The Originals: NYC Institutions Still Worth a Visit

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The Originals: NYC Institutions Still Worth a Visit

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You’ve seen them in every dogeared NYC guidebook, “best ___ in New York” Yelp search, movies, TV shows, and news segments the world over. These are the originals—NYC institutions that have withstood the test of time and to this day are packed with throngs of tourists and, yes, dedicated locals (the tell: Look for head-shaking and muttering when forced to wait).

Here, we’ve rounded up five originals, from an essential NYC Jewish deli to a chemist to a comedy club, with anecdotes and fun facts from those who were—or still are—there.

Katz’s Deli

Since: 1888

Everyone knows Katz’s from the raucous scene in When Harry Met Sally when Meg Ryan exuberantly fakes an orgasm. But it’s the pastrami and corned beef that has kept the place crowded at all hours since the 1900s heyday of Lower East Side Jewish delis and appetizing shops. The secret is a 30-day curing process, and they move about 15,000 pounds a week. When Anthony Bourdain, who featured the restaurant on his show No Reservations, was asked where he would eat at 3am, he replied, “Katz’s.” While the LES has changed profoundly since the last century, 37-year Katz’s veteran and general manager Kevin Albinder says much has remained the same on-site. “We haven’t changed any of the recipes, and still cure and smoke meats the same way. We’re proud of that. If anything, we expanded the menu over the past years, incorporating things like cheesesteaks and Rubens, but just to enhance.” Albinder notes that he’s seen many generations of families come in over the years—“People that came with their parents are now bringing their grandkids”—and Katz’s can still, as the saying goes, send a salami to your boy in the army. “Oh yeah, absolutely. To all the divisions. We also get periodic orders for wounded warriors. We send the LES to them.”

205 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002; T. (212) 254-2246

Keen’s Steakhouse

Since: 1885

Part steakhouse, part museum, this Midtown spot embraces its history and lore almost as much as the famed meat dishes on the menu. Grandfather clocks, antique guns, and other relics adorn the space, and the legacy of New York theater folk, publishers, and newspapermen who frequented when Herald Square was the home of the Theater District lives on in spirit. Cast your eye to the ceiling and you’ll see rows upon rows of clay smoking pipes (more than 50,000!), belonging to former members of Keen’s Pipe Club—Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Albert Einstein among them. Iconic patrons came for the equally iconic dishes, which continue to please. The mutton chop, a two-pound cut of aged lamb, is an absolute must, as is the generously sized porterhouse steak grilled to perfection. 

72 W 36th St, New York; T. (212) 947-3636 

Comedy Cellar

Since: 1982

A who’s who of comedy royalty both honed their skills and graced the stage and brick-wall backdrop of this basement-level Greenwich Village standup club (and still do, often to test new material), including Jon Stewart, Judd Apatow, Chris Rock, Ray Romano, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, and Amy Schumer. Vanity Fair ran an oral history of the Cellar in 2016, in which Patton Oswalt shared this recollection of Dave Attell bombing hard. “There were maybe seven people, it was 2:30 in the morning, and it must have been 1998 or 1999. His subject became how empty and dead the room was. Then this crazy-looking homeless dude walked across the room in front of the stage and went into the restroom, and Dave kept doing his stuff. When he walked back out, not acknowledging Dave at all, and left the room, Dave just goes, ‘Did you guys see him too?’”

1267, 117 Macdougal St, New York, NY 10012; T. (212) 254-3480

C.O. Bigelow

Since: 1838

The country’s oldest apothecary–pharmacy, beating out Kiehl’s East Village flagship by 13 years, this Sixth Avenue Greenwich Village storefront is where luminaries of every stripe have come to fill prescriptions, pick up beauty and health products, and enjoy a soda fountain treat (alas, the soda counter was closed in 1984). Presidents Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Grant, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, Clinton, and Obama have passed through its door. Besides its own namesake line of soaps, creams, lotions, oils, and more (at friendly price points, no less), Bigelow’s deep selection of international pharmaceuticals, hair, body, health, and home goods—think: hard-to-find Marvis toothpaste flavors—blows even the best department stores out of the water, and loyal locals still come in for their prescriptions, such as Mozart In The Jungle star Ken Barnett. “It’s my spot,” he told The New York Times in 2016. “As an actor, I have to wear a lot of makeup for roles, which makes me break out, and when that happens, I’m here finding a cure.”

414 6th Ave, New York, NY 10011; (212) 533-2700

Village Vanguard

Since: 1935

The subject of numerous books—including founder Max Gordon’s anecdote-filled 1982 memoir, Live At The Village Vanguard, and 2006’s Alive at the Village Vanguard: My Life In And Out Of Jazz Time by co-owner Lorraine Gordon (Max’s widow; she’s still running things at age 91)—this club has been a home and performance space not only for 20th-century jazz greats like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane (many recorded essential live albums here), but also actors, poets, and comedians. Woody Allen made some of his first standup appearances here. And then, of course, there’s the time Barbra Streisand auditioned. “She wanted to sing down here, and Miles Davis was playing at the time,” Lorraine recalled to NPR. “And Max asked Miles, as the story goes, if he’d accompany her. And Miles, in his inimitable fashion, says, ‘I don’t play for no girls.’ And he didn’t.” Happy ending to that one for all: Max hired Streisand for his more upscale Blue Angel venue, and in 2009 she recorded her One Night Only DVD/CD at the Village Vanguard.

178 7th Ave S, New York, NY 10014; T. (212) 255-4037

WORDS by Lawrence Ferber

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