When the Carnegie Deli closed at the end of 2016, its customers mourned a paradise lost: mountains of meat, hills of knish, heaps of corned beef, receding into the past never to be retrieved.
But there is still one place in New York where the dreams live on. Pastrami regained.
Since the shuttering of the fabled eatery in Manhattan, some ravenous and enterprising New Yorkers have realized that the corned beef still stacks high at Madison Square Garden, which continues to serve Carnegie Deli sandwiches and knishes at a pair of concession stands inside the arena. Though the outposts opened in 2011 alongside a number of other high-end dining spots during the arena’s renovation, they have gained a newfound sense of consequence and popularity in recent weeks as the only vendors of Carnegie delights remaining in New York.
“All that’s left of an icon is this,” said Mike Rabinowitz, 57, a doctor from Westchester County. “It ain’t exactly the same, but ain’t too far off either.”
In fact, the meat served at the Garden is cured and smoked at the same commissary in Carlstadt, New Jersey, that the Carnegie Deli used for years. The bread, too, is baked in the same bakery that provided loaves to the restaurant. Still, the meal is not a perfect replica. The menu is nowhere near as voluminous, and the sandwiches at MSG pack 12 ounces of meat, compared to the full pound patrons once received.
“No one could handle such a big sandwich at a game,” said Marian Harper, the deli’s president. “But the meat and the quality are exactly the same.”
Similarly shrunken sandwiches are also available annually at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens. And outside of the five boroughs, Carnegie Deli still operates restaurants at the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and at the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
On Monday night before the Knicks faced the New Orleans Pelicans at the Garden, patrons swarmed to the Carnegie stands for a dinner with a touch of nostalgia. According to Evelin Mendez, a cook at the concession stand and a former waitress at the original Carnegie Deli, the outlet has experienced a noticeable upswing in business recently.
“It’ll never be the restaurant, but I’ve never seen it this busy,” said Mendez, 43, of Elmhurst.
For many long-suffering Knicks fans, the deli has been a rare source of solace in an otherwise bleak season. Late in the second quarter, as the team squandered yet another lead, Jamil Denard walked halfway around the arena to drown his sorrows in a pile of pastrami.
“The team is a mess,” lamented Denard, 38, a recording engineer from the South Bronx. “They can’t defend. They can’t pass. They can’t shoot.”
“But the sandwiches?” he said. “Well, I like the sandwiches.”
By the time Lester Hill, a contractor from St. Albans, Queens, made it to the concession stand, the Pelicans had extended their lead to double digits.
“The corned beef is consistently great,” said Hill, 61, a season-ticket holder. “I can’t say the same about the Knicks.”
The promise of preserved meat has drawn even basketball agnostics. Steve and Meryl Sitver aren’t particularly fond of the Knicks, they said, but they happily sat through Monday night’s game for another taste of their beloved corned beef and pastrami combo.
“Forget the game; we’re here for the pastrami,” said Meryl Sitver, a staunch Carnegie Deli loyalist from Weston, Connecticut.
“The sandwiches are much better than the team,” her husband agreed.
The Sitvers were not alone in their cholesterol-laden priorities. As she returned to her seat with a knish, Cindy Saul turned to her husband, Zane, with a confession. “Honestly,” she said, “I don’t even know who’s playing.”
Not everyone was quite as satisfied. Kenny Shusterman, a real estate agent from Brooklyn, complained that the meat at the arena was “too salty” and not hand-sliced.
“You can’t call this the real deal,” said Shusterman, 64. “Carnegie was always a tourist trap anyway.”
(Shusterman would not disclose his order. “If my wife asks,” he said, “I ate a Cobb salad.”)
For Lawrence Goldhirsch, a lawyer from the Bronx, the problem was not the sodium so much as the setting. “The food is fine,” said Goldhirsch, 74, wiping remnants of a knish from the corner of his mouth. “It’s the Knicks that are giving me indigestion.”
The nauseating spectacle grew worse as the game wore on. Derrick Rose, the Knicks’ starting point guard, skipped the contest under mysterious circumstances. In his absence, the team was an unbalanced mess, like a sandwich without mustard. The Pelicans ended up winning, 110-96, sending fans slinking out of the Garden in dismay.
“The stakes are twice as high now,” said Rob Francese, 54, an accountant from Orange County. “If they don’t make the playoffs, that means no more Carnegie."