to the Stage. Though they’d stocked up, the owners ran out of pastrami by 3 in the afternoon. In a single day, they had finally eclipsed their competitor. Mimi Sheraton had done for the Carnegie what Hugh Grant would do for Jay Leno.
Leo Steiner became the deli doyen that Max Asnas had once been. He courted stars, catered to comics, and kept making the sandwiches bigger. When Steiner died in 1987, Parker did his best to take over that role. In the video he appears in a bow tie, lugging around a giant pickle.
In 1993, he brought in Sandy Levine, who had been working in apparel but who was a natural in a deli. Sandy honed the art of abusing customers just enough so that they enjoyed it. He had business cards that said “MBD.” It stood for “Married Boss’s Daughter.”
The daughter is Marian Harper Levine, whose father was Milton Parker. She is still in charge, and she admittedly has little to be crabby about. She owns the Carnegie’s building, and she’s getting not only her own customers but also the Stage’s. “Now they have no choice,” she observes.
The staff will still be playful, Robert says. But only to a point: “We want to let our guests know that they’re appreciated.”
In other words, don’t expect to get that waitress in the video, who bade her customers a touching farewell with: “You’re not paying rent here. It’s time to go.”Have a nice day at the Carnegie Delicatessen & Restaurant, 854 Seventh Avenue, between 54th and 55th streets, in New York City.