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Pass the pastrami! Katz's Deli turns 125

During its 125 years on New York's Lower East Side, Katz's Deli, has been host to politicians, presidents and one of the most memorable movie scenes ever.  NBC's Allison Flicker reports.

By Allison Flicker, NBC News

It’s safe to say Steven Lamy loves pastrami sandwiches.

"In my lifetime, I've probably eaten about 500 to 700 pastrami sandwiches...with a smile on my face, and probably a little mustard too,” he said.

Not just any pastrami though – he loves the flavor at Katz’s.

Lamy, 30, has been coming to Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side of Manhattan since he was a kid. 

Courtesy Katz's Delicatessen

Katz's Delicatessen, seen on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has been a New York City landmark for the past 125 years.

"My father used to come here with my grandfather...and then my father started bringing me and the same thing happened with my son," Lamy said. 

And while his long-standing love for Katz’s food is undeniable, it is not the only thing that keeps him coming back.  

"My favorite part about [Katz's] is that it brings me and my father and my son together," said Lamy, who makes the trek from Queens where he lives with his family. 

The restaurant, celebrating its 125th anniversary this weekend, feels like home for many of its customers.

Father and son-in-law Jeff Zilberberg and Michael Dawson recently drove four hours round-trip from the Poconos to eat at Katz’s for a single night, a journey they've made on more than one occasion.

Courtesy of Katz's Delicatessen

An exterior shot of Katz's Delicatessen.

They like almost all of the food at Katz’s. On their latest visit they devoured hot dogs with sauerkraut, dark green barrel pickles, and Dr. Brown Cherry sodas before the main course: big pastrami sandwiches.

“Nobody beats their sandwiches, nobody beats the atmosphere, and nobody beats the people in New York!” Zilberberg said.

Katz’s fifth owner, Jake Dell, basically grew up in the deli.

“I had my Bar Mitzvah here, in the store. If you look there’s a neon sign that says Jake’s Bar Mitzvah – I’m Jake,” he said.


The interior of Katz's Delicatessen in 1965.

Katz’s opened its doors on Ludlow Street in 1888. The delicatessen was originally called “Iceland Brothers,” named for its original owners. 

In 1903, the Katz family joined the business, changing the name to “Iceland & Katz.” By 1910, they took full ownership of the restaurant and changed the name to Katz’s. The Dell family took over 88 years later.

Celebrating that 'old-world flavor'

On Friday, Katz's hosted a benefit dinner with celebrity chefs, and over the weekend, they'll feature live music, and an event designed for those with iron stomachs: their first-ever pastrami eating championship.

On less eventful days, Katz’s has anywhere between 400 and 4,000 hungry customers.  

“Over the course of the week, we can go through about 8,000 pounds of corned beef, maybe 15,000 pounds of pastrami, and 4,000 hot dogs,” Dell said.

The food has “old-world flavor...[our] curing techniques are from the old country…the recipes are very old,” he said. 

Pictures of politicians and celebrities decorate the wooden walls, a testament to the restaurant's popularity.

“President Clinton came in here once,” Dell said. “He sat down, had two pastrami sandwiches, two knishes, and two diet sodas…he was picking off the plates of the secret service agents…which I thought was amazing.”

And it's hard to ignore the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal filmed their memorable scene in the 1989 romantic comedy "When Harry Met Sally," prompting the oft-repeated line "I'll have what she's having!"

“People come in here all the time to re-enact the scene, once a week or so,” Dell said of the movie that propelled the deli onto the big screen. “It’s always entertaining.”

It's that kind of nostalgia that puts the restaurant in a league of its own.

“Let other people reinvent the wheel…that’s a beautiful thing,” Dell said. “But Katz’s should always be Katz’s. Period.”