Volume 78 / Number 20 - October 15 - 21, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower
East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Clayton Patterson

Alan Dell, owner of Katz’s Delicatessen, center, with employees

Pastrami to presidents, Katz’s is still a presence

By Casey Samulski

Katz’s Delicatessen has been on the Lower East Side for more than 120 years. Owner Alan Dell’s father was fond of the place, and returned to it frequently, always asking if it was up for sale. In 1987 it was and the Dells took over the famed eatery at 205 E. Houston St. at the corner of Ludlow St.

Dell, who was born on the Lower East Side, is a friendly, good-tempered man with a clean-shaven head. He runs the place and says he’s tried to keep everything the same as much as possible. From the water fountain in the rear to the cafeteria-style tables, everything in Katz’s evokes an earlier era’s standards and style.

Dell admits that the menu has seen some minor alterations during his time at the helm. Espresso and cappuccino, two items that would have been out of place for the delicatessen’s previous proprietors, have snuck their way onto the menu. But the basics remain the same as they’ve always been.

“We’re one of the last places that hand-cuts all our meats,” Dell explained. “We do it that way because a machine can’t cut meats that are as soft as ours.”

Whether it’s the sandwiches or the hot dogs, everyone has taken a liking to the place. Featured in more than 30 movies, including “When Sally Met Harry” with its famous orgasm scene, Katz’s has a long-running history in its neighborhood. Presidents Clinton, Reagan, Carter, J.F.K. and F.D.R. have all dined in it, and the list of stars is even longer.

Katz’s has its own mustard, water, iced tea and even beer.

“We make everything ourselves,” Dell noted proudly.

Dell described the deli as something of a barometer for New York City.

“Tourists started coming in less often, just before the euro fell,” he noted. It’s always been that way, he said: Changes in the neighborhood and in New York’s economy are reflected first in his customers, like an early warning system.

“Now though, it’s all over the place. One day it’s full, the next…” Dell shrugged of recent business. “After 9/11, we had to get a mortgage on the place,” he said, explaining that they are still in the process of paying it off. Now with all the bad news on Wall St., business has gotten erratic. Not bad, just inconsistent, he said.

But Dell doesn’t sound too worried. He said catering to all the Wall St. firms has been pretty brisk and attributed the patron fluctuations to psychology more than to any economic concerns.

“Even if you’re selling, you’ve still got to sell somewhere,” he offered, a grin lighting up his face.

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