Chris Shea, left, and Christine Tadler consult the newly designed menus… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Jacqueline Canter took a moment to think about it: What would her grandmother say about how the menu at Canter's, the family's celebrated delicatessen, has changed over the decades?
"Meshuga," she finally said, smiling. Yiddish for "crazy."
The deli, which opened in Boyle Heights in 1931 and moved to its current location in the Fairfax district in 1953, was once primarily a place of corned beef and pastrami. But since the 1990s, the menu has shifted with the tastes of the diner's customers, making it a sort of signpost of what Los Angeles (and its tourists) like to eat.
"You have to cater to everybody, not just the person craving a Reuben," said Jacqueline's brother Marc.
On Thursday, Canter's celebrated the biggest metamorphosis of its menu yet with a small party at the 24-hour diner. About one-fifth of the items had been introduced in recent weeks, including a pastrami panini, gluten-free matzo brei and a raft of fancy cocktails.
In business for more than eight decades, Canter's commands a special reverence in a city where restaurants come and go as quickly as fashion whims. It is mainly run by a handful of relatives, including Jacqueline, who started as a cashier; Marc, who started as a busboy; and their cousin Terri Bloomgarden, who recalls sitting on her grandmother's lap and handing out matches when she was about 3.
Talking over the din of Thursday's lunch rush, the three said the menu overhaul was months in the making. The staples are staying, but relatives decided to dream up wish lists of offerings, most of them in the genre of diner food with a twist (such as the Black and Blue burger, with blue cheese crumbles and dressing). Terri's Cuban-style sandwich didn't make the cut. Jacqueline's gluten-free bagels did.
"It's like a marriage. You pick your fights," said Terri, who's still determined to add a cream soda-style drink to the cocktails list.
Canter's has previously made some version of nearly all the new items, except the panini, which were the stars of the menu-release party. Marc also showed off the new printed menus, redesigned to better display kitchen favorites.
The bills of fare, in fact, were the subject of the only complaint Jacqueline said she'd heard so far. One customer missed the old menu's 1950s-style drawings of, among other things, a man raising his cocktail.