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80 years of history on rye at Canter's

Landmark deli celebrates its birthday by rolling back prices with an 80-cent sandwich.

July 13, 2011|By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
  • A crowd lines up outside Canter's as the restaurant rolls back prices with an 80-cent sandwich for its 80th birthday.
A crowd lines up outside Canter's as the restaurant rolls back prices… (Arkasha Stevenson / Los…)

You want new? You want trendy? You want fancy food?

Then maybe, says Gary Canter, you don't want Canter's, his family's deli, which doesn't do change.

"People don't need pheasant under glass, with grilled asparagus and 19 sauces," says Canter, 52, who started working behind the bakery counter at 13.

"Just give them simple food. Just give them a sandwich."

The Canter's menu is, in fact, long and diverse. You can order blintzes, hot roast tongue, a quesadilla, tortellini, fried kippers.

But the sandwich list is at the heart of it all. And the pulsing center of that heart is corned beef.

That's what most people came for in 1931, when brothers who had run a deli in Jersey City, N.J., crossed the country and opened up in Boyle Heights.

And it's what hundreds lined up for 80 years later — on Tuesday — when the 24-hour, family-owned deli, where four generations now work, celebrated eight decades by ordering 5,000 pounds of corned beef and offering anyone who showed up an 80-cent meal.

From 4 p.m. to midnight, eight dimes got you this: thick slabs of corned beef sandwiched between two mustard-slathered slices of rye bread, a sour pickle, a dab of potato salad and a chocolate chip version of the buttery classic Jewish pastry called rugelach.

Starting midmorning, two lines, to eat in and take out, grew and grew on the sidewalk outside, as an accordionist named Shalom Sherman danced between them in rainbow-colored cowboy boots, squeezing out such timeless tunes as "Hava Nagila" and the theme from "The Godfather."

Ida Ardell, 99, who lives in West Hollywood, has Canter's beat on birthdays. "I knew Los Angeles when it was empty," she said. "There was nothing here at all."

She first went to Canter's in Boyle Heights, then kept coming after it moved to Fairfax Avenue in 1948.

Ardell stood in line for well over an hour on the arm of her granddaughter, Lisa Wiley, 48. She doesn't get out much these days, she said. But she was happy to do so Tuesday, hair perfectly coiffed, in the company of two younger friends — 92 and 93 — who declined to give their names for fear they'd look bad, bargain hunting. "Everybody," said one them, "thinks it's beneath them to come out here and do this."

Not so for Eric Muller, 65, who comes from West Los Angeles every time Canter's rolls back prices to celebrate — a gesture it's been making at least every five years since it hit half a century.

"We know the dates. It's like a birthday. We don't miss it," he said. "After all, the regular sandwich is what, $12?" (It's $11.75.)

Or Patricia Raphael, who took the bus from Pasadena and was first in line for take out at around 11:45 a.m.

"When I lived in Hollywood, this was home — corned beef and cabbage, what can I say?" said the elderly woman, originally from New York's East Harlem, who gratefully accepted the whispered offer to move out of the sun and get her sandwich special early. She was going home, she said. The sandwich wasn't.

"Oh no. I'm going to sit way in the back of the bus and quietly munch."

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

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