Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Katz Out of the Bag

The blogosphere was buzzing this week about the New York Times' Frank Bruni's planned review of Lower East Side landmark Katz's Delicatessen. The always entertaining was betting on zero stars. The question for Spoon and me, however, was why review Katz's, and more to the point, why now? The answer: because Katz's may not be there much longer.

I have a long, fatty and delicious history with Katz's. It is the reigning champ of classic New York Jewish delis. But as someone once forced out of my own Lower East Side existence by skyrocketing rents, I know firsthand how rapidly the neighborhood is changing. Now that the massive, 20-plus-story luxury tower across from Katz's on Ludlow and Houston Streets has taken form, can the old school, one-floor deli survive in its shadow?

The immutable natural laws of New York real estate say no, and Bruni takes the issue of Katz's future head-on in his review. Not surprisingly, the owners seem to be fishing for a buyer. "Now that real estate on the Lower East Side is so much more valuable, could Katz’s move again, or find itself subsumed by a condominium tower, or be threatened or altered in another way?" Bruni asks. Yes, answers co-owner Fred Austin. "Offer me an amount I can’t walk away from,” Austin said.

Bruni, meanwhile, was generous with his praise of Katz's, stacking compliments on the deli like its carvers stack meat, calling its famous pastrami sandwich "one of the best in the land... an eye-popping stack of brined beef that’s juicy, smoky, rapturous." Bruni even gloried in finer points of the deli's avant-shithole decor and luddite rituals: "the taking of a ticket at the door; the lining-up in front of one of the servers who carves that beef by hand; the tasting of the thick, ridged slices the server gives us as the sandwich is being built; the nodding when we’re asked if we want pickles, because of course we want pickles."

The verdict? A star! If you're keeping score at home, that's one more star than Jeffrey Chodorow's Kobe Club. As for the future of Katz's, I have it on good authority that the lucrative offer Austin would need to close down the deli may not be imminent.

Let's just call this good ol' New York deli-style gossip, for now. In April I found myself in conversation with a former business owner just down the block from Katz's on the same side of Ludlow Street. This owner told me how he did get that offer he couldn't walk away from, from a developer who planned to put in a high-rise, said to be at least 10 stories. When work began, however, the developer discovered that a subway tunnel happened to run a bit too close, limiting how deep the foundation could be dug. Foundation depth dictates how high a buidling can rise. So, in a turn of events a forced-out Lower East Sider can truly appreciate, after paying a hefty sum for the property the developer found his plans for a high-rise on Ludlow cut down to size.

This is not to say that Katz's also sits too close to that tunnel. But then again, it probably does. And that could very well mean that the kind of fatty offer one might get for property that could support a massive luxury tower, such as the one going up across Ludlow Street, may not be hitting Katz's carving board after all.--F

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