Restaurants all over the country are adapting their businesses to accommodate social distancing, and that includes the historic ones. According to CNN, for the first time in its 132-year history, famed New York City pastrami purveyor Katz’s Delicatessen is offering outdoor seating.
While a story about a restaurant deciding to offer patio seating might not seem particularly newsworthy, this is sort of a historic change. Katz’s was founded in 1888 on the Lower East Side (LES) of Manhattan, and aside from the storefront having to change sides of the street due to subway construction, it has otherwise remained remarkably consistent and unchanged across its long history.
That consistency is one of the reasons it’s both so great and so unusual. The LES has gentrified (and continues to do so) in a way that is utterly transformative, and while the neighborhood unfortunately became associated with grit and crime, what it really should be known for is being, particularly in the early part of the 20th century, a welcoming landing place for millions of refugees and immigrants, a substantial number of whom were Jewish. Now, with many of the city’s historic delis shuttered (RIP Stage Deli, Fine & Schapiro, Carnegie Deli...), Katz’s is a vision of a New York that in many ways no longer exists.
As both a native New Yorker and a food writer I think that’s really what makes the introduction of patio seating so noteworthy. Katz’s has survived so many things that could have dramatically changed or even ended its run, but it is this disaster that has forced it to do something novel in order to survive. As told to CNN by Jake Dell, Katz’s fifth-generation owner:
“There’s a really delicate balance between preserving tradition, not changing anything and growing with the times,” he said. “Even updating the bathrooms to be more comfortable for customers is a delicate balance between new and old. Everything I do and we do is preserving that tradition.”