The Second Avenue Deli is, of course, a classic, and also a holdover from an earlier era. But unlike the Carnegie Deli, which is now mostly for tourists, Katz’s and Junior’s, which has been taken over by Lower East Side hipsters, or Junior’s in Brooklyn, which now serves a largely African-American clientelle, The Second Avenue Deli is still an ethnically Jewish institution, from its thousand-year-old waitstaff (even the two old Chinese guys feel authentically Jewish, like potstickers after Yom Kippur) to its decidedly nose-heavy patrons.
Our Sunday night visit, however, was an accident: we’d intended to eat at Veselka, but were stymied by a gigantic tour group that was trying to squeeze into the overcrowded restaurant, so instead we decided to get our Ukrainian fix two blocks up, where there was still a wait, but a shorter one. When we were finally seated, packed in between two other tables, the fun really began.
After waiting for some time, we finally got some attention from our waitress, an elderly woman whose hair obviously lives in curlers at night. She announced her presence by flinging a plate of coleslaw onto the table in such a way that I felt it necessary to wipe away the scattered cabbage bits. A few minutes later, she came back with the pickles, again tossing them with enough force to spread them around the table a bit. Then she disappeared for a while, but at last returned to take our orders — or so we thought. She stood behind me, her pen poised over her opened bill case, and said, “Oh?” I reached for my menu to open it and begin my order, but I must have been too leisurely, because she then said, “Oh!” again, snapped her bill case shut and wandered off to do something by the cash register. She returned a minute later, this time allowing us to order — cholent and a kasha knish for me, Hungarian goulash for Jenny, Dr. Brown’s cherry sodas for us both. (If you think of the Second Avenue Deli as exclusively a sandwich joint, you’re missing out. I have eaten a fair bit of cholent in my day, and the Second Avenue Deli’s is exquisite.)
Our meal arrived soon after. “Move that, honey,” the waitress croaked at Jenny, gesturing with a hot plate of goulash toward Jenny’s coleslaw plate. “I need a space to put this.” Jenny complied, and the goulash was duly slapped down, with my cholent following soon after, then the knish, and at last the two glasses of ice and two cans of soda. The last items were the straws, which the waitress withdrew from her apron pocket and then dribbled onto the table, flicking them free of her fingers as if they were someone else’s snot. I don’t think I’ve ever seen straws treated so contemptuously. A while later, totally unsolicited, she wandered past and slapped a pile of napkins down on the top of our water carafe. The service put me in mind of my parents’ descriptions of Ratner’s, where they used to go after concerts at the Filmore East, and where, they claimed, you could count on your waiter to deliver your glass with his thumb in it.
Getting the check was another complicated challenge, but when we did, I made sure to tip big. After all, you can’t get service like that just anywhere!