Why is Canter's, that great old deli, that Fairfax Avenue landmark, filled at all hours? Part of the reason is that it's open at all hours--all 24 of them.
And what could be better at 2 a.m., after a hard night of partying, than a bowl of soothing chicken soup or matzo-ball soup?
If you're a night owl and a Canter's habitue, then you know that it's not uncommon to see hordes of youngish types, giggly and giddy, queued up in the wee hours at the "Please Wait to be Seated" sign.
Canter's is cozy for large groups anytime of the day or night. The bigger booths spill over with sizable cliques that run up bills for cheese bagels, fruit cups and decaf, as they schmooze for hours.
Couples on dates also come here, as do "parties of one": old men with books, young men with scripts, and young women--some with stylishly tilted hats.
It could be that Canter's, with its atmosphere of a liberal Jewish household, extends a beckoning sense of home to all. From the moment you step through the front door and get a whiff of the bakery's aroma, you know you're welcome.
Prices have gone up in the past 40 years, of course, but the food titles still hint of yesteryear, and they're still as corny as the corned beef on rye.
For $8.50, Eddie Cantor's Delight (a meal in itself) brings you pastrami, corned beef, ham, Swiss cheese and turkey on the bread of your choice. The Danny Thomas Special is hot salami on rye bread for $4.75. And if you remember the days of the Band Box, then get Billy Gray's Band Box Special--open-face chopped liver, minced onion and chopped egg for $5.75.
If Canter's ambiance is that of a ramshackle household, its waiters and waitresses behave like a roster of your favorite and not-so-favorite relatives.
One waitress could be a ringer for your aunt as she brings you your order in dutiful silence and with a stoical smile.
The tall waiter could be your favorite uncle. Once, when asked if the egg cream was good, he said: "Ah . . . I'm from New York, and I made the perfect New York egg cream."
After the customer had a few sips, he tilted his face forward expectantly.
"How's the egg cream?" he asked.
"Oh, it's very nice!" His face fell.
" Only . . . very nice?" he asked woefully.
"Oh, it's great! I mean, it's fantastic!"
"Aaaaaaaah!" he said with satisfaction and whisked off to another booth.
An ebullient waitress who calls herself "Mama" gives customers the kind of attention one would hope to receive from a real mother. If you want anything else, she advises as she leaves your order, "Just holler 'Mama!' "
A sign in the adjacent parking lot informs you that you must get your parking ticket validated and if you don't, you pay. And, there's a parking attendant. However, if you occasionally forget to get your ticket validated during the early morning hours, you're not likely to encounter problems. After all, when you're leaving your favorite deli at 2 or 3 in the morning, who needs a hassle?
Canter's, 419 N. Fairfax Ave.; (213) 651-2030.