If you live in New York City long enough, your favorite restaurant or cafe or watering hole will eventually close. That doesn’t make you a New Yorker. What makes you a New Yorker is complaining about it.
So that’s one option in response to the news that iconic Carnegie Deli is set to close at year’s end, serving its last $30 coronary-inducing overstuffed pastrami on rye named after the latest celebrity du jour. The eatery, which opened in 1937 down the block from Carnegie Hall, is one of a number of restaurants that made Jewish delicacies as synonymous with New York as pizza and traffic.
Plastered with portraits of celebrities who have paid it homage, it’s now mostly a tourist trap. But it’s our tourist trap.
You can question what the closure indicates about New York’s celebrity culture — where once regular New Yorker could rub elbows with the likes of filmmaker Woody Allen or comedian Jackie Mason, Carnegie mainstays. Now, the A-listers are hidden behind red ropes and prohibitive price tags, only as close as the Twittersphere.
You can bemoan a city losing even its tourist traps in favor of the latest Shake Shack.
Or, you can sit back and enjoy the last stages of a great New York story, and maybe see the origins of a new one that might be just as strange.
Carnegie Deli goes sour
Late-stage Carnegie Deli has been nothing if not chaotic.
Last year the owner and her husband wrapped up divorce proceedings — details from the case included the husband cheating on his wife and also accusations that he had attempted to help a former employee start a renegade version of the deli in her native Thailand.
Also in 2015, the restaurant closed for almost a year while Con Edison investigated an illegal gas setup that resulted in back-fines of thousands of dollars. The restaurant also recently reached a settlement for cheating workers out of wages.
Floor manager John Gentile said Monday that the owner was looking forward to retirement and enjoying some time without the stress of owning and operating a city icon.
But would this necessarily have to mean that the Carnegie Deli itself, which has a few other outlets and eternal branding potential, goes away?
Enter Sammy Musovic, an Upper East Side restaurateur hoping to buy the business. He says he was a dishwasher at the Carnegie Deli some 40 years ago. It was one of his early jobs in the city after emigrating from Albania. He worked there for just a few months, but apparently it left an impression.
In a stroke of tactical brilliance, Musovic and his sons held a news conference in front of the deli to announce they intend to buy and operate the place. Flanked by “Save The Carnegie Deli” signs, they said they had tried to be in touch with the owner this weekend, but hadn’t gotten a response. Of course, it is Rosh Hashana.
Gentile, the manager, questioned by reporters about the Musovic’s proposal, said the phone had been ringing nonstop since the announcement of Carnegie’s closure on Friday. Offers were being tendered from real estate and management companies, he said.
As for Musovic: “I don’t know who he is. I’ve never met him.”
But Musovic had his talking points down, saying “you can’t replicate” the Carnegie.
“It’s like taking the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty away from New York.”
He now operates three other restaurants in the city, all of which he had “made better.” Now they were “very successful.” He wanted to do the same for the deli: “Make it cool again.”
If that kind of bombast and rhetoric sounds familiar for those following to the presidential campaign, it’s worth noting that Musovic has a connection to Donald Trump.
Earlier this year, he hosted a fundraiser for Melania Trump, a “beautiful lady” he says he’d dearly like to see in the White House because she was born in Slovenia: he hails from just over the border in Montenegro.
Is he a Trump supporter? “I can’t say fully, but because of her I guess you can say I support Trump.”
He met Trump some years ago, he says, when he was still a waiter at Sparks Steak House on 46th Street. He served the businessman, who was “mingling with a lot of high rollers.”
That place, Musovic wagers, is the kind of celebrity hangout that Carnegie Deli used to be. Fewer comedians, maybe, but more powerful figures. Mike Bloomberg, for example. Rudy Giuliani “was a big regular.”
Perhaps you’d rather the tourists.