If you’re Jewish and from North America, you probably grew up eating deli-style meat. I’m especially lucky to have grown up in Montreal which is the home to one of the best deli meats on the planet. More on that later.
I’ve eaten at delis across North America but I chose these restaurants because of a combination of the food, the experience, and the various claims to fame that each one boasts. If you’re into deli food, eat at these places before you die. You won’t regret the experience!
The following restaurants are listed by age (oldest to youngest!).
New York City Since 1888
Location: 205 E Houston Street, New York, NY 10002
Katz’s Deli is one of the oldest restaurants in the world that still opens daily. It has many distinct qualities but probably its most popular claim to fame is that one of the most famous movie scenes of all time, When Harry Met Sally, was filmed here. There’s a sign indicating where Harry and Sally had dinner and Sally faked getting off. That scene was filmed here.
It’s as if the people who developed the ordering system really knew their stuff when it came to making great deli fare but were clueless when it came to serving it. You order, pay, stand in line… the whole experience is convoluted and awkward. Nonetheless, the food is great and the experience, is well, an experience.
Montreal Since 1928
Location: 3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal, QC H2W 1X9
Schwartz’s Deli, which calls itself a Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, is the most famous restaurant in Montreal. Expect long lines, even on freezing cold winter days but especially during the summer months. The restaurant sits in the trendy, hipster neighbourhood known as the Plateau.
I’ve been lucky enough to eat here many times. I even did the photography for restaurant’s appearance in the Frommer’s Montreal Day by Day tourist guide.
If you’re trying to avoid the lines, it’s best to come first thing in the morning right when they open or later in the evening and night.
Once inside, guests can expect to sit with strangers if you have a small group. In the middle of the winter, it’s not uncommon for businessmen to be sitting with their heavy coats over their suits next to tourists at the same table. The restaurant itself is not very large but there is a relatively quick turnaround.
Of course, the number one item on the menu that you want to order is the sandwich that made it famous. Not only is the smoked meat sandwich a Montreal specialty but the Schwartz’s smoked meat sandwich is distinct in its taste. By the way, you probably want to order medium because lean is too dry. Be sure to get a pickle, fries, and coleslaw as asides. Also, order a black cherry soda to go with your sandwich. You won’t be disappointed.
The restaurant has a book written about it and even has a musical, yes a musical which explains such things as the restaurant’s history and the difference between smoked meat, pastrami, and corned beef. It was actually really good! Current owners include Celine Dion, keeping Schwartz’s in Quebec hands.
New York City Since 1937
Location: 854 7th Avenue (at 55th Street), New York, New York, 10019
The Carnegie Deli got its name from being across Carnegie Hall in Midtown Manhattan. Being in that location has brought in countless celebrities over the years. Even Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song mentions the restaurant in this verse “Guess who eats together at the Carnegie Deli.”
Of all the delis in this list, Carnegie Deli is probably the most expensive overall. To be fair, the sandwiches were huge, but it was one pricey meal! When eating here, you’ll find typical kosher-style favorite deli foods like corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, and brisket.
The Carnegie Deli has expanded to other locations like Bethlehem PA, Las Vegas and two other spots in New York.
Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen
Chicago Since 1942
Location: 1141 S. Jefferson, Chicago, IL 60607
Manny’s Deli (sometimes called Manny’s Coffee Shop and Deli, hence the sign in the photo above) has been called the best known restaurant of its kind in Chicago. The restaurant bills itself as the “Original Chicago Deli.” Aside from its age, it has recently had a resurgence in popularity because President Obama likes eating there.
One thing about Manny’s that makes it stand out is that it’s not in a busy Downtown Chicago neighbourhood but rather on an almost unassuming street. But the most significant point that should be noted about the Manny’s is that it really is “just” a cafeteria. You line up, get your tray and get your food, like any other cafeteria.
Whether you opt for the pastrami sandwich, Reuben, or the corned beef sandwich, you can’t go wrong.
Toronto Since 2009
Location: 356 College Street, Toronto, ON. M5T 1S6
Caplasky’s is the relative newcomer in this list. With its unique tasting smoked meat, the eatery filled a gap in the Toronto market demanding good quality smoked meat. The restaurant became even more popular among local Torontonians and Canadian tourists after owner Zane Caplansky appeared on Dragons Den, not once but three times!
True to form, Zane was at the restaurant when I came to chow down on his version of the smoked meat sandwich. It was Sunday early afternoon and the place was packed.
Now, you don’t just have to eat at Caplansky’s: The Restaurant. There’s also Caplansky’s: The Food Truck! It drives around Toronto feeding hungry locals and tourists.
During the visit, Tom decided to be a rebel and ordered a burger. I had the smoked meat sandwich which was worthy, but not as a delicious as Schwartz’s in Montreal. Still, if you’re in Toronto, experience Caplansky’s.
All photos copyright Brian Rotsztein.