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Eat, Drink + Think

Remembering My First Time at the Carnegie Deli — and Praying It Doesn’t Close for Good

The first time I ate at the Carnegie Deli, I was already in high school. Growing up in Manhattan, I’d passed the place a thousand times, but its iconic-slash-tourist-attraction status had always kept me away. (When I was in the West 50s and wanted corned beef on rye and matzo ball soup, I went to the Stage, which had a similar old-fashioned-New-York-deli vibe, enormous and expensive sandwiches and the requisite surly service, but where there were fewer tourists and usually no wait for a table.)

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When I finally went to Carnegie — I was meeting a friend from out of town who wanted to try it — it was a relatively quiet afternoon and the place wasn’t full. I sat down and scanned the menu (already knowing what I was going to order) when I heard a remarkably distinctive voice at the next table ordering the stuffed cabbage. I didn’t have to turn to know who it was: There was Peter Falk, Lieutenant Columbo himself, chatting to the waitress in a voice that filled the room.

My friend arrived and experienced the kind of iconic-slash-tourist-attraction New York City meal of her dreams, complete with famous, quintessentially New York-style actor. Honestly, I think he was even wearing a trench coat.

Today Marian Harper Levine, owner of the recently beleaguered deli, which opened in 1937 (the year both my parents were born), announced that the Carnegie will close at the end of the year. If it disappears like so many great old-time New York institutions, the east side of 7th Avenue between 54th and 55th — indeed the city of New York itself — will experience an incredible void.

I know I’ll miss it. I didn’t have to go in and eat one of its towering sandwiches to feel comforted by its presence, an indelible piece of the cultural and culinary fabric of my city. But perhaps, in the same way that Columbo used to double back to ask the one last question that would ultimately trap the suspect, there will be a last-minute rescue.

Here’s hoping.

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Liza Schoenfein is food editor of the Forward. Contact her at schoenfein@forward.com or on Twitter, @LifeDeathDinner

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